The life of the great American landscape photographer Ansel Adams was, as he said himself, ‘coloured and modulated by the great earth gesture’ of the Sierra Nevada, that iconic range of mountains which divides California from the rest of continental America. It was a love affair with a landscape that began with Adams’ first trip to Yosemite National Park at the age of 14. Over the next six decades, it would see him hailed as the greatest landscape photographer of the 20th century.
Born in San Francisco, Adams would support himself as a pianist and piano teacher until 1930, but during the Twenties he also served as a guide and custodian in Yosemite, leading expeditions into the wilderness and taking photographs of the scenery. As his dedication to Yosemite grew, so did his dedication to photography and, in 1927, he produced what he called his ‘first true visualisation’: Monolith, The Face of Half Dome (1927), an image ‘not [of] the way the subject appeared in reality but how it felt to me’. With the support of Albert Bender, San Francisco’s great patron of the arts, he was able to produce his first portfolio, Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras (1927), and his first book, Taos Pueblo (1930).
Initially Adams’ work was influenced by the Pictorialist tradition of late-19th-century photography. But by 1930 his friendship with the great American photographer, Paul Strand, provoked Adams to move away from Pictorialism’s emphasis on darkroom manipulation. He began experimenting with the purity of ‘straight’ photography and the creative possibilities of the camera itself. In 1932 he and photographer Edward Weston founded the important ‘straight’ photography Group f/64, and the next year he met Albert Stieglitz who, in 1936, would exhibit Adams’s work at his New York gallery.
A great technical innovator, Adams wrote his first manual, Making a Photograph, in 1935. Although commissions for the likes of Time, Kodak or Zeiss often interrupted his work, Adams produced seminal images of the American landscape such as The Tetons and the Snake River (1942) and Dawn, Autumn Forest (1948).
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