Facial Hair Friday: Ansel Adams—Photographer of the American West

September 10, 2019, marks the 40th anniversary of Ansel Adams’s visit to the National Archives. Today’s post comes from Vincent Bartholomew in the National Archives History Office.

Ansel Adams visits the National Archives to look at some of his work, September 10, 1979. (Records of the National Archives)

A keen landscape photographer, the always-bearded Adams is best known for his black-and-white photographs of the American West. Through his work, Adams contributed to the environmental conservation movement, developed new methods of photography and image making, and secured photography’s institutional legitimacy.

Adams was born on February 20, 1902, in San Francisco, California, the only child of Charles Hitchcock Adams and Olive Bray. His grandfather founded and built a prosperous lumber business. Adams was a hyperactive and sickly child with few friends. However, his childhood home had a splendid view of the Golden Gate, where he learned and enjoyed the beauty of nature from an early age. The Golden Gate strait connects the San Francisco Bay with the Pacific Ocean. The Golden Gate Bridge was not built until 1937, so Adams’ view of the bay and ocean was unobstructed.

The Golden Gate before the bridge, by Ansel Adams, 1932. (Ansel Adams Gallery)

In 1906, when Adams was nearly four years old, the San Francisco earthquake hit. While he was unharmed by the initial shock, an aftershock threw him to the ground and broke his nose, distinctly marking him for life. 

Adams’s love of nature was nurtured in the Golden Gate, but his life, in his words was “colored and modulated by the great earth gesture” of Yosemite in the Sierra Nevada. During his first trip to Yosemite in 1916, his father gave him his first camera, an Eastman Kodak No. 1 Box Brownie.

Yosemite Valley and the Sierras became a career- and life-altering place for Adams, and is where he did some of his best work.

“Half Dome, Apple Orchard, Yosemite,” California by Ansel Adams, 1933. (National Archives Identifier 520018)

When Adams was 12, after being dismissed from several private schools for being restless and inattentive, his father removed him from school. For the next two years, he was tutored and educated by his father and aunt Mary, who raised him to follow Ralph Waldo Emerson’s direction “to live a modest, moral life guided by social responsibility to man and nature.” He eventually resumed his formal education at Mrs. Kate M. Wilkins Private School, where he graduated the eighth grade on June 8, 1917. 

In 1919 Adams joined the Sierra Club. The Sierra Club is an environmental organization based out of San Francisco and founded by Scottish-American preservationist John Muir. Traditionally associated with the Progressive Movement, the club was one of the first large-scale environmental preservation organizations in the world. The Sierra Club was vital to Adams’s early success.

“Monolith, The Face of Half Dome,” by Ansel Adams, 1927. (Ansel Adams Gallery)

Each summer, the club conducted a month-long High Trip, usually in the Sierra Nevada, which attracted many members, including Adams. The participants hiked each day to new campsites and locations accompanied by a caravan of pack mules, cooks, and the like. In 1927, Adams took his first High Trip as a member of the Sierra Club and made his famous photograph, Monolith, The Face of Half Dome. 

Later that year, with the help of San Francisco insurance magnate and patron of arts Albert M. Bender, Adams published his first portfolio: Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras. This portfolio included photos taken on the High Trips with the Sierra Club. Bender’s friendship, encouragement, and tactful financial support of Adams changed his life and allowed his creative energies and abilities as a photographer to blossom.

Adams also photographed the American Southwest, where he worked with the grande dame of Western Literati, Mary Hunter Austin. In their limited edition book, Taos Pueblo, Adams moved away from the “pictorial” style, which involves an artistic interpretation of a photo, and moved towards “straight” photography. “Straight” photography refers to the emphasis of the clarity of the lens, and the final print gave no appearance of being manipulated in the camera or the darkroom.

“Church, Taos Pueblo National Historic Landmark, New Mexico, by Ansel Adams, 1941. (National Archives Identifier 10583011)

In 1941 Adams was contracted by the Department of the Interior (DOI) to construct a photo mural of the National Parks, Native American Reservations, and other locations managed by the DOI. As an unremitting activist for the environment, Adams knew that this was an opportunity to showcase the wilderness. During this time, Adams captured his famous photograph The Tetons and Snake River. 

“The Tetons and Snake River,” Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, by Ansel Adams, 1942. (National Archives Identifier 519904)

The image preserved such a beautiful yet informative view of nature that it was included on the Voyager Golden Record aboard the Voyager Spacecraft in 1977. The images selected for the Voyager Golden Record conveyed information about humans, plants, animals, and geological features of Earth to a possible alien civilization.

America’s grand old man of photography visited the National Archives in September 1979. Back then, the NARA was known as the National Archives and Records Service (NARS). Adams spent the day in the Still Picture Branch examining prints he made four decades earlier.

Adams examined the prints that were his preliminary work for the DOI photo mural. These included 175 photos of National Parks, monuments, and Native Americans of the Southwest. He also revealed that he was paid $22.50 a day for his work, plus a $9 per diem. In 1979 one of his prints sold for as much as $6,250 (roughly $22,000 in 2019 dollars).

Ansel Adams passed away on April 22, 1984, from Cardiovascular Disease in Monterrey, California at the age of 82 surrounded by his wife, two children, and five grandchildren. 

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter awarded Adams the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, for “…his efforts to preserve this country’s wild and scenic areas, both in film and on earth. Drawn to the beauty of nature’s monuments, he is regarded by environmentalists as a monument himself, and by photographers as a national institution.”

While some of Adams’s photographs may still be under copyright, Adams’s 1941-42 photographs of the National Parks, Monuments, and Native Americans of the Southwest are in the public domain, and are available in the National Archives Catalog. For more information visit our research page on Ansel Adams.

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