Ansel Adams: A Nature-Loving Pioneer
Ansel was described as a hyperactive child prone to sickness and hypochondria. Such was his lack of attention and disruptiveness in youth that he was expelled from several schools. His father decided to homeschool him at the age of twelve. His biographer, Mary Street Alinder, tells us that “Ansel had to be in motion at all times; otherwise he would twitch with frustration, his mind flitting along with his body… Whenever he had to sit in the classroom, he would fidget, yearning to be set loose in the wonderful outdoors… in the classroom he felt enchained.”
At fourteen, Ansel experienced a life-changing holiday. His parents took him to Yosemite for his birthday and gave him a Kodak Box Brownie – his first camera. The impact on Ansel was immense. From then on, in his own words, he was “colored and modulated by the great earth gesture” of the Yosemite Sierra. "The splendor of Yosemite burst upon us and it was glorious.... One wonder after another descended upon us.... There was light everywhere.... A new era began for me." This was the beginning of his lifelong passion for America’s wildest places and for his photography, for which he became internationally famous.
In Ansel’s case, an understanding father liberated him from his failures in the classroom and his discovery of Yosemite ignited a passion that drove him to achieve international fame.
In 1930, the limited edition book Taos Pueblo was published with the inspirational Mary Austin. In 1932, Group f/64, a photography group that Ansel had founded with fellow photographer Edward Weston, exhibited at San Francisco’s DeYoung Museum. This brought West Coast Modernism photography to the public’s attention. He also had his first one-man museum show there. With his photographic career on a high trajectory, Ansel finally abandoned music as a career. However, his love of music always stayed with him and, being a hyperkinetic, sociable livewire at parties, he was often persuaded to play the piano to entertain his friends. Beaumont Newhall recalled that “Ansel was a great party man and loved to entertain. He had a very dominating personality, and would always be the center of attention”. But this energy was also highly focussed on advancing photography. With the Newhall’s help, Ansel helped to establish the first museum photography department at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
As time passed, motivated by his deep nature connection and his resentment for growing tourism, Ansel became a committed, impassioned conservationist. Relentlessly active, he fought against the intrusion of highways and commercialization of the wild spaces. He fought for national parks, reservations, sanctuaries, wilderness, and wild animals under threat. Yet despite the thousands of letters he wrote to newspapers and lawmakers and meetings attended, it was his photographs of wilderness landscapes that filled Americans with awe for the majesty of nature.