Artist, Teacher, Conservationist

By Bill Dobbins

Ansel Adams developed The Zone System to determine exactly how the various tones of the grey scale would appear in the final print.

Photographers tend to know about other photographers and we all have those we most admire and appreciate.  But the general publics does not share this interest.  Talk to somebody at random and there are two photographers whose names they might be expected to recognize:  Annie Leibovitz, because her work is so often publicized and on display in the media; and Ansel Adams, whose images of desert and mountain landscapes are not only universally admired and accepted but also represent a view of the land very much in ascendence in this age of growing concern about conservation and preservation of the wilderness.

Those with deeper knowledge of Adams recognize he was a major artist and a master craftsman.  At a time when little of the modern technology of image making existed, he developed methods of choosing materials, manipulating exposure, development, chemistry and printing techniques to make BW photographs with a carefully calculated contrast and tonal range that represented a result he had very deliberately pre-visualized before clicking the shutter.

Moonrise Hernandez – Ansel Adams was driving along the road in New Mexico at dusk, saw this scene, got out and put his view camera and tripod on top of the car, guessed at the exposure and had time for only one shot before the light changed and the effect disappeared.   A straight print of this photo does not have the dramatic contrast of this print which has the benefit of much exposure control, dodging and burning.

He organized his knowledge in something he called The Zone System and published a comprehensive series of books that became his major work effort in the 1950s and 1960s after he had stopped producing very much at all of the iconic photos he is now famous for. That was the second major phase of his career.  The final one developed when the modern fine art market for photos evolved in the 1970s and his long-admired prints took on considerable monetary collector value.  Adams had frequently struggle financially over the years but toward the end he was increasingly able to make decent money.

Ansel Adams is closely identified with photographs of Yosemite, which he first visited in 1916 when he was 12 years old.  He loved the light and the space and began shooting photo sof the park with a simple Kodak Brownie.  By 1921 he was a published photographer and began studying photographic and darkroom techniques with a hyperactive intensity that he was well known for.

This is actually an abstract photo. Is is mostly in focus from a few feet away to the distant mountains. The human eye focuses on one plane and does not work like this.  So this deep focus representation of the scene – achieved using a view camera with swings and tilts and a very small aperture – while dramatic, is abstract and artificial.

Photography was not yet 100 years old when Adams began his efforts to become a master artist and craftsman.  Materials like film, chemicals and photographic paper were not what they became later on.  Photographers were just migrating from platinum to silver prints.  Look at vintage prints of the period and they generally seem flat and to lack contrast compared to how they appear when reproduced in books.  Or compared to more modern photographic print versions of the same images.  Adams was always looking for better ways of shooting and processing photos to come up with higher quality images with more interesting tonal and contrast ranges.  So the prints he produced over the course of his career were among the best of any photographer but they continued to change over time, for example with deeper blacks and a longer dynamic range.

An Ansel Adams color photograph. A nice enough picture but it is obvious the Adams magic is missing. His BW photos were about contrast, graphics and tone. Color photos are about color.

 But Ansel Adams also realized early on that he wasn’t really shooting dramatic views of El Capitan or the Yosemite Valley.  He knew his subjects were primarily light and weather.  “Photography” means painting or drawing with light.  The camera doesn’t capture a subject directly but the light that is reflected off of it.  So another photographer could shoot a photo from the exact spot where a famous Ansel Adams picture was made but if the weather and light conditions weren’t right the result would be disappointing.

Ansel Adams’ prints have increased in value. But nowhere near the price of Phantom by Peter Lik – which was sold for a record $6.5 million. Remember, the art market goes by perceived, not intrinsic, value.  It’s just a matter of opinion.

Ansel Adams didn’t only shoot photos of landscapes.  He also created pictures of other subjects like trees and rocks, buildings, fences and flowers.  But he is remembered for the most part for his photos of southwestern landscapes.  Of course, at the time he first started shooting these photos there was not yet an organized conservation movement, no environmentalism nor sense that these natural wonders were finite and in the process of being diminished or lost.  So Adams wasn’t seen as a champion of conservation nor really as a master artist.  Until recently photography was only valued as fine art by a few.  He was considered a very fine photographer who did lovely pictures of beautiful landscape.

Until the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s, when the fine art market for photos began to explode, you could buy an Ansel Adams print very inexpensively.  More recently, thanks to collectors like  Sam Wagstaff, photography as fine art became very desirable, especially vintage prints of the masters, and prices are continuing to soar.

Ansel Adams didn’t only shoot landscape. But this photo shows his customary attention to controlling contrast and tonal variation to create a striking graphic effect.
Ansel Adams is one of the most published photographers of all time, author of dozens of books – which has certainly help grow and preserve his reputation.
The days of film where craft and technique were more essential to making photos, Ansel Adams was a great innovator, teacher and source of information.
Ansel Adams shot almost always with large format view camera, using very small apertures. (He was a founder of the f64 club). It was from a car top like this he was able to hurriedly capture his iconic photo Moonrise Hernandez.

Of course, Adams was certainly  appreciated during his career.  In the 1930s and 1940s he had many exhibitions of his work and published numerous books featuring portfolios his photos as well.  But by the 1950s almost all of the major photos he is known for were already done and he began to put more emphasis on teaching and publishing “how to” books about subjects like exposing and developing the negative, making prints and other technical aspects of creating photos.

Ansel Adams Wilderness, California
Ansel Adams considered himself to be a photographer of light and weather.  A photo done at from tis view at different time, with  different light and weather might look more suitable for a postcard than fine art.

Adams created the concept of The Zone System – a method of controlling exposure, development and printing in BW photography to achieve the exact spread of tones in the final result to produce the effect visualized by the photographer when clicking the shutter.     In the digital age we have the use of histogram displays, various kind of tone mapping and other ways of making sure the brights and the darks in an image are where we want them to be.  But the basic principles of The Zone System and what it teaches us about  proper exposure and contrast sill apply when it comes to visualizing the look of a final photo.

Another interesting thing about Ansel Adams’ career and his efforts as a teacher is that  he made his negatives available to students to learn by creating their own prints.  This is in start contrast to Brett Weston who burned his negatives in the belief that nobody should print another photographer’s work.   This seems to many like the height of egotism and is contradicted by the fact that many great photographers used others to make their prints.  Helmut Newton, for example, didn’t do his own printing but worked carefully with printers and supervised their efforts to get the results he wanted.  And many others have done the same.

Brett Weston (son of Edward Weston) was a master photographer who believed nobody could or should print the work of another photographer and burned 75 of his negatives at the end of his life. Unlike Ansel Adams who made his negatives available to be printed by students.

But however much technology changes and evolves, what will not change is the appreciation and reverence for the unspoiled land and the wilderness that we see in Ansel Adams photos.  He not only created beautiful photographs but images that represent an ideal that inspires our appreciation for the land and energizes our further efforts at conservation and protection of the glories of the natural landscape.

Oilseed mining. Ansel Adams’ photographs remind us of how amazing the unspoiled landscape, not ruined by human efforts, can be.  And motivates us to care more about the environment.

Ansel Adams was a great photographer, artist and a teacher but along with others like John Muir a pioneer and highly influential environmentalist and conservationist.


Bill Dobbins is a pro photographer located in the Westwood area of Los Angeles.  He is a veteran photographer and videographer who has published eight books, including two fine art photo books:

The Women: Photographs of The Top Female Bodybuilders (Artisan)
Modern Amazons (Tashen)





EMAIL: billdobbinsphoto@gmail.com

 This post is intended to educate and inform on photography and the history of photography and to lend critical insight into the nature and cultural impact of photographs.  Images are published pursuant to the Fair Use except to the copyright act.  If any copyright holder objects to this use the images in question will be promptly removed.

Ansel Adams in 1984 – master photographer, concert pianist, teacher, conservationist and environmentalist. Certainly deserving of being one of perhaps only two photographers well known to the general public.
Ansel Adams photographed El Capitan and Half Dome in Yosemite many dozens of times over the decades. This fantastic landscape was only discovered by Americans in 1854, less than 50 years before Adams’ birth.