American wilderness photographer Ansel Adams was instrumental in getting photography recognized as a fine art and for many of the citizen environmental conservation efforts in place today. This latter fact is ironic, considering that Adams’ grandfather was a prominent timber baron and that his father inherited the business. Born in 1902, the magnetic and prolific Adams would go on to take thousands of breathtaking black and white landscape photographs and to author dozens of books on photography. Here are some facts about his life:
1. Adams had a troubled, but interesting childhood.
- He broke his nose during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, when an aftershock pitched him face first into the garden wall. A doctor recommended resetting the nose in his adolescence, but Adams’ nose remained crooked throughout his life.
- The year after the earthquake, his grandfather’s timber business failed during the Panic of 1907. Adams’ father took over, but the incident drastically changed the family’s standard of living.
2. Adams did not do well in school.
- He was transferred out of a handful of schools before his parents decided to homeschool him with the help of a maiden aunt at the age of 12. His former teachers cited behavioral problems. Later in life, Adams commented that he may have been hyperactive.
- The highest degree he earned was a certificate for accomplishing the equivalent of the eighth grade at a private school.
3. He almost pursued a career as a concert pianist.
- Adams took up the piano after leaving school. For many years, it provided him with the necessary structure and discipline that traditional schooling could not.
- Though he gave up the piano for the camera in 1928, Adams’ musical background would inform his photography and writings for the rest of his life.
4. Yosemite National Park would always remain a source of inspiration and opportunity for Adams.
- It was this park that inspired him to take up photography. His first camera was a Kodak No. 1 Box Brownie and his subject was nature. Taking these pictures meant going on many hikes that eventually built up his confidence and self-esteem.
- Adams sold his first photos to Best’s Studio in Yosemite Valley. He eventually became good friends with the owners and married their daughter Virginia in 1928. Best’s Studio is now the Ansel Adams Gallery and is run by his descendants.
5. He had a genius for technical skill and had a love affair with the theory and practice of photography.
- Adams developed, along with fellow photographer Fred Archer, the complex Zone System of photography, which helped photographers gauge exposure and adjust contrast.
- He wrote Polaroid Land Photography Manual, a ten-volume work on the subject of technical photography. This is not to mention his four dozen-odd other books and portfolios, as well as 100,000 letters.
6. Adams’ financial situation did not improve until very late in life.
- This despite developing a wide network and reputation between 1929 and 1943, with thanks to exposure from the Sierra Club photography portfolios and the patronage of wealthy businessman Albert Bender. He was forced to do commercial photography work for a number of high-profile magazines, newspapers, and private companies. And yet the commissions were irregular.
- One project that helped give Adams monetary stability was thousands of unique prints of the same scene of a moon rising over a village titled “Moon Rise, Hernandez, New Mexico.” He would re-interpret the shot many times over forty years.
Ansel Adams passed away in 1984 due to a heart attack. He will forever be remembered as a genius at photography and a champion of the environment.