People & Events: Ansel Adams (1902-1984)
When Ansel Adams was four years old, he survived the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.
Because the Adams family home was located on the dunes beyond the Golden Gate, it survived with little damage. Adams, however, suffered a broken nose in an aftershock, when he was thrown against a brick wall.
Ansel Adams, a San Francisco native, was born on February 20, 1902. His mother, Olive Bray Adams, had been born in Iowa in 1862, but spent most of her years in Carson City, Nevada, before meeting Charles Hitchcock Adams. The Adamses originally came from New England, but they were not related to the presidents of the same name.
Charles Adams inherited his family's lumber business, but failed to make it profitable. A man of scrupulous integrity, he could not compete in the corrupt business climate of his day. Olive Adams resented the fact that her husband could not provide her with the standard of living she wanted, and became depressed.
The Adamses were cultured liberals who did not belong to any organized religion. Charles Adams, in particular, was heavily influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson's writings. He believed strongly in the Transcendentalist ideas of individuality and direct union with God in nature, which he transmitted to young Ansel.
Charles Adams was a very nurturing, understanding parent, who always encouraged his son to be the individual he was. Adams later wrote,
I trace who I am and the direction of my development to those years of growing up in our house by the dunes, propelled especially by an internal spark tenderly kept alive and glowing by my father.
Adams was a very active child, and felt restricted in school, which he found meaningless. When he was 13, his father began to tutor him at home. His father also made arrangements for a tutor in ancient Greek, as well as a piano teacher.
In 1915 Charles Adams gave his son a year-long pass to the Panama Pacific Exposition. Adams was 13 years old, and found it stimulating. The pass was a wonderful idea. According to William Turnage of the Ansel Adams Trust, "Ansel went every single day, and he learned more there than he ever could have in a year at school." For the first time, young Ansel saw modern painting and sculpture.
In his teens and early twenties, Adams was hoping to become a concert pianist. He developed a circle of friends who shared his love of music and the outdoors. He visited Yosemite every summer to go hiking. He joined a long tradition of wilderness photographers and made many photographs on his treks. It was at Yosemite that he met Virginia Best, whom he would later marry.
On a 1927 hike in Yosemite, Adams first developed his unique photographic style. For Monolith, the Face of Half Dome, Adams showed the famous granite formation in clear, sharp focus. He used a red filter to darken the sky for dramatic effect. He wrote to Virginia Best, "In this new effect I will try to combine the processes of photography and the press into a result that will be exceptionally beautiful and unique."
Shortly after making his unique photograph of Half Dome, Adams met Albert Bender, a San Francisco arts patron who offered to underwrite a portfolio for him. One hundred copies were produced at $50.00 each. The portfolio contained 18 prints, including Adams's most recent photograph of Half Dome.
On March 28, 1933, Adams met Alfred Stieglitz in New York. Stieglitz was an influential curator, as well as the most highly respected photographer of his day. He was deeply impressed by Adams's portfolio. "These," he said, "are some of the finest photographs I have ever seen." Stieglitz promised Adams a one-person exhibit at "An American Place," his gallery in New York; the show was scheduled to open in November 1936.
Back home in California, Adams spent the summer of 1936 hard at work in the darkroom, preparing for his exhibit at Stieglitz's gallery. During this time, he fell deeply in love with Patsy English, his young darkroom assistant. Adams wrestled between pursuing his new romantic interest and staying with his wife and two small children. He chose the latter, because he considered it the right thing to do. But week after week ,the physical and emotional strain of the work, and of his conflicted feelings for Patsy and Virginia, became all but unbearable.
It took months for Adams to resolve his inner anguish. In spring 1937, he returned to Yosemite with Virginia and their children. By returning to a place where he had always found happiness, Adams began to recover from the crisis. By June 10, he was able to express his feelings in a letter to his closest friend, Cedric Wright.
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 relate 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....
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 granite of reality.
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 self. It is both the taking and giving of beauty, the turning out to the light of the inner folds of the awareness of the spirit. It is a 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.
In the same year as his exhibit at "An American Place," which was a huge success, Adams was asked by the Sierra Club's board of directors to attend a conference on the national parks in Washington, D.C. He was to lobby in favor of establishing Kings Canyon as a national park. The board of directors suggested he bring some photographs.
Not only did Adams address the conference, he also met with individual lawmakers, and even with Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes. Two years later, when Adams published Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail, he sent a copy to Ickes, who showed it to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt liked the book so much that he kept it for the White House. (Adams sent another copy to Ickes.) The Kings River National Park Bill finally passed in 1940.
In 1941 Ickes asked Adams to do an assignment for the Department of the Interior. Ickes wanted to decorate the headquarters' corridors and major offices with enlarged photographic murals of scenes from the national parks. This assignment changed Adams's style. His pictures became larger and more dramatic. Due to the outbreak of World War II, Ickes' mural project was cancelled in 1942, and the murals were never made.
In the fall of 1943, Adams made his first visit to Manzanar, an internment camp where Japanese Americans were being held prisoners. Adams was outraged by the denial of their rights as American citizens. At the same time, he was impressed with their determination to make the best of the situation.
Adams's photographs of Manzanar were displayed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Although the exhibit was placed in the basement due to scheduling conflicts, it still attracted a lot of attention. Born Free and Equal, a book on the Manzanar project, was published in late 1944. Adams blamed the war for the book's poor-quality reproductions and lack of publicity. Despite these problems, enough people learned of the book to criticize Adams for being disloyal.
The de Young Museum in San Francisco housed an exhibit in 1963 called "The Eloquent Light." It was a retrospective of Adams's work from 1927-1963. The exhibit marked a change in Adams's career. No longer was he at the forefront of creative photography. Instead Adams became a teacher, public figure, and environmental activist.
Adams used his stature as a great photographer to promote conservation. He met with Presidents Johnson, Ford, and Carter at the White House, and was favorably impressed with all three. In 1980, President Carter awarded Adams the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.
Adams died on April 22, 1984, at the age of 82. Six months after his death, Congress passed legislation designating more than 200,000 acres near Yosemite as the Ansel Adams Wilderness Area. A year later, an 11,760-foot mountain on the boundary of Yosemite National Park was named Mt. Ansel Adams.
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