Photographer Adams Sharpened Focus While Growing Up in West-side Dunes

By Ryder W. Miller

Ansel Adams, who grew up on San Francisco's west side in the sand dunes with a view of the Golden Gate before the building of the bridge, became a San Francisco historical icon and national star photographer who helped save the natural places he learned to cherish from early on.

He has been an inspiration to generations of photographers because he helped elevate the status of fine artists.

As a young man he gave up piano playing to pursue photography, which became his life. He taught, wrote, curated and lectured in the field, bringing attention to the City, the west, and the field of preservation.

He was born in 1902 in the Western Addition, but his parents moved to a home in the Seacliff when he was young. The house on north 24th Avenue, at the edge of the Presidio, is considered a potential historic resource and was part of the SF Planning Department's 1976 architectural survey.

Adams retired in Carmel, dying on Earth Day, April 22, 1984. In his time he created some of the most famous wilderness photographs of his era. He grew up with a view of the Marin Headlands and took pictures of the bridge-less Golden Gate.

Adams could be considered in the tradition of the famous landscape painters (Bierstad, Church, etc.), who helped celebrate The West, and can be found at the M.H. de Young Museum.

He was from a time when photography was not recognized as fine art. He developed new techniques and helped make the craft more respectable and admired.

Late in his career, Adams was recognized by President Jimmy Carter, who commissioned him for the first photographic portrait of a president for the White House.
During his life he took photographs for the Sierra Club, but he was also a freelancer with an erratic income. He took pictures for Life, Fortune, Kodak, IBM and more.

His iconic pictures got people to care about the west and national parks and he had governmental assignments to photograph the national parks. He is widely known for his pictures of Yosemite, but he also made it to Death Valley and Alaska. He also loved photographing the Southwest.

Bill Turnage, a former president of the Wilderness Society, is quoted as saying: "If Henry David Thoreau was the philosopher of the wilderness movement, and John Muir its popularizer, Ansel Adams was its artist."

Adams was on the board of directors for the Sierra Club for 30 years, and was a spokesman for the protection of the wilderness. He was also one of the photographic artists for The Club, which published some of his books.
Lesser known are his portraits, still lifes and social commentary photographs of the Japanese internment camp at Manzanar in Owens Valley, which were recently shown in San Francisco at the Scott Nichols Gallery, where he is a staple. He photographed the interned people with dignity and they were sometimes cheerful despite the hard situation they were in.

"I did not make myself a landscape photographer - the public did," he once said.

But that is what he is widely remembered for.

Author Andrea G. Stillman in "Looking At Ansel Adams, the Photographs and the Man (2012)," writes of his photographs: "They make the grandeur of the West even grander. His peaks seem higher, his clouds more glorious, the sun brighter."

Adams was friends with Georgia O'Keefe, Dorothea Lange, Alfred Stieglitz (who showed some of his photographs in his New York City gallery), Edward Weston, and others.

"Ansel has made some of the mightiest landscapes yet," Weston said.

But Adams thought Weston was the best photographer.

Adams helped develop some new photographic techniques during his time and took more than 20,000 photographs during his life.

Some of his photographs have become a lot harder to find, said gallery owner Scott Nichols.

Adam's "mantra" was that photographs were "assignments from within, not without." He left behind the lesson that people should seek and create beauty.

"I hope that my work will encourage self-expression in others and stimulate the search for beauty and creative excitement in the great world around us," Adams said.

He has inspired many to care and explore the West.

"Ansel and his work gave me a reverence for America's wild places and an understanding of the need to conserve our remaining wilderness," Stillman said.