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Who is Ansel Adams?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 23, 2024
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Ansel Adams was a well-known American photographer whose iconic black-and-white pictures are some of the most recognized in the world of photography. He is perhaps best known for his portrayals of Yosemite National Park and the great desert country of the American West. Ansel Adams was born in 1902, and died in 1984 at the age of 82.

Ansel Adams was born to a successful family in San Francisco just before the great earthquake of 1906. He was raised with a love and respect for nature from an early age, and the values of Ralph Waldo Emerson were deeply embedded in his life philosophy. Ansel Adams was first taken to Yosemite in 1916 by his parents, and it was there he was given his first camera, a Kodak Brownie. The next year, at 15, he went back to Yosemite by himself with a handful of new cameras. He jumped into photography with a passion, apprenticing, reading everything written on the subject, going to every photography opening in the Bay Area, and joining a number of photography clubs.

During this time, Ansel Adams also returned frequently to Yosemite, spending time with the Best family, whose daughter, Virginia, he would later visit. His time in Yosemite further strengthened his commitment to the natural world, and he joined the Sierra Club as an active member at the age of 17. He ran the Sierra Club’s headquarters in Yosemite for a number of years, and throughout his life did an amazing amount to help promote an understanding of the natural beauty of the world, especially the Yosemite Valley.

Adams developed a unique style of photography during his time in Yosemite and the American West, using extremely large format cameras and an astounding understanding of light. Although the cameras were incredibly heavy and unwieldy, they allowed for a level of detail unparalleled, which gave Ansel Adams the ability to produce huge prints at superb quality. By the late 1920s he was ready to put his work in front of the public eye, after just over 10 years of honing his craft. It was an immediate success, with his debut portfolio making him a good amount of money, and leading to a slew of professional offers from wealthy patrons.

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Ansel Adams continued to rise in popularity, and he traveled throughout the American West to capture it with his unique flair. Starting in the 1970s he began shooting much less, and dedicating himself to re-printing old negatives, trying to fill some of the demand for his works. His prints are some of the most valuable in photography, with many reaching well over $500,000 US Dollars at auction, and a total value in the tens of millions of dollars.

Ansel Adams took his distinct photographic style, and his innovative zone system of photographic conceptualization, and produced some of the most iconic photographs ever. His pictures of Yosemite Valley, Half Dome, the Tetons, Glacier National Park, Taos, the Sierra Nevadas, and the Desert Country are some of the most recognized and famous in the history of photography. Ansel Adams is hailed as one of the great masters of photographic lighting, and many beginning photographers use his photographs as a jumping off point in trying to understand the dynamics of black-and-white photography for themselves.

PublicPeople is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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