MacAllaster House

Ansel Adams


Ansel Adams (1902-1984) was one of the most important landscape photographers of the twentieth century and also a fervent environmental conservationist. Throughout his career he timelessly captured rich, black-and-white film photographs of American landscapes, particularly focusing on the West, national parks, and “the country’s remaining fragments of untouched wilderness” (Encyclopedia Britannica). While other photographers of his generation were simply photographing the West, Adams was able to capture the true ephemerality of these places and thus present them as priorities for preservation. He was dedicated to developing the art of photography technologically, in terms of precision and sharp focus, and elevating the medium to the status of a fine art. He is also recognized for formulating, with Fred Archer, the Zone System, a photographic technique which optimized film and its development. While he would eventually experiment with color photography, he enjoyed the expression found in black-and-white photography, and the ability to freely manipulate black-and-white negatives.  

Born in San Francisco in 1902, Adams grew up a restless child with a love for nature. His father pulled him out of school at the age of age of twelve — after which he spent a majority of his time mastering the piano, while also developing an eye for photography after receiving his first camera in 1916. His admiration for Western landscapes developed in the twenties while he was working as a custodian for the Sierra Club lodge in Yosemite National Park, and by 1930 he had decided to dedicate his life to capturing these astounding natural spaces. In 1935, he published his first technical book, Making a Photograph, and in 1940, Adams helped establish the Museum of Modern Art’s photography department, the first such department at a major American art museum. By 1950, Adams had produced the majority of his most recognized images and focused the second half of his life on writing and reinterpreting his work.  

Adams’s work has been featured in numerous publications, and he himself published over fifty books of photographs and writing. His work continues to be collected by and exhibited in museums and galleries worldwide. In honor of his photography, he was awarded an Honorary Fellowship of the Royal Photographic Society in 1976, and the Hasselblad Award in 1981. He received an honorary doctorate from Harvard University and an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree from Yale University. For his work in environmental conservation, he received the Sierra Club’s John Muir Award in 1963, and in 1980 President Carter awarded him the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

– Research and writing by Eva Yeo, SLU Class of 2023



“Ansel Adams.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., accessed January 4, 2023.