Ansel Adams – A Nature Loving Pioneer

“When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.”

Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams The Tetons and the Snake River (1942) Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. Ansel Adams took this photograph while employed by the United States Government, for copyright information see

Ansel Adams (1902-1984) was one of America’s most famous photographers and an ardent environmental champion and activist. By the age of 78 he had been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom – equivalent to a knighthood – the highest accolade that can be awarded to a civilian. Yet if Ansel had been born now, he would have been labeled with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and medicated with methylphenidate to control him in the classroom.

Ansel was described as a hyperactive child prone to sickness and hypochondria. Such was his lack of attention and disruptiveness in school that he had been expelled from several schools when his father decided to homeschool him at the age of 12. His biographer Mary Street Alinder tells us that “Ansel had to be in motion at all times; otherwise he would twitch with frustration, his mind flitting along with his body… Whenever he had to sit in the classroom, he would fidget, yearning to be set loose in the wonderful outdoors… in the classroom he felt enchained.”

Whether due to Ansel’s innate high energy, possible dyslexia or the facial disfigurement caused by a badly broken nose from an earthquake at the age of 4, Ansel just didn’t fit in at school. However, his father to whom he was very close, bought a plot on the still-wild edge of San Francisco and built a modest timber house. The family – his wife, her elderly sister and father, and Ansel – the only child – moved there when Ansel was six. Out of school he was free to explore the sand dunes and Lobos Creek, entranced by the outdoors and all its other-than-human inhabitants, and utilizing his energy in long hikes to the edge of the continent. He also developed a passion for music which he taught himself.

At 14 he experienced a life-changing holiday. His parents took him to Yosemite for his birthday and gave him a Kodak Box Brownie – his first camera. The impact on Ansel was immense. From then on, in his own words, he was “colored and modulated by the great earth gesture” of the Yosemite Sierra. “The splendor of Yosemite burst upon us and it was glorious…. One wonder after another descended upon us…. There was light everywhere…. A new era began for me.” This was the beginning of his lifelong passion for America’s wildest places and for his photography for which he became internationally famous.

In the last 25 years since the definition of ADHD was established, rates of diagnosis have shot up. In the United States, sales of methylphenidate hydrochloride (Ritalin) the main drug used to suppress ADHD increased by 83% between 2006 and 2010. Three years later 9% of all youth visits to community-based physicians involved a prescription for ADHD medication (Dr. David Rabinder) although national statistics put this a bit lower at 5.2% (ADHD Institute). By 2015 in the United Kingdom, Ritalin was being prescribed to just under a million children. It is not without side effects. Ritalin can reduce a child’s growth by ¾ inch over a year and precipitate self-harming behaviour. In 2013 global methylphenidate consumption increased to 2.4 billion doses, a 66% increase from the year before, with the US accounting for 80% of prescriptions. And this is just one of six drugs used as treatment.

How different would Ansel’s life had been if he had been born in the last 25 years? The confinement of children to classrooms and adults to offices where long periods of inactivity and quiet are de rigueur is a relatively recent cultural phenomenon in the evolution of humans. Methylphenidate improves focus and performance on difficult and boring tasks, and schools and offices are where society now expects to the majority of its population to thrive. There is a large debate to be had as to whether medication is the right answer to abandoning our lives as outdoor, foraging, roaming creatures.

In Ansel’s case, an understanding father liberated him from his failures in the classroom and his discovery of Yosemite ignited a passion that drove him to achieve international fame.

Ansel visited Yosemite every year until his death in 1984 at 82. There he met leaders of conservation movements who inspired him and his wife Virginia Best with whom he had two children. His photography skills developed and his first photographs and writings were published at the age of 20 in The Sierra Club’s 1922 Bulletin. In 1927 he met his wealthy patron, the magnate Albert M. Bender. He had just completed his first Sierra Club High Trip as the paid expedition photographer and taken one of his most well-known photographs ‘Monolith, the Face of the Half Dome’. Bender immediately sponsored the publication of Ansel’s first portfolio “Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras”. He had his first one-man exhibition at the club’s San Francisco headquarters in 1928. With Bender’s encouragement and support his career took off.

In 1930 a limited edition book Taos Pueblo was published with the inspirational Mary Austin. In 1932, Group f/64 that he’d founded with fellow photographer Edward Weston exhibited at San Francisco’s DeYoung Museum. This brought West Coast photography to the public’s attention. He also had his first one-man museum show there. With his photographic career on a high trajectory, he finally abandoned music as a career. However, his love of music always stayed with him and, being a hyperkinetic, sociable livewire at parties, was often persuaded to play the piano to entertain his friends usually fuelled by a drink or two. A friend Beaumont Newhall recalled “Ansel was a great party man and loved to entertain. He had a very dominating personality, and would always be the center of attention”. But this energy was also highly focussed on advancing photography. With the Newhall’s Ansel helped to establish the first museum photography department at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Throughout his career Ansel mainly worked as a commercial photographer and technical adviser to camera companies. His technical skills were unsurpassed in this emerging art. However, he found the time he had to devote to commercial work frustrating. His heart was in his own work and his annual return to Yosemite. His contemporary, filmmaker Van Dyke described Ansel’s landscapes as photographs that “wakened a sense of wildness”. His passion was for realism and detail, whilst also evoking the true spirit and emotion of the places that he beheld.

As time passed, motivated by his deep nature connection and appalled at the changes he saw as tourism grew, he became a committed, impassioned conservationist. Relentlessly active, he fought against the intrusion of highways and commercialization of the wild spaces. He fought for national parks, reservations, sanctuaries, wilderness and wild animals under threat. Yet despite the thousands of letters he wrote to newspapers and lawmakers and meetings attended, it was his photographs of the majesty of nature that touched the nation’s heart with awe for the wildness of their native landscape.

Ansel Adams was a great man. He overcame his childhood challenges with nature – the best cure – and focused, more than his life his very being, in pursuit of the wildness that we find deep within us all.

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