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Ansel Adams (20 February 1902 — 22 April 1984) is an American photographer, and environmentalist, who is almost certainly one of the most famous photographers in the world, eminent for his large black and white prints of Yosemite National Park and capturing life in a Japanese war camp.
At an early age, Adams was a talented pianist, but he developed a love for nature, growing up hiking upon the dunes under the Golden Gate Bridge near where he lived. As a child, he was given a book by an Aunt ‘Heart of the Sierras’ and became fascinated with the imagery of Yosemite. (Driscoll, 2016). The landscape inspired him; he loved the Yosemite Sierra and spent long periods every year at the National Park until he died in 1984. As a teen, he joined the Sierra Club; a group committed to protecting the area (Wikipedia, 2018), and therefore spent four successive summers working at the Park (Ansel Adam Galley, 2018). With his Kodak No. 1 Box Brownie that his parents had given to him, photography had become a hobby but eventually leading to him joining a commercial firm as a technician (Famous Photographer, 2018) which helped him learn more about the art form.
Adams’ published his first photograph of Yosemite National Park in 1921 in the Sierra Club 122 bulletin, the year after, Best’s Studios, today is known as the Ansel Adams Gallery, started selling his photographs (Eyen 2017). However, his fame and fortune came later in life, so like many people, in his early career, he had to take on commercial work for extra income to support his family (Dunlop, 2016).
His breakthrough came in 1927 when he published, Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras, which was his first portfolio, produced not long after turning professional. It included his famous image, Monolith, the Face of Half Dome. Adams took numerous exposure to try to capture this famous image, trying several different filters. At first, he used a yellow filter, but he realised that the image, will be an accurate picture of ‘Half Dome’, but it will not have that emotional quality that he was looking for (Cain 2017), so he exposed another but this time with a red filter, which would deepen the sky and subsequently accentuate the cliff face. He saw this as his ‘first really fine photograph’ (Cain 2017). Adams became the master of printmaking, he believed that regardless of the expressive creativity he showed with his prints, to get a good print you needed to capture good details within the negative, so correct exposure is key. After spending time in his mobile darkroom in Yosemite, he realised he had achieved his first ‘visualisation’. He had managed to capture an image, but not the way it appeared, but how it emotionally appeared to him. It was his flare in the darkroom that made his prints legendary. Adams did not just his ‘take’ photos — he ‘made’ his photographs, through considerable darkroom work in creating the perfect print (Kim, 2018), by emanating his emotions through dark skies and dramatic scenery. This image led to his artist photographic career to flourish.
During 1929 and 1942, Adams expanded his portfolio, spending time in New Mexico and publishing books on photography. In 1941 Adams captured the well-known image titled ‘ Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, which gave him gave him the financial stability he needed. (The Biography.com, 2014) Amongst his landscape photography, he had many commercial assignments, which included living in a Japanese camp during World War II to highlight wartime injustice. Appreciation of his photography grew enormously by the 1960s, and he was exhibiting across America in galleries and became extremely busy producing prints to satisfy customer demand.
Adams predominantly used large format cameras; the larger the better as the negative would capture more detail and clarity gained. He often traveled around the landscape at high altitude, often seen standing on top of his vehicle with a tripod taking a photograph, using f-stop 64, which is what he was renowned for, presenting the world ‘as it is’, all sharp and in focus (Hostetler, 2004). This led to him co-founding Group f/64, after the aperture setting, which obtains the excellent depth of field, giving sharpness throughout the image. The group had a collective photographic style based on sharply focused images seen through a particular viewpoint (Wikipedia, 2018a). It was ‘based on precisely exposed images of natural forms and found objects’ and promoting a shared principle (Wikipedia, 2018a). A long exposure was required, with a stationary subject matter, so was perfect for Adams, landscape photography.
He called the first print direct from the negative the ‘straight print’ but believed that the work in producing the masterpiece didn’t finish there. He formulated the ‘zonal system’ which is the printmaking process he followed, in basic terms, this means lots of dodging and burning to get the preferred imaginative visual appearance he desired. His philosophy was that pure white or solid black is the ‘key’ value in a print, without such values, the image will be weak (Adams, 1950, p.3). He was very theatrical and he stated that the negative was the score and the print is the performance, so he spent a lot of time and effort in the darkroom creating just one ‘final print’ (Adams, 1950 p.2).
As much as Adams became the master in the darkroom, famed for editing and enhancing them as he ‘visualised’ the landscape, he also had his critics. They believed that this approach was not fitting with photography at the time, and was not a true reflection of the landscape as it is (www.quora.com 2018). They dismissed Adams as a romanticiser, as his subject matter was blissful landscapes, not reflecting real America with cities, people and traffic (Brower, 2002). Regardless of his critics, Adams was a very successful photographer and in promoting conservation and preservation in capturing his beautiful landscapes. He bought the wilderness to the American people and brought it to the attention of conservationists (www.shutterbug.com). Today, he is probably known as the world’s greatest landscape photographer.
In conclusion, Adams was a pioneer in photography and made a huge impact on the industry. He produced beautiful prints from processes that he created such as the ‘zonal system’. His biggest accomplishment was not only helping in saving nation parks, but also bringing artistic expression into the world of photography, which today, digitally, we take for granted.
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- Lena Eyan 2017. Ansel Adams The Strength of the Shutter: Photography and the Environmental Movementhttps://www.scu.edu/environmental-ethics/environmental-activists-heroes-and-martyrs/ansel-adams.html
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Suzanne Driscoll | Oct 14, 2016 The Early Photos of Ansel Adams: Looking Back at the Work of a Black-and-White Master
Read more at https://www.shutterbug.com/content/early-photos-ansel-adams-looking-back-work-black-and-white-master#77WE0bbc1DfsUhyH.99
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- Brower, K (2002). Ansel Adams at 100. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2002/07/ansel-adams-at-100/302533/
- WIKIPEDIA. (2018a) Group f/64. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Group_f/64 Accessed 15/11/2018
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