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Ansel Adams | How the famed photographer got his start

by Jonathan Spaulding, Guest curator for Ansel Adams exhibit | Feb 24, 2014


Ansel Adams, photograph by Jim Alinder

In the spring of 1916, the fourteen-year-old Ansel was in bed with a cold. To cheer his spirits during another of his many illnesses, his aunt gave him a copy of James M. Hutchings’s In the Heart of the Sierras, published in 1886 and one of the classic travel accounts of the region. The boy lay mesmerized by Hutchings’s romantic tales of adventure among the towering walls of the Yosemite Valley. The family had been discussing where to spend their upcoming summer vacation. In years past they had gone to Puget Sound or down the coast to Santa Cruz, but for Ansel there was now no option. They simply had to go to this incredible place called Yosemite.

Soon after their arrival, Ansel’s parents gave him a Kodak No. I Box Brownie camera. After a brief lesson on its simple controls, he was off to explore the area. On foot, camera in hand, he traversed the valley with characteristic hyperkineticism. He took snapshots with no conscious artfulness, only a desire to record what caught his eye. At one point he clambered atop a rotting stump to shoot across the valley floor to the cliffs above. As he leaned back to take the picture, the stump gave way, sending him plummeting to earth. On the way down he managed to trip the shutter.

The next day he took the film into the valley’s local camera shop, Pillsbury Pictures, Inc. When he came back to pick it up, Arthur Pillsbury himself presented him with the processed photos. Pillsbury inquired about one shot on the roll in particular. How had it happened to be made upside down? Had Adams held the camera inverse over his head for a better angle? Ansel explained his airborne photograph, adding that it was just a matter of luck that it had been shot at a perfect 180 degrees. Pillsbury gave the boy a skeptical look; here was an odd one indeed.

Following his first Yosemite trip, Ansel Adams returned home to San Francisco and continued to use his camera. Because of his burning desire to learn more about photography, he went to work part-time as a “darkroom monkey” for neighbor Frank Dittman, who owned a photo-finishing operation.


Ansel Adams in darkroom, photograph by Jim Alinder

Ansel was well received by Dittman, the three printers, and the six delivery boys, although his odd ways provoked some ribbling. The skinny, hyperactive Ansel, with his crooked nose, his long words, and his stories about Yosemite, seemed an amusing character. They called him “Ansel Yosemite Adams.” He took it all well, Dittman remembered, and appeared to find the pranks played on him funny, too. He “picked up cussing real fast,” and Dittman thought the job was a good antidote to the music lessons he believed were just another example of the coddling the boy got at home. Dittman recognized that Ansel was in his element in the darkroom. “It came natural to him. I could see right off he was good. Whatever the kid done was done thorough.”

Adams was fascinated by photographic equipment and begun to prowl the local camera shops to investigate the rows of lenses, tripods, lights, chemicals, printing papers, cameras and film. He read the amateur photographic magazines and whatever technical handbooks he could find. At a local camera club he met W.E. Dassonville, a manufacturer of fine printing papers and an accomplished photographer. Dassonville knew many of the Bay Area photographers and gave Adams an introduction to the practice of the medium as a fine art.

- From the biography Ansel Adams and the American Landscape by Jonathan Spaulding’s biography contains an extensive bibliography of works by and about Ansel Adams. His detailed descriptions of Adams’ photographs, projects, and relationships offer compelling insights into the man who has come to represent the American West.

Meet Jonathan Spaulding this Saturday at the Eiteljorg during opening weekend of the Ansel Adams exhibit.

Saturday, Mar. 1, 2014
1:30 p.m.
A Conversation with curator Jonathan Spaulding
Join Jonathan Spaulding for a behind-the-scenes discussion of Ansel Adams’ life and work - See more at: http://www.eiteljorg.org/interact/blog/eitelblog/2014/02/19/ansel-adams-influence-and-inspiration-in-over-80-photographs#sthash.b17D76QF.dpuf

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