Ansel Adams: His Impact on American Politics and Environmental Conservation
Robyn Badura
Portrait of Ansel, c.1950

“At one with the power of the American landscape, and renowned for the patient skill and timeless beauty of his work, photographer Ansel Adams has been a visionary in his efforts to preserve this country’s wild and scenic areas, both on film and on Earth. Drawn to the beauty of nature’s monuments, he is regarded by environmentalists as a monument himself, and by photographers as a national institution. It is through his foresight and fortitude that so much of America has been saved for future Americans.”
-President James E. Carter, Presenting Ansel Adams with the Presidential Medal of Freedom

Perhaps one of the most widely-recognized and influential photographers of all time, Ansel Adams' breathtaking monochromatic landscapes of the vast American west have influenced photographers worldwide. Considered a revolutionary by many, Ansel Adams’ influence extends far beyond the art world. Not only has his work impacted countless photographers and art lovers alike; Adams’ works were essential in the development and preservation of the United States National Parks System.

Born just outside of San Francisco in 1902, Adams developed an appreciation for art early on in life, learning piano and art history as a part of his homeschooling curriculum. Adams’ father, a businessman, was denied the opportunity to explore nature and art by his parents, and wanted to ensure that young Ansel had every opportunity to do so. Equipped with his Kodak Brownie camera, Ansel visited Yosemite National Park in 1916 at the young age of 14, instantly falling in love with the park’s stunning cliffs and views. From there, his love of nature would continue to blossom - not unlike the wildflowers in the park’s infamous Tuolumne Meadows - resulting in numerous visits to the beloved park every year for the rest of his life. And after a health scare in 1919, Adams claims that nature helped aid his recovery, seeking solace in the Sierras, which would later become his work’s prime source of inspiration.
“That first impression of the valley—white water, azaleas, cool fir caverns, tall pines and stolid oaks, cliffs rising to undreamed-of heights, the poignant sounds and smells of the Sierra…was a culmination of experience so intense as to be almost painful. From that day in 1916 my
life has been colored and modulated by the great earth gesture of the Sierra.”

Adams’ environmentalist efforts began in 1919, when he began working for the Sierra Club at their lodge in Yosemite Valley at the age of 17. Through the Sierra Club, Ansel had the opportunity to interact with many of the great conservationists of the early 1900’s, including the first director of the National Parks Service Stephen Mather. Additionally, living in the Valley awarded him with rare opportunities to truly study and appreciate the beauty of the park, allowing him to become aware of the beautiful intricacies of nature that the common man is destined to overlook. In 1934, Adams was elected to replace his wife, Virginia, on the Sierra Club’s board of directors, and proved himself a priceless member for almost 40 years until his retirement in 1971. With the Sierra Club, Adams strongly advocated for a number of conservationist projects, most notably the proposal to transform Kings Canyon into a National Park. Ansel traveled to the nation’s capital in 1936, where he and his breathtaking photographs of Kings Canyon played an invaluable role in persuading Congress to create the park, whose legislation was later passed in 1940. In addition to the creation of the park, Adams was gifted with the invitation to document the nation’s National Parks System by Secretary of Interior Ickes, providing him with unlimited funds to travel the country and document her dazzling landscapes for all to see.

Monolith, Face of Half Dome, c. 1927

Monolith, Face of Half Dome

Easily one of Adams’ most famous and identifiable pieces, this surreal and impactful image helped firmly establish Adams’ as a prominent photographer in the art community. Taken in the spring 1927 on one of his first of many treks up to the high country, Adams cites Monolith as the first use of his ‘visualization” technique, which ultimately drove his lifelong career. With only two unexposed plates left, Adams positioned his view camera and used the first slide to capture a traditional exposure of the cliff's face. The result was an almost literal reproduction of the scene that lay before him. However, Ansel then realized the image he had envisioned in his mind demanded more impact than a conventional exposure could offer. As Adams recalls, “I knew so little about photography then, it was a miracle I got anything. But that was the first time I realized how the print was going to look—what I now call visualization—and was actually thinking about the emotional effect of the image…I began to visualize the black rock and deep sky. I really wanted to give it a monumental, dark quality. So I used the last plate I had with a No. 29-F red filter…and got this exciting picture.” The resulting photograph produced a dramatically darkened sky, which succeeded in evoking the emotion that Adams felt in that moment standing before the majestic rock face. This was also the birth of his visualization technique, in which Adams would imagine the final print in his mind’s eye before composing the aforementioned image and releasing the shutter. It would be this unique ability that would skyrocket his career.

Moonrise, Hernandez, c. 1941

Moonrise, Hernandez

Sometimes I do get to places just when God’s ready to have somebody click the shutter.”

Another one of Adams’ most remarkable photographs, this 1941 image taken in Hernandez, New Mexico, almost didn’t exist. The result of pure chance, this photograph is an excellent example of Ansel Adams’ exceptional talent. Moonrise is a perfect representation of the classic technique of “Rule of Thirds”; the white clouds sandwiched between rich black sky above and gray landscape below. As Adams was traveling home from a long, somewhat unsuccessful day of shooting, he witnessed the extraordinary scene from the driver’s seat of his old Pontiac station wagon and immediately - albeit somewhat recklessly, according to son Michael Adams - pulled the car over and began hastily setting up his tripod and 8x10 camera. "The reaction was so strong I practically drove off the road," recals Adams. He had a clear visualization of the image in his head, but was struggling to set everything up before the moment passed. A panicked Adams realized his light meter was no where to be found, and momentarily lost hope until remembering he knew the luminosity of the moon - 250 foot candles - and based his exposure on this recollection. After pressing the shutter, Ansel attempted to make a duplicate negative, but was just a few seconds too late - the moment had passed, as the sunlight shifted from the white crosses in the lower third of the frame. The result was the famous image which Adams regards as “certainly my most popular single image,” combining “serendipity and pure recall.”

moon and half dome.jpg
Moon and Half Dome, c.1960

Moon and Half Dome

Arguably the most iconic monument in Yosemite Valley, in this piece, Half Dome is not only beautifully framed by a silhouetted cliff face to the left, but also its own pitch-black shadow on the right. Hovering slightly to the left of the mountain’s highest peak is a slightly fading gibbous moon, and both are beautifully accented by a crystal clear Yosemite sky - darkened of course with a red filter, as Adams fancied. The mountain face’s grooves and intricacies are highlighted by the image’s immense contrast, thoroughly entertaining the eye. Combined with an extremely large depth of field, the resulting image strongly resembles portraiture, as Adams accents the majestic beauty of his beloved Half Dome. Images not unlike this one are the main cause of a surge in visitors to one of California’s most known National Parks in the 60s and 70s, drawing more travelers than ever before.

The Tetons and the Snake River, c. 1942

The Tetons and Snake River

To call this image beautiful would be an extreme understatement. In this astonishing image, Adams conveys the striking Teton mountain range in their full unconditional glory. Leading in from the bottom right of the frame, the impressive snake river twists and turns, basking in the soft sunlight as it winds its way up the frame before arriving at the base of the monumental snowy peaks. Behind the mountains is an explosion of light, radiating from behind the Tetons, creating the perfect accent to these looming majestic beasts, their faces blanketed in The result is a truly impressive representation of all the glory our nation’s landscape has to offer, and impressing upon the American public why precious vistas such as this must be conserved for future generations to enjoy. Tetons was sent into space aboard the Voyager spacecraft, one of only 115 images selected to convey information about humans, plants and animals, and geological features of Earth to possible alien life forms.

Adams is remembered not only as a legendary and groundbreaking photographer, but also as a vivid and quite outspoken advocate for environmental issues. He was very aware of the dangers of the evolving American commercial trend, believing that the National Parks System was the only true way to protect the nation’s valuable wilderness areas. After succeeding with Kings Canyon, Adams turned his attention to the Big Sur coastline and the Alaskan wilderness, among other projects, and fought ruthlessly for conservation until his death in 1984. He was awarded the Conservation Service Award by the Department of the Interior in 1968, a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980, the Sierra Club John Muir Award in 1963, and was inducted into the California Hall of Fame in 2007. In the same way that John Muir’s writings had an inspirational effect on the appreciation of Americans for wilderness, Adams’ photography has instilled a similar reaction in modern times, leading many to consider him “the visual John Muir”. Shortly after his death, the Minarets Wilderness south of Yosemite National Park was renamed the Ansel Adams Wilderness in his honor, and an 11,760-foot peak on the edge of Yosemite was named Mount Ansel Adams, ensuring that Ansel Adams will always be a part of the park which he held so close to his heart.

“I believe the approach of the artist and the approach of the environmentalist are fairly close in that both are, to a rather impressive degree, concerned with the ‘affirmation of life’….Response to natural beauty is one of the foundations of the environmental movement.” -Ansel Adams