“There is nothing worse than a brilliant image of a fuzzy concept.” -Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams with a field camera and lightmeter.Ansel Adams was a photographer, environmentalist and a concert-quality pianist. He is best known for his photographs of grand vistas rendered in immaculate black and white prints. Young Ansel taught himself to read music and to play the piano. The discipline he learned at the piano translated into the precision he had to develop for the workings of photography both at the camera and in the darkroom. While Adams started in the soft, pictorial style by the 1930’s he had moved into “straight photography,” the practice of sharp images where the resolution and clarity of the lens were of great importance. He became friends with Edward Weston and along with Imogen Cunningham and others started Group f/64 to promote this style of making photographs.

All the while Adams’ reputation skyrocketed, his financial situation was not nearly so meteoric. He relied on commercial work for clients like the Yosemite concessionaire, the National Park Service a small women’s college, a dried fruit company, Kodak, IBM, AT&T, lens maker Zeiss as well as working for magazines: Arizona Highways, Fortune and Life. He had a lot of this kind of work. It was a mixed blessing, because, while it paid a lot of bills, it kept him from making the photographs in his heart.

Ansel Adams was a process photographer. By that, I mean he was a technical expert on the craft of exposure, light, film, camera technique, along with developing film and making prints. Other photographic icons (Weston and Paul Strand for instance) consulted him for advice on the workings of photography.

There is a lot to Ansel Adams. I encourage you to read more about him on AnselAdams.com. If technical photography is your passion, go and read his books — especially The Camera, The Negative and The Print. If nothing else it will give you a deep look into how photography worked in the days of film and how easy it is to make a photo today. That said, remember his quote about fuzzy concepts.

The photos that lead this post are “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” and “El Capitan,” courtesy of Ansel Adams website.

Curious where Ansel Adams made his famous Moonrise photo? Read Photofocus author Steve Inglima’s Seeking Moonrise.

Read more mini-biographies of influential photographers on Photofocus.