Ansel Easton Adams was an American photographer best known for his black-and-white images of the American West. He was born on the 20th of February in 1902 in San Francisco, California. Initially, Adams was fond of playing the piano and became interested in photography after viewing the works of Paul Strand. It took him some time to choose between a career of photographer and pianist. Adams is the author of several books about photography, including the trilogy The Camera, The Negative and The Print, and a founding member of the group of photographers called Group f/64. In addition, along with Fred Archer, Adams created the zone system allowing photographers to improve the quality control of the finished negative.
Ansel’s education was strongly shaped by family background. The family of Charles and Olivia Adams belonged to a higher class since his father was a successful businessman. Ansel, the only child in the family, changed many private schools and, eventually, at the age of 12, began to receive education at home. His father and aunt Mary were among his permanent tutors. Ansel was raised in the spirit of the Ralph Waldo Emerson’s philosophy of transcendentalism – to live a modest and virtuous life, remembering about a social responsibility to man and nature.
In his youth, music became Ansel’s central passion. Ansel had a photographic memory that helped him to quickly memorize the notes and learn to play the piano. One day, aunt Mary gave Anselm the book called In the Heart of Sierras. In 1916, inspired by the photographs of George Fiske, which he later imitated in his early photos of landscapes, Ansel convinced his parents to go to Yosemite Valley (Yosemite). Since then, Adams visited Yosemite every year for the rest of his life. In the same 1916, parents bought Anselm a camera Kodak Brownie, model Box. The camera provided shooting of 100 frames on the paper-based tape. In Yosemite, Adams began to photograph, and this was where he took his most famous pictures. A year later, he returned to Yosemite with a better camera and a heavy tripod. In the winter of 1917, Ansel worked in a photo lab in San Francisco. This was where he began to read photography magazines and attend meetings of photo clubs and photo exhibitions.
During the first two years of marriage (1928-29), Ansel was torn between music and photography. After meeting the advocate of "pure photography" Paul Strand and becoming familiar with his work, Adams finally decided on a career choice. His first portfolio, which included the famous photo Monolith, The Face of Half Dome, Ansel took in 1927. Later, he crystallized his understanding of this landscape photography that would become the main subject matter of his work: “Landscape photography is the supreme test of the photographer - and often the supreme disappointment” (Adams).
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In 1932, Ansel Adam untied with other photographers, such as Edward Weston, Fred Archer, William van Dyke, and Imogen Cunningham, and created a Group f/64. The name of the group symbolized the minimum aperture of the lens, which gave especially clear and sharp image. The main goal of that group of photographers was to show the advantage of pure or straight photography over the pictorial photo. In March 1933, Adams met the famous and influential photographer Alfred Stieglitz. Stieglitz was impressed by Ansel’s works and organized an exhibition of his works in November 1936.
In 1935, Adams inherited photography business of Harry Best’s son-in-law, which exists until now and is named the Ansel Adams Gallery. Photography and, later, teaching in universities became his main source of income. Before that period, because his family was wealthy, he had no need to work to make a living. In 1929-1942, Adams’ works became more mature; he acquired even greater credibility. Since the early 1930s, Adams’ photographs became thoroughly built, sharp, with a wide range of tones. The 30s were the most productive and experimental period in the work of the photographer.
Adams’ working method included the zone system that he invented together with Fred Archer. What is more, he skillfully mastered the technique of photo-printing and processing negatives, using chemical processes for doing something that we can do now "in two clicks" in graphical editors. Sometimes, just one negative could take Adams 8-10 hours to work on. In addition, Ansel Adams believed that technical excellence and the skills of the photographer could not compete with the artistic eye, and the ability of the photographer to express their perception of the world through photography. According to Claire Peeps who worked with him in 80s, “Ansel was equal parts artist and scientist. Visiting him in the darkroom after viewing his prints felt like meeting the wizard behind the curtain—except in this case, what was behind the curtain was a huge, state-of-the art-laboratory, in pristine order.”
The photo I chose is Monolith, The Face of Half Dome (1927) mentioned above, which is the first photo of Adams that received worldwide acclaim. In the words of Ansel Adams, it was the first time he dared to move away from the technical perfection and used a special device that changed the ratio of colors, namely a red filter, which is why I chose this photo. It is a good one because the red filter creates a sense of glow emanating as if from the deep darkness of the heavens; the contrast is stunning, and composition is close to perfect. Firstly, Adams used his yellow filter; probably, it gave something similar to what he saw through the camera's viewfinder. However, there was no delight in the frame, so he took the red filter for a second shot. He set the exposure at f-22 and exposed the plate for 5 seconds. This frame matched his internal visualization, and the difference is spectacular: a gloomy sky energizes the picture with drama and intensity.
Adams had a number of solo and group exhibitions, including ones in Smithsonian Institution, M. H. de Young Museum, the Stieglitz gallery "An American Place" (NY), and Museum of Modern Art. He published several books and was one of the founders of the magazine Aperture. However, public, theoretical, and technical sides of his craft were not of central importance, his philosophy was. In 1941, he wrote that “You don't make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.” (West)
To me, Ansel Adams is not just a photographer. He is a legendary figure in the history of photography who gained worldwide fame due to his dense, insightful black and white photos of landscapes. He made an enormous contribution to the development of photography by inventing the zone theory, based on which the photographers of later generations got a working tool for determining optimal exposure. What is even more important, Ansel Adams believed that technical excellence could not compete with the artistic eye, and the ability of the photographer to visualize their perception of the world through their art.