It’s easy to appreciate the wonderful nature photography of Ansel Adams, its crisp focus, perfect contrast, and balanced composition. What it takes some effort to properly assess in the 21st century is how Adams almost singlehandedly brought this discipline to the medium of photography.
As a youth, Adams found that he had a natural musical talent, and he practiced with the intent of becoming a concert pianist. Then his family took a trip to Yosemite. Adams said later, “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.”
He started taking pictures with a Kodak Brownie box camera. For the next ten years he pursued the dual tracks of music and photography, learning darkroom techniques while also purchasing a grand piano and practicing diligently. He finally realized his greatest skill was with the camera rather than the keyboard, and he, uh, “focused” on photography.
Adams had his first museum show at the Smithsonian when he was just 29 years old, but knew better than to think he’d reached his limits. He emphasized “pure photography,” not allowing his photos to be derivative of any other art form. Even so, he did commercial projects to pay the bills, including work for Fortune Magazine, Pacific Gas & Electric, and AT&T.
In his latter years, Adams continued his lifelong commitment to preserving our national parks and wilderness. He was especially concerned with the Big Sur region of California and preventing the over-use of Yosemite. Here’s a wonderful interview with the master shortly before his death at age 82: