The Magical Lens of Ansel Adams
Updated: May 10
Ansel Adams, perhaps more than any other artist, brought the beauty and power of the frontier into the homes of Americans. He was born in the very early 20th century when Americans were watching the frontier and its wildlife disappear and the lore of the West become a dream of the past. It’s one of those great ironies of history that he was born the grandson of a wealthy timber baron who had made his fortune by denuding the forested mountainsides of the West that Ansel so revered.
When he was only four, growing up in the shadows of the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco, he was flung during an aftershock of the great earthquake and subsequent fire of the 1906 and broke his nose so badly, it became a distinguishing feature in his adulthood. As a child, he also suffered from dyslexia, which made him a poor student and, with the help of tutors, attained an eighth-grade diploma.
Nevertheless, his genius seeped out in other ways. Shy, an only child, and embarrassed by his “deformed” nose, he escaped to nature as a boy and trekked through the wilds of nearby Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada on his own. When he was thirteen years old, his parents gave him a Kodak No. 1 Box Brownie and one of America’s greatest photographers was born. He captured the spectacular scenery that surrounded him into photographs. He spent all his time hiking, climbing, exploring, and, as if drawing strength and self-esteem from the natural grandeur around him, gained a quiet self-confidence in his photography.
When he was seventeen, he joined the nascent Sierra Club and the next four summers landed jobs as the “keeper” of the club’s LeConte Lodge. The Sierra Club played a pivotal role in Adams’ life. The Club published his first photographs and writings in
their 1922 Bulletin, and his first photographic exhibition in 1928 was at the Sierra Club’s national headquarters in San Francisco. When he became the official photographer for the Sierra Club’s annual month-long outing usually to the Sierra Nevada that attracted up to 200 prestigious members, he was encouraged that he could make a living through his photography.
He also met his future wife, Virginia Best, at the Sierra Club and they were married in 1928. Adams’ fame as a photographer rose rapidly in the 1930s and he became a champion of the artistic school of “straight photography,” in which clarity of the lens was emphasized above all and the final print had no vestiges of being manipulated in the camera or in the darkroom. He also became primarily known for his spectacular landscapes and nature studies of Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada.
For all his artistic recognition, he had trouble making ends meet as a photographer and finances dogged him much of his life. He turned to commercial photography to support his family, which also helped spread his fame. His clients included the National Park Service, Kodak, IBM, AT&T, Life, Fortune and Arizona Highways magazines. He was consumed by his passion for photography and a work-aholic, laboring 18 hours a day with little sleep.
He was also a dogged activist for the wilderness and environment and wrote thousands of letters in support of his conservation philosophy to newspaper editors, Sierra Club and Wilderness Society colleagues, government bureaucrats, and politicians. His photographs became symbols, in fact, icons, of wild America. He intended his black-and-white images to convey the intense and pure essence of Nature's beauty and he wanted his work to mimic the psychological experience of seeing that beauty. He believed that the sublime magnificence of nature infused in viewers a sense of awe and love of the land, that there was a spiritual and emotional connection. And he hoped that people who liked his photographs would also realize the importance of saving the natural beauty and purity of the land.
For Adams, Yosemite National Park and the entire national park system, as well as the preservation of wilderness areas in general were most important to him. He fought against the Park Service’s “resortism,” which he felt caused over-development of the parks and domination by private con-cessionaires, over-built highways and other construction, and billboards, which he despised. He was, above all, an advocate of balanced, restrained use of natural resources.
Not all were fans of Ansel Adams. He was criticized by some artists, photographers, and reviewers who claimed he presented an idealized wilderness that no longer existed. But Ansel defended his subject matter, and said, on the contrary, the places he photographed were precisely those wilderness and park areas that have been preserved for all time. Today, there are vast areas of protected wilderness in America, much of it saved because of the efforts of Adams, his colleagues, and the Sierra Club.
When Adams died in 1985, there was an outpouring of appreciation for the man and his work. As his friend and fellow photographer, John Swarkowski, wrote: “Adams’ subject matter was the magnificent natural beauty of the West ... and was personified in his lifelong effort to preserve the American wilderness. Above all, Adams’ philosophy and optimism struck a chord in the national phsyche. More than any other influential American of his epoch, Adams believed in both the possibility and the probability of humankind living in harmony and balance with its environment.” He was, Swarkowski concluded, an artist who was uniquely, “completely American.”
Ansel Adams was a man of the West. He shared his childhood haunts with the world and his lens captured their magic. “Yosemite Valley, to me, is always a sunrise,” he said. “A glitter of green and golden wonder in a vast edifice of stone and space.”
Who would have thought that the passion of a shy and embarrassed little boy would someday become a national obsession? But perhaps he had a little divine inspiration...Or, as Ansel Adams himself said: “Sometimes I get to places just when God's ready to have somebody click the shutter.”
© 2020 NOTES FROM THE FRONTIER