When Ansel Adams was four years old, he survived the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.
Because the Adams family home was located on the dunes beyond the Golden Gate, it survived with little damage. Adams, however, suffered a broken nose in an aftershock, when he was thrown against a brick wall.
Charles Adams was a very nurturing, understanding parent, who always encouraged his son to be the individual he was. Adams later wrote,
"I trace who I am and the direction of my development to those years of growing up in our house by the dunes, propelled especially by an internal spark tenderly kept alive and glowing by my father."
Natural shyness and a certain intensity of genius, coupled with the dramatically “earthquaked” 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 and aunt 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.
An advocate of straight, unmanipulated photography, in 1932 Adams cofounded Group f/64 (among the other founding members were Imogen Cunningham, Edward Weston, and Willard Van Dyke), and that year exhibited his work with the group at San Francisco's M. H. de Young Memorial Museum. In 1936 his images were featured in a one-person exhibition at Alfred Stieglitz's New York gallery, An American Place, and three years later he took part in group exhibitions at the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 1940 Adams helped found the department of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, and later in the decade was awarded two fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation to photograph America's national parks.
In 1927, Adams participated in the Club's annual outing, known as the High Trip, and, the next year, he became the Club's official trip photographer. In 1930 he became assistant manager of the outings which consisted of month-long excursions of up to 200 people. Adams' role in the Sierra Club grew rapidly and the Club became vital to his early success as a photographer. His first photographs and writings were published in the Sierra Club Bulletin. Adams also got involved politically in the Club, suggesting proposals for improving parks and wilderness, and soon became known as both an artist and defender of Yosemite. In 1934, Adams was elected as a member of the Board of Directors of the Sierra Club, a role he maintained for 37 years.
Beginning in the 1930s and continuing throughout his long, productive career, Adams published numerous books and portfolios of his images. His technical books on photography, including Making a Photograph, Basic Photo Series, and Polaroid Land Photography Manual, were also popular. Adams was influential not only as a photographer but also as a teacher, lecturer, and conservationist. In 1980 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country's highest civilian honor.
Adams' images were first used for environmental purposes when the Sierra Club was seeking the creation of a national park in the Kings River region of the Sierra Nevada. Adams lobbied Congress for a Kings Canyon National Park, the Club's priority issue in the 1930's, and created an impressive, limited-edition book, Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail, which influenced both Interior Secretary Harold Ickes and President Franklin Roosevelt to embrace the Kings Canyon Park idea. The park was created in 1940.
In 1941 the National Park Service commissioned noted photographer Ansel Adams to create a photo mural for the Department of the Interior Building in Washington, DC. The theme was to be nature as exemplified and protected in the U.S. National Parks. The project was halted because of World War II and never resumed.
The holdings of the National Archives Still Picture Branch include 226 photographs taken for this project, most of them signed and captioned by Adams. They were taken at the Grand Canyon, Grand Teton, Kings Canyon, Mesa Verde, Rocky Mountain, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Carlsbad Caverns, Glacier, and Zion National Parks; Death Valley, Saguaro, and Canyon de Chelly National Monuments. Other pictures were taken at the Boulder Dam; Acoma Pueblo, NM; San Idelfonso, NM; Taos Pueblo, NM; Tuba City, AZ; Walpi, AZ; and Owens Valley, CA. Many of the latter locations show Navajo and Pueblo Indians, their homes and activities.
“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 a visionary in his efforts to preserve this country’s wild and scenic areas, both on 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. It is through his foresight and fortitude that so much of America has been saved for future Americans.”
President James E. Carter
Presenting Ansel Adams with the Presidential Medal of Freedom
A strange thing happened to me today. I saw a big thundercloud move down over Half Dome, and it was so big and clear and brilliant that it made me see many things that were drifting around inside of me; things that relate to those who are loved and those who are real friends.
For the first time I know what love is; what friends are; and what art should be.
Love is a seeking for a way of life; the way that cannot be followed alone; the resonance of all spiritual and physical things....
Friendship is another form of love -- more passive perhaps, but full of the transmitting and acceptances of things like thunderclouds and grass and the clean granite of reality.
Art is both love and friendship and understanding: the desire to give. It is not charity, which is the giving of things. It is more than kindness, which is the giving of self. It is both the taking and giving of beauty, the turning out to the light of the inner folds of the awareness of the spirit. It is a recreation on another plane of the realities of the world; the tragic and wonderful realities of earth and men, and of all the interrelations of these.
Adams died on April 22, 1984, at the age of 82. Six months after his death, Congress passed legislation designating more than 200,000 acres near Yosemite as the Ansel Adams Wilderness Area. A year later, an 11,760-foot mountain on the boundary of Yosemite National Park was named Mt. Ansel Adams.