ANSEL ADAMS HORSESHOE BEND AND MORE
ANSEL ADAMS HORSESHOE BEND AND MORE
The Punch Bowl— Morning at Horseshoe Bend in Black and White
Ansel Adams was a landscape photographer and environmentalist known for his black-and-white images of the American West. He was born in San Francisco, California, on February 20, 1902, the only son of Charles Hitchcock Adams, a businessman, and Olive Bray. The grandson of a wealthy timber baron, Adams grew up in a house set amid the dunes of the Golden Gate.
When Adams was only four years old, an aftershock of the great earthquake and fire of 1906 threw him to the ground and badly broke his nose, distinctly making him for life. A year later the family fortune collapsed in the financial panic of 1907, and Adam’s father spent the rest of his life doggedly but fruitlessly attempting to recoup.
An only child, Adams was born when his mother was nearly forty. His relatively elderly parents, affluent family history, and the live-in presence of his mother’s maiden sister and aged father all combined to create a decidedly Victorian environment and both socially and emotionally conservative. Adam’s mother spent much of her time brooding and fretting over her husband’s inability to restore the Adams fortune, leaving an ambivalent imprint on her son. His father on the other hand, deeply and patiently influenced, encouraged, and supported his son.
Natural shyness and a certain intensity of genius, coupled with the dramatically “earthquake” nose, caused Adams to have problems fitting in at school. In later life, he noted that he might have been diagnosed as hyperactive. There is also the distinct possibility that he may have suffered from dyslexia.
He was not successful in the various schools to which his parents sent him; consequently, his father, private tutors, and his aunt Mary tutored him at home. Ultimately, he managed to earn what he termed a ‘legitimizing diploma’ from the Mrs. Kate M. Wilkins Private School – perhaps equivalent to having completed the eighth grade.
The most important result of Adam’s somewhat solitary and unmistakably different childhood was the joy that he found in nature, as evidenced by his taking long walks in the still-wild reaches of the Golden gate. Nearly every day found him hiking the dunes or meandering along Lobos Creek, down to Baker Beach, or out to the very edge of the American continent.
His father raised him to follow the ideas of Ralph Waldo Emerson: to live a modest, moral life guided by a social responsibility to man and nature. Adams had a loving relationship with his father but had a distant relationship with his mother, who did not approve of his interest in photography.
When Adams was twelve he taught himself to play the piano and read music. Soon he was taking lessons, and the ardent pursuit of music became his substitute for formal schooling. For the next dozen years the piano was Adams’s primary occupation and by 1920 his intended profession. Although he gave up music for photography, the piano brought substance, discipline, and structure to his frustrating and erratic youth. Moreover, the careful training and exacting craft required of a musician profoundly informed his visual artistry, as well as his influential writings and teachings on photography.
If Adam’s love of nature was nurtured in the Golden Gate, his life was, in his words, “colored and modulated by the great earth gesture” of the Yosemite Sierra. He spent substantial time there every year from 1916 until his death. From his first visit, Adams was transfixed and transformed. He began using the Kodak No. 1 Box Brownie his parents had given him. He would then assemble the photographs into albums which he later described as “photo diaries.
Furthermore, he hiked, climbed, and explored, gaining self-esteem and self-confidence. In 1919, he joined the Sierra Club and spent the first of four summers in Yosemite Valley, as “keeper” of the club's LeConte Memorial Lodge. He became friends with many of the club’s leaders, who were founders of America’s nascent conservation movement.
1927 was the pivotal year of Adam’s life. He made his first fully visualized photograph, Monolith, the Face of Half Dome, and took his first high trip. More importantly, he came under the influence of Albert M. Bender, a San Francisco insurance magnate and patron of arts and artists who set in motion the preparation and publication of Adam’s first portfolio, Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras.
Monolith, the Face of Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, California, 1927
In that same year, Adams met photographer Edward Weston and became increasingly significant to each other as friends and colleagues. The renowned Group f/64, founded in 1932, coalesced around the recognized greatness of Weston and the dynamic energy of Adams. Although loosely organized and relatively short-lived, Group f/64 brought the new West Coast vision of straight photography to national attention and influence. San Francisco DeYoung Museum prompt gave f/64 an exhibition and in that same year gave Adams his first one-man museum show.
He met his wife, Virginia Best, in Yosemite and married in 1928 with two children. On her father’s death in 1936, Virginia inherited the studio and continued to operate it until 1971. The studio is known as the Ansel Adams Gallery and remains owned by the Adams Family.
The Sierra Club was vital to Adam’s early success as a photographer. He first published photographs and writings that appeared in the club's 1922 Bulletin, and he had his first one-man exhibition in 1928 at the club’s San Francisco headquarters. Each summer the club conducted a month-long High Trip, usually in the Sierra Nevada, which attracted up to two hundred members.
The participants hiked each day to a new and beautiful campsite accompanied by a large contingent of pack mules, packers, cooks, and the like. As the photographer of these outings in the late 1920s, Adams began to realize that he could earn enough to survive, that he was far more likely to prosper as a photographer than as a concert pianist. By 1934 Adams had been elected to the club’s board of directors and was well established as both the artist of the Sierra Nevada and the defender of Yosemite.
The Sierra Club Outing, 1929
For Adams, the environmental issues of particular importance were Yosemite National Park, the national park system, and above all, the preservation of wilderness. He focused on what he termed the spiritual-emotional aspects of parks and wilderness and relentlessly resisted the Park Services' “resortism,” which had led to the over development of the national parks and their domination by private concessionaires.
He fought for new parks and wilderness areas for the Wilderness Act, for wild Alaska and his beloved Big Sur coast of central California, for the mighty redwoods, for endangered sea lions and sea otters, and clean air and water.
In the mid-1930s, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes conceived the idea of commissioning painted murals for the department headquarters building in Washington, DC. Impressed by Adams’ work, Ickes later broadened the scope of the project to include mural-size photographs and recommended Adams as the photographer. The theme was to be nature as exemplified and protected in the U.S. National Parks. The mural project was halted because of World War II and never resumed, however, the photographs remained.
Much later in 1962, the photographs were accessioned into the holding of the Still Picture Branch at the National Archives and Records Administration. Ansel would later visit the Still Picture Branch and review his photographic prints in 1979. The holdings include 226 photographs taken for this project, most of them signed and captioned by Adams.
Adam's subject, the magnificent natural beauty of the West, was unmistakable American, and his chosen instrument the camera, was a quintessential artifact of twentieth-century culture. He was blessed with an unusually generous, charismatic personality, and his great faith in people and human nature was amply rewarded. Adams channeled his energies in ways that served his fellow citizens, personified in his lifelong effort to preserve the American wilderness.