Ansel Adams: Photography as a Force of Nature
Photographer Ansel Adams always looked forward to 5 pm. Two events occurred at that hour: Adams closed down the darkroom for the day, and his wife, Virginia, opened up the family bar at their home in Carmel, California.
According to his longtime assistant and biographer, Mary Street-Alinder, it was an open bar for all comers. Adams expected his staff to stick around for an adult beverage and guests, both invited and uninvited, were welcome.
As sunset over the Pacific approached, the group would gather at the window to watch for “the green flash” which Adams insisted occurred in the sky just as the sun disappeared into the ocean. Some guests saw the flash, while others did not. But, they all had a good time looking for it.
For the record, Adams’ favorite drink was a very dry martini. He was so particular about the drink that he carried the recipe on a card with him when he was traveling: bartenders across the country were expected to be as meticulous about the drink as Adams was about his photography.
No one could be more exacting about their art than Adams. His epochal images remain in the forefront of photography — not just landscape photography, but all photography.
Alinder, in Ansel Adams, A Biography, correctly noted that two other achievements in his life rank in equal significance to the prints he produced. Adams was a formidable environmentalist who worked as a director of the Sierra Club for 37 years. Second, more than any other individual, he established photography as a fine art form. As one historian said, Adams put photography into museums.
Born in San Francisco on February 20, 1902, one of Adams’ most powerful childhood memories was of the great earthquake and fire of 1906. On the morning of April 18, the bay area was rocked by a massive quake, later estimated by Richter to be in the neighborhood of 8.25.
For three days, Adams saw smoke in the skies. One aftershock created a more palpable memory: the severe jolt threw him into a brick wall that broke his nose. Adams never had his nose reset, so it leaned prominently to the left, a daily reminder of what he called “a scary, confusing time.”
Ten years later, the first week of June 1916, fate made a serious intervention in Adams’ life. His family took a vacation to Yosemite, where he was presented his very first camera, a Kodak Box Brownie. Adams took more than 30 pictures on that trip.
“I knew my destiny when I first experienced Yosemite,” Adams later asserted. Handing a camera to a 14-year-old Adams at Yosemite changed the art world forever.
What set Adams apart from other photographers was his ability to convey more than just a visual record. He captured the living truth of his subject.
Adams’ breakthrough came on April 17, 1927. He was hiking and shooting images in Yosemite with his wife and friends when he found himself facing Half Dome, the imposing granite rock formation, some 4,000 feet above the valley floor.
Adams had one photographic plate remaining. He knew he could record the beauty of the mountain — but his goal was to record what it actually felt like being face-to-face with the “monumental shape…in terms of its expressive-emotional quality.” He wanted to put viewers of the image in his own footsteps.
Adams determined what he wanted the photo to look like and then selected a red filter instead of one he might ordinarily use. The red filter gave him the effect he saw in his mind.
From the autobiography he wrote with Alinder: “I had been able to realize a desired image: not the way the subject appeared in reality, but how it felt to me…” Adams described this technique as “visualization.” The photographer achieves the expression of his imagination through aesthetic, intellectual, and mechanical technique.
Visualization, along with his complete mastery of the darkroom, saw Adams in good stead for the rest of his career. One of his most admired images, Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, illustrates Adams at his absolute best.
Moonrise was photographed on October 31, 1941. The serendipitous nature of the shot borders on a story from Grimm’s Fairy Tales. After a long, largely fruitless day of misfires, Adams, his eight-year-old son, Michael, and his assistant, Cedric Wright, were heading back disconsolately to their base in Santa Fe.
As the moon was beginning to rise, Adams visualized what he knew would be a “fantastic scene.” He pulled his station wagon off the road, hurriedly set up, and took one exposure. The magical moment in the sky vanished after that lone shot.
The original photograph featured lighter skies, but eventually transitioned into the silky black nighttime shot that is most familiar. The scene, wrote Alinder, seemed to be lighted from within — the clouds, snow in the mountains, the crosses on the graves all glimmer. The photograph encompassed the history of the town: the life cycle struggles, birth, death and redemption, were the themes tightly compressed in a deceptively simple image.
Clearing Winter Storm is another example of Adams in his finest form. It was photographed in January 1935 and is among the most definitive work Adams did in Yosemite, especially considering the turbulent weather conditions in which it was executed. Adams noted that this image is frequently seen as an environmental statement, but that was not his purpose.
“People are surprised when I say that I never intentionally made a creative photograph that related directly to an environmental issue, though I am greatly pleased when a picture I have made becomes useful to an important cause,” Adams said. “I cannot command the creative impulse on demand. I never know in advance precisely what I will photograph. I go out into the world and hope I will come across something that imperatively interests me.”
For much of his life, Adams had to take on commercial projects in order to support himself and his family. He worked for the National Park Service, Kodak, Pacific Gas and Electric, among others. The prices for his prints were so low that these projects were a necessity.
Ben Breard, owner of Afterimage Gallery, Inc. in Dallas, Texas, is one of his dealers. Breard remembers that in the early 70’s, the 16×20 prints sold for $150. By the mid-seventies, they were going for $250. A few years later, when Adams was considering a price increase of several hundred more dollars, the idea was so radical that an Adams’ associate flew to Dallas to review the proposed change with Breard. ( See Breard and Adams, below)
Today, Moonrise and Clearing Winter Storm sell for over $90,000. Adams’ murals, which are large scale, can run as high as one million dollars.
Adams passed away at the age of 82 on April 22, 1984. The following year, an 11,760-foot mountain in Yosemite was named Mount Ansel Adams. According to Alinder, Adams’ cremains were placed on the summit of that majestic mountain.