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Saturday, February 19, 2011

Ansel Adams

One of the most interesting questions you can ask an artist is: "If you hadn't become an artist, what might you have been?" Had I not become an painter/teacher, I would probably have become an architect. Many of us, of course, have what I call "slash" careers, painter/mother or painter/engineer, painter/neurosurgeon, etc. So what I'm speaking of is often not an either-or proposition, but mostly I'm concerned with the painter side of the slash. If you hadn't become an artist, what would you have been? Many of us, in fact, probably came perilously close to actually becoming something else. Give or take a chance meeting here, an unexpected success there, and some of us might have become shoe salesmen, plumbers, or pumpkin growers. But we were lucky, had just the right influences, just the right deciding moments, and just the right good fortune to be where we are today.

On February 20, 1902, at 114 Maple Street in San Francisco, was born a baby boy, the only child of Olive and Charles Adams. He was a bright, talented youth...and lucky. He managed to come through the 1906 San Francisco earthquake with only a broken nose. Though something of a misfit in the public schools, he did well in a private school, took piano lessons, and in 1925, at the age of twenty-three he decided to become a concert pianist. He even bought his own Mason and Hamlin grand piano. However that's about as close as he ever came to the concert hall. Some nine years earlier, in 1916, at the age of fourteen, he had persuaded his parents to take a family vacation to Yosemite National Park. It was on this trip he took his first photographs. Today his name is practically synonymous with the park, the Sierra Club, and outdoor nature photography. There is even a mountain in the park named for him--Mount Ansel Adams.

Monolith, Face of Half Dome, 1927, Ansel Adams
 Though outdoor nature photography was already several decades old before young Ansel ever picked up a camera, no one had ever photographed nature as he did. Monumental surroundings demanded monumental photographic works of art. Even with the advent of color photography late in his life, his work was never at a loss for beauty and grandeur for lack of color. The professional equipment was heavy, awkward, and burdensome. His chief assistant was Mistletoe, his burro, laden with the tools of his trade. His first masterpiece, Monolith, the Face of Half Dome, was made when he was just twenty-five. For the next sixty years almost, his "visualizations" as he called them, were the face of Yosemite, in fact, of most of the National Parks in the whole country. Despite having lost over 5,000 negatives in a fire at his Yosemite darkroom in 1937, his work survives today as the most outstanding art and textbook of nature photography ever created. And to think, except for a seemingly arbitrary family vacation in the mountains, Ansel Adams might have become "merely" a concert pianist.

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