Ansel Adams, Nature Photographer, Born (1902)

Ansel Adams, the most famous nature photographer in history, was born on February 20, 1902 (died 1984), in San Francisco, California.  The work of Ansel Adams is ubiquitous in the United States—in museums, government offices, calendars and pinned to the walls in college dorm rooms.  No other photographer of nature has captured either the American landscape or the American consciousness as fully as Ansel Adams.

He was born into a rich family of western timber barons at a boom time in the American West.  A particular boom—the 1906 San Francisco earthquake—lefts its mark on Adams.  An aftershock of the earthquake threw him to the ground, breaking his nose.  Not set correctly, his crooked nose was a visual signature throughout his life.

Adams was a difficult child, unsuccessful in school, unpopular with other children and, perhaps, what we would today call hyperactive.  Consequently, after failing in several schools, he was home-schooled by his father and aunt.  The piano became his primary friend—he taught himself to play and to read music.  His skill grew to the level of a concert pianist, and he intended playing the piano as his career.

Ansel Adams in 1950 (photo by J. Malcolm Greany)

Nature was also his friend.  He spent most days hiking the hills and coast around his home.  In 1916, a trip to Yosemite totally captured his attention—and kept his attention for his entire life.  The Sierra Nevada Mountains became his playground and his inspiration.  Before long, he was photographing the mountains, learning a new trade that gradually attracted his full commitment and became his real career.  It took some time before his artistic photography took off, so for many years he was a commercial photographer, snapping everything from portraits to fruit to retail catalogues.

As a young man, he became a member of the Sierra Club, participating in their high mountain activities and working for them, first as a trip counselor and then as photographer.  The Sierra Club gave Adams’ photographs their first public exposure—and neither he nor the club ever looked back.  Along the way, Adams became not only a nature photographer, but a vigorous advocate for parks, wilderness and environmental protection.  His photographs became the core of a 1930s book created as evidence of the need for more national parks.  It worked, convincing President Franklin Roosevelt and his Secretary of Interior, Harold Ickes, to set aside Kings Canyon National Park in 1940.

Aside from his environmental impact, Ansel Adams was a journeyman photographer of enormous skill.  His technical talent was renown, as he perfected techniques for “straight photography”—letting the images speak for themselves, rather than being manipulated by the photographer or developer.  As a dedicated black-and-white photographer, he marked the pinnacle of art photography before color images became the norm.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona, photographed by Ansel Adams in 1941.

Adams worked and played hard.  From excursions into the wilderness to marathons in the darkroom, he seldom took a day off.  But he was equally known as a gracious host, a gregarious companion and, in general, the life of every party.  He was a man of the American West, but spent long periods in New York as part of the art photography scene.

The true impact of Adams’ work, however, is unquestionably his vast landscapes of the American West.  His signature photograph was taken only weeks before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, on November 1, 1941—“Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” (see more here).   The moon is suspended in a dark sky over the spreading mountains and obliquely-lit town of Hernandez.  He and companions were driving along the highway after a disappointing day of shooting around Santa Fe.  He glanced to his left, saw the image, slammed on the brakes and rushed to take the shot just as the light was disappearing.  Later he said, “Sometimes I do get to places just when God’s ready to have somebody click the shutter.”

Ansel Adams got to many places just when the shutter needed clicking, and our world is a more beautiful and inspirational place because of it.

References:

National Archives.  Ansel Adams Photographs.  Available at:  https://www.archives.gov/research/ansel-adams.  Accessed February 19, 2017.

Sierra Club.  History:  Ansel Adams.  Available at:                         http://vault.sierraclub.org/history/ansel-adams/.  Accessed February 19, 2017.

The Ansel Adams Gallery.  Ansel Adams, Photographer.  Available at:  http://anseladams.com/ansel-adams-bio/.  Accessed February 19, 2017.

This Month in Conservation

February 1
Afobaka Dam and Operation Gwamba (1964)
February 2
Groundhog Day
February 3
George Adamson, African Lion Rehabilitator, Born (1906)
February 4
Congress Overrides President Reagan’s Veto of Clean Water Act (1987)
February 5
National Wildlife Federation Created (1936)
February 6
Colin Murdoch, Inventor of the Tranquilizer Gun, Born (1929)
February 7
Karl August Mobius, Ecology Pioneer, Born (1825)
February 8
President Johnson Addresses Congress about Conservation (1965)
February 8
Lisa Perez Jackson, Environmental Leader, Born (1982)
February 9
U.S. Fish Commission Created (1871)
February 10
Frances Moore Lappe, author of Diet for a Small Planet, born (1944)
February 11
International Day of Women and Girls in Science
February 12
Judge Boldt Affirms Native American Fishing Rights (1974)
February 13
Thomas Malthus Born (1766)
February 14
Nature’s Faithful Lovers
February 15
Complete Human Genome Published (2001)
February 16
Kyoto Protocol, Controlling Greenhouse-Gas Emissions, Begins (2005)
February 16
Alvaro Uglade, Father of Costa Rica’s National Parks, Born (1946)
February 17
Sombath Somphone, Laotian Environmentalist, Born (1952)
February 17
R. A. Fischer, Statistician, Born (1890)
February 18
Julia Butterfly Hill, Tree-Sitter, Born (1974)
February 18
World Pangolin Day
February 19
Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial Established (1962)
February 20
Ansel Adams, Nature Photographer, Born (1902)
February 21
Carolina Parakeet Goes Extinct (1918)
February 22
Nile Day
February 23
Italy’s Largest Inland Oil Spill (2010)
February 24
Joseph Banks, British Botanist, Born (1743)
February 25
First Federal Timber Act Passed (1799)
February 26
Four National Parks Established (1917-1929)
February 27
International Polar Bear Day
February 28
Watson and Crick Discover The Double Helix (1953)
February 29
Nature’s Famous Leapers
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