Ansel Adams' son on why the British landscape wasn't 'dramatic enough' for his father

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Michael Adams discusses why his father would have embraced digital photography but snubbed the aggressive stunts of environmental activists

How glorious would the British countryside have looked through the lens of Ansel Adams? The Glenfinnan viaduct swooping through the Highlands, the ancient crags of Dorset’s Jurassic coast, the rocky valleys of Snowdonia, the volcanic patchwork of the Giant’s Causeway - oh for exposures of them to have passed through the darkroom of the world’s greatest landscape photographer.

Click here to view a slideshow of Ansel Adams' dramatic photographs

As it is, Ansel Adams remains famed for a single-minded devotion to capture the American wilderness on film right until his death in 1984. He visited the UK just once, in 1976, and never made it beyond the capital. Of his British holiday snaps, the most interesting images are of coats of armour in a museum somewhere.

His son, Michael Adams, suspects the British outdoors was not dramatic enough to lure his father away from the Yosemite waterfalls in California and the Grand Teton mountains in Wyoming. “I think he would have liked the British landscape,” says the 79-year-old diplomatically, but what really excited his father was “high mountains with glaciers and very rugged areas of the world”.

Nevertheless, Ansel Adams’ images of his native landscape are just as revered by photography enthusiasts on this side of the Atlantic. On the evening of Thursday 14 March his British fans will have the rare chance to hear a personal insight into Ansel’s great techniques, motivations and thoughts from his son during a talk at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, south London.

Speaking to The Independent from his father’s Californian darkroom in Carmel ahead of his visit to the UK, Michael Adams recalls his childhood trips up the mountains with his father. “My first trip was aged seven in 1941, the year that he took ‘Moonrise, Hernandez’, his most famous picture in New Mexico - I was with him for that,” he recalls.

“He’d wait if there were clouds, he’d wait for the conditions that he liked the best. We sat around for a number of hours sometimes waiting for the light that he wanted. We would talk, but I would usually have a book or be looking at a magazine - or just looking at the view, as some of the places we went were pretty exciting.”

The tiny community living in the Yosemite Valley was not a second home to Michael - it was his first. He was born there, he went to school there, he was married there, and his childhood was every bit as dreamy as his father’s photography. “We had skiing, we had climbing, hiking, we used to swim in the rivers and the lakes. It was an idyllic life.”

Perhaps it was these adrenaline-laden pursuits that led Michael to become an air force pilot flying Sabre, Super Sabre and Phantom jets in Korea and Germany, before training as a doctor. He did not share his father’s love of capturing nature on film.

“We had fun but it wasn’t the typical childhood. My father was very different to my compatriots’ fathers. We never played ball or anything like that together. He wasn’t a fisherman, he wasn’t a hunter, he didn’t do a lot of physical activities other than the hiking.”

He adds: “Sometimes I was embarrassed about what he wanted to do - he was rather outspoken about the environment, and he didn’t mind telling the national park service what he thought about how they were taking care of Yosemite.”

Indeed, along with the ethereal beauty of Adams’ photographs, it was his work to ensure the protection of his beloved national parks that made the photographer one of the biggest names in the nascent post-war environmental movement. Most notably he helped rejuvenate the Sierra Club, an organisation campaigning for the American wilderness to remain unspoilt but still allowing the public to enjoy it.

Yet while Michael trusts his father would have been concerned by the scientific warnings of global warming, he believes the stunts and militarism of some green groups would have upset him.

“I think he would have been appalled at the extreme activities and views that some environmental people have,” he says. “I think he was a more moderate person who could work through a problem with give and take, not all or nothing.”

Michael stresses his father’s primary motivation for being a photographer was artistic, not political. “He always said he never took a picture for an environmental programme, but he always welcomed the environmental people to use his pictures.”

Ansel Adams’ photos were revolutionary in how they picked out the sharpest possible details, as well as manipulating light and shadow to make for strikingly high-contrast scenes. Much of the “magic” of these images came from his masterful techniques in the darkroom, a place that holds yet more mysticism today among a generation of photographers who have grown up with digital cameras and PhotoShop.

All the same, Michael says his father would have been “delighted” by digital photography. “I don’t think he would have left the darkroom, but I think he would have been excited by what digital offers.”

Part of Michael’s seminar is a demonstration of how his father could create prints from negative that at first looked ordinary, by exposing certain parts to high amounts of light while obscuring others with a wand of card fitted with a paper circle at one end.

“I have a straight print where there is no manipulation in the dark room, and it’s not very attractive - and then the final one that he’s manipulated where the sky is much darker and the clouds are somewhat obliterated, and it’s a much more dramatic photograph,” he says. “I occasionally helped in the darkroom. He was always full of energy, and he always offered to let me see what he was doing. I might stir pictures around in the water, but I didn’t do anything technically.”

Michael is now retired, allowing him to devote plenty of time to maintaining his father’s legacy along with this sister, his wife and their two children. He still visits Yosemite several times a year to oversee his gallery there. He is wedded to his father’s work- quite literally in some ways, as Ansel only first bothered printing his famous “Moon and Half Dome” picture for Michael’s engagement announcement cards.

He believes American people too are wedded to his father’s work. “The black and white is stunning. People recognise these images as America, this is what people think of as our national parks - they think of them in black and white.”

Ansel Adams: Photography from the Mountains to the Sea is at the National Maritime Museum until 28 April. For details of events including Michael Adams’s talk visit www.rmg.co.uk/anseladams.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence