Ansel Easton Adams (San Francisco, 20 febbraio 1902 – Carmel-by-the-Sea, 22 aprile 1984) è stato un fotografo statunitense.
È noto per le sue fotografie in bianco e nero di paesaggi dei parchi nazionali americani e come autore di numerosi libri di fotografia, tra cui la trilogia di manuali di tecnica, The Camera, The Negative e The Print. È stato tra i fondatori dell’associazione Gruppo f/64 insieme ad altri maestri come Edward Weston, Willard Van Dyke e Imogen Cunningham.
Nasce a San Francisco in una zona vicina al Golden Gate Bridge, unico figlio di Charles Hitchcock Adams, un imprenditore di successo che possedeva una compagnia di assicurazioni ed una fabbrica di prodotti chimici, e Olive Bray. All’età di quattro anni, in seguito al terremoto del 1906, cade e si frattura il naso, che gli resterà deforme per tutta la vita. Non ama gli studi scolastici e nel 1914, a dodici anni, inizia a studiare pianoforte per abbandonarlo poi all’età di vent’anni circa.
Nel 1916, all’età di 14 anni, durante una vacanza con la sua famiglia allo Yosemite National Park, gli viene regalata la sua prima macchina fotografica, una Kodak Brownie. La natura e la fotografia saranno da allora legate per sempre alla sua vita. La passione ambientalista traspare, peraltro, in tutte le sue opere.
Nel 1919 si iscrive al “Sierra Club”, una delle più antiche ed importanti organizzazioni ambientaliste americane. Poco tempo prima era guarito dall’influenza chiamata spagnola, che uccise cinquanta milioni di persone in tutto il mondo.
Nel 1927 partecipa alla gita annuale del Club, nota come High Trip. In quell’anno pubblica il suo primo portfolio: Parmelian Prints of the High Sierra finanziato da Albert Bender conosciuto l’anno prima a Berkeley. Guadagnerà circa 4000 dollari.
Nel 1928 diviene fotografo ufficiale del Sierra Club, ma non lascia la sua passione ambientalista e si dedica anche ad accompagnare le persone che partecipano alle escursioni, che a volte durano settimane, come assistente del direttore di gita. Lo stesso anno sposa Virginia Best, figlia del proprietario del Best’s Studio che verrà ereditato dalla figlia nel 1935 alla morte del padre. Lo studio è oggi noto come Ansel Adams Gallery.
Nel 1932 fonda il Gruppo f/64 allo scopo di riunire alcuni fotografi aderenti alla cosiddetta straight photography: John Paul Edwards, Imogen Cunningham, Preston Holder, Consuelo Kanaga, Alma Lavenson, Sonya Noskowiak, Henry Swift, Willard Van Dyke, ed Edward Weston. Il nome rimandava alla minima apertura del diaframma dell’obiettivo che avrebbe consentito la massima profondità di campo e la maggiore accuratezza dei dettagli.
Nel 1934 entra nel Consiglio di Amministrazione del Sierra Club e ne resterà membro, insieme alla moglie, per tutta la vita. È autore di molte prime scalate sulla Sierra Nevada. Le sue fotografie sono una testimonianza di quello che erano i parchi nazionali prima degli interventi umani e dei viaggi di massa. Il suo lavoro ha sponsorizzato molti degli scopi del Sierra Club ed ha portato alla luce le tematiche ambientali.
Adams ha inventato il sistema zonale, una tecnica che permette ai fotografi di trasporre la luce che essi vedono in specifiche densità sul negativo e sulla carta, ottenendo così un controllo migliore sulle fotografie finite. È anche stato un pioniere dell’idea di “visualizzazione” della stampa finita basata sui valori di luce misurati nella scena che viene fotografata.
Le fotografie nel libro a tiratura limitata Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail, insieme alla sua testimonianza, hanno contribuito ad assicurare la designazione del Sequoia and Kings Canyon come parco nazionale nel 1940.
Prese a cuore la questione dell’internamento dei nippo-americani che seguì l’attacco di Pearl Harbor, tanto che gli venne permesso di visitare il Manzanar War Relocation Center nella Owens Valley, ai piedi del Monte Williamson. Il saggio fotografico fu dapprima esposto in una mostra in un museo d’arte moderna, e più tardi fu pubblicato col titolo Born Free and Equal: Photographs of the Loyal Japanese-Americans at Manzanar Relocation Center, Inyo County, California (“Nati liberi e uguali: fotografie dei leali nippo-americani al centro di dislocamento Manzanar, Contea di Inyo, California”).
Fu il beneficiario di tre borse di studio Guggenheim durante la sua carriera. Fu eletto nel 1966 membro dell’American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Nel 1980 il presidente Jimmy Carter lo insignì della medaglia presidenziale della libertà, la più alta onorificenza civile del suo Paese.
I diritti di pubblicazione per le fotografie di Adams sono detenuti dagli amministratori dell’Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust.
Nel 1984, il “Minarets Wilderness” dell’Inyo National Forest venne ribattezzato “Ansel Adams Wilderness”. Il Monte Ansel Adams, una cima di 3.584 metri nella Sierra Nevada, venne così ribattezzato nel 1986.
Ansel Easton Adams (February 20, 1902 – April 22, 1984) was an American photographer and environmentalist. His black-and-white landscape photographs of the American West, especially Yosemite National Park, have been widely reproduced on calendars, posters, and books.
With Fred Archer, Adams developed the Zone System as a way to determine proper exposure and adjust the contrast of the final print. The resulting clarity and depth characterized his photographs. Adams primarily used large-format cameras because their high resolution helped ensure sharpness in his images.
Adams founded the photography group known as Group f/64 along with fellow photographers Willard Van Dyke and Edward Weston.
Adams was born in the Western Addition of San Francisco, California, to Charles Hitchcock Adams and Olive Bray Adams. An only child, he was named after his uncle Ansel Easton. His mother’s family came from Baltimore, where his maternal grandfather had a successful freight-hauling business but lost his wealth investing in failed mining and real estate ventures in Nevada. The Adams family came from New England, having migrated from the north of Ireland in the early 18th century. His paternal grandfather founded and built a prosperous lumber business, which his father later ran, though his father’s natural talents lay more with sciences than with business. Later in life, Adams would condemn that very same industry for cutting down many of the great redwood forests.
In 1903, his family moved 2 miles (3 km) west to a new home near the Seacliff neighborhood, just south of the Presidio Army Base.The home had a “splendid view” of the Golden Gate and the Marin Headlands. San Francisco was devastated by the April 18, 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Uninjured in the initial shaking, the four-year-old Ansel Adams was tossed face-first into a garden wall during an aftershock three hours later, breaking and scarring his nose. Among his earliest memories was watching the smoke from the ensuing fire that destroyed much of the city a few miles to the east. Although a doctor recommended that his nose be re-set once he reached maturity, dams’s nose remained crooked for his entire life.
Adams was a hyperactive child and prone to frequent sickness and hypochondria. He had few friends, but his family home and surroundings on the heights facing the Golden Gate provided ample childhood activities. Although he had no patience for games or sports, the curious child took to the beauty of nature at an early age, collecting bugs and exploring Lobos Creek all the way to Baker Beach and the sea cliffs leading to Lands End, “San Francisco’s wildest and rockiest coast, a place strewn with shipwrecks and rife with landslides.”
His father bought a three-inch telescope and they enthusiastically shared the hobby of amateur astronomy, visiting the Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton together. His father went on to serve as the paid secretary-treasurer of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific from 1925 to 1950.
After the death of Ansel’s grandfather and the aftermath of the Panic of 1907, his father’s business suffered great financial losses. Some of the induced near-poverty was because Ansel’s uncle Ansel Easton and Cedric Wright’s father, George Wright, had secretly sold their shares of the company to the Hawaiian Sugar Trust for a large amount of money, “knowingly providing the controlling interest.”.. By 1912, the family’s standard of living had dropped sharply. After young Ansel was dismissed from several private schools for his restlessness and inattentiveness, his father decided to pull him out of school in 1915, at the age of 12. Adams was then educated by private tutors, his Aunt Mary, and by his father. His Aunt Mary was a follower of Robert G. Ingersoll, a 19th-century agnostic, abolitionist and women’s suffrage advocate. As a result of his aunt’s influence, Ingersoll’s teachings were important to Ansel’s upbringing. During the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915, his father insisted that, as part of his education, Adams spend part of each day studying the exhibits.After a while, Adams resumed and then completed his formal education by attending the Mrs. Kate M. Wilkins Private School, until he graduated from eighth grade on June 8, 1917. In his later years, he displayed his diploma in the guest bathroom of his home.
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 to nature. Adams had a warm, loving and supportive relationship with his father, but had a distant relationship with his mother, who did not approve of his interest in photography. The day after his mother’s death in 1950, Ansel had a dispute with the undertaker when choosing which casket his mother would be buried in. Ansel chose the cheapest in the room, a $260 casket that seemed the least he could purchase without doing the job himself. When the undertaker remarked, “Have you no respect for the dead?”, Adams replied, “One more crack like that and I will take Mama elsewhere”.
Adams became interested in piano at age 12. Music became the main focus of his later youth. His father sent him to piano teacher Marie Butler, who focused on perfectionism and accuracy. After four years of studying under her guidance, Adams moved on to other teachers, one being composer Henry Cowell. For the next twelve years, the piano was Adams’ primary occupation and, by 1920, his intended profession. Although he ultimately 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.
Adams first visited Yosemite National Park in 1916 with his family. He wrote of his first view of the valley: “the splendor of Yosemite burst upon us and it was glorious… One wonder after another descended upon us… There was light everywhere… A new era began for me.” His father gave him his first camera, a Kodak Brownie box camera, during that stay and he took his first photographs with his “usual hyperactive enthusiasm”. He returned to Yosemite on his own the following year with better cameras and a tripod. In the winter, he learned basic darkroom technique working part-time for a San Francisco photo finisher. Adams avidly read photography magazines, attended camera club meetings, and went to photography and art exhibits. With retired geologist and amateur ornithologist Francis Holman, whom he called “Uncle Frank,” he explored the High Sierra, in summer and winter, developing the stamina and skill needed to photograph at high elevation and under difficult weather conditions
While in Yosemite, he had frequent contact with the Best family, owners of Best’s Studio, who allowed him to practice on their old square piano. In 1928, Ansel Adams married Virginia Best in Best’s Studio in Yosemite Valley. Virginia inherited the studio from her artist father on his death in 1935, and the Adams continued to operate the studio until 1971. The studio, now known as the Ansel Adams Gallery, remains in the hands of the Adams family.
At age 17, Adams joined the Sierra Club, a group dedicated to protecting the wild places of the earth, and was hired as the summer caretaker of the Sierra Club visitor center in Yosemite Valley, the LeConte Memorial Lodge from 1920 to 1924. He remained a member throughout his lifetime and served as a director, as did his wife. He was first elected to the Sierra Club’s board of directors in 1934, and served on the board for 37 years, until 1971. Adams participated in the club’s annual High Trips, and was later responsible for several first ascents in the Sierra Nevada.
During 1919, he contracted the Spanish Flu during the 1918 flu pandemic. Adams fell seriously ill but recovered after several months to resume his outdoor life.
During his twenties, most of his friends came from musical connections, particularly violinist and amateur photographer Cedric Wright, who became his best friend as well as his philosophical and cultural mentor. Their shared philosophy came from Edward Carpenter’s Towards Democracy, a literary work which espoused the pursuit of beauty in life and art. Carpenter was an English socialist philosopher and gay activist. For several years, Adams carried a pocket edition with him while at Yosemite. It soon became his personal philosophy as well, as Adams later stated, “I believe in beauty. I believe in stones and water, air and soil, people and their future and their fate.” He decided that the purpose of his art from now on, whether photography or music, was to reveal that beauty to others and to inspire them to the same calling.
In summer, Adams would enjoy a life of hiking, camping, and photographing, and the rest of the year he worked to improve his piano playing, expanding his piano technique and musical expression. He also gave piano lessons for extra income, finally affording a grand piano suitable to his musical ambitions.An early student was mountaineer and fellow Sierra Club leader Jules Eichorn.
His first photographs were published in 1921 and Best’s Studio began selling his Yosemite prints the following year. His early photos already showed careful composition and sensitivity to tonal balance. In letters and cards to family, he expressed his daring to climb to the best view points and brave the worst elements. At this point, however, Adams was still planning a career in music, even though his small hands, easily bruised by bravura playing, limited his repertoire to practiced works which benefited from his strengths of touch and musicality. It took seven more years for Adams to finally concede that at best he might become a concert pianist of limited range, an accompanist, or a piano teacher.
In the mid-1920s, Adams experimented with soft-focus, etching, Bromoil Process, and other techniques of the pictorial photographers, such as Photo-Secession leader Alfred Stieglitz who strove to put photography on an equal artistic plane with painting by trying to mimic it. However, Adams steered clear of hand-coloring which was also popular at the time. Adams used a variety of lenses to get different effects, but eventually rejected pictorialism for a more realistic approach which relied more heavily on sharp focus, heightened contrast, precise exposure, and darkroom craftsmanship.
Adams did not work exclusively in black and white. He also experimented with color. His subjects that he shot in color ranged from portraits to landscape to architecture, a similar scope to that of his black and white work.
There are two main reasons, according to an expert source, why Adams preferred black and white. The first was that he felt color could be distracting and could therefore divert an artist’s attention from the achievement of his full potential when taking a photograph. Adams stated that he could get “a far greater sense of ‘color’ through a well-planned and executed black-and-white image than [he had] ever achieved with color photography”.
The second reason was that Adams was a “master of control”. He wrote many books about technique, and he developed, along with Fred Archer, the Zone System — a process which helped to determine the optimal exposure and development time for a given photograph. He also advocated for the idea of previsualization, which involved the photographer imagining what he wanted his final print to look like before he even exposed the film. This approach was intended to give the photographer the highest possible degree of control over all of the variables that factor into a final print. Because of his love for control, Adams disliked color since he believed that the color processes available at the time lacked the technical controls that he had mastered with black and white.
Adams died on April 22, 1984, in the ICU at the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula in Monterey, California, at the age of 82 from cardiovascular disease. He was survived by his wife, two children, Michael and Anne, and five grandchildren.
Publishing rights for most of Adams’s photographs are now handled by the trustees of The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust. An archive of Ansel Adams’s work is located at the Center for Creative Photography (CCP) at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Numerous works by the artist have been sold at auction, including a mural size print of ‘CLEARING WINTER STORM, YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK’ which sold at Sotheby’s New York in 2010 for $722,500, the highest price ever paid for an original Ansel Adams photograph.
John Szarkowski states in the introduction to Ansel Adams: Classic Images (1985, p. 5), “The love that Americans poured out for the work and person of Ansel Adams during his old age, and that they have continued to express with undiminished enthusiasm since his death, is an extraordinary phenomenon, perhaps even unparalleled in our country’s response to a visual artist.”