Ansel Adams
Biography of American Landscape Photographer.

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Photos by Ansel Adams,
one of the great exponents
of fine art photography.

Ansel Adams (1902-84)


Early Life
Early Career
F/64 Group
The Zone System
Poster Art
Important Photographs By Ansel Adams

Paintings by Ansel Adams
are widely available online
in the form of poster art.

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One of America's greatest photographers, Ansel Easton Adams is best known for his black and white landscape photographs of the American West and specifically, the Yosemite National Park. In addition to being a pioneer of documentary photography, he is credited with developing the Zone System, a photographic development system which added depth and character to his work. Along with other creative photographers like Imogen Cunningham and Edward Weston, Adams founded Group F/64, which in turn led to the creation of the Museum of Modern Art's department of photographic art. Many of his landscape photos are instantly recognisable and have been reprinted on calendars, posters and books. Among the most famous examples of his lens-based images are The Tetons and the Snake River (1942) and Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico (1941). Although the lack of a human presence in his photographs may have contributed to their popularity, it failed to satisfy everyone. The famous French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) commented at the time of the Second World War: "The world is falling to pieces around us and all Adams photographs is rocks and trees." He was made a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1966.

John Goto (1916-94)
British photographer and junk artist,
Professor of Fine Art at University of
Derby in England, noted for his
montage colour photography.
His photo digital art has been
exhibited at solo exhibitions at the
Tate, the National Portrait Gallery,
and the Photographers' Gallery in

Other important lens-based artists
- Irving Penn (b.1917),
- Robert Frank (b.1924),
- Garry Winogrand (1928–1984),
- William Eggleston (b.1939),
- Nan Goldin (b.1953),
- Cindy Sherman (b.1954) and
- Andreas Gursky (b.1955).

For lens-based artists, see:
Victor Sloan (b.1945)
Patrick Naughton (b.1980)

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.
For the greatest view painters, see:
Best Landcape Artists.
For modern artists, see:
Famous Painters.

For a list of painters like
Ansel Adams, see:
Modern Artists.

For an explanation of the
aesthetic issues surrounding
the creative visual arts, see:
Art Definition, Meaning.

For a guide to traditional and
contemporary categories,
see: Types of Art.

Early Life

Adams was born in 1902 in San Francisco; his father was a successful business man. One of his earliest memories was watching the fires which ravaged the city after the infamous 1906 earthquake. The impact of the shock knocked 4 year old Adams into a wall, breaking his nose; it would remain crooked for life. Adams was educated in private schools until the age of 12, after which he was tutored at home for a few years. In 1915 Adams visited the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, where his father insisted he spend time studying the arts, including painting, sculpture and photography. Adams earliest ambition was to become a concert pianist, but after a family trip to Yosemite National Park in 1916, and taking some amateur pictures, he leaned towards photography. The Yosemite National Park was the first designated nature protection area in America. It was here that a young Adams with his Kodak Brownie box, took his first pictures and stated that a 'new era began for me'. In the winter of the same year, he worked part time with a San Francisco photo finisher and learned the basic techniques of dark room photo-development. He became an avid reader of creative photography magazines, and attended camera classes and art exhibitions. Travelling with his uncle, Adams explored the Sierra Nevada Mountain range, and developed the skills and stamina to photograph nature at high altitudes. It was during this period that Adams developed a love of the natural wilderness and became a committed Conservationist. He joined the Sierra Club, becoming a lifelong member, dedicated to the preservation of the natural wonders of the mountain ranges.

For a short account of the early evolution of the camera, please see: the History of Photography (c.1800-1900). For more about pioneer camera artists, see: 19th-Century Photographers.

Early Career

In the 1920s Adams often visited the studio of Harry and Anne Best, where he met their daughter Virginia. In 1929 the couple married, eventually taking over the running of the studio (now known as the Ansel Adams Gallery). At the time Adams was still trying to finally decide between a career in music or art. He finally decided on photography when his first portfolio Parmelian Prints of the High Sierra was produced in 1927. As a result of this portfolio Adams was introduced to the arts business man Albert Bender. Bender invited Adams to join the prestigious Roxburghe Club, a group devoted to fine printing and high standards in art book reproduction. Through the association he learned about printing techniques, design, inks and graphic layout. Adams was able to exhibit his works at this time in the Best studio, which provided ongoing financial support, particularly important in his early career. At this time Adams became friends with the photographer Paul Strand, who, alongside fellow photographers like Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), Edward Steichen, (1879-1973), and Edward Weston (1886-1958), helped establish photography as an art form in the 20th century. Strand encouraged Adams to continue his course in creative photography and introduced him to Stieglitz. Adams wrote in his 1985 autobiography "Steiglitz taught me what became my first commandment: Art is the affirmation of life." But see: Is Photography Art?



Adams' early photos were primarily Yosemite prints and sold from the Best's studio. They displayed careful compositions and a tonal sensitivity. He climbed to daring heights of the valleys and mountains braving the elements to photograph dramatic views. By the mid 1920s he had started to experiment with soft focus, bromil process, etching and other pictorial techniques. (See also: Art Photography Glossary.) He said 'my approach to photography is based on my belief in the aspects of grandeur and minutiae all about us'. At first he emulated the techniques of Stieglitz, a Photo-Secessionist, who strove to reproduce the effects of fine art with photography. Stieglitz would hand paint photos to give them a painterly effect. Although Adams used a variety of lenses to vary his effects, he stayed clear of retouching effects, eventually rejecting it in favour of Realism. Instead he relied more on heightening contrast, sharpening focus, and precise exposure. At the time, he also took on commercial work, photographing for catalogues and advertising agencies. It was through his commercial work that he came into contact with contemporary photographer Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) - together they collaborated on several magazines including Time and Fortune. See also Lange's fellow documentary photographer Walker Evans (1903-75).

F/64 Group

In 1930 Adams formed the F/64 group, alongside Imogen Cunningham, Edward Weston, Sonya Noskowiak, Jon Paul Edward, Willard Van Dyke and Henry Swift. The group encouraged the idea of photography which looked like photography, rather than trying to imitate traditional art forms (but in reality they still considerably manipulated the results using filters and soft focus lenses). The group exhibited together at the de Young Museum in 1932, causing much commentary, both positive and negative. The exhibition consisted of 80 photos, including ten by Adams. There are no actual records of what photos were exhibited at the show. Adams wrote of the group: 'My conception of Group f/64 is this: it is an organization of serious photographers without formal ritual of procedure, incorporation, or any of the restrictions of artistic secret societies, Salons, clubs or cliques. Our individual tendencies are encouraged; the Group Exhibits suggest distinctive individual view-points, technical and emotional, achieved without departure from the simplest aspects of straight photographic procedure'. Due to a variety of reasons, the group dissolved in 1935. Many of the members went on to become some of the most important modernist photographers of the 20th century; their lens-based art can be viewed at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.


In 1931 Adams was granted a solo exhibition at the Smithsonian Institute, which featured sixty prints taken of the High Sierra mountain ranges. Although the exhibition received positive reviews, Adams was still dissatisfied with his works. He decided to focus on creating more up close studies, as shown in Rose and Driftwood (1933), one of his finest still-life photographs. In 1940 he organised A Pageant of Photography, one of the most important and largest photography shows in Western America to date, which was attended by millions of visitors. In 1941 he taught as the Art Centre School of Los Angeles, which included the task of training military photographers. In 1963 the Kenmore Gallery hosted an exhibition of Adams' photography, which proved extremely popular. In 1974 the Metropolitan Museum of Art held a major retrospective exhibition of Adam's works and shortly thereafter President Carter commissioned Adams to make the first official photographic portrait of a President ever taken with a camera.

The Zone System

The Zone System is a photographic technique which was developed by Adams and Fred Archer in 1939. The Zone System provides photographers with a precise method of defining the relationship between the way one visualises a subject and the final result. Although it was originally applied to black and white photography, it also applies to roll film and digital photography. Considered quite complex, Adams strove to redefine and re-explain his methods over the years.

Poster Art

Adams was keen to expose his photographic art to the general public, and chose three images to be reproduced as posters: Moonrise; Winter Sunrise; and the Vertical of the Aspens. He shot the photo of Moonrise above a small village surrounded by snow capped mountains in Mexico in 1941. The photograph is called Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, and is perhaps one of his most famous. Over the next 40 years he would go on to photograph the same theme over 1300 times, many of which were reproduced as poster art. The majority of his collection sold in 2006 for $25 million dollars. The popularity of these prints also led to the formation of the Ansel Adams Calendar in 1984, which is still hugely popular. In 1966 he was made a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Adams died in 1984 of heart failure. A full archive of his works can be found at the Center for Creative Photography (CCP), University of Arizona. He was one of the most important of America's 20th century photographers, and achieved huge fame and popularity in his own lifetime.

Important Photographs By Ansel Adams

- Evening, McDonald Lake, Glacier National Park (1942)
- The Tetons and the Snake River (1942)
- Church, Taos Pueblo (1942)
- Monolith, The Face of Half Dome (1927)
- Rose and Driftwood (1932)
- Yosemite Valley, Clearing Winter Storm (c. 1935)
- Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico (1941)
- Ice on Ellery Lake, Sierra Nevada (1941)
- Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada from Lone Pine (1944)
- Aspens, New Mexico (1958)

Paintings by the photographic artist Ansel Adams can be seen in some of the best art museums in America, including the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)., the Center for Creative Photography and the Metropolitan Museum of Art NYC.

For more about lens-based artworks, see: Video Art.

• For more information about modern art, see: Homepage.

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