Ansel Adams: Biography and Interpretation of His Works

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Words: 2662 |

Pages: 6|

14 min read

Published: Jan 4, 2019

Words: 2662|Pages: 6|14 min read

Published: Jan 4, 2019

Ansel Adams was one of the most famous photographers in his day. He was born in 1902 in San Francisco, California. Growing up, Adams was high-strung and shy. He did not perform well in school due to his behavioral problems and an earthquake accident that left his nose crooked, making him self conscious. As a result, he was homeschooled by members of his family and tutors starting at age twelve. It is important to note that Adams’ unique and solitary childhood led to him developing an early relationship with nature, often taking long walks or hikes in the San Francisco area. Adams developed an early passion for piano, teaching himself and eventually getting a teacher who strictly demanded excellence, giving Adams direction and discipline that would later shape his photography career. At age fourteen, Adams’ family visited Yosemite, and he used a camera he received as a gift to capture the incredible sights he witnessed. This would later be recognized as the beginning of his lifelong love for photography and nature combined. In 1917 Ansel Adams made his second trip to Yosemite. He came better equipped with better supplies and cameras, and took up a part time job as a dark room assistant, learning to develop photos and print film. Adams’ experiences at Yosemite were key in shaping his career and lifetime.

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In 1919, Adams joined the Sierra Club, an environmental organization founded by John Muir, an influential naturalist and conservationist. Adams took a job as a caretaker at the Sierra Club LeConte Lodge in Yosemite and his stay during this time allowed him to expand his photography and conservationist career. His residence at Yosemite also made it possible for him to connect with many important people of his time, including Joseph LeConte, a leading conservation scientist. The Sierra Club was essential to Adams’ success. According to William Turnage and the Oxford University Press, 1922 was the first year in which Adams’ photographs appeared in the club’s bulletin, truly allowing his career to take flight. By 1934, Adams had been voted onto the board of directors and “was well established as both the artist of the Sierra Nevada and the defender of Yosemite” (William Turnage, 2016). Yosemite was such a meaningful part of Adams’ life - he even met his wife there and they married in 1928.

Ansel Adams used his photography to influence politics. In 1936 Adams represented the Sierra Club at a parks conference in Washington. The club selected him to present a proposal for a park in the Kings River Sierra, because they felt that his photographs would be very influential to those making the decision. The Sierra Club was smart in choosing Adams to represent them, because photography had been a key part of the creation of other popular parks such as Yosemite and Yellowstone. After presenting his proposal, Adams received an invitation from the Secretary of the Interior to create a photomural of his landscapes to reside in the new Interior Department building. That indeed was a great honor, but the park proposal had not been accepted yet, so Adams continued his efforts. In 1938 he published a book, Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail, which ended up being highly praised by respected artists and photographers. This book may have been the reason the National Parks Service took a second look at Adams’ Sierra Nevada portfolio, and wrote him: “Recently we transmitted to Secretary Ickes the complimentary copy of your new Sierra Nevada portfolio which you sent to the National Park Service. Yesterday the Secretary took it to the White House and showed it to the President, who was so impressed with it that the Secretary gave it to him. In later discussion, Secretary Ickes expressed his keen desire to have a copy for his use also” (Robert Turnage, 1980). Shortly after that, Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes wrote Adams, saying “My dear Mr. Adams: I am enthusiastic about the book— The John Muir Trail —which you were so generous as to send me. The pictures are extraordinarily fine and impressive. I hope before this session of Congress adjourns the John Muir National Park in the Kings Canyon area will be a legal fact. Then we can be sure that your descendants and mine will be able to take as beautiful pictures as you have taken—that is, provided they have your skill and artistry” (Robert Turnage, 1980). It is truly remarkable that Adams’ photos were able to speak on such a level that they impacted the decision to make the park a reality. Finally, in 1940, Kings Canyon became a national park. Adams received a message from the National Parks Service declaring that his book, Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail, was the most influential piece in creating the park. National Park Service Director Arno Cammerer wrote: “So long as that book is in existence, it will go on justifying the park” (Robert Turnage, 1980). This truly demonstrates how significant Adams’ works were in the political realm.

Adams continued to be involved with the government, beginning his photomural project for the Interior Department in 1941. He ended up having to pause his work because of World War II. During this time he worked as a “photographic consultant” to the Armed Services and in addition worked for the Office of War Information. He visited the Manzanar War Relocation Center and documented the Japanese Americans in the camp, ultimately “breaking new ground for civil rights” (, 2006). In 1968 Adams received the Conservation Service Award by the Department of the Interior, and he was pictured on the cover of Time Magazine in 1979. In 1980 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Carter, the highest honor a citizen can receive. For all his influence in politics, Adams was also inducted into the California Hall of Fame by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the First Lady Maria Shriver in 2007.

Every single photograph that Adams captured held significance, but some works stand out as being the most influential. Among those works is a very famous photograph titled “Monolith, the Face of Half Dome” (See Appendix A). This photograph was part of Adams’ first complete portfolio, released in 1927. It was considered his “first fully visualized photograph” (William Turnage, 2016) and for the rest of his career Adams would be recognized for this stellar image. The photo captures a sight that the general public likely would not have been able to easily see. Adams had to climb four thousand feet through a substantial amount of snow to get to a granite outcropping. From there he set up his camera and waited for the light to fall on the cliff, eventually capturing the iconic shot. The image lets the public see what has been so important to Adams for so many years. By exposing citizens to these images, Adams is able to impress upon them the importance of national parks. Even though the concept of sustainability is a relatively new one, as an environmentalist, Adams had many of the same ideas in mind when he was photographing parks such as Yosemite. “Monolith, the Face of Half Dome” is a great representation of a photograph that introduces nature to the public and shows them that it needs preservation.

Another notable work from Ansel Adams is his photograph titled “Clearing Winter Storm” (See Appendix B). Taken in Yosemite National Park in 1940, this photograph clearly demonstrates Adams’ intimate relationship with photography and Yosemite. He knew the park so well that he always knew where to go to capture the perfect moments, and his passion for nature always came through in his photographs. This forced anyone who viewed them to feel eagerness for the environment in the way that he did. By eloquently capturing the view of Yosemite Valley in this photograph, Adams was able to portray the importance of preservation. Environmentally speaking, Adams’ top issues were Yosemite National Park, the National Park System, and the preservation of wilderness (William Turnage, 2016). He especially resisted the National Parks Service’s attempts to over-develop parks, insisting that nature should remain in its most natural form. “Clearing Winter Storm” exhibits his ideal picture for all parks. The photo is so raw, clearly demonstrating how the environment should remain forever.

Adams’ images are all about inspiration. They inspire audiences to care about the world that they live in. A particularly inspirational Ansel Adams photograph from 1944 stunningly portrays the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California. He titled the image “Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada, from Lone Pine” (See Appendix C). This photograph, displaying the expansive scale of the mountain range, is a great motivation to the public. They see this grand encapsulation of the mountains and realize that the land is precious and valuable. It is wild, magnificent and awe-inspiring and thanks to Ansel Adams, every American is now aware of the vast features that make America unique. This photo is widely praised for the technique used as well. Adams always carefully considered every element in his photos, making sure the light was perfect and the situation was just right for a photo. “The varying light and dark composition endures as a mystical and enchanting image of the wilderness. Adams uses his visualization techniques to create a rich and powerful landscape scene that inspires the viewer to share in the beauty of nature” (Kaela Nurmi, 2014). Adams’ impeccable technique adds to the effectiveness of the message being portrayed through his photos, and as a result, he is largely successful in motivating the American people to care about the natural wilderness that surrounds them.

Ansel Adams was not alone in his powerful desire to preserve what remained of the wilderness and natural beauty of the United States. Rachel Carson, born five years after Adams, had very similar values and opinions as Adams. Carson, a well-known author, published a book titled Silent Spring in 1962. Carson’s ideas in her book focused on the harmful use of chemicals and pesticides, a concept that was not widely accepted at that time. She even wrote to Reader’s Digest to suggest the publishing of an article documenting a series of tests on DDT, but the magazine rejected her proposal (Natural Resources Defense Council, 2015). Thirteen years later, Carson tried again to generate public interest regarding the harmful effects of DDT, and she was again rejected. Carson decided to take control of the subject and began to write Silent Spring, which encompassed the effects of chemicals (specifically DDT) on nature and the planet. She received some negative feedback from chemical industries and general panic from the public, because those issues had not yet been brought to light and it was the first time they were being put into consideration. Eventually Carson was recognized and praised for her dedication to bringing these environmental issues to the public. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980, the same year Ansel Adams did.

Like Ansel Adams, Rachel Carson enlightened the public with new information about the environment and the future. On page ten of Silent Spring, Carson states: “Nature has introduced great variety into the landscape, but man has displayed a passion for simplifying it. Thus he undoes the built-in checks and balances by which nature holds the species within bounds” (Silent Spring, 1962, 10). Carson essentially asserts that humans have gotten into the habit of undoing nature’s natural way and interfering with natural processes. Adams shared this opinion, as he worked tirelessly to convey the importance of preserving our natural world through his incredibly influential photographs. Adams was particularly adamant about the over-development of parks. He often stressed the concept of the “spiritual-emotional aspects of parks and wilderness areas” (Digital Public Library of America, 2016) and frequently voiced his negativity toward excessive tourism and over-development in parks. Adams knew that too much human activity in such natural places would upset the ideal balance between humans and nature. Rachel Carson felt similarly, stating “The most alarming of all man’s assaults upon the environment is the contamination of air, earth, rivers, and sea with dangerous and even lethal materials” (Silent Spring, 1962, 6). It is evident that both Carson and Adams felt strongly about the preservation of natural beauty in the world, and both dedicated their lives to voicing their opinions through their craft.

In addition to Rachel Carson, Adams’ views were shared by Aldo Leopold, an American author, scientist, ecologist, conservationist and environmentalist. Aldo Leopold was born in 1887, fifteen years before Adams, and was “considered by many the father of wildlife management and of the United States’ wilderness system” (Aldo Leopold Foundation, 2016). An advanced writer and scholar, Leopold developed an idea for a book appealing to public audiences discussing “humanity’s relationship to the natural world” (Aldo Leopold Foundation, 2016), and in 1949, Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac was published. A Sand County Almanac provides intricate explanations and observations of the different types of plants and animals Leopold found on the farm he was trying to restore to its natural state (Richard Pierre, 2016). A Sand County Almanac is believed to be “one of the most respected books about the environment ever published” (Aldo Leopold Foundation, 2016), leading Leopold to be recognized as “the most influential conservation thinker of the twentieth century” (Aldo Leopold Foundation, 2016). A Sand County Almanac introduces Leopold’s idea of the “land ethic” - an idea that human beings should start being more responsible and aware of the biotic community. Ethics deal with what is right and wrong, and the land ethic applies the idea of morals to our environment around us. Aldo Leopold’s central theme can be found in this excerpt from A Sand County Almanac: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise” (A Sand County Almanac, 1949). This statement directly aligns with Ansel Adams’ beliefs that nature should remain pure as captured and portrayed through his photographs. Both Leopold and Adams widely understood that nature was precious and special, and it was to be treated in that way. “...a land ethic changes the role of Homo Sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow members, and also respect for the community as such” (A Sand County Almanac, 1949). Aldo Leopold understood the importance of respecting the biotic and natural community, and Ansel Adams’ photographs exhibited the same idea. By rarely including people in his photographs, Adams commanded the idea that nature is sacred and should be preserved in that way.

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Both Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold captured the same ideas that Ansel Adams did , but Adams differs in the way that he exposed his ideas to the public. He used photographs, which proved to be the most powerful way of conveying his environmental message. He was greatly successful but overall put his love for nature above everything else. When he died, he chose not to have a funeral. He wanted to have a small concert put on for his friends and family, demonstrating his appreciation for art and relationships. Ansel Adams was an incredibly influential photographer whose works will never be forgotten. In 1984, the year that Adams died, Congress enlarged the Minarets Wilderness, near Yosemite, to over 200,000 acres and renamed it the Ansel Adams Wilderness (, 2006). In addition, his memory continues to live on through Mount Ansel Adams, an 11,760 foot-tall peak in the Sierra Nevada, named after Adams in 1985 (Masters of Photography, 2016). Ansel Adams is recognized as one of the most widely-acclaimed photographers in conservationist history, and his photographs are thought to be the most famous and significant in the history of conservation. His images have been famous for years and they will continue to be impactful for generations to come.

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Ansel Adams: Biography and Interpretation of His Works. (2019, January 03). GradesFixer. Retrieved December 10, 2023, from
“Ansel Adams: Biography and Interpretation of His Works.” GradesFixer, 03 Jan. 2019,
Ansel Adams: Biography and Interpretation of His Works. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 10 Dec. 2023].
Ansel Adams: Biography and Interpretation of His Works [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2019 Jan 03 [cited 2023 Dec 10]. Available from:
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