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Ansel Adams: A Documentary Film
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Primary Sources: The Art of Photography

Fourteen-year-old Ansel Adams' parents gave him his first camera in 1916, on their first visit to Yosemite. The following year, he became a "darkroom monkey," working for a neighbor with a photography business and beginning a lifetime of photographic seeing. "Though I was still deeply immersed in music," Adams would recall, "during the decade of the twenties, photography and hiking were my beloved diversions."

By 1930, photography completely claimed Adams' attention; he would spend the next half-century in the roles of artist, teacher, and advocate. In his 1985 autobiography, Adams reflected about his life as a photographer, and about the photographic art.

The snapshot is not as simple a statement as some may believe. It represents something that each of us has seen -- more as human beings than photographers -- and wants to keep as a memento, a special thing encountered. The little icons that return from the photo-finisher provide recollections of events, people, and places; they stir memories and create fantasies. Through the billions of snapshots made each year a visual history of our times is recorded in enormous detail. (p. 69)

After a Critique
[letter to the master photographer and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz (p. 126)]

November 29, 1936

...My work has become new and exciting to me as never before. The praise you give never nourishes conceit -- it reveals too much of the future for that. And your criticism is never disintegrating. The entire experience evaluates much more than it defines, and the joy with which I will attack my problems from now on will be a joy that has nothing to do with conquest, superior accomplishment, fashionable fame and all the other transparent gew-gaws that ornament the garment of social intercourse. I can see only one thing to do -- make the photography as clean, as decisive, and as honest as possible. It will find its own level.

Artist and Audience
I believe that the artist and his art are only a part of the total human experience; the viewer in the world at large is the essential other part. I feel that a true work of art is like nothing else in the world. It is not essential to know how the artist thinks or how he believes he relates to his profession or his society. What he creates is his message. For me a work of art does not cry for comprehension, only for reaction at the level of art itself. (p. 137)

Deepest Feelings
[letter to his best friend, Cedric Wright, 1937 (p. 37)]

Dear Cedric,

A strange thing happened to me today. I saw a big thundercloud move down over Half Dome, and it was so big and clear and brilliant that it made me see many things that were drifting around inside of me; things that related to those who are loved and those who are real friends.

For the first time I know what love is; what friends are; and what art should be.

Love is a seeking for a way of life; the way that cannot be followed alone; the resonance of all spiritual and physical things. Children are not only of flesh and blood -- children may be ideas, thoughts, emotions. The person of the one who is loved is a form composed of a myriad mirrors reflecting and illuminating the powers and thoughts and the emotions that are within you, and flashing another kind of light from within. No words or deeds may encompass it.

Friendship is another form of love -- more passive perhaps, but full of the transmitting and acceptances of things like thunderclouds and grass and the clean reality of granite.

Art is both love and friendship and understanding: the desire to give. It is not charity, which is the giving of things. It is more than kindness, which is the giving of the self. It is both the taking and giving of beauty, the turning out to the light the inner folds of the awareness of the spirit. It is the recreation on another plane of the realities of the world; the tragic and wonderful realities of earth and men, and of all the interrelations of these.


Excerpts from Ansel Adams, An Autobiography. With Mary Street Alinder. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1985.

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