Ansel Adams - The Early Years

The Influence Of A Brownie Camera On Black and White Photography

What was a turning point in Ansel Adams’s life and why was a brownie camera a part of it?

Ansel Adams (1902-1984) is one of the most influential American photographers in history. His iconic photographs of the National Parks have created and shaped our identity as a country. They captured America’s natural beauty and defined aspects of the American landscape. Ansel Adams’ iconic black and white nature photography art prints elevated nature photography to more than taking “pretty pictures” but instead created national admiration and respect for the great American outdoors.

It is always interesting when reviewing the lives of extraordinary talented men and women, to stop and look at their beginnings. What were their childhoods like? Who influenced them? Why did they choose the path they did? Were there turning points in their life that changed their journey or did they follow a straight path to success and fame?

photo of ansel adams with camera
Portrait of Ansel Adams by J. Malcolm Greany. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The Early Years – Before Ansel Adams Became a Famous Photographer

Ansel Adams was born on February 20th, 1902, in San Francisco, the son of Charles Hitchcock Adams, a businessman, and Olive Bray who was 40 when Ansel was born. Adams was the grandson of a wealthy timber baron and grew up near the Golden Gate Bridge. The family fortune collapsed in the financial panic of 1907 and Ansel’s father was not able to restore the family fortune to pre-1907 levels which affected his mother’s approach to life as well as her relationship with her son. Adams’ older parents, affluent family history, and the live-in presence of other family members created an environment that was socially and emotionally conservative.

Ansel Adams had problems fitting in at school. Some problems were due to a natural shyness and some were due to a physical issue (an “earthquake nose” as he called it – his nose was broken during an earthquake). It is also possible that he may have dealt with hyperactivity or dyslexia. Eventually, his father and aunt tutored him at home and he earned what he called a “legitimizing diploma” which may be equal to an 8th-grade education. At this point, there were no indications that one day Ansel Adams would become a world-renowned photographer.

When Adams was twelve, he taught himself to play the piano and read music. His mother was an accomplished concert pianist so the genetic disposition for piano was present. He eventually began taking lessons and his pursuit of music became a substitute for formal schooling. The piano became his primary focus and, by 1920, it became his intended profession. He was a serious musician who was considered by many to be a highly gifted pianist. Although the piano did not become his occupation, his devotion to music and the piano brought structure and discipline into his life.

photo of tree with snow in Yosemite by Ansel Adams
Tree With Snow in Yosemite Valley by Ansel Adams. Courtesy of National Archives Photo 79-AAU-1

A Change of Direction – A Gift and a Trip that Changed Everything

Due to the somewhat solitary aspect of his life, Ansel Adams developed a love of nature as he explored the Golden Gate area around his home. There were sand dunes to hike and long stretches of water to walk alongside. His love of nature grew and gave joy and meaning to his life.

In 1916, two events collided. First, Ansel Adams received a gift from his parents that would change the long-range trajectory of his life…. A Kodak No. 1 Box Brownie camera. Second, He made his first trip to the Yosemite Sierra Nevada area. Soon he was hiking and photographing the landscape of the Sierra Nevadas with his new Kodak Brownie Camera. It is important to note that Adams spent time there every year until his death.

In 1919, he joined the Sierra Club and spent several summers in Yosemite Valley, as custodian of the club’s LeConte Memorial Lodge in Yosemite National Park. It was during this time that he began creating impressive landscape photographs of the Yosemite Valley and the High Sierra.

The Importance of the Sierra Club on the Ansel Adams Photography Journey

The Sierra Club played an important role in Adams’ career path as a photographer. The club’s 1922 Bulletin contained his first published photographs. He had his first one-man photography exhibition at the club’s San Francisco headquarters. Most importantly, the club had a month-long High Trip in the Sierra Nevada where they would hike to a new campsite each day. The group which could have up to two hundred in attendance would be accompanied by pack mules, cooks, and so forth. Ansel became the trip photographer and was paid to do so. He began to realize he could make money being a photographer.

Fast Forward – 1927 – Three Important Events

In 1927, Adams made his first fully visualized photograph, Monolith, the Face of Half Dome, and took his first High Trip. He also met Albert M. Bender, a San Francisco insurance magnate and patron of arts and artists. Soon after meeting, Bender began promoting Adams’ work. His friendship, encouragement, and financial support changed Adams’s life dramatically as Adams came to realize that photography could truly be a means of financial support.

photo of grand tetons and snake river by ansel adams
The Snake River and the Grand Tetons by Ansel Adams, Courtesy of National Archives Photo 79-AAG-1

1930 – A Change in Direction – and a New Influence on Ansel Adams

In 1930, Adams met photographer Paul Strand, whose photographs emphasized creating sharp-focused, objective images versus the (at that time) popular style of Pictorialism, which emulated the effects of painting in photographs by manipulating negatives and prints. Adams began to pursue “straight photography,” in which the clarity of the lens was emphasized, and the final print gave no appearance of being manipulated in the camera or the darkroom. Adams was soon to become straight photography’s most vocal supporter as he captured America’s National Parks with his black and white iconic photos.

The Importance of Small Events in Ansel Adams’ Photography Journey

As you can see, Ansel Adams’ life was influenced and shaped by small events and moments that would have a great effect on his life. There is a saying….. when making decisions to choose carefully…. As you never know what hangs in the balance. As with many of us… small moments can greatly influence the direction of our lives. In Ansel’s life, the gift of a Brownie camera; joining a club; meeting others … all were small events that changed the trajectory of his life.

Truly amazing when you think about it…… Ansel Adams’ life’s journey….. his becoming a world-renown photographer who created iconic black and white photographs ….. began with a simple gift…. a Kodak Brownie Camera.


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