“At one with the power of the American landscape, and renowned for the patient skill and timeless beauty of his work, photographer Ansel Adams has been visionary in 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.”
~Remarks by President Jimmy Carter, June 9, 1980,
upon presenting the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Ansel Adams.
In June, 1916, a 14-year-old boy and his parents embarked from their San Francisco home on a two-day journey that would ultimately set the course for the teenager’s life. That vacation also planted the seed that would mature into one of the most celebrated and inspirational artistic careers of the 20th century. That boy was Ansel Adams. The destination was the Yosemite Valley.
Immediately, the precocious lad began exploring the timeless landscape of the valley and was overcome with emotion by its beauty. It was love at first sight; he was smitten. On arrival, he was given a tool that would ultimately allow him to share his love and awe with the world, a humble Kodak #1 Box Brownie. With the camera strapped around his neck, Adams made shot after shot up and down the valley, attempting to capture on film what he saw in his heart. It would take a few years, but he would ultimately succeed.
Later in life, Adams—everyone called him Ansel, including his children—chose to make his home in Carmel, arguably a place as breathtakingly majestic as Yosemite. His domicile in the Carmel Highlands stands today much as he left it, occupied by his son Michael and his wife Jeanne. The walls showcase many of the father’s images, some famous, some less so, but all recognizable as the work of the master. It’s easy to see what drew a man such as Adams to this place; the views from the house stretch from Point Sur to Point Lobos, the sky and sea go on forever. It’s a photographer’s and environmentalist’s dream.
Adams was born February 20, 1902, to Charles Hitchcock Adams and Olive Bray. Photographs of their 24th Avenue house in San Francisco show it isolated on the sand dunes, commanding sweeping views of the Golden Gate. Adams grew up in this idyllic location, playing on the windswept sands and nearby Baker Beach. He was an intelligent lad, but unfocused and therefore did not adapt well to formal education. Charles Adams, recognizing his son’s innate intelligence, encouraged and nurtured it. In lieu of school, he hired private tutors and, significantly, gave Ansel a year-long pass to the Panama-Pacific Exposition in 1915. The wide-eyed 13 year old attended every day.
He recalls his experience in his autobiography: “I made many visits to the painting and sculpture exhibits…where I saw work in the modern vein—Bonnard, Cézanne, Gauguin, Monet, Pissaro, Van Gogh. They had little effect on me at the time…I now wonder what subconscious effect they had in the years to follow.”
It was also at this age that Adams discovered a natural talent for the piano. So, his doting father added music lessons to the curriculum. This led to his dream of a career as a classical pianist, a goal that would only be usurped years later, when, loving music but frustrated with the music business, he decided to concentrate on photography.
“I had to choose: the camera or the piano,” he told an interviewer late in life. “And the camera won. Family and friends said, ‘Oh, Ansel, don’t give up the piano. The camera cannot express the human soul.’ The only answer to that was ‘No, I don’t think the camera can, but maybe the photographer could.'”
Nevertheless, music remained a lifelong passion of Adams’ and would partially inform his work. Musical metaphors abound in his comments on his profession: he famously described a photographic negative as a composer’s score and the print as the performance. An artist who worked almost exclusively in black and white, he said, “most color prints remind me of a piano that’s slightly out of tune.”
The photographer made his first visit to Carmel in June 1926 with friend and early patron Albert Bender. Bender didn’t drive, but owned a Buick Coach and asked Adams if he could get away and drive him to meet the poet Robinson Jeffers.
“Naturally I could get away!” the young Ansel said. The two spent the night at the Peter Pan Lodge in the Carmel Highlands (burned down in 1959) with no inkling that the area would become Adams’ home years later. “Jeffers was somewhat of an eccentric,” Michael Adams says. “Bender wanted Ansel to show the poet some of his photographs but he wasn’t impressed. But then he asked Ansel to play the Jeffers’ piano and that was the thing that turned the corner. They became good friends and as a result we have pretty much everything Jeffers wrote inscribed to Ansel and Ansel took a portrait of Jeffers. There’s a copy in the Tor House.
“Over the following decades, Ansel Adams continued to work diligently at mastering his craft and rose to the top of the pantheon of serious art photographers. “I never met anyone who worked as hard as he did,” said friend and business manager, the late Bill Turnage in the Ric Burns 2002 “Ansel Adams: A Documentary Film.”
“Never took a day off, never took a vacation. Ever. He simply worked seven days a week, every day of the year. Even when he was 80 he was still doing that.”
In the summer of 1919, Adams was hired as custodian of the Le Conte Memorial Lodge, the Sierra Club’s Yosemite headquarters. To allow him to practice the piano, a ranger introduced him to artist and gallery owner Harry Best, who had not only a piano, but also a daughter named Virginia. One thing led to another and the pair were married in 1928. The couple had lived in San Francisco and Yosemite since their union. She ran her father’s Yosemite gallery, and that income was what gave her husband the freedom to create the stunning photographs for which he is rightfully revered. Best’s Studio is now the Ansel Adams Gallery.
“This year is our 115th year in business in Yosemite as a family business,” Michael Adams says. Today it is managed by his son Matthew.
By the 1960s, the couple decided they needed a change. A wealthy friend, Dick McGraw, owned a parcel of hilltop land in the Carmel Highlands and gifted the Adams family with a lot. Ansel sold both the family home and one he and Virginia built next door, enabling them to build the house he occupied for the remainder of his life.
Adams had begun offering workshops years before. “Teaching was a major part of his life that he loved,” Michael says. “He started photographic workshops at Yosemite in 1940 that are still going on today.” With a group of like-minded Monterey Peninsula photographers, Adams founded the Friends of Photography in 1967.
“They were in this space at Sunset Center for about 20 years,” says Brian Taylor, director of the Center for Photographic Arts, the organization that formed shortly after the Friends folded in 1987.
“The CPA proudly traces our roots to the founders of Friends of Photography and continues the tradition of workshops with world-class instructors instated by Ansel and his friends.”
Ansel was generous with his time and knowledge. “Every day of the week at 5pm, a young photographer would knock on his door,” says student, friend and longtime assistant John Sexton. “He would look at their prints, critique and encourage. Countless hundreds of photographers made the journey to Ansel’s home. The first time you go it was nerve wracking—This is Ansel Adams!—but he was so self-effacing and gracious.”
“He loved to look at student’s work,” Michael Adams says. “Those in the know knew that if they showed up around 5 it was good for a few drinks, sometimes dinner and most definitely some valuable knowledge. Ansel was happy to teach. He loved it.”
As many of us age, we tend to lose touch and interest with new developments. Not Ansel Adams. He kept up on technology as it evolved, including being an early advocate of Polaroid photography. The darkroom that stands today in his Highlands home—lovingly maintained as he left it—contains an unusual, massive horizontal enlarger he designed himself. Later in life, he spoke enthusiastically about the budding world of digital photography and corresponded with Apple’s Steve Jobs about personal computers and word processors. This is a man who remained vital up to his death in 1984 at Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula.
As for the man himself, Ansel Adams was widely known to be highly social and possess a great sense of humor. “He loved being around people,” his son says.
“He had this joie de vivre and sense of enthusiasm and humor that swept people off their feet,” says Adams’ editor Andrea Gray Stillman in Ric Burns’ documentary. When asked by another interviewer what he wanted to be remembered for, he said, “Well, you’ve seen my photographs. What else can you say?” Indeed.