Ansel Adams was born 120 years ago today, February 20, 1902. He is “the” icon of American landscape photography. Trained as a concert pianist, his love of photography and time spent in Yosemite National Park led him to a career change.
1936 was a turning point in his life. That summer, Adams worked past the point of exhaustion preparing for a one-person photography exhibit at the request of Alfred Stieglitz, curator of “An American Place” gallery in New York. Stieglitz was the most highly respected photographer of his day and Adams was still largely unknown. Partly due to the importance of the show, and partly because Patsy English, his darkroom assistant, pushed him to higher levels of excellence in his prints than he had ever achieved before, Adams produced what many consider to be the best set of prints of his life. Immersed in the project, they would sometimes work for days without sleep. Physically worn out at the conclusion of the project, Adams had a nervous breakdown.
Time spent in his beloved Yosemite brought emotional and physical healing. As he emerged from the breakdown months later, he wrote the letter below to his closest friend, Cedric Wright. It is now considered a classic and the final paragraph is quoted in a host of photo books and on dozens of web sites. The exhibit at the Stieglitz gallery was a huge success and Adams went on to become one of the most famous landscape photographers of the 20th Century.
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Letter from Ansel Adams to Cedric Wright, June 10, 1937:
A strange thing happened to me today. I saw a big thundercloud move down over Half Dome, and it was so big and clear and brilliant that it made me see many things that were drifting around inside of me; things that relate to those who are loved and those who are real friends.
For the first time I know what love is; what friends are; and what art should be.
Love is a seeking for a way of life; the way that cannot be followed alone; the resonance of all spiritual and physical things. Children are not only of flesh and blood — children may be ideas, thoughts, emotions. The person of the one who is loved is a form composed of a myriad mirrors reflecting and illuminating the powers and thoughts and the emotions that are within you, and flashing another kind of light from within. No words or deeds may encompass it.
Friendship is another form of love — more passive perhaps, but full of the transmitting and acceptances of things like thunderclouds and grass and the clean granite of reality.
Art is both love and friendship and understanding: the desire to give. It is not charity, which is the giving of things. It is more than kindness, which is the giving of self. It is both the taking and giving of beauty, the turning out to the light of the inner folds of the awareness of the spirit. It is a recreation on another plane of the realities of the world; the tragic and wonderful realities of earth and men, and of all the interrelations of these.
Monolith, The Face of Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, 1927, by Ansel Adams. This photo was a major turning point in Adams conception of his own photography, and a validation of his decision to switch from concert pianist to professional photographer.
Originally posted Feb. 20, 2014. Revised and re-posted Feb. 20, 2020.
PBS: Ansel Adams. A synopsis of Adams’ life with an edited version of the letter to Cedric Wright.
Ansel Adams: A Documentary Film. Information about Ric Burn’s film with a link to to a transcript of the film. You can also read the transcript here.
Buy Ansel Adams: A Documentary Film, the classic film for PBS American Experience by Ric Burns.
A brief biography of Adams’ life at the Yosemite National Park web site.
Ansel Adams Gallery. Buy posters and reproductions of Adams’ work, modern replicas ($129), and vintage, rare originals that were printed by Adams (these cost thousands of dollars). You can also get “Yosemite Special Edition Photographs” that are individually hand printed by Alan Ross from Adams’ original negatives ($325). The gallery also sells works by other photographers.
Video: Ansel Adams Printing in the Darkroom
Contrast in the Photography of Ansel Adams