Ansel Adams – A Critical Review

Ansel Easton Adams was born in San Francisco in 1902. He first became interested in photography at the age of 14 whilst on a family holiday to Yosemite National Park; from there on he became passionate about taking photographs, it was the beginning of an extremely prolific career.  Today Ansel Adams is recognised as one of the most influential landscape photographers of the 20th century. In this short critical review I shall endeavour to précis his life, his work, his influence on the development of photography and why I have chosen to review this iconic photographer.

Ansel’s first camera was a Kodak Box Brownie given to him on that first and life changing holiday to Yosemite. Enthralled with the outdoor life, nature and found objects, throughout his teens he returned annually to the area, before finally settling in Yosemite in his early 20’s. He often camped out in the Sierra Nevada mountains taking photographs of the stunning scenery and surroundings, and was particularly enchanted with the lakes, rivers and waterfalls of the area.

Half Dome, Merced River, Yosemite 1938

 In his autobiography, he is quoted, much later in life, as saying –

“Everything I have done or felt has been in some way influenced by the impact of the natural scene”

Initially the purpose of his photography was to make a visual diary of these mountain trips, but as he took more snapshots he became interested in the development of them and wanted to learn to make his own prints. In 1917 (aged 15) he went to work part-time for a photo-finishing business, here he began to learn the scientific process of producing photographs.

Although a loner in childhood due to frequent illness, his talented piano playing made him popular in Californian art circles where he met many influential people including photographer Paul Strand, artist Georgia O’Keefe and arts businessman Albert Bender all of whom helped to shape his early career. Indeed Bender started Ansel on his professional pathway by promoting his work amongst wealthy business contacts. During this time Adams combined commercial assignments with his own work, producing many photographic books particularly depicting Yosemite and the great national

parks of North America. In 1933 he opened his own art and photography gallery in San Francisco, and began to publish essays in photography magazines; he wrote his first instructional book, of many, called “Making a Photograph”, in 1935. A pioneer in the art and science of photography, Ansel Adams published his first collection of landscape photographs entitled “Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras” in 1927 aged 24, he followed this with a first public exhibition of ten photographs in 1932 alongside other members of the “Group f/64”.  During his career he also ventured into the world of magazine publication and in 1952 Adams co-founded the magazine “Aperture” in which the latest photographic technology and top photographers were featured.

In addition to his commercial and personal projects Ansel Adams was active in the education of aspiring photographers. For much of his life Adams lived and worked in Yosemite National Park, here he and his wife, Virginia, established a school of photography, a studio workshop which is still in operation today. In 1940 Adams helped to set up the prodigious department of photography at the NYC Museum of Modern Art and in 1944 he established the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco.

In conjunction with his photography, Ansel Adams also worked tirelessly throughout his life for the conservation of Yosemite Valley and National Park, and the protection of other national conservation areas in western America.

In recognition of the vast contribution he made not only to photography but also to the preservation of the American heritage  Ansel Adams was awarded the “Medal of Freedom” in 1980 by US President Carter – the highest honour that can be bestowed on an American civilian.

He died in nearby Carmel, California in 1984 .

Probably the most important landscape photographer of the 20th century, Ansel Adams is primarily known for his dynamic black and white photography. A staunch environmental activist, much of Adams’ work is a record of the American wilderness, especially of US National Parks such as Yosemite and other outback areas of the American West. From early on Adams used his work to promote the preservation of his undeveloped homeland. Through the raw beauty of his photographic images he campaigned to preserve these unspoilt areas from desecration, and as a result the American government agreed to expand the National Park system. American President, Jimmy Carter said of his work,

“So much of America has been saved for future Americans.”

In addition to photographing the wide vistas of the American wilderness, Adams also enjoyed photographing more intimate images of natural elements such as trees, rocks, driftwood and grasses, an example is shown in the image below in which he has captured the delicacy of the snow on the tree enhanced by the light and shadows.

Apple Orchard Tree with Snow

Yosemite 1933

Ansel Adams primarily used large format cameras, his realistic approach to photography relying on sharp focus, high contrast and good exposure; even his very early work shows careful composition and awareness of tonal balance. He possessed the gift of an artist in being able to pre-visualize the desired outcome before taking the picture.

Ansel Adams work was greatly influenced by the work of Paul Strand, who, in the early 1920’s  displayed  a more modernist, rather than pictorial, approach to photography. As a result, in the early 1930’s, Adams, along with six other emerging American photographers of the time formed the contemporary photographic group called “Group f/64”, taking its name from the aperture setting which gives the greatest depth of field and clarity –   a move against the soft focus, impressionist style of photography of the time.  Dedicated to a more aesthetic vision to straight photography, this group aimed to portray America as a land of hope and beauty rather than the bleak, oppressive images of America that had gone before. Using large format cameras, a high degree of technical skill and an eye for the natural landscape, these photographers aimed to produce pin sharp photographs of  the landscapes and still life images of the American West.

Adams excelled in these landscape camera techniques, and this, coupled with his wizardry with filters and choice of wide angle lenses soon led him to be recognised for his super sharp ‘near-far’ images. Using a 4 x 5 format he was able to tilt the camera and adjust the view plane so that he could control the depth of field and the size and relationships of objects in the foreground to those in the background of the frame. Using this technique he was able to alter perspective within the image. Today, we can emulate this on our DLSR cameras by using a specialized tilt-shift lens (altering the angle of view in such a way with a standard lens results in converging verticals). In the photograph below the detail captured of the bark in the foreground along with the topographical detail of the mountains in the distance is amazing.

Jackson Lake and Teton Range


The influence on, and legacy to, the world of photography by Ansel Adams is vast. He wrote numerous technical manuals about photography throughout his illustrious career; a leading innovator in the technology and artistry of photography, his mathematical approach to recording a stunning landscape image led him to invent the “Zone System” – a way to determine exposure and adjust the contrast of the final print, resulting in clarity and depth within the photograph. He developed a method whereby he could divide the light within a scene into different zones, which meant he could separate black from white to blend in with grey enabling him to produce  dynamic, tonal images. His understanding, and in turn use of, transient light led him to promote this legendary technique creating high contrast monochrome photographs, such as the image below.

Birds on a Beach, California

Whilst Ansel Adam’s influence on photography has been immeasurable, it goes beyond the superb quality of his dynamic black and white landscapes, or the advancement of photographic techniques. It is his devotion to the education, the encouragement and inspiration for budding photographers, and for taking the appreciation of this art form to the masses, that he is also revered. Recently, so sought after is the work of Ansel Adams, that one photograph alone “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” has generated an income of over $25,000,000  with a limited print run of 1300 copies.

We must also not forget his enduring impact on the conservation and recognition of the American West.

Without a doubt Ansel Adams is an iconic figure in the history of  photography and although he worked in negative film often using large glass photographic plates, and then developing his prints in chemicals in a darkroom, the theory of his photographic techniques still holds good for us modern digital photographers.

His principles of visualization are undated, and I quote –

experiencing the empathies with scene and visualization and camera that every serious photographer comes to know”

are essential for producing the required quality outcomes. In 1934 Adams wrote an article for the “Modern Photography” annual on “visualization”, the text of which I feel is fundamental to achieving quality images,

The camera makes the image-record …….the control of that record lies in the selection by the photographer and his understanding of the photographic processes at his command. ………He achieves the expression of visualization through his technique – aesthetic, intellectual and mechanical”

From an early point in Ansel Adams’ career he could see the final outcome of the quality of photograph that he required, he recognised the expressive and emotive qualities he wished to portray, and furthermore he had the skill to the achieve these goals. In 1927 he took this photograph of the ‘Face of the Half Dome’ in Yosemite National Park, using a red filter, (he had already taken one exposure using a yellow filter but wasn’t satisfied), in order to give a more stark aspect to the rock face and darken the sky, making it magnificently majestic and menacing (as it is in actuality) on film.

Face of the Half Dome, Yosemite 1927

One has to remember that he could not photograph image after image with different camera settings, viewpoints and so on as we do today; he often had a limited number of negative plates with him on his photographic expeditions and so had to get it right the first or second time. It was also an expensive business developing these large plates which again was a restrictive factor on the number of attempts to get it right he could make. A far cry from the digital age where if you make a mistake you just delete and take a few more, with no expense to the photographer at all!

I particularly enjoy the ‘near – far’ style of Ansel Adams’ work and although, as yet, I do not have a tilt-shift lens, I am fond of taking landscape photographs from a low viewpoint, using a wide angle lens and a small aperture, often also using a slow shutter speed. This ‘near – far’ technique gives the perception of great depth within the frame. The interplay between the disproportionately large ‘near’ objects in the foreground and small point of focus on the horizon portrays this great feeling of distance and space, as shown in this photograph of Mount Williamson in the Sierra Nevada, where the rocks seem to go on forever also due partially to the diminishing size of form.

Mount Williamson, Sierra Nevada, 1944

Here the low viewpoint, plane of view and wide angle lens renders the boulders in the foreground of the photograph larger than life in comparison to the mountain range in the background. The capture of the transient light, with light source coming from the right of the frame also helps to accentuate this.

I am experimenting with Ansel Adams’ theory of the “zone system”, recently taking many more black and white photographs, enjoying the graphical qualities of these images, uncluttered by colour, emphasising shape, lines and texture and portraying a certain magical mood and drama. Getting exposure right, and the tone and contrast balanced is fundamental to a successful black and white photograph. Modern day DSLR’s do much of the metering for you in-camera, where matrix metering takes a number of exposure readings and then computes the mean setting required for any given situation, but this is not always satisfactory, which is why I feel it is important to understand the theory of the ‘zone system’ in order to expose a shot correctly.  Knowing how to meter for darks, midtones and light areas and then balancing the exposure / exposures (HDR) is important. Then, within the post production software, such as Photoshop, it is the ‘zone system’ that is the basis for the curves command. Finally, I use the fundamentals of Ansel Adams’ ‘zone system’ to evaluate my final image; along with the histogram I use this principle to analyse the correct tonality and contrast within the image.

This is a chart of the Zone System which I found on a website called ‘Push Processed’.

This is a picture taken from the internet showing how you can apply Ansel Adams’ Zone System

The theories and work of Ansel Adams are integral to the advancement and success of my own photography, therefore it was a an easy decision which photographer I would select to study for this assignment.

However, my admiration for Ansel Adams runs deeper than his portrayal of wonderful vistas and stunning scenery, or  his emotive images of the detail in nature;  it is the ethos behind his work and how he used his photographs for the benefit of the environment and the protection of these great landscapes, that is truly inspirational. He loved where he lived and the environment around him, he immersed himself in his projects, and he lived life to the full, as I try to do!

This is summed up in his quote about how to approach landscape photography,

“Simply look with perspective eyes at the world about you, and trust your own reactions and convictions”

Loosely translated, try to see the world with ‘seeing eyes’ and trust your ‘gut feeling’ when recording it for others to enjoy.

Although most famous for his magnificent vista images of Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada, Ansel Adams did take many photographs of the ocean and the coastline. I am particularly fond of this black and white picture of the sunset on the Californian ocean.

Pacific Ocean Sunset, California  1965

Here the sky takes up two thirds of the frame, but it is the light, the texture and the feeling of vastness and space that particularly attracts me to this sea shore vista. I can also relate this image to many photographs of the sea that I have taken.

Ansel Adams remains at the forefront of the ‘greats’ of photographic practitioners, a true master in this field and one of the few who were legends in their own lifetime.  His landscape work has become known to a worldwide audience through the many books, posters, calendars and other merchandize that feature his work.

I am looking forward to his forthcoming retrospective exhibition at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich; to be held from 9th  November 2012 – 21st April 2013. Entitled “At The Water’s Edge”  this exhibition brings together some of the finest examples of Adams’s work from across his career and features images of seascapes, rapids, waterfalls, geysers, clouds, ice, snow, placid ponds and raging rivers, many of them previously unseen.”

I shall make a special pilgrimage to London in order to visit this showcase of Ansel Adams’s lifelong fascination with water, in order to gain further inspiration by seeing the original photographs, particularly those of the sea.



Autobiography by Ansel Adams

The Portfolios of Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams 400 Photographs




~ by francessmithlandscapes on October 5, 2012.

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