How Ansel Adams Became a Famous Photographer

Born in San Francisco on February 20th 1902, Ansel Adams became fascinated with the beauty within nature at a very young age and was constantly exploring the world around him. This exploration was heightened when Adams developed a keen interest in photography. Adams’ first works, published in 1921, already showed careful composition and sensitivity to tonal balance. Through a combination of talent, creativity, dedication and desire for originality, Adams would grow into one of the most renowned landscape photographers of his time and become known to many, as the father of landscape photography.

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Adams is renowned for his ability to achieve an inimitable level of contrast in his work using creative darkroom art. At the onset of his career, Adams experimented with popular photography styles such as pictorialism, which encouraged imitation of paintings by employing soft focus and diffuse light, the Bromoi process and hand colorism. Adams later rejected these styles altogether for a more realistic style that relied on sharp focus, high contrast, precise exposure and darkroom craftsmanship. His extreme manipulation of tonal values in Monolith led to the birth of the concept of visualization which involved viewing the landscape not only in the way that it appears but also how it should appear in print before taking the image. Adams’ unique style, although defiant of all previous concepts in photography enabled him to produce stunning detailed photographs of landscapes and achieve an incredible level of contrast in his works.

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Adams’ primary motivation was the desire to encourage others to express themselves through art, to stimulate others to look for beauty and find creative excitement in nature as can be surmised from his dedication to teaching photography techniques to novice photographers through photography workshops in Detroit in the 1940s, training of military photographers at the Art center of Los Angeles in 1941, involvement in the formation of the first fine art photography department at the San Francisco Art Institute, contribution to several photography journals and magazines such as U.S Camera and travel, Aperture as well his publication of photography instruction books such as Making a Photograph and The camera. Adams was also motivated by a deep appreciation for photography as fine art and a desire to measure up to the standards set by seasoned photographers such as Paul Strand as can be deduced from his decision to pursue photography fully and use glossy paper to intensify tonal values in his photographs just as Strand was doing. Adams was also motivated by a desire to promote environmental conservation. His advocacy for this issue became closely intertwined with his practice as can be witnessed from his limited edition book Sierra Nevada, which was inspired by the presence of increasing incursion into Yosemite Valley for commercial development at the time.


Adams’ desire to merge his appreciation for photography as fine art and his visualization of nature played a critical role in his success as a 20th-century photographer. Adams’ was always looking for new ways to refine his craft, whether it was through shifting from the photography norms of pictorialism, developing the zone system of image-making that allowed him to create images with the same beautiful and stunning detail and contrast he saw in them or through acquiring advice on photography craftsmanship that would increase tonal value in his works form Paul Strand. The desire to step away from industry traditions in the 20th century and develop his own style led to the success of his first portfolio Parmelian prints of the high Sierras which included Monolith, one of his most famous pieces. Adams’ also constantly broadened the subject matter and technical range of his work. In the 1920s, he included still life and close up photography in his work which emphasized detail and visualization of every image before taking it and the use of small apertures with a wide range of focus distances.

Adams’ fame grew not only because of his unique skills but also because he was involved in training young photographers through workshops and took on may commercial projects until the 1970s. Adams was not a new name in photography during his time, having worked with Kodak, Fortune magazine, AT&T, The Department of Interior and the American Trust Company. In fact, his contract with the Department of Interior was responsible for one of his most famous images, Moonlight whose reinterpreted versions are estimated to be worth over 25 million dollars and whose commercial success gave Adams’ independence from commercial projects.  Even in his later years, when he was suffering from gout and arthritis, Adams’ dedication to his craft never wavered as can be deduced from his decision to reprint negatives from his vault when the demand for his works increased in museums that had finally created departments of photography.


Ansel Adams’ six-decade career of an individual that truly appreciated the beauty of photography as fine art and developed enough close ties with the landscapes that gave him his stunning images to want to protect them. His stunning photography, books and techniques will forever immortalize him as one of the greatest photographers of the 20th century.

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