Ansel Adams Photographer of the American West

Ansel Adams Photographer of the American West  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Skinner Inc.

Ansel Adam’s was all about capturing the spirit of wild places in his photography.  He was happiest taking photos of mist-covered mountains, sweeping evergreens, wispy clouds and rocky deserts.  He loved the play of sunlight and moonlight on these subjects. The grandeur of the American West and the exquisite beauty of the world around him never escaped his camera.

Sometimes I think I do get to places just when God’s ready to have somebody click the shutter.
— Ansel Adams

Nowhere is this more apparent than in his photos of Yosemite National Park.

Ansel visited Yosemite for the first time in 1916 with his parents at age 14 and it was there they gave him his first camera, a Kodak Box Brownie No. 1.  Mesmerized by Yosemite Ansel returned for the next few years during the summer.

“Sometimes I think I do get to places just when God’s ready to have somebody click the shutter,” he said.

He has been called the most important landscape photographer of the 20th century.  But he was much more than a landscape photographer.  He wasn’t just shooting pretty pictures of nature.  There is a haunting sense of mystery and majesty in much of his work which brings the viewer back again and again to his images. 

For Ansel it wasn’t about recording nature or showing off his technical proficiency.  It was about combining both to communicate an emotional state. 

He visited more than 40 national parks in his lifetime with his 8 x 10-inch view camera, tripod and gear.  His only traveling companions were often his burro and a baggage handler. 

Ansel turned photography into fine art and was a staunch supporter of conservation.  In 1940 he helped found the first curatorial department devoted to photography as an art form at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.  In 1946 he established at the California School of Fine Arts (today the San Francisco Art Institute) the first academic department teaching photography as a profession. 

 “A great photograph is a full expression of what one feels about what is being photographed…and is, thereby, a true expression of what one feels about life in its entirety,” he said. 

He felt deeply about what he witnessed at Yosemite and a lifelong love affair resulted in communicating that reverence through his photography.  

“The great rocks of Yosemite, expressing qualities of timeless, yet intimate grandeur, are the most compelling formations of their kind,” he said.  “We should not casually pass them by for they are the very heart of the earth speaking to us.”

Ansel received three Guggenheim fellowships during his career.  The first in 1946 to photograph every national park.  There were 28 national parks at the time.  He photographed 27, missing only the Everglades National Park in Florida. 

Ansel’s most important work was done in the first half of his life.  By 1950 only a handful of important photos were made.  He spent his time editing books of his work and reinterpreting earlier photos.

“Not everybody trusts paintings but people believe photographs,” he said.

On Jan 25, 2019, Skinner Auctioneers featured a selection of Ansel’s work in its Photographs auction.

Here are some current values.

Ansel Adams: Gelatin Silver Prints

Morning, Merced River Canyon; initialed AA; printed later; 1950; 7 ¾ inches by 9 5/8 inches;  $1,107.

Jeffrey Pine, Sentinel Dome; initialed AA; printed later; 1940; 7 ¾ inches by 9 ½ inches;  $1,169.

Ferns, Valley Floor; initialed AA; printed later; 1948; 9 5/8 inches by 7 5/8 inches;  $1,169.

Forest Detail, Winter; initialed AA; printed later; 1949; 9 ¼ inches by 7 ½ inches;  $1,230.

Merced River; Reflection; signed Ansel Adams; 1960s; 19 ½ inches by 15 1/8 inches;  $4,920.

Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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