A conversation in our tutorial yesterday led me to ask the question as to whether Ansel Adams was a photographer that might be considered to be within the “modern” tradition. Whilst recognising that an assessment of a photographer’s practice and approach cannot necessarily be aligned with a particular genre or tradition, nonetheless I felt it would be worth exploring here.

It is not possible to work in the landscape or in monochrome without being influenced by Ansel Adams. At the start of his autobiography (completed after his death in 1984) he immediately shares a crucial element of his photographic practice that makes me think and also surprises me:

“People are surprised when I say that I never intentionally made a creative photograph that related to an environmental issue, though I am greatly pleased when a picture I have made becomes useful to an important cause. I cannot command the creative impulse on demand. I never know in advance precisely what I will photograph. I go out into the world and hope I will come across something that imperatively interests me. I am addicted to the found object. I have no doubt that I will continue to make photographs till my last breath.” (Adams 1985:5)

Adams approach to finding his subject is exemplified by the story behind the capture of Moonrise, Hernandez, perhaps his most iconic image.

Moonrise Hernandez – Ansel Adams

In Adams’ own words:

“We were sailing southward along the highway not far from Espanola when I glanced to the left and saw an extraordinary situation – an inevitable photograph! I almost ditched the car and rushed to set up my 8 x 10 camera. I had a clear visualization of the image I wanted, but I could not find my Weston exposure meter! The situation was desperate: the low sun was trailing the edge of clouds in the west, and shadow would soon dim the white crosses.” (Ansel Adams Gallery 2018)

 But, of course, he got the shot!

While still considering whether to take up photography or music as a career Adams met Paul Strand. Strand showed him some negatives and Adams wrote of this experience:

“They were glorious negatives: full, luminous shadows and strong high values in which subtle passages of tone were preserved. The compositions were extraordinary: perfect, uncluttered edges and beautifully distributed shapes that he had carefully selected and interpreted as forms – simple, yet of great power. I would have preferred to see prints, but the negatives clearly communicated Strand’s vision.

 My understanding of photography was crystalized that afternoon as I realised the great potential of the medium as an expressive art.” (Adams 1985:25) 

In an interview with Roy Firestone, Adams spoke about his decision to choose photography as a career and attempts by his family to change his mind. They said “the camera cannot express the human soul” and in reply Adam’s said “but maybe the photographer can.”  He also spoke about black and white imagery giving him control and allowed him to see more clearly. He talked of his search for the “inevitable moment” and “emotional meaning and seeing something that is not there”.

I can certainly relate to his comments about black and white imagery and the search for emotional meaning. As a pianist myself I wonder whether the musical influence in my life allows me to understand and appreciate Adams’ work and approach.

Adams was clearly firmly in the “modernist” camp in terms of the priorities and preferences of his practice – his emphasis on shape, form, tonality, sharp focus and carefully framed images all contribute to this categorisation, although some argue that his work harks back to the pictorial emphasis of the Victorian era. However, some would argue that Adams’ work has a political edge or at least intent to raise conservation issues and this view has caused many to question his affinity to modernism. Clearly, from the quotation above he was happy that, even if unintentional, his work did raise the profile of such concerns. A true modernist photographer, it is argued, should not ‘touch’ the world in this way. This is why many would argue that Adams was not a pure modernist.

My view is that we might be contextualising Adams’ work from a present day perspective and in doing so attributing an intention that at most might have been a sub-conscious message. In a world where the environmental lobby is significant and many practitioners from many professions seek to raise their concerns, it is easy to consider Adams’ motivations in this way.

So, the answer to the question posed as to whether Adams was a ‘modernist’ photographer has the answer that it depends.   Whilst there are significant aspects of his work that are firmly anchored in this perspective, there are also others, intentional or not, that might cause some to question whether the environmental message renders him outside of this categorisation.


ADAMS, A. with M. STREET ALINDER. 1985 Ansel Adams – An Autobiography, New York: Little Brown and Company.

STREET ALINDER, M. 2014. Ansel Adams – A Biography, New York: Bloomsbury.

Alison Price

Alison Price

My name is Alison Price and for the past ten years I have travelled the world photographing wildlife, including Alaska, Antarctica, Borneo, Botswana, the Canadian Arctic, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
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