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Black and white photo of Marion Lake in the Sierra Nevada taken by Ansel Adams

Photo: Ansel Adams

The American Landscape through the Lens of Ansel Adams

Text adapted from: The Hyde Collection exhibit "Ansel Adams: Early Works"; "Ansel Adams Biography" by William Turnage, for Oxford University Press; the Biography Channel; and the Ansel Adams Gallery, Yosemite National Park, California.

Sweeping landscapes; breath-taking black-and-whites; Ansel Adams is probably best-remembered for his detailed images of the American West. Throughout his life, Adams worked as a commercial photographer for employers such as the National Park Service, Kodak, and Life magazine; he also partnered with notable artists including Dorthea Lange, Paul Strand and Georgia O'Keeffe. His technical skill was unmatched; he even developed a complex method of controlling film exposure and development called the "zone system." His mastery of his craft is to be revered, but the photographer should also be remembered for his dedication to the environment.

Born in San Francisco in 1902, Ansel Adams grew up amid the sand dunes of Northern California, where his love of nature was born. In 1919, he joined the Sierra Club and became friends with a lot of the members-many, the founders of America's fledgling conservation movement.

The group spent summers hiking, usually in the Sierra Nevada, or what John Muir called the "Range of Light." Adams was the photographer for these outings, and during one of these hikes, he photographed Monolith, the Face of Half Dome. This photo would be the stand-out piece of his first portfolio, Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras, published in 1927.

During the 1930s, Adams moved toward the straight, unmanipulated photography for which he is well-known. He also cofounded the short-lived Group f/64 with Imogen Cunningham, Edward Weston and Willard Van Dyke, whose sharp-focused images are oft-associated with this style of photography. During this time, Adams traveled to New York and met photographer Alfred Stieglitz, an artist whose work and philosophy Adams greatly admired. In 1936, Stieglitz featured Adams's images in a one-man show at his gallery, An American Place.

Over the years, Ansel Adams attended countless meetings and wrote letters in support of conservation reform. He fought for new parks and wilderness areas, for the Wilderness Act, for wild Alaska and the Big Sur coast of central California, for endangered species, and for clean air and water. He believed in both the possibility and the probability of humankind living in harmony with its environment. His voice was powerful, but perhaps his greatest influence came from his photography. His images became the very icons of wild America.

Editor's Note: While we are thrilled to share some of Ansel Adams's stunning work with our readers, the actual prints are even more spectacular when viewed in person. So be sure to check out Ansel Adams: Early Works on display at the Hyde Collection in Glens Falls (see details below).


Black and white photo of tall, closely spaced trees with snow covering their branches
Pine Forest in Snow

Pine Forest in Snow, 1933, vintage silver gelatin print, 20 x 16 in., New York: Collection of Michael Mattis and Judith Hochberg, ©2013 The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust

Also known as "Trees and Snow," this photo captures the purity of the icy season in an untouched Yosemite National Park forest. Adams photographed several images of freshly fallen snow on trees; people no doubt recognize many as belonging to Adams due to their familiar stark contrast of white against black.

A black and white photo of the granite-faced half dome
Monolith, The Face of Half-Dome

Monolith, the Face of Half-Dome, 1927, vintage silver gelatin print, 18 x 14 in., New York: Collection of Michael Mattis and Judith Hochberg, ©2013 The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust

This is the best-known photo from Adams's Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras portfolio, which consists of 18 prints. During trips to the High Sierras, he captured large-format, black-and-white images of many of the region's well-known features, including Kings Canyon, Muir Gorge, and the pinnacles at the headwaters of Kings River.

The moon rises over a southwester town with mountains in the distance
Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico

Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, ca. 1941, vintage silver gelatin print, 16 x 20 in., New York: Collection of Michael Mattis and Judith Hochberg, ©2013 The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust

In Adams's own words: "I had been photographing in the Chama Valley, north of Santa Fe. I made a few passable negatives that day and had several exasperating trials with subjects that would not bend to visualization... But defeat comes occasionally to all photographers, as to all politicians, and there is no use moaning about it. We were sailing southward along the highway not far from Espanola when I glanced to the left and saw an extraordinary situation-an inevitable photograph! I almost ditched the car and rushed to set up my 8×10 camera. I was yelling to my companions to bring me things from the car..."

A raging waterfall goes through a rocky gorge
Roaring River Falls

Roaring River Falls, ca. 1925, vintage silver gelatin print, 18 x 14 in., New York: Collection of Michael Mattis and Judith Hochberg, ©2013 The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust

In 1934, Ansel Adams was elected to the Sierra Club Board of Directors, which allowed him to play a key role in environmental policy in America for 37 years. In `34, he went to Washington, D.C., to lobby for Kings Canyon, Sierra Nevada to be made a national park. There, he made a strong impression with his portfolio of photographs-including this photo of Roaring River Falls in Kings Canyon, which is from his first portfolio, Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras. Congress established Kings Canyon National Park in 1940.

Marion Lake, 1925, (see photo at top) vintage silver gelatin print, 14 x 18 in., New York: Collection of Michael Mattis and Judith Hochberg, ©2013 The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust

This photo is also from Adams's first portfolio published in 1927. Marion Lake was named in 1902 by Joseph Nisbet LeConte, a charter member of the Sierra Club, for his wife Helen Marion Gompertz LeConte, while they were on a pioneering trip up Cartridge Creek in Kings Canyon, Sierra Nevada.