Yosemite National Park is one of the most-photographed places on the planet. However, there’s one photographer whose fluency with the Park’s epic angles and “range of light” elevates these vistas into works of fine art.
Ansel Adams’ striking black & white photographs of the American West possess a timeless quality. Visionary in his composition, Adams is considered to be one of the greatest landscape photographers of all time. His images stand alone as icons of wild America. Among his most revered works are Yosemite Valley, Thunderstorm, but there are literally hundreds more with equally powerful artistry and emotional impact.
Yosemite Mariposa County visitors will feel his presence around every turn, and in particular at The Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite Valley. Here, his work and burnished legacy come alive along the print-filled walls and display cases of the multi-tier, historic building that is equal parts studio, shrine and store.
Ansel Adams: Photographer of the West
Born in San Francisco in 1902, Ansel Adams survived the devastating 1906 S.F. earthquake (with a broken nose) and the “Spanish Flu” pandemic, all before the age of 18. He also trained as a concert pianist (the piano comes into play later). But maybe the most significant childhood event in the arc of Adams’ life was a family vacation to Yosemite in 1916. For that trip, his parents gave young Ansel his first camera, a Kodak No. 1 Box Brownie.
Adams was transfixed by Yosemite’s titanic beauty. He joined the Sierra Club in 1919 and soon after became the seasonal custodian for the Sierra Club’s Yosemite Valley headquarters. In 1920, his first published photograph appeared in the Sierra Club Bulletin.
His interest in photography grew in step with his love for the Sierra Nevada, often trekking to the mountains accompanied by a mule laden with gear and supplies for his heavy, large-format cameras.
In 1921, believing his true calling was playing concert piano, Adams set out to find a practice piano in Yosemite Valley. He discovered it in Best’s Studio, the vibrant gallery of local painter Harry Best. Here, he also met Best’s daughter Virginia and the two forged a fast friendship.
Adams’ photography flourished with Yosemite Valley as his muse, and in 1927 he trekked to the Diving Board, a famed Valley rim outcropping, to create “Monolith, the Face of Half Dome.” With a sharp, clear focus and sky darkened for dramatic effect, it is considered the first example of his signature style. The same year, Ansel created his first portfolio of Yosemite prints underwritten by arts patron Albert Bender.
After a circuitous courtship, Ansel and Virginia Best married in 1928. Best’s Studio became a convenient showcase for Ansel to display his photography. Seven years into the marriage, Virginia inherited the studio. The couple lived in Yosemite Valley, where they raised their two children, Anne and Michael. Later, the children became involved in the family art business and renamed the studio The Ansel Adams Gallery. The rest is art history!
Art & Advocacy
Ansel Adams was a dedicated artist and dogged conservationist, and he played a key role in the growth of American environmentalism. His star rose rapidly in the 1930s, a time when photography was in the process of being recognized as fine art rather than a derivative of other arts. Adams was at the vanguard of this movement, and he played a key role in forming the first museum department of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
His role with the Sierra Club grew apace. He became a political force for the Club, suggesting proposals for improving parks and wilderness, working both as an artist and advocate for the national park idea. In 1934, Adams was elected to the Board of Directors of the Sierra Club, a role he maintained for 37 years. During his tenure, the Sierra Club evolved into a powerful national organization focused on conservation.
In 1968 Adams was awarded the Conservation Service Award, the Department of the Interior’s highest civilian honor and in 1980 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Carter.
Ansel Adams died in 1984. That same year, Congress recognized his lifelong achievements by designating more than 200,000 acres of wildlands straddling the Sierra crest as the Ansel Adams Wilderness Area. The following year, in 1985, Mount Ansel Adams was named in his honor. At 11,760 feet, the peak rises proudly along the boundary of Yosemite National Park as a fitting tribute to this icon of art and advocacy.
Living Legacy: The Ansel Adams Gallery
Today, the world’s most comprehensive and compelling showcase for the photographer and his work is The Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite Valley. National Park history, original and authentic works of art, and one of Yosemite’s finest collections of books, maps, handicrafts and Native American jewelry are in store for visitors.
The Gallery displays an extraordinary collection of Ansel Adams original photographs. Dozens of compositions by Adams, from his earliest work to his world-renowned Western vistas, trace the arc of the artist’s mastery over five decades while pointing to his continuing influence on landscape photography today.
Operating in the very same building that was once Best’s Studio (est. 1902), the Ansel Adams Gallery stands on the Register of Historic California Businesses. Adams lived and worked in the same space where today’s visitors can peruse a priceless cache of photography.
Keepsakes & Curios
Ansel Adams original prints are on display and for sale at the Gallery. Only a finite number of original works exist in the world. Typically priced from $4,000 to $70,000, the cost of an original photograph is determined by its origin, condition, size, and scarcity. Every Adams original photograph includes a Certificate of Authenticity.
A collection of gelatin silver prints and digitally mastered replicas, Ansel Adams Exclusives are as close to the artist’s original masterpieces as any reproductions in the world. The Gallery also offers a wide selection of Ansel Adams authorized posters and framed reproductions, books, calendars, cards, DVDs and souvenirs.
Photographs are displayed alongside priceless artifacts including Adams’ signature wide-brimmed hat and his famed Folmer & Schwing Graflex camera. Just to the left of the original stone fireplace in the studio/gallery are two large frames with more than 40 annotated family photographs of Ansel and Virginia’s life in Yosemite – an intimate and endearing collection not to miss.
Education & Experiences
Every day, Yosemite National Park inspires legions of shutterbugs. After all, this is a place where even a camera phone neophyte can snap a pretty pic. But imagine taking your skills to another level with a photography class from the Ansel Adams Gallery?
Photography instruction options start with half-day Photography Classes currently offered five days per week, to Multi-Day Photography Workshops and Guided Private Photography Tours. Classes hone in on the fundamentals of composition and are geared to digital camera techniques, with one specifically tapped for smartphone photography. Instructors and guides are all extremely accomplished photographers in their own right and love sharing Ansel Adams lore while leading you to the exact Yosemite Valley locations where Ansel composed some of his most famous photographs.
Visit the Gallery
The Ansel Adams Gallery is located in the heart of Yosemite Valley, between the Yosemite Visitor Center and Post Office. The Gallery is open daily, 10am-3pm (closed Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day).
Park at the Village Store for a short walk to the Gallery, or take advantage of the free Yosemite Valley Shuttle for a closer drop-off.
To explore lodging options, things to do and places to eat, visit Yosemite.com, the #1 trip planning site for vacations to Yosemite National Park and historic Mariposa County. To stay up to date, follow @YosemiteNation on social media and subscribe to our newsletter, “The Wanderer”. Be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel for great videos on the people and places of Yosemite Mariposa County.