by Budd Titlow
Choosing a professional career is typically a difficult decision for anyone to make. For years, I aspired to be a full-time nature photographer, making a living by sharing my love for the bounteous breadth of beauty that breathed life into every one of my footsteps in the great outdoors. After a few years of trying, I realized that there was simply too much competition and I should just be happy with the occasional opportunities I had to see—and capture—nature in its rawest and most inspiring forms.
That’s why I will forever remain in awe of a man who had the requisite skills and desire to be both a concert pianist and a master photographer. Fortunately for legions of nature lovers and conservationists throughout the US, he eschewed the performance halls and proceeded to become the greatest landscape photographer the world has ever known.
Ansel Adams was born in the Western Addition of San Francisco in 1902—just four years before the city’s “Great Quake”—an event that etched a permanent disfigurement into his remarkably memorable face. While he was uninjured by the quake’s primary rocking and rolling, an aftershock sent him tumbling into a garden wall. The face-first smash broke his nose and he never bothered to have it surgically repaired. That’s why any portrait you see of Adams makes him look like a cherubic gremlin—his round face festooned by outsized ears and a nose that looks like it has been knocked askance in a street fight.
First visiting Yosemite National Park in 1916—only two years after John Muir’s death and three months before the founding of the National Park Service—Adams stood mesmerized by the landmark’s iconic splendor. While music was still his primary passion and planned profession, this first Yosemite experience at age 14 planted the sparks that burned brightly in his brain for what the future might hold. From that day forward, he joyfully explored the natural world—especially his beloved Yosemite—while attempting to capture black-and-white replicas of the grandeur he saw at every turn.
Ansel Adams understood the masterful use of nuanced gradations in black-and-white scenery to produce iconically memorable images better than any other photographer who has ever lived.
In 1927, Adams got the break that changed his life forever when he was named the Sierra Club’s official trip photographer. Afterwards, his role in the Sierra Club grew rapidly and the group’s organized hikes and talks became vital to his early success as a photographer with his first photographs and writings published in the Sierra Club Bulletin. He also became politically involved in the club’s environmental activities—suggesting proposals for improving parks and wilderness areas—and soon became widely known as both an artist and ardent representative of Yosemite National Park.
Between 1929 and 1942, Adams expanded his repertoire, focusing on detailed close-ups as well as large formats images of everything from mountains to factories. He spent a great deal of time in New Mexico hobnobbing with such other well-known artists as Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Paul Strand. During this period, Adams also joined photographers Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans in their commitment to affecting social and political change through art. After the internment of Japanese people during World War II, Adams photographed life in the camps for a photo-essay on wartime injustices.
The first use of Adams’ images for environmental purposes occurred when the Sierra Club was seeking the creation of a national park in the Kings River region of the Sierra Nevada. Adams lobbied Congress for a Kings Canyon National Park and created an impressive, limited-edition book entitled Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail which influenced both Interior Secretary Harold Ickes and President Franklin Roosevelt to embrace the Kings Canyon Park idea. The park was created in 1940. [v]
Adam’s iconic black-and-white landscape images—especially those of the American West—have since inspired millions of people. His master photographs and skilled writings—including more than 40 books—helped expand the National Park System and the nascent Sierra Club. His collective works have been hailed as providing the foremost record of what many of our national parks were like before the advent of tourism. While he diligently pursued his crafts, Adams also tirelessly advocated for balancing progress with maintenance of the peace and solitude that can only be found in unfettered natural areas.
As a Past Environmental Hero and a symbol of the American West, Adams was also a visionary figure in nature photography and wilderness preservation. Expressing a sentiment that we should all hope to emulate in our careers, Adams wrote, “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.”
In 1968 Adams was awarded the Conservation Service Award, the Interior Department’s highest civilian honor: “In recognition of your many years of distinguished work as a photographer, artist, interpreter and conservationist, a role in which your efforts have been of profound importance in the conservation of our great natural resources.” Then in 1980 he also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, for: “His efforts to preserve this country’s wild and scenic areas, both on film and on earth. Drawn to the beauty of nature’s monuments, he is regarded by environmentalists as a national institution.”Ansel Adams died from cardiovascular disease at the Community Hospital in Monterey, California on April 22, 1984—a day when every other serious nature photographer in US also experienced a little heartache.
Why was Ansel Adams revered by Americans as no other artist or conservationist had ever been? Author William A. Turnage offers this explanation: “More than any other influential American of his epoch, Adams believed in both the possibility and the probability of humankind living in harmony and balance with its environment.”
Ansel Adams was a master of more than just landscape photography. He plied his magnificent works of art to draw people into his thoughts. Then, once he had the public’s attention, he put forth—in his writings and speaking engagements—the subtle message that if we are not careful we could easily lose all of our Nation’s unparalleled natural splendor.
Adam’s same skills of blending positive reinforcement into support for a cause is critical to converting Climate Change deniers and fence-sitters to the plus side of the ledger. If he were alive today—with his beliefs in humankind—Ansel Adams would certainly be in the forefront of our heroic charge to design and implement Climate Change solutions that would allow the harmony and balance of humans and the environment to continue unabated forever!
Text excerpted from book: “PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change” written by Budd Titlow and Mariah Tinger and published by Prometheus Books. Author’s bio: For the past 50 years, professional ecologist and conservationist Budd Titlow has used his pen and camera to capture the awe and wonders of our natural world. His goal has always been to inspire others to both appreciate and enjoy what he sees. Now he has one main question: Can we save humankind’s place — within nature’s beauty — before it’s too late? Budd’s two latest books are dedicated to answering this perplexing dilemma. “PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change”, a non-fiction book, examines whether we still have the environmental heroes among us — harking back to such past heroes as Audubon, Hemenway, Muir, Douglas, Leopold, Brower, Carson, and Meadows — needed to accomplish this goal. Next, using fact-filled and entertaining story-telling, his latest book — “COMING FULL CIRCLE: A Sweeping Saga of Conservation Stewardship Across America”— provides the answers we all seek and need. Having published five books, more than 500 photo-essays, and 5,000 photographs, Budd Titlow lives with his music educator wife, Debby, in San Diego, California.