Ansel Adams

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Ansel Adams : biography

February 20, 1902 – April 22, 1984

1940s

In 1940, Ansel put together A Pageant of Photography, the most important and largest photography show in the West to date, attended by millions of visitors. With his wife, Adams completed a children’s book and the very successful Illustrated Guide to Yosemite Valley during 1940 and 1941. He also taught photography by giving workshops in Detroit and his pupils included future photographer Todd Webb. Adams also began his first serious stint of teaching in 1941 at the Art Center School of Los Angeles, now known as Art Center College of Design, which included the training of military photographers. In 1943, Adams had a camera platform mounted on his station wagon, to afford him a better vantage point over the immediate foreground and a better angle for expansive backgrounds. Most of his landscapes from that time forward were made from the roof of his car rather than from summits reached by rugged hiking, as in his earlier days.

On a trip in New Mexico weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Adams shot a scene of the Moon rising above a modest village with snow-covered mountains in the background, under a dominating black sky. The photograph is one of his most famous and is named Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico. Adams’s description in his later books of how it was made probably enhanced the photograph’s fame : the light on the crosses in the foreground was rapidly fading, and he could not find his exposure meter; however, he remembered the luminance of the Moon, and used it to calculate the proper exposure. Adams’s earlier account was less dramatic, stating simply that the photograph was made after sunset, with exposure determined using his Weston Master meter., states that the image caption for Moonrise in U.S. Camera 1943 was inaccurate, citing discrepancies in several technical details. However the exposure was actually determined, the foreground was underexposed, the highlights in the clouds were quite dense, and the negative proved difficult to print. The initial publication of Moonrise was in U.S. Camera 1943 annual, after being selected by the "photo judge" for U.S. Camera, Edward Steichen. This gave Moonrise an audience before its first formal exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1944. Over nearly 40 years, Adams re-interpreted the image, his most popular by far, using the latest darkroom equipment at his disposal, making over 1,300 unique prints, most in 16″ by 20″ format. Many of the prints were made in the 1970s, finally giving Adams financial independence from commercial projects. The total value of these original prints exceeds $25,000,000; the highest price paid for a single print reached $609,600 at Sotheby’s New York auction in 2006.

Adams was distressed by the Japanese American Internment that occurred after the Pearl Harbor attack. He requested permission to visit the Manzanar War Relocation Center in the Owens Valley, at the foot of Mount Williamson. The resulting photo-essay first appeared in a Museum of Modern Art exhibit, and later was published as Born Free and Equal: The Story of Loyal Japanese-Americans. He also contributed to the war effort by doing many photographic assignments for the military, including making prints of secret Japanese installations in the Aleutians. “[I]t was met with some distressing resistance and was rejected as many as disloyal.” Adams was the recipient of three Guggenheim fellowships during his career, the first in 1946 to photograph every National Park. This series of photographs produced memorable images of "Old Faithful Geyser", Grand Teton, and Mount McKinley.

In 1945, Adams was asked to form the first fine art photography department at the San Francisco Art Institute. Adams invited Dorothea Lange, Imogen Cunningham and Edward Weston to be guest lecturers and Minor White to be lead instructor. The photography department produced numerous notable photographers, including Philip Hyde, Benjamen Chinn, Charles Wong, Bill Heick, Ira Latour, C. Cameron Macauley, and Gerald Ratto.