Ansel Adams Life With No Limits  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Bonhams.

“I knew my destiny when I first experienced Yosemite. Photographers are, in a sense, composers, and the negatives are their scores.”   
— Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams grew up believing life had no limits.   For him nature was a window into the limitless, the divine, and the real cathedrals in Ansel's world were only found in the great outdoors.  His education was modeled on this Emersonian ideal and his photography speaks loud and clear to his unwavering reverence of nature. 

Ansel was sickly as a kid and convinced his parents a vacation to Yosemite in 1916 would make a difference.  With his first camera in tow, a Kodak Box Brownie, Ansel's passion for Yosemite and photography was born. 

"I knew my destiny when I first experienced Yosemite," he said.  "Photographers are, in a sense, composers, and the negatives are their scores."   

There wasn't much of a market for creative photography when Ansel started out, only for portraits and commercial projects.  Photography wasn't even considered an art form.  A patron for a budding photographer was critical.  In 1926, at a Sierra Club party in San Francisco Ansel met his patron, Albert Bender. 

"Here's Ansel Adams," his host said.  "He plays pretty good piano and takes damn good photographs."  Benders invited Ansel to his insurance office the following day and carefully screened his Sierra photos.

Bender decided right there they needed to be in a portfolio.  He priced the portfolio at $50 and started selling them to friends.  By lunchtime 50 nonexistent portfolios sold and Bender handed Ansel a check for $500.  He also requested 100 more portfoliosplus ten artist's copies.

Ansel had yet to make a single print for the portfolio and he already had a check in his hand.  His confidence soared. 

In August 1927 Ansel released his portfolio "Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras," 16 months after his meeting with Bender.  It afforded him enough money to marry his sweetheart Virginia Best in Yosemite the following winter.

“You don't make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved,” he said.

By 1929 Ansel's reputation was firmly established.  He expanded his work from magnificent landscapes  to focusing on intricate close-ups and large forms like mountains and factories.  He visited and photographed New Mexico which he loved dearly with artists Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe and Paul Strand.  He published essays and instructional books on photography and celebrated the American West in his ongoing work.    

Ansel demonstrated in his photography that nature is infinitely varied, no two vistas the same, no two waterfalls alike.  His work, in the end, captured the magic and majesty of nature in an intimate way for people who already possessed the appreciation and for those would never get the chance to stand there in person and witness it. 

"Not everybody trusts paintings but people believe photographs,” he said.  "A great photograph is a full expression of what one feels about what is being photographed in the deepest sense and is thereby a true expression of what one feels about life in its entirety.”    

On April 28, Bonhams New York, featured a selection of Ansel Adams photos in its auction. 

Ansel Adams Gelatin Silver Prints

Forest Floor, Yosemite Valley; California; circa 1950; signed and numbered 13/50; 15 inches by 19 1/4 inches;  $6,875.

Nevada Falls; Yosemite National Park; California; circa 1947; signed and titled; 18 3/4 by 14 1/8 inches;  $15,000.

Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada from Lone Pine; California; 1944; signed and titled; 15 inches by 19 1/8 inches;  $22,500. 

Maroon Bells, near Aspen; Colorado; 1951; signed and numbered 17 1/4 inches by 19 1/2 inches;  $112,500.  


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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