Ansel Adams – an iconic American photographer

NEW YORK – The first half of the 20th century produced many fine American photographers, but few with the name recognition and respect accorded Ansel Adams (1902-1984). The landscape photographer and environmentalist was famous for his crisp and dramatic black and white images of the American West. He was also a co-founder of Group f/64, an association of photographers that advocated for “pure” photography, favoring sharp focus and the use of a photo’s full tonal range.

“Part of the attraction of Ansel Adams is the star power,” said Nigel Russell, director of Photographs at Heritage Auctions in Dallas, Texas. “He got that name recognition by being the first 20th century photographer to capture the majesty of the American West in pure black and white crystal-clear photographs, in contrast to the pictorial soft-focus photography that was popular in the 1920s. His photographs were never simple landscapes; they were taken at dawn or dusk, or as storms approached, and have a drama that is lacking in other photographers’ work.”

Ansel Adams, ‘Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park, 1937. Sold for $47,500 at an auction held June 5 by Heritage Auctions in Dallas, Teas. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Russell expressed admiration for Adams’s resumé and accomplishments. “He was on the board of the Sierra Club and worked with the Department of the Interior to help expand the National Park system,” Russell said. “There was an exhibition of his work at Stieglitz’s An American Place gallery in New York in 1936 and he was an adviser on the founding of the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art. Through his workshops Adams also taught many photographers who followed in his footsteps but none have achieved the public recognition.”

As for market demand, Russell said Adams’ photographs enjoyed a steady increase in value from the start of the photography art market in the 1970s up until the Great Recession of 2008. “Since then, while many other photographs went down in price, Adams’ photographs for the most part have retained their value,” he said. “There continues to be demand for his most desirable images and I would imagine they’ll slowly increase in value over time. If I were to make any predictions it would be that there might be a softening of the market for his less appealing works and the strongest increase in value will be for the rarer early prints or prints in unusually large sizes.”

Ansel Adams, ‘Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico,’ 1941, sold for $50,000 at an auction held April 5, 2014 by Heritage Auctions in Dallas, Texas. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Adams was born into privilege, the only child of Charles Hitchcock Adams and Olive Bray. He was named after his uncle, Ansel Easton. His paternal grandfather founded a successful lumber business that his father later managed, but which Adams condemned because it contributed to the cutting down of many of the great redwood forests. His early years were spent living in San Francisco, and he was 4 years old when the 1906 earthquake struck the city. Adams had his nose broken in the quake, requiring him to be a mouth breather for the rest of his life.

The following year the family moved a few miles away, to just south of the Presidio Army Base. The home had a spectacular view of the Golden Gate and Marin Headlands, which sparked the young Adams’s interest and appreciation of nature and beauty. He was given his first camera – an Eastman Kodak Brownie box camera – while on a family trip to Yosemite National Park, in 1916, at age 14. It would be the first of many subsequent trips to Yosemite for Adams, where he took many of his most famous photographs, ones that are still admired and coveted by collectors.

Ansel Adams, ‘Old Faithful,’ gelatin silver print mounted to card, signed in pencil on card lower right, image 13½ x 10in. Sold for $4,250 at an auction held June 29, 2019 by Clark’s Fine Art & Auctioneers in Van Nuys, Calif. Image courtesy Clark’s Fine Art & Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

Remarkably, photography was not Adams’s first career choice. He loved music, and strived to be a professional pianist. He became quite good, and even taught piano to save up for a grand piano, to match his grand dreams, but ultimately his small hands limited his repertoire and he proved to be a poor accompanist. So, with some regret he relegated his piano playing to hobby status and devoted himself full-time to a life of camping, hiking and, of course, photography.

Adams’s first photographs were published in 1921, and Harry Best’s Studio began selling his Yosemite prints the following year. His early photos already showed careful composition and sensitivity to tonal balance.

Original Ansel Adams photograph, from Special Edition, ‘Photographs of Yosemite,’ signed by the artist in the lower right with initials, 9½ x 7in. Sold for $2,800 at an auction held Oct. 29, 2011 by Royka’s in Leominster, Mass. Image courtesy Royka’s and LiveAuctioneers

During the mid-1920s, the fashion in photography was pictorialism, which strove to imitate paintings with soft focus and diffused light. Adams experimented with these and other techniques and for a short time even used hand-coloring. But he stopped the practice in 1923 and by 1925 he’d rejected pictorialism altogether for a more realistic approach that relied on sharp focus, heightened contrast, precise exposure and darkroom craftsmanship.

In 1927, Adams began working with Albert Bender, a San Francisco insurance magnate and arts patron. Bender helped Adams produce his first portfolio in his new style, Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras, which included his famous image Monolith, the Face of Half Dome, taken with his Korona view camera, using glass plates and a dark red filter to heighten the tonal contrasts. One biographer called Monolith Adams’s most significant photograph because the “extreme manipulation of tonal values” was a departure from all previous photography.

Ansel Adams, ‘El Capitan, Yosemite Valley,’ print 115 of S.E.Y. No. 3. Displayed in a floating acrylic frame. Photograph measures 6¾ x 9½in. Sold for $1,400 at an auction held Feb. 25, 2017 by Scheerer Auctioneers in Fort Wayne, Ind. Image courtesy of Scheerer Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

Between 1929 and 1942, Adams’s work matured and he became more established. The 1930s were an experimental and productive time for him. He expanded the technical range of his works, emphasizing detailed close-ups as well as large forms, from mountains to factories. On visits to Taos, New Mexico, Adams met and made friends with the poet Robinson Jeffers, artists John Martin and Georgia O’Keeffe and photographer Paul Strand. His talkative, high-spirited nature combined with his excellent piano playing made him popular among his new artist friends.

His first book, Taos Pueblo, was published in 1930, and he put on his first solo museum exhibition – Pictorial Photographs of the Sierra Nevada Mountains by Ansel Adams – at the Smithsonian Institution in 1931. It featured 60 prints taken in the High Sierra and the Canadian Rockies. He received a favorable review from the Washington Post, which said, “His photographs are like portraits of the giant peaks, which seem to be inhabited by mythical gods.”

Ansel Adams, ‘Jeffrey Pine on Sentinal Dome,’ silver gelatin print, 8¾ x 6¾in. Sold for $225 at an auction held Sept. 24, 2019 by Black River Auction in Pennsville, N.J. Image courtesy of Black River Auction and LiveAuctioneers

In 1941, Adams contracted with the Department of the Interior to make photographs of National Parks, Indian reservations, and other locations managed by the department, for use as mural-sized prints to decorate the department’s new building. The contract was for 180 days and was nicknamed the “Mural Project” with commissions for the U.S. Potash Co. and Standard Oil. While in New Mexico for the project, Adams photographed a scene of the moon rising above a modest village with snow-covered mountains in the background, under a dark sky. The photograph became his most famous and is titled Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico.

This photo of Ansel Adams, taken by J. Malcolm Greany, first appeared in the 1950 Yosemite Field School Yearbook. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Adams continued to work tirelessly through the war years and into the 1950s, but by the ’60s he suffered from arthritis and gout and had to cut back. He died from heart disease in 1984, at age 82. Many works by Adams 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. It was, and remains, the highest price ever paid for an original Ansel Adams photograph.