Amazing Ansel Adams & The Origins Of Environmental Photography

The world’s first true environmentalist photographer was, arguably, the late, great Ansel Adams

We love photography at Camera Day. Full stop. This is the first in a series of articles that will showcase photographers who make an impact. We’ll celebrate photographers – living and dead – who have changed our world for the better.

We start with the legendary Ansel Adams.

ansel adams

So, Who Was Ansel Adams? 

Born in February of 1902, Ansel Easton Adams was, until his death in 1984, an American landscape photographer and committed environmentalist. 

ansel adams

He is famous for his photographs, all in black and white, of the American West.  

He took up photography when he visited Yosemite National Park (we love this park, and it made our top 12 national parks list here) at the age of 12.  

He said of his first visit to Yosemite, “the splendor of Yosemite burst upon us and it was glorious…. One wonder after another descended upon us…. There was light everywhere…. A new era began for me.”  

He would return to the park many times with newer and better cameras each time. 

In 1918, he would contract the Spanish Flu but though the disease laid him low for more than a month – he fought with his doctors until they reluctantly allowed Ansel to return to Yosemite.  

He attributed his time in the National Park as curing him of his condition.

The Sierra Club And Ansel Adams 

the sierra club ansel adams

Adams’ love of Yosemite meant that at the age of 17 he joined The Sierra Club.

Soon after he was fortunate enough to be appointed the summer caretaker of Yosemite’s visitor lodge. He stayed there for 3 years until 1923.  

He would become a director of the Sierra Club in 1934 and would be, along with his wife, a lifetime member of the association. 

It was, of course, at The Sierra Club that Ansel Adams developed his passion for environmentalism. 

It is worth noting that the majority of Ansel Adams works are held in trust for his descendants and the causes that he served. 

However, there are some of his prints available in the National Archive under the protection of the Public Domain.  

This means that the works are no longer in copyright and may be used by anyone who wishes to use them, in any way that they wish to do so.  

In The 1920s & 1930s

the 1920s

In the early 1920s, Adams photographs tended towards “pictorialism” which was a photography fashion of the time.  

He decided to move on from this around 1925 and instead, aimed to deliver crisp, clear, well focused images, of high contrast, exact exposure and using his own remarkable darkroom techniques to bring them to life. 

In the 30s, Adams was refining his techniques and he was becoming an established and respected photographer.  

His first solo exhibition, Pictorial Photographs of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, was exhibited in the Smithsonian in 1931.  

It was very well received. It was during this time period that his most famous work in the Sierra Nevada took place. 

The 1940s Were Game Changers

the 1940s

This was the decade when Adams’ photography became a true national treasure. 

He began in 1940 with the world’s largest photography show, A Pageant of Photography, which he curated and ran himself. 

Then in 1941, he contracted with the National Park Service to make images of the nation’s natural heritage. 

He would visit all parks and Indian reservations that he could in a 6-month period to create his “mural project.” 

The war would see Adams join the Navy’s Aviation Photographic Unit as a commissioned officer.  

His photo-essay “Born Free and Equal”, which you can read for free at the Library of Congress website, expressed his shock at the treatment of Japanese-Americans through internment camps in the 1940s.

Many at the time criticized this as a betrayal of what he stood for but, in reality, this was the man that Adams was – he was just way ahead of his time.

The 1950s and Onward 

the 1950s and onward

In the 1950s, he founded Aperture magazine and was engaged by Polaroid as a consultant. 

He would shoot thousands of Polaroids in that decade before opting to move to Hasselblad’s medium format cameras for the rest of his life.  

In the rest of his career until his death, he would publish many collections.

Raise funds and the profile of The Sierra Club and emphasize the importance of environmentalism to the American public. 

He also took the first ever official photographic portrait of a United States President.  

It was commissioned by President Jimmy Carter in 1979. This image is in the Public Domain too.  

Adams Main Contributions To Photography 

adams main contribution

His photo series the Landscapes of the American West showed our natural environment as a spiritual place of great importance. 

His understanding of light and the depth of the subjects he photographed created some of the most striking images of all time. 

You can find Landscapes of the American West online here.  

Adams also helped found Group f64

This was one of the most influential groups of photographers in history. 

It was responsible for the end of pictorialism in photography and the beginning of realism.  

Developing The Zone System 

He also designed “the zone system” which is a calibration system that allows photographers to better expose their images in film and, indeed, in modern digital photography too

Environmentalism & Ansel Adams 

Adams spoke out regularly against the destruction of our natural environment.  

We all know the tragedy of the dustbowls, the cruel unforgivable erosions of the soil, the depletion of fish or game, and the shrinking of the noble forests. And we know that such catastrophes shrivel the spirit of the people… The wilderness is pushed back, man is everywhere. Solitude, so vital to the individual man, is almost nowhere.” 

Ansel Adams

He would be awarded both the Sierra Club John Muir Award and the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his efforts as an environmentalist. 

The Sierra Club has an Ansel Adams Award for Conservation and another for Conservation Photography. 

And there are two elements of our national heritage named after Adams. The Inyo National Forest was renamed the Ansel Adams Wilderness in 1985 and its tallest peak, was renamed Mount Ansel Adams. 

Last Words on Ansel Adams

We hope that you have enjoyed our brief introduction to one of the greatest photographers of all time. 

Ansel Adams’ contributions both to his art and to the planet cannot be overstated.  His work will live on as a moving testament to the fabric of America and to show us just how much we have to lose if we fail to take care of our environment.  

If you’d like to follow in Ansel’s footsteps, why not check out our guide to the best beginner’s cameras?  

They’re the perfect place to start as a photographer without becoming overwhelmed by complexity. If you’re a bird watcher you’ll want to look at our favorite cameras for bird photography here

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