Ansel Adams

The future wilderness photographer, Ansel Adams, was an active, curious child who loved to be outdoors running around.  His family lived in a sturdy home above the sand dunes outside of San Francisco.  It was a great place for a hyperactive little boy to grow up – exploring the beaches and nearby Lobos Creek, inspecting everything and collecting insect specimens.

In his autobiography, Ansel had nothing good to say about his early education in dismal institutional settings.  It was depressing, dirty and uninspiring.  He thought the act of memorizing irrelevant facts (such as which states border Nebraska) was useless, saying “Education without either meaning or excitement is impossible.”  One of his teachers, hoping to cure his restless tendencies, would invite him to her house periodically to lecture him on proper behavior.  But all he could think about was getting outdoors.  Finally, when he was twelve he became so bored that one day he simply burst out laughing at the ridiculousness of it all.  The principal escorted him home for a week’s suspension.

By the end of the week, his understanding father had decided to teach Ansel at home.  His father taught him French and Algebra, and insisted he read the English classics.  He hired a Dr. Herriott to teach him Greek, but this did not last long due to personality differences.

In his memories of growing-up, Ansel rarely mentioned his mother.  She was a peevish, depressed woman and her motherly attentions tended to be ineffectual and annoying.  It was his father who shouldered the responsibilities of caring for the family and educating his son.  Ansel wrote about him: “I often wonder at the strength and courage my father had in taking me out of the traditional school situation and providing me with these extraordinary learning experiences.  I am certain he established the positive direction of my life that otherwise, given my native hyperactivity, could have been confused and catastrophic.  I trace who I am and the direction of my development to those years of growing up in our house on the dunes, propelled especially by an internal spark tenderly kept alive and glowing by my father.”

In 1915 his father bought thirteen-year-old Ansel a year’s pass to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (celebrating the opening of the Panama Canal).  His father told him to spend a good part of each day at the fair and continue to study piano, literature and language at home.

At the Exposition, he attended concerts, visited the painting and sculpture exhibits at the Palace of Fine Arts, and often went to the science and machinery exhibits with his father in the afternoons.  The exhibitors got to know Ansel and were very patient with him.  They allowed him to handle the new equipment in hopes that he would spread his enthusiasm to others.  He often demonstrated the new adding machine to spectators.

After the exposition packed up, Ansel was placed in a number of schools in search of a diploma until he ended up at Wilkins School.  Mrs. Wilkins graduated him from eighth grade with an A and that was the end of his formal academic career.

At this time Ansel was becoming increasingly interested in music. He had started lessons when he was twelve and though it was difficult for him to concentrate and hold still, he eventually learned the value and rewards of practice.  He described his piano teacher, Miss Marie Butler, with fondness, “She was very proper with a soft voice and manner, but she showed me no mercy whatsoever.”  She insisted on a disciplined rigorous practice which he found very tedious, but after time it dawned on him that “perfection was beginning to mean something to me!”  She never played or demonstrated the music he was working on, instead she left it for him to express.  Eventually, in 1918, he had progressed enough to move on to a new teacher, Frederick Zech.  By 1923, he was an aspiring concert pianist.  He taught piano lessons and was very involved with the local music community.

In 1916, when the family took a vacation to Yosemite, his parents gave fourteen-year-old Ansel his own Kodak Box Brownie camera.  It’s ironic that the young photographer’s first ever shots would be of Half Dome, not knowing that his future fame and success would be launched by his later photographs of Yosemite National Park.  At the time, he was more interested in music, but he jumped into photography with enthusiasm.

He also continued to crave time out of doors.  At the age of seventeen he became seriously ill with the flu and having read a book about Father Damien became obsessed with contracting leprosy.  He asked to go to Yosemite and his father made arrangements.  He was very weak upon arrival but soon recovered his strength.  He stayed with Frances Holman, “Uncle Frank,” who was an expert at backcountry camping, and taught him everything he knew.

A year later, Ansel began working as a custodian of the Sierra Club headquarters in Yosemite, camping, hiking and learning amateur photography.  He continued practicing piano in hopes of becoming a professional musician, but ultimately decided that he needed to concentrate on one thing or the other.  It was a hard decision, but he finally chose photography over music.  For a look at his amazing work, see this link  A generous benefactor helped him get his start and Ansel traveled, took photos, taught and fought for environmental preservation the rest of his life.


Ansel Adams:  An Autobiography, with Mary Street Alinder.

Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 1985


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