With a career that spanned seventy years, Ansel Adams, has been described as “quintessentially American.” He is most famous for his black and white landscape photography of the American West, though he photographed a wide range of subjects in his lifetime. William Turnage from the Ansel Adams Trust states, “I can’t think of any artist in our history who was more American than Ansel Adams… His cause was American. His work was about America.”
In 2002, the PBS program, American Experience, produced a documentary film about his life and work. Born in San Francisco in 1902, Adams was hyperactive and drawn to nature at a young age. His pursuit of music became a substitute for formal education. Relying on a photographic memory, he taught himself piano at age twelve and trained to be a concert pianist.
On a family trip at age fourteen, Adams was strongly influenced by the magnificent beauty of the Yosemite Valley. He later wrote, “From that day, my life has been colored and modulated by the great earth gesture of the Sierra.”
His editor and assistant, Andrea Gray Stillman, recalled, “He always said he was formed by those early landscape experiences and where he was living… I mean, once you’ve lived a while in San Francisco, you can feel …that fog kind of tiptoeing in, where it changes the sounds and kind of gets in to your bones. Or when there’s a glorious clear day…it’s just breathtakingly beautiful. And that was just part and parcel of Ansel.”
Conservationist, environmentalist, Sierra Club member, Adams’ inspirational work elevated the craft of photography to fine art. On the process of creating photographs, Adams said, “I’m interested in expressing something which is built up from within, rather than just extracted from without.” He talked about seeking something in the landscape that did not actually exist. An image filtered by perspective. A work of art to inspire a nation.
Consider the man working with his glass plates, moving the camera into position to “make” a picture, creating something new in the space where his mind intersected with the environment around him. Adams again, “Only when the photographer grows into perception and creative impulse does the term make define a condition of empathy between the external and the internal events.”