How Ansel Adams, Visualized his Black and White Mountain Photography

03012021  |  Mountain Photography | Visualizing the West

Mountain Photographer & Master of Light


The Attraction of photographing mountains
Snake River overlook by Ansel Adams

The Tetons and the Snake River (1942) Ansel Adams

"Ansel Adams- The man who freed photographers to make art rather than just take pictures" - Jess Lee

“In my mind’s eye, I visualize how a particular… sight and feeling will appear on a print. If it excites me, there is a good chance it will make a good photograph. It is an intuitive sense, an ability that comes from a lot of practice.”– Ansel Adams

“I am sure the next step will be the electronic image, and I hope I shall live to see it. I trust that the creative eye will continue to function, whatever technological innovations may develop.” – Ansel Adams

“The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it.” – Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams the man most responsible for freeing photographer to create art rather than just take pictures
The Landscape Of Mountains

Mountain Photography. If I had to pick a favorite place to photograph, it would be a place with majestic mountains. Combine steep, jagged peaks with other landscape elements such as wildflowers, rivers, canyons, meadows and such, then you will have a place I want to be photographing. My obsession with mountains is probably due to spending much of my youth in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and Yosemite where is was impossible to ignore not only the beauty of the mountains but the influence of the Black and White true large format photographs of Ansel Adams. (as opposed to the little images printed large as many of todays landscape photographers claim to be large format)


Ansel Adams with large format camera

Ansel Adams with a large format camera


Romantic landscape artists Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran portrayed the Grand Canyon and Yosemite during the 19th century, followed by photographers Carleton Watkins, Eadweard Muybridge, and George Fiske.

Adams's work is distinguished from theirs by his interest in the transient and ephemeral. He photographed at varying times of the day and of the year, capturing the landscape's changing light and atmosphere. His grand, highly detailed images originated in his interest in the natural environment. His black-and-white photographs were not pure documents, but reflected a sublime experience of nature as a spiritual place.

With increasing environmental degradation in the West during the 20th century, his photos show a commitment to conservation.

Art critic John Szarkowski wrote, "Ansel Adams attuned himself more precisely than any photographer before him to a visual understanding of the specific quality of the light that fell on a specific place at a specific moment. For Adams the natural landscape is not a fixed and solid sculpture but an insubstantial image, as transient as the light that continually redefines it. This sensibility to the specificity of light was the motive that forced Adams to develop his legendary photographic technique."[128]

In 1955, Edward Steichen selected Adams's Mount Williamson for the world-touring Museum of Modern Art exhibition The Family of Man, which was seen by nine million visitors. At 10 by 12 feet (3.0 by 3.7 m), his was the largest print in the exhibition, presented floor-to-ceiling in a prominent position as the backdrop to the section "Relationships", as a reminder of the essential reliance of humanity on the soil. However, despite its striking and prominent display, Adams expressed displeasure at the "gross" enlargement and "poor" quality of the print.

Sierra Nevada and conservation photography

During the summers, Adams often participated in Sierra Club High Trips outings, as a paid photographer for the group; and the rest of the year a core group of Club members socialized regularly in San Francisco and Berkeley. In 1933, his first child Michael was born, followed by Anne two years later.[63]

During the 1930s, Adams began to deploy his photographs in the cause of wilderness preservation. He was inspired partly by the increasing incursion into Yosemite Valley of commercial development, including a pool hall, bowling alley, golf course, shops, and automobile traffic. He created the limited-edition book Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail in 1938, as part of the Sierra Club's efforts to secure the designation of Kings Canyon as a national park. This book and his testimony before Congress played a vital role in the success of that effort, and Congress designated Kings Canyon as a national park in 1940.

Georgia O'Keeffe and Orville Cox, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona, 1937

In 1935, Adams created many new photographs of the Sierra Nevada; and one of his most famous, Clearing Winter Storm, depicted the entire Yosemite Valley, just as a winter storm abated, leaving a fresh coat of snow. He gathered his recent work and had a solo show at Stieglitz's "An American Place" gallery in New York in 1936. The exhibition proved successful with both the critics and the buying public, and earned Adams strong praise from the revered Stieglitz. The following year, the negative for Clearing Winter Storm was almost destroyed when the darkroom in Yosemite caught fire. With the help of Edward Weston and Charis Wilson (Weston's future wife), Adams put out the fire, but thousands of negatives, including hundreds that had never been printed, were lost.

Still Adams moved forward with making his photography the cornerstone of the world wide conservation movement that took firm root in the 1960's. Today we as photographers who love mountains have much to be thankful for from the man we jokingly call Saint Adams.




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