Mental Floss

Photographing Rocks While The World Was Falling Apart: Ansel Adams

Andréa Fernandes

Yesterday marked the 107th anniversary of the birth of American photographer Ansel Adams (1902-1984). At the requests of readers Scott S. and Nerak, today's post features Adams quotations and facts about his life, accompanied by his photograph "Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park."

1. "I think of the negative as the "˜score,' and the print as a "˜performance' of that score"¦"

Adams' first creative passion was piano. He originally planned to become a concert pianist, though he was limited by his small hands. He could easily memorize music thanks to his photographic memory. In 1920, Adams began to take photography more seriously, but it was a few more years before he concentrated solely on his photography.

2. "The understanding of the inanimate and animate world of nature will aid in holding the world of man together."

Adams made his name with photographs of nature, especially soaring mountains. He was criticized, though, for "photographing rocks while the world was falling apart." Other photographers in the 1930s—particularly those working for the Farm Security Administration—captured the plight of the people. To those on the East Coast, especially urbanites, Adams' photos were "misanthropic and cold." Adams asserted, "There is a person in every one of my photographs," even if that person is only himself.

3. "Not everybody trusts paintings but people believe photographs."

Adams used his photographs to assist in the mission to designate Sequoia and Kings Canyon a National Park. In 1938, he published Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail, a limited-edition book of the area. He also testified before Congress. Adams' efforts helped convince Congress; in 1940, the area was named a national park.

4. "The purpose of my work was to show how these people, suffering under a great injustice, and loss of property, businesses and professions, had overcome the sense of defeat and dispair [sic] by building for themselves a vital community in an arid (but magnificent) environment"¦"

Adams was distressed by the internment of Japanese-Americans post-Pearl Harbor. Visiting Manzanar, a war relocation center at the foot of Mount Williamson, Adams photographed the camp and its inhabitants. The resulting photo-essay originally appeared in a MoMA exhibition, but was later published as Born Free and Equal: The Story of Loyal Japanese-Americans.

5. "Sometimes I do think I get to places just when God is ready to have someone click the shutter!"

Though Adams may have been in the right place at the right time for his photographs, they were not without forethought and visualization. He spent an afternoon creating one of his most famous images, "Monolith, the Face of Half Dome, Yosemite National Park," using a red filter to darken the sky. Over the next 40 years, he re-interpreted "Monolith" using the most up-to-date equipment, resulting in 1,300 unique prints.

6. "I don't have any idea that commercialism or professionalism is on one side of the fence and the creative side is on the other. They're both interlocked."

Adams worked through the 1970s on commercial projects to bring in some extra money. His clients included Kodak, Fortune magazine, Life magazine, AT&T, Pacific Gas and Electric, Zeiss, and IBM.

A larger version of "Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park" is available here. Fans should check out the Ansel Adams Gallery and Museum Graphics; the collections of Adams' work at the National Archives and the George Eastman House; the interact Adams' features at PBS, The New York Times, and SFMOMA; the Adams interview at the BBC; NPR's piece on Adams' "Autumn Moon;" the George Eastman House podcast on "Ansel Adams: Celebration of Genius;" and the Ansel Adams Wilderness. Current Exhibition:Oceans, Rivers, and Skies, feat. Ansel Adams, Robert Adams, and Alfred Stieglitz (Washington, DC: through March 15, 2009) "Feel Art Again" appears every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. You can e-mail us at with details of current exhibitions, for sources or further reading, or to suggest artists.