Interview: Ansel Adams

Good Day Zensters and new readers!  On this very special edition of Photography Zen, we’d like to welcome, arguably one of the most famous photographers of our time, Mr. Ansel Adams.


Photography Zen:  Mr. Adams, it’s a great pleasure to have you here, I know your time is valuable so I won’t keep you long. We can proceed when you’re ready.

Ansel Adams:  Please, call me Ansel. Don’t worry, I have all the time in the world.

PZ:  Thank you Ansel. I know a lot of the readers are familiar with your work but know very little about you. Let’s begin with your childhood. Where were you born?

AA:  I was born in 1902 in the Western Addition neighborhood of San Francisco. When I was 5 we moved to Seacliff, which is just south of the Presidio Army Base. We had a splendid view of the Golden Gate and the Marin Headlands.

PZ:  Sounds beautiful.  So, the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, you were there.

AA:  *chuckles* Yes, I was. One of my earliest memories was watching the smoke from the ensuing fire that destroyed much of the city a few miles to the east. I was uninjured in the initial shaking, but was tossed face-first into a garden wall during an aftershock three hours later, breaking and scarring my nose. A doctor recommended that my nose be reset once he reached maturity, but as you can see, it still remains crooked.

PZ:  Wow, incredible!  Tell us more about your childhood. Did you play sports? Did you have many friends??

AA:  I was a hyperactive child and prone to frequent sickness and I really had few friends. Our family home and surroundings on the heights facing the Golden Gate provided ample childhood activities. I actually had no patience for games or sports, but I took to the beauty of nature at an early age, collecting bugs and exploring Lobos Creek all the way to Baker Beach and the sea cliffs leading to Lands End. I remember my father bought a three-inch telescope and we enthusiastically shared the hobby of amateur astronomy, visiting the Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton together. My father went on to serve as the paid secretary-treasurer of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific from 1925 to 1950.

PZ:  How about school? Were you a good student?


AA: *chuckles again*  I was dismissed from several private schools for being restless and inattentive, so my father decided to pull me out of school in 1915 at the age of 12. I was then educated by private tutors, my Aunt Mary, and my father.

PZ:  So, at age 12, did you already know you wanted to be a photographer?

AA:  Actually, I became interested in piano at age 12, and music became the main focus of my later youth. For the next twelve years, the piano was my primary occupation and, by 1920, my intended profession. Although I ultimately gave up music for photography, the piano brought substance, discipline, and structure to my frustrating and erratic youth. The careful training and exacting craft required of a musician profoundly informed my visual artistry, as well as my writings and teachings on photography.

PZ:  When did you get your first camera?

AA:  I first visited Yosemite National Park in 1916 with my family. The splendor of Yosemite burst upon us and it was glorious. One wonder after another descended upon us. There was light everywhere. A new era began for me. My father gave me my first camera during that stay, a Kodak Brownie box camera, and I took my first photographs with my “usual hyperactive enthusiasm”.

PZ:  What happened after that?

AA:  I returned to Yosemite on my own the following year with better cameras and a tripod. In the winter, I learned basic darkroom technique working part-time for a San Francisco photo finisher. I avidly read photography magazines, attended camera club meetings, and went to photography and art exhibits. I explored the High Sierra in summer and winter with retired geologist and amateur ornithologist Francis Holman, whom I called “Uncle Frank,” developing the stamina and skill needed to photograph at high elevation and under difficult weather conditions.

PZ:  That takes us to 1917. You were still considering piano as a career choice at this point?

AA:  Very much so. While in Yosemite, I had frequent contact with the Best family, owners of Best’s Studio, who allowed me to practice on their old square piano. In summer, I  would enjoy a life of hiking, camping, and photographing, and the rest of the year I worked to improve my piano playing, expanding my piano technique and musical expression. I also gave piano lessons for extra income, finally affording a grand piano suitable to my musical ambitions.


PZ:  At what point did you know photography would be your future??

AA:  My first photographs were published in 1921, and Best’s Studio began selling my Yosemite prints the following year. At this point, however, I was still planning a career in music, even though I felt that my small hands limited my repertoire. It took seven more years for me to conclude that, at best, I might only become a concert pianist of limited range, an accompanist, or a piano teacher.

PZ:  It seems you were pretty confident you’d be successful as a photographer.

AA:  In 1927, I produced my first portfolio in my new style Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras, which included my now famous image, Monolith, the Face of Half Dome, taken with my Korona view camera using glass plates and a dark red filter, to heighten the tonal contrasts. On that excursion, I had only one plate left and I visualized the effect of the blackened sky before risking the last shot. I had been able to realize a desired image- not the way the subject appeared in reality but how it felt to me and how it must appear in the finished print. My photographs had now reached a stage when they were worthy of the world’s critical examination. I had suddenly come upon a new style which I believed would place my work equal to anything of its kind.

PZ:  And that they did Mr Ada…I mean Ansel, That they did. So your first portfolio was a success??

AA:  My first portfolio was a success, earning nearly $3,900 with the sponsorship and promotion of Albert Bender, an arts-connected businessman. Soon I received commercial assignments to photograph the wealthy patrons who bought my portfolio. I also came to understand how important it was that my carefully crafted photos were reproduced to best effect. At Bender’s invitation, I joined the Roxburghe Club, an association devoted to fine printing and high standards in book arts. I learned much about printing techniques, inks, design, and layout which I later applied to other projects. Unfortunately, at that time most of my darkroom work was still being done in the basement of my parents’ home, and I was limited by barely adequate equipment.

PZ: So that brings us to about 1930. This seems like a good place to take a break. Would you like to have some lunch?

AA: I’d love to.



To be continued…




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