The Photographic Legacy of Ansel Adams

“A true photograph need not be explained, nor can it be contained in words.” –Ansel Adams
Rocío LowerNPF Blog

Renowned photographer Ansel Adams is undeniably among the great names associated with our national parks and conservation in America. His work with the National Park Service and the Sierra Club greatly influenced his artistry (and vice versa!), resulting in some of the most iconic park images to date.

Most commonly known for his photos of Yosemite National Park, it was Adams’ 1927 “Monolith, the Face of Half Dome” that propelled his career as both a commercial photographer and an artist. His talent forever redefined photography as an art form in its own right.

Though Adams was deeply committed to furthering the preservation movement, his passion for advocacy did not end there. He was known as a polarizing and controversial figure who sought to affect social and political change in his time.

Manzanar War Relocation Center sign on a wooden board. Mountains in the background.
Ansel Adams, courtesy of NPS

During World War II, Adams visited and photographed the internment camp in Manzanar, California (now known as Manzanar National Historic Site). The experience opened his eyes to the injustices being waged against Japanese Americans – an unpopular sentiment among a nation at war.

Toward the end of his life, as Adams looked back on his trips to Manzanar, he felt that “…from a social point of view that’s the most important thing I’ve done or can do, as far as I know.”

As we look to the future and welcome the next century of the National Park Service, we celebrate the contributions of the man who captured the imaginations of a nation through his art. His photography inspired wanderlust and curiosity, and it furthered the causes he so passionately supported.

Black and white landscape photograph of Canyon de Chelly National Memorial by Ansel Adams
Ansel Adams, courtesy of the National Archives

Black and white photograph of McDonald Lake at Glacier National Park by Ansel Adams

McDonald Lake at Glacier National Park

Ansel Adams, courtesy of the National Archives

Black and white photograph of a snow-dusted mountains behind a lake at Grant Teton National Park by Ansel Adams
Ansel Adams, courtesy of the National Archives

We will long remember the importance of Ansel Adams’ artistry in immortalizing on film our national triumphs and tribulations. Be it the dedication of Kings Canyon National Park in 1940, for which he had ardently advocated, or his photo-documentation of Manzanar, his legacy for telling our national stories through his imagery will live on.

If his life’s work moves you to pick up a camera and go exploring, find creative inspiration in any of the national parks featured in our free owner’s guides series.


Ansel Adams has taught me how to see...
Ansel Adams is one of my heroes. I've been lucky to have earned my living as a writer and teacher of writing, etc. for more than 40 years. Took pictures to illustrate my stories at times. But, Adams was a true photographer, not a picture taker. Now, as a semi-retiree, I hope to develop myself into more of a photog. He and his work will remain inspirations and guides.
He was not only an inspiration for what I see through my lens, but made me aware of what the west offered and the adventures that lie there. His art influenced how I capture natural beauty, but more importantly, how and where I live.
I actually got to meet him once in Carmel, CA. Yes, he was a master and invented the Zone System that customized, precise exposure and development and filters for each scene, then bleaching and toning to extend the tonal range of the paper. He was also a master touch-up artist with a brush. On closer look, you can see where he covered up fence posts and telephone poles. That is what we did before photographs became just scrambled electrons on a screen.
I did not know about his social causes but I not surprised. Not bragging, but I have found that artists (especially photographers) make their business to be socially aware and will (most of the time) take the side of Equity and Justice. As a young photographer (I am only 73 with so much to learn), Mr. Adams was, is and will remain one of my admired photographers. Carrying an 8x10 up mountains and rugged trails could not have been easy.
I’ve seen original prints of Adams’ work. The razor-sharp focus and clarity is amazing, and his sense of composition was unparalleled. His work will endure as a record of the beauty of the American West.
I first visited Yosemite valley in 1958. I have been a huge admirer of Mr. Adams ever since. I have read some of his technique books and seen most of his better known works. His greatest contribution to us is perseverance and artistic integrity.
Ansel Adams has been a personal inspiration not only for his creativity, but for the technical competence in using tools and techniques which are primitive by today's standards.

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