Ansel Adams, 1902 – 1984

February 20, 1902 – Birthdate of Ansel Adams, American photographer and environmentalist.

His black-and-white landscape photographs of the American West, especially Yosemite National Park, have been widely reproduced on calendars, posters, and books.

With Fred Archer, Adams developed the Zone System as a way to determine proper exposure and adjust the contrast of the final print. The resulting clarity and depth characterized his photographs. Adams primarily used large-format cameras because their high resolution helped ensure sharpness in his images.

Adams founded the photography group known as Group f/64 along with fellow photographers Willard Van Dyke and Edward Weston.

Adams was born in San Francisco, California, to Charles Hitchcock Adams and Olive Bray Adams. An only child, he was named after his uncle Ansel Easton. His mother’s family came from Baltimore, where his maternal grandfather had a successful freight-hauling business but lost his wealth investing in failed mining and real estate ventures in Nevada.  The Adams family came from New England, having migrated from the north of Ireland in the early 18th century. His paternal grandfather founded and built a prosperous lumber business, which his father later ran, though his father’s natural talents lay more with sciences than with business. Later in life, Adams would condemn that very same industry for cutting down many of the great redwood forests.

Adams became interested in piano at age 12. Music became the main focus of his later youth. His father sent him to piano teacher Marie Butler, who focused on perfectionism and accuracy. After four years of studying under her guidance, Adams moved on to other teachers, one being composer Henry Cowell.  For the next twelve years, the piano was Adams’ primary occupation and, by 1920, his intended profession. Although he ultimately gave up music for photography, the piano brought substance, discipline and structure to his frustrating and erratic youth. Moreover, the careful training and exacting craft required of a musician profoundly informed his visual artistry, as well as his influential writings and teachings on photography.

His legacy includes helping to elevate photography to an art comparable with painting and music, and equally capable of expressing emotion and beauty. He told his students, “It is easy to take a photograph, but it is harder to make a masterpiece in photography than in any other art medium.”

Art critic John Szarkowski wrote “Ansel Adams attuned himself more precisely than any photographer before him to a visual understanding of the specific quality of the light that fell on a specific place at a specific moment. For Adams the natural landscape is not a fixed and solid sculpture but an insubstantial image, as transient as the light that continually redefines it. This sensibility to the specificity of light was the motive that forced Adams to develop his legendary photographic technique.”

Adams died on April 22, 1984, in Monterey, California at the age of 82 from cardiovascular disease.

In June 2002, the United States issued a 37-cent postage stamp honoring Adams and his work (Scott #3649p ) as part of a set of 20 stamps entitled “Masters of American Photography”.  The stamp features Adams’ 1948 photograph, “Sand Dunes, Sunrise”.

ansel adams - sand dunes - usa - june 2002

Perhaps off the beaten path for many stamp collectors is another Adams photograph in the example shown here,  a 32-cent stamp commemorating the settlement of New Mexico, which was a stamp design not chosen for printing and distribution to the public.  It has been presented by Dick Sheaff – a designer and art director of over 500 U.S. stamps – on his website, which also has many other U.S. stamp designs that were never released.

Ansel Adams - Settlement of New Mexico - unreleased stamp


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