Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams

American Photographer

Born: February 20, 1902 - San Francisco, California
Died: April 22, 1984 - Monterey, California
"The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it."
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"You don't take a photograph, you make it."
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"There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer."
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"To photograph truthfully and effectively is to see beneath the surfaces."
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"A great photograph is a full expression of what one feels about what is being photographed in the deepest sense, and is, thereby, a true expression of what one feels about life in its entirety."
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"A photograph is usually looked at - seldom looked into."
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"Photography is more than a medium for factual communication of ideas. It is a creative art."
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"The negative is the equivalent of the composer's score, and the print the performance."
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"When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence."
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"No matter how sophisticated you may be, a large granite mountain cannot be denied - it speaks in silence to the very core of your being."
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"I never know in advance what I will photograph, ... I go out into the world and hope I will come across something that imperatively interests me. I am addicted to the found object. I have no doubt that I will continue to make photographs till my last breath."
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Summary of Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams was the most important American landscape photographer of the 20th century. He might also be the most widely known and respected of all American photographers, whose legend continues through books and television documentaries, and through the prevalent reproduction of his work on calendars, posters, postcards and other ephemera. Adams's professional life was dedicated to capturing through his lens the forgotten and unspoiled wilderness of America's national parks and other protected conservation areas in the West. He was a committed environmentalist and nothing short of an icon for the 20th century conservation movement.

Adams and his friend and colleague Edward Weston founded Group f/64 whose commitment to the idea of a pure, or "higher", photography helped shape the history of early-to-mid 20th century modernism and secured photography's place - as fine art - within it. Adams himself was a highly accomplished technician. He published books - or manuals - on the technical aspects of photography and he used his own portfolios to help lobby politicians for the creation and upkeep of American National Parks. In 1952, with Beaumont and Nancy Newhall, Dorothea Lange, Minor White and others, Adams co-founded the photography quarterly, Aperture which was part of Adam's career-long mission (started with Group f/64) to promote the merits of serious, contemplative, photographic art. Aperture still publishes to this day.


  • In the mid-19th century, the painted American landscape was most readily associated with the so-called Hudson River School. The School tended towards idyllic tableaus showing scenes of calm pastoralism. It was a style disparaged (albeit somewhat harshly) by modernists who thought the Hudson tradition in photography merely reinforced the conservative taste for wistful picture narratives. Adams believed that, if approached in a spirit of the age of modernity, landscape photography might in fact match music or poetry in its potential to stimulate a sense of higher contemplation in the spectator. Adams's goal then was to capture the true majesty of the natural world within a single frame and, if he could achieve this using a combination of technical skill, dogged leg-work and intuition, then the better the chances of producing landscapes that were more than just pictorial.
  • Though his fame is founded on his iconic American landscapes, Adams also produced a small number of still life studies. Like his landscapes, Adams brought a modern sensibility to what was a traditional painterly genre. Without distorting the objects in front of his lens (as was, say, Weston's preference), Adams used sharp focus to emphasize primary elements and relations between objects that might have ordinarily gone unnoticed. In this sense he demonstrated how the photographer could invite the spectator to consider the beauty of everyday things by using the camera to remove, or "liberate", the objects from their original setting.
  • As co-founder and active member of Group f/64, Adams and his colleagues took Paul Strand's Straight Photography principles and customized them to the ends of promoting a higher art. Whereas Strand's images were flat (by design), Adams's were all about ultra-sharp depth of field (the appellation f/64 was an optical reference to the aperture setting (f/64) that produced the finest picture detail). However, Adams brought an added level of personal commitment to his technical know-how. Led by his affinity with the natural world, he would often trek between dawn and dusk in order to find the right location from which to secure his images.
  • Adams was known not just for the brilliance of his images, but for his technical expertise too. His book Making a Photograph (1935) was a highly distinguished instructions manual illustrated with his own prints. It was through his pursuit of technical mastery indeed that Adams and Fred Archer developed what became known later as the "Zone System," a method by which the photographer could "pre-visualize" the tonal quality of the final image at the very point of taking the picture.

Biography of Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams photo by J. Malcolm Greany

The love of the outdoors and the joy of recording nature made Ansel Adams the quintessential landscape photographer of the 20th century.

Important Art by Ansel Adams

Progression of Art
Monolith, the Face of Half Dome, Yosemite National Park (c. 1927)
c. 1927

Monolith, the Face of Half Dome, Yosemite National Park

A dark and brooding image of the Half Dome in Yosemite National Park, Monolith is a high contrast black and white photograph in sharp and deep focus (from foreground to background). Less a representation of how the landscape looked at that precise moment than a dramatic rendering of the photographer's emotions upon viewing the scene, the Half Dome image is amongst Adams's best known, and most important, photographs. He later said of this image: "The great rocks of Yosemite, expressing qualities of timeless, yet intimate grandeur, are the most compelling formations of their kind. We should not casually pass them by for they are the very heart of the earth speaking to us."

Moved by the Yosemite landscape, Adams hoped to use his camera to capture his own feelings towards this magnificent natural environment. According to Adams scholar Anne Hammond, "Opposite the cliff and halfway to the top, the ground glass gave a view as close as one could get to the physical experience of climbing the sheer rock-face. The slight perspective distortion of the extreme oblique view compressed the Dome into a vertical tower, emphasized by the line of shadow in the center." In bringing together the face of the half dome, an emblem of the Yosemite Valley, and the High Sierras beyond, "the Half Dome stands like a great headstone, [a] symbol of the insurmountable fact of mountain experience."

The photograph was taken from a vantage point known as the Diving Board, a granite slab that hangs 3,500 feet above the valley floor. Adams had been searching for a view of the Half Dome that also conveyed his sense of wonder. By the time he reached the Diving Board, Adams had only two glass plate negatives left in his satchel. The first of the two was exposed with a yellow filter that he knew would darken the sky slightly. With the second, Adams used a dark red filter that significantly darkened the sky and subsequently emphasized the white snow and gleaming granite of the half dome. The resulting photograph marked a turning point in Adams's work: he had effectively previsualized what the photograph would look like before he pressed down on the shutter. He would later explain that "this photograph represents my first conscious visualization; in my mind's eye I saw (with reasonable completeness) the final image as made." In the years that followed, Adams would refine his ideas about previsualization in what he later called the "Zone System."

Gelatin Silver Print - Collection Center for Creative Photography, The University of Arizona

St. Francis Church, Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico (c. 1929)
c. 1929

St. Francis Church, Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico

In the spring of 1929, Adams and his wife Virginia spent several months with writer Mary Austin in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was during this trip that Adams and Austin decided to collaborate on a book about Santa Fe and the surrounding area. Austin introduced Adams to Mabel Dodge Luhan, the Santa Fe arts patron who was hosting artists of the caliber of Georgia O'Keeffe around the same time. Luhan was married to Tony Lujan, who was a member of the Taos tribal council and it was he who gave Adams permission to photograph at the Taos Pueblo.

A somewhat transitional photograph for Adams, St. Francis Church, Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico, is a rare soft-focus image of the angular white-washed church bathed in soft light and shadow. While illustrating his obvious concern with form and the effects thereon of natural light, this image makes clear that even as late as 1929, Adams was working with a soft focus, and with textured paper. Both of these practices were in keeping with the (later scorned) Pictorialist method. Indeed, this, and other photographs from the limited-edition book, Taos Pueblo (1930), were printed on special Dassonville paper that was rag-based and warm in tone. The upshot was a collection of images (like St. Francis Church) that lacked the sharp focus and glossy paper characteristics that marked his later photographs (or, for that matter, some earlier images, including Monolith, The Face of Half Dome). With prose by Austin, the book included photographic prints rather than reproductions of Adams's Taos photographs.

Gelatin silver print - From the limited-edition book Taos Pueblo, 1930

Rose and Driftwood, San Francisco, California (c. 1932)
c. 1932

Rose and Driftwood, San Francisco, California

In Rose and Driftwood, Adams made use of sharp focus and high contrast to depict the delicate veins of the rose and the raised striations of the driftwood. The resulting image is a strikingly modern interpretation of the traditional still life. Unlike his contemporary Edward Weston, who preferred to isolate objects by physically removing them from their surroundings, Adams married the rose with the wood on which it was placed. Drawing on his experience of photographing landscapes - imparting on him an eye for texture, contrast, composition, and an emotional connection with his choice of subject matter - Adams treats the rose and driftwood in much the same way, using the concentric circles of the driftwood and the rose rising from its surface like elements found in nature.

Adams met Weston in 1927 and Paul Strand in 1930, both of whom excelled at the modern photographic still life. Although he was critical of Weston's extreme close-up photographs of objects (including his famous Pepper (1930)) Adams was impressed by Strand's use of Straight Photography to render the natural world. And it was through Strand that Adams began to understand that photography could be used as an expressive art form in its own right. Although Adams had already received some measure of success in photography, but following his meeting with Strand, he discarded altogether the soft focus and textured paper, and began working rather with a smooth, glossy paper that enabled the sharp detail he now strived for in his negatives. This photograph, and others from this period, mark Adams's shift towards Straight Photography. The same year (1932) Adams, Weston, Imogen Cunningham, and others formed the Group f/64, which dedicated itself to the furtherance of photography as fine art.

Gelatin silver print - Collection Center for Creative Photography, The University of Arizona

Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico (1941)

Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico

One of Adams's most famous photographs, and one of the most iconic photographs of the modern era, Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, is a dramatic image of a moon rising over the small southwest town, near Santa Fe. A scene that is momentarily both dark and light, Moonrise, shows the town's buildings bathed in late evening light just moments before the sun will set and darkness will envelop the town. Here Adams approached photography as he would a piece of music, interpreting the negative and print like a conductor interprets a score. Adams often repeated the mantra that "a photograph is made, not taken" and in this regard, as Anne Hammond has noted, "the technical controls that Adams had perfected enabled him to realize [...] the mortality of individual human existence confronting the eternity of the universe, the theme of life and death."

The story of the photograph's creation has become the stuff of myth. The story goes that Adams happened on the scene, which he later called "an inevitable photograph," while driving home from Santa Fe. He later recalled rushing to stop the car and pulling out his 8 x 10 camera and gathering the appropriate lens and filter only to realize that he could not find his light meter. The situation was made all the more dramatic because the sun would soon be setting and the light illuminating the cemetery crosses in the foreground would be gone. Adams used his technical skill and knowledge of exposure to approximate the correct exposure for the photograph based only on the luminosity of the moon. Utilizing his Zone System he determined the tonal range (from white to black) in order to previsualize the final print. This method allowed him here to visualize the negative and the tonal range of the various elements in the image - the white crosses in the foreground, the dark sky and rising moon - before choosing the exact moment to release the shutter.

Gelatin silver print - Collection Center for Creative Photography, The University of Arizona


Grand Teton and Snake River, Wyoming

In 1941, at the height of World War II but before the bombing on Pearl Harbor, Adams received a commission from the U.S. Department of the Interior to photograph National Parks and other notable landscapes. In exchange for film, paper, and darkroom chemicals, and a day rate of $20, Adams would provide photographic murals for display in the halls of the Department of Interior. Although Adams took some 225 photographs for the project (including this image), the project was later dropped (never to be resumed) due to America's sudden involvement in the war.

Grand Teton is a masterful photograph that draws the viewer's eye from the river in the foreground, around the bend to the snow-capped mountains of the Grand Teton, and up towards the brooding sky in the background. Adams's vivid landscape makes use of sharp focus and natural light to capture the true splendor of the National Parks. As Adams said of his vista: "The grand lift of the Tetons is more than a mechanistic fold and faulting of the earth's crust; it becomes a primal gesture of the earth beneath a greater sky." Adams, who was always more drawn to the natural world than the people in it, was criticized however for ignoring political events at home and abroad, most famously by Henri Cartier-Bresson. "The world is going to pieces," Cartier-Bresson chided "and people like [Ansel] Adams and Weston are photographing rocks!"

Gelatin silver print - Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Roy Takeno, Editor, and Group Reading Paper in Front of Office, Manzanar Relocation Center, California (1943)

Roy Takeno, Editor, and Group Reading Paper in Front of Office, Manzanar Relocation Center, California

Three months after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, an Executive Order was issued which decreed that all Americans of Japanese descent living in California, Oregon, and Washington would be housed in temporary internment facilities. The Manzanar Relocation Center was located in the Owens Valley, on the eastern base of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Adams was invited to document life in the camp and travelled to Manzanar on two occasions: October 1943 and July 1944.

A rare foray by Adams into documentary photography, Roy Takeno, Editor, and Group Reading Paper in Front of Office, shows three American-Japanese men reading the local newspaper on the steps of the Free Press Office. Carefully composed to spotlight the figures in the foreground, the men are framed against nondescript buildings in the middle foreground, while the snowy peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountains occupy the horizon. With a composition that brings everything within the picture frame into sharp focus, the photograph accords with the principles of Straight Photography. Yet Adams's documentary image gives us little indication that the blameless men have been impounded. Indeed, Adams's Manzanar photographs were harshly criticized by his colleague Dorothea Lange for ignoring the injustices perpetrated on the citizens interned there. Photography curator John Szarkowski read the image differently, however, suggesting Adams had wanted to show that "in spite of the injustices they suffered, [Japanese-Americans] had maintained their cohesion, their dignity, and their will."

Adams's Manzanar photographs were published by U.S. Camera as Born Free and Equal in 1944 and appeared the same year at the Museum of Modern Art in an exhibition entitled "Manzanar." Whatever one's take on his approach, Adams himself had long been frustrated by his inability to contribute to the war effort (due to his age) and he hoped that his photographs, which were also circulated as a traveling exhibition by the Museum of Modern Art, would contribute by highlighting the injustice facing Japanese-Americans living on the west coast. (It is an interesting aside that the camp was home to Toyo Miyatake, a professional Japanese-American photographer who operated a studio at Manzanar and documented daily life within Manzanar from the viewpoint of the internees.)

Gelatin silver print

Similar Art

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Ansel Adams
Influenced by Artist
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    John Paul Caponigro
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    Robert Adams
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    Edward Burtynsky
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    Richard Misrach
Friends & Personal Connections
Movements & Ideas
Open Influences
Close Influences

Useful Resources on Ansel Adams

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Content compiled and written by Karen Barber

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd

"Ansel Adams Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. .
Content compiled and written by Karen Barber
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd
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First published on 28 Nov 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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