Portrait of a Photographer as a Young Man

by Kim Steele

 

ANSEL ADAMS FORMATIVE YEARS

 

Self-Portrait, Monument Valley, Utah 1958, Photograph by Ansel Adams, Collection Center for Creative Photography, © The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust

Self-Portrait, Monument Valley, Utah,
1958, Photograph by Ansel Adams, Collection Center for Creative Photography, © The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust

 

Born at the turn of the century, Adams grew up in the hinterlands of dunes and beaches of the City of San Francisco.  Descending from Maine stock, originally from Northern Ireland, the Adams Family created a niche in the physical and social scene of San Francisco.  Ansel could recall the famous earthquake of 1906 that brought San Francisco to it’s knees but being on the outskirts, he and his home that this father built was mostly saved from destruction. His father was out of town that day.

 

18 April 1906, photograph by Arnold Genthe, published in As I remember, by Arnold Genthe. New York : Reynal & Hitchcock, 1936

18 April 1906, photograph by Arnold Genthe, published in As I Remember, by Arnold Genthe. New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1936

 

His grandfather, William James Adams, traveled out west in 1850, during the Gold Rush and established a profitable dry goods business in Sacramento, only to lose it all in a fire. He returned to Maine to find a wife, back then to San Francisco to develop a successful lumber business, Adams and Blinn, including building several ships while expanding up to Washington state for lumber.  He later built a mansion in Atherton, south of San Francisco.  Ansel’s father, James Hitchcock Adams, was one of five children.  His mother’s family, Bray, traveled by wagon from Baltimore to Carson City, Nevada to found a successful freight moving company only to decimate its fortunes in ill-considered mining ventures.  It was from his mother that Ansel gained his artistic interests.

 

Family Home in the Dunes, C. H. Adams, 1903

Family Home in the dunes, Lone Mountain, San Francisco, photograph by J.H. Adams, 1903

 

Ansel’s father built a family home on the dunes in the Lone Mountain section of San Francisco, now a college campus.  From here he could see the Golden Gate of the Pacific Ocean and hear the reassuring roar of the tide.  He explored Baker Beach and played along Lobos Creek, now in the Presidio, daily.  Lucky boy. The jangle of iron wheels on cobblestoned streets called to him in the distance announcing his fathers return from work.  Unfortunately Adams was a sickly child, who was forced to retire to his bedroom frequently but was able to view the Pacific Ocean from his window.

 

Ansel Adams as aspiring concert Pianist

Ansel Adams as aspiring concert pianist

 

Adams explored childhood activities on the dunes, collecting insects and roller skating, even golfing at Lincoln Park.  Soon progress encroached on his playground, with housing developments surrounding his isolated home. Automobiles began to travel up Lake Street.  His efforts at formal schooling were quite dismal.  Home schooling was in order. Ansel was drawn to music at an early age and took up the piano.  But just in the nick of time, The Panama Pacific International Exposition came to town in 1915; his father gave him a year’s pass for diversion.  Ansel spent every possible minute there exploring exhibits for the entire year, sometimes accompanied by his father.

 

Palace of the Fine Arts, San Francisco, 1915

Palace of the Fine Arts, San Francisco, 1915

 

This Expo heralded in several ‘modern’ machines, the adding machine (Dalton) and the typewriter (Underwood). Ansel would have been diagnosed with Hyper… today.  His music education continued.  Ansel progressed through various levels of instruction, and was finally given a German piano, an Ermler — nine feet long.  He aspired to become a concert pianist, even giving lessons. Here Adams artistic spirit was nurtured, realizing that music was more than a series of notes but a physical and spiritual endeavor. One can see orchestration in his photography.

As a member of the Sierra Club, Adams began his outdooring adventures in Yosemite National Park, in 1923.

 

Ansel Adams and Cedric Wright packing for Yosemite trip

Ansel Adams and Cedric Wright packing for Yosemite trip

 

Adams was introduced to photography by a friend, Cedric Wright, who was a free spirit in the medium. Visiting him at his Bernard Maybeck home in Berkeley, Ansel became enamored with architecture as well. The arduous trip to Berkeley involved a streetcar, train and ferries, but well worth it!  An idealist, Wright was a mercurial spirit which affected Adams’ artistic development — faith in beauty. His love of the wilderness inspired Adams.

 

Cedrick Wright Home, 2515 Etna Street, Berkeley, designed by Maybeck in 1921

Cedrick Wright Home, 2515 Etna Street, Berkeley, designed by Maybeck in 1921

 

The Sierra Club posthumously published Cedric Wright: Word of the Earth, in 1960.  Edited by the luminous Nancy Newhall,wife of the photographic historian, Beaumont Newhall, with whom this author had the privilege to study at the University of New Mexico — he wrote:

Out of the vast process of evolution and through need,

Out of the cycle of passing forms,

Arises eternal, elemental beauty.

Intense beauty is liberation.

 

Wright was an ardent supporter of Adams and his artistic expression, strengthening Adams’ resolve to confidence. Wright was also a foil for their respective dalliances with woman — real and imaginary.   In a letter dated 1937 to Cedric, Adams noted:

Friendship is another form of love — more passive perhaps [than romantic love], but full of the transmitting and acceptances of things like thunderclouds and grass and the clean reality of granite.

The Adams family was prosperous for many years, his grandfather owning a mansion south of San Francisco in Atherton,CA, which burned to the ground.  Misfortune fell upon the family in various manners with enterprises in lumbering and chemical manufacturing, and the Great Depression was the final straw.  His father’s efforts to regain his fortune were dashed by a backstabbing uncle for whom Ansel was named, and they struggled thereafter.

 

Kodak Bullseye Camera, Model 2, No. D

Kodak Bullseye Camera, Model 2, No. D

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Throughout Adams childhood, his father took photographs with a Kodak Bullseye camera.  He taught Ansel the fundamentals of image making including a camera obscura!  At the same time, Ansel fell in love with the romance of the wilderness, especially Yosemite National Park.  On a family vacation there at age fourteen, he was first inspired by the splendor of the natural beauty of  the Park, from Half-Dome to Bridle Falls which he would photography many times throughout his life. Here his father bestowed upon him his first camera, a Kodak Box Brownie.  Adams was able to get the film processed at Yosemite by Pillsbury Pictures.  Ansel continued to be plagued with various illnesses and was often bedridden where he watched the images form on his walls and ceiling.

 

Holding My Box Brownie Camera, Yosemite National Park, California, c. 1918 by Ansel Adams, Corbis

Holding My Box Brownie Camera, Yosemite National Park, California, ca 1918 by Ansel Adams, Corbis

 

Ansel returned alone to Yosemite in 1917 to more seriously pursue photography. He felt the images were very weak but continued to photograph on various hikes and trails. Here Adams was taken under the wing by MIT graduate (1887) engineer, Francis Holman, who taught him about fishing, hiking and climbing. Ansel fondly called him Uncle Frank, he knew the Yosemite Sierras well.  Ansel’s expertise grew to the point where he was appointed the custodian of the Sierra Club’s office there, named LeConte Memorial Lodge, also designed by Maybeck.  He pursued technical climbing with Uncle Frank but always detested the modern drilling bolt holes in the mountains, asserting it desecration!

Adams led hiking parties throughout the Park, laden with photographic equipment.

 

Nevada Fall, Rainbow, Yosemite Valley, 1946, ca. 1947, ca. 1950, Photograph by Ansel Adams, Collection Center for Creative Photography, © The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust

Nevada Fall, Rainbow, Yosemite Valley,
ca 1946, Photograph by Ansel Adams, Collection Center for Creative Photography, © The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust

 

At this time, his pictures were “snapshots” (his own term) to create a “visual diary.”  Adams studied them throughout the year. His ardor encouraged him to make his own prints. He began working for a neighbor, Frank Dittman, who did photo processing in his basement, delivering them to various drug stores in San Francisco.  Ansel still pursued his music career but was mastering the craft of photography as a ‘diversion.’

Adams was honing his aesthetics and applied his understanding of design, form and tonality to his image making.  He wrote to his father:

…I am more than ever convinced that the only possible way to interpret the scenes is through an impressionistic vision.  A cold material representation gives one no conception whatever of the great size and distances of these mountains…one must rely on tone and line.

…I had the idea all framed several days before undertaking the picture…it is the representation of material things in the  abstract or purely imaginative way.

 

Diamond Cascade, Yosemite National Park, California, 1920, photograph by Ansel Adams, Corbis

Diamond Cascade, Yosemite National Park, California, 1920, photograph by Ansel Adams, Corbis

 

Ansel enclosed a print of his “most satisfactory composition yet done” with his note to his father, Diamond Cascade, 1920.  By the mid 1920’s he graduated to a larger view camera, a Korona loaded with panchromatic (B&W) 6” x 8” glass plates.  Ansel Adams was now on his way to becoming one of the most renowned photographers of the twentieth century.

 

Monolith, the Face of Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, California, ca. 1927, 1927-04-17, ca. 1926, 1928, Photograph by Ansel Adams, Collection Center for Creative Photography, © The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust

Monolith, the Face of Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, California, 17 April 1927, Photograph by Ansel Adams, Collection Center for Creative Photography, © The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust

 

All quotations from: Ansel Adams, An Autobiography, New York Graphic Society, 1985.

More about Ansel Adams here and here.

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