Ansel Adams was born in 1902 in San Francisco, California. His family came to California from New England, having immigrated from Ireland in the early 1700s. His grandfather founded a prosperous lumber business, which Adams’ father eventually inherited. Later in life, Adams would condemn that industry for depleting the redwood forests.
In 1916, following a trip to Yosemite National Park, he began experimenting with photography. He learned darkroom techniques and read photography magazines, attended camera club meetings and went to photography and art exhibits. He developed and sold his early photographs at Best’s Studio in Yosemite Valley.
In 1928, Ansel Adams married Virginia Best, the daughter of the Best’s Studio propretor. Virginia inherited the studio from her artist father on his death in 1935, and the couple continued to operated the studio until 1971. The business, now know as the Ansel Adams Gallery, remains in the family.
Adams’ professional breakthrough followed the publication of his first portfolio, Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras, which included his famous image “Monolith, the Face of Half Dome.” The portfolio was a success, leading to a number of commercial assignments.
Between 1929 and 1942, Adams’ work and reputation developed. Adams expanded his repertoire, focusing on detailed close-ups, as well as large forms, from mountains to factories. He spent time in New Mexico with artists including Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keefe and Paul Strand. He also began to publish essays and instructional books on photography.
During this period, Adams joined photographers Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans in their commitment to affecting social and political change through art. Adams’ first cause was the protection of wilderness areas, including Yosemite. After the internment of Japanese people during World War II, Adams photographed life in the camps for a photo essay on wartime justice.
Weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Adams shot a scene of the moon rising above a village. Adams re-interpreted the image, titled Moonrise, Hernandez Village, New Mexico, over nearly four decades, making over a thousand unique prints that helped him to achieve financial stability.
By the 1960s, appreciation of photography as an art form had expanded to the point at which Adams’ images were shown in larger galleries and museums.
In 1974, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York hosted a retrospective exhibition of his work. Adams spent much of the 1970s printing negatives in order to satisfy demand for his iconic works. Adams died on April 22, 1984 in Monterey, California.