The name, Ansel Adams, is widely known for Yosemite and Photography. In fact, just say “Ansel” anywhere in the whole world and I’ll bet at least one person within earshot will say, “Oh yeah, the Yosemite guy.” His name is almost as iconic as the park itself. He was born in San Francisco in 1902 and passed away, just south of there, in Monterey, on Earth Day, 1984. He became synonymous with Yosemite Park scenery and environmentalism…even before it was popular. He looked like a cross between Ernest Hemingway and Shel Silverstein except for an obvious broken nose which he received as a youngster and which was never set.[1] At the age of 14 he first entered Yosemite and would return frequently throughout his life. At 17 he joined the Sierra Club and spent several summers at Yosemite as “keeper” of the LeConte Memorial Lodge.

Originally, Adams planned on becoming a concert pianist. He taught himself to play at the age of 12 and was soon taking lessons. By 1920, being a pianist was his chosen profession. But photography slowly intruded and eventually took over.

My Great Aunt once told me that she knew Ansel when they were very young. She was also a youngster during the 1906 earthquake and remembered him as a shy boy. This characteristic of him is substantiated by his biographer, William Turnage, “Natural shyness and a certain intensity of genius, coupled with the dramatically ‘earthquaked’ nose, caused Adams to have problems fitting in at school.…”[2]

Ansel Adams was criticized for not including “humans” in his photographs[3] as if he was trying to capture a wilderness that is no longer there, or as if to ignore its impact on us or our impact on it. Part of this criticism was due to the changing nature of how photography was viewed.  In the early part of the 20th century, photography was considered too realistic to be an art form. In an effort to classify photography as an art form, many photographers would shoot soft-focus, print on soft-texture papers and even put brush strokes on the negative. Adams, and his contemporaries of like mind, went the other way by concentrating on hard, crystalline, sharp images. Further, it was viewed that “art”, by its very nature, was a comment on the human condition; an element that Adams’ images lacked. In the early 30s, French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson went so far as to say, “The world is going to pieces and people like Adams and Weston are photographing rocks!” Hmmm. I’m not sure, but I think those criticisms are from those that just don’t get it. I get the “human condition” point of view. But, it’s a bit anthropocentric. I mean, there’s more to life and beauty than just “us guys.”[4]

Though Adams had dedicated himself to photography earlier, it wasn’t until the late 20’s that his career began to take off. His portfolio, Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras which contained the famous photograph, “Monolith, The Face of Half Dome”, received critical acclaim and led to many commercial assignments. About this time his involvement with the Sierra Club started taking on a more involved role. By 1934 he was on their board of directors. It was through the Sierra Club that his photographs and writings were first published in their Bulletin.

The first “environmental” use of his works, again through the Sierra Club, is marked when the limited edition of Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail was published and which worked to get the Kings River area turned into a National Park. This book, along with his testimony before Congress, caught the attention of Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes and President Franklin Roosevelt and it became a fundamental influence in creating the Kings Canyon National Park in 1940.[5]

In 1928, Adams married Virginia Best. She was was the daughter of the proprietor of Best’s Studio in Yosemite Valley. She and Adams ran the studio after her father’s passing until 1971 and today, as The Ansel Adams Gallery, still remains in the family.[6]

Ansel Adams was not the first to use photography for conservationist ideals. In fact, today, he isn’t even in the top 10 that have done so, but he was revered as no other artist or conservationist of his time. According to his biographer, William Turnage, “More than any other influential American of his epoch, Adams believed in both the possibility and the probability of humankind living in harmony and balance with its environment.”[7]


[1] According to biographer, William Turnage, Ansel broke his nose at the age of 4 when he was thrown to the ground during an aftershock of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

[2] From under Ansel Adams Biography by William Turnage published by Oxford University press and was reprinted there on the site with permission from the publisher and the author.

[3] As one example:  “A curious aspect of  Adams’s landscapes…is that people never appear in them.” – Charles Hagen, Nov 1995, “Why Ansel Adams Stays So Popular”, New York Times Photography Review.

[4] If not before, we certainly leaned it by Star Trek IV

[5] The Sierra Club (

[6] (

[7] The Sierra Club (