Ansel Adams: Letters, 1916 - 1984

Letters, 1916 - 1984


Other Wallace Stegner

By Mary Street Alinder

Other Andrea G. Stillman

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In his early years in Yosemite, Ansel Adams formed the habit of writing letters at every opportunity. Among the family, friends, and colleagues with whom he corresponded rank such eminent names as Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand and Jimmy Carter.



Reading these letters, I am swept back irresistibly into Ansel Adams' hyperactive life. He lived and worked amid swarms of people—his family and assistants, neighbors, friends, conservationists, politicians, other photographers, casual admirers. You never rang his doorbell that his living room and studio did not contain at least four or five people talking to Virginia and waiting for Ansel to come out of the darkroom. When he did come, still in his lab apron and with his glasses on top of his head, there would be a boom and rush of greeting and laughter, a new joke or limerick, a few minutes of impetuous talk, the answering of a question or settling of a problem or determining of a piece of conservation strategy, a regretful admission that he was chained to the darkroom for a while, an admonition to stay—stay to dinner, please—and an apologetic departure through the studio and office on his way back to his trays of hypo.

On the way he would probably pause long enough at the studio table to inspect the work of the assistant spotting prints there; and as he passed through the office you might hear the machine-gun tattoo of the typewriter. That would be Ansel, pausing in transit to add a line or two to the letter rolled into it—perhaps one of these letters I have just been reading, punctuated with multiple exclamation points and asterisks and picturesque misspellings.

Then he would be gone for a while, closeted alone, locked in his wrestle with absolute truth.

The most significant part of Ansel Adams, the spirit that will long outlive the man, has already been well documented. The photographs are what most people know him by; and the photographs, since they are his most profound response to his life on earth, are a form of self-documentation. If we wanted to put the nature images into chronological order, we would have a record of his travels as well as of the places—San Francisco, Yosemite, Carmel—that he called home. If we assembled the notable portraits—Albert Bender, Stieglitz, O'Keeffe, Cedric Wright, Weston, David McAlpin, Nancy and Beaumont Newhall, Ashkenazy—we would have an anthology of the strongest influences and warmest friendships of his life.

What is more important, those photographs, especially those in which he revealed the grandeur and delicacy of the earth in moments of miraculous weather and light, are intensely personal statements. Whether known through prints, portfolios, screens, posters, or books, they show us the mystical, romantic, larger-than-life Adams who viewed nature with reverence but approached it with such discipline that some critics thought him antihuman.

It is true that his great visual anthems, for example the enlargements that look down from his own studio walls, are devoid of the presence or traces of people. It is just as true that Ansel Adams the artist can never be caught hanging around in or just off the edge of the picture, mugging and hoofing for attention. He submits, he makes himself invisible. That does not mean he is not there.

Distant he could be called. Removed. Objective. Cold or absent he is not. Though the great nature images properly tell us nothing about his external life except that he was there to click the shutter, they tell us everything about his spirit and intentions as an artist. The dawn-struck peaks and shadowed cliffs and piled thunderheads, the black skies in which for his benefit some god has pasted improbable moons, contain and express him. They are, and were intended to be, "equivalents," in the word that Ansel liked and borrowed from Stieglitz, of his own respect and wonder and awe in the face of the world's beauty.

The artist Ansel Adams has been before the public for more than a half century. But the man Ansel Adams, the one his family and friends and associates knew, never hid or withheld himself. Once, oppressed with obligations, commitments, and overwork, he exclaimed to Edwin Land that he wished he could live like Weston, holed up on Wildcat Hill, working only when he pleased and keeping aloof from the rat race. Land said to him, "Weston lives in a shrine. You live in the world."

Precisely. He never lived anywhere else. Withdrawal was antithetical to his gregarious nature. He lived deeply, interestedly, helplessly, in the world. He had a living to make, and so for many years he hung up his shingle and took what came. He had family obligations because he treasured them, hundreds of friends because he welcomed them, thousands of admirers to whom he granted the courtesy of polite attention. He promoted photography as an art and fought to defend the environment against spoliation because he believed deeply in those causes. He was a teacher because, as he confessed, he could never know a thing without wanting to pass it on. As Nancy Newhall's biography The Eloquent Light demonstrated, and as his own An Autobiography demonstrated even more plainly, the artist who made all those serene, austere, magnificent images lived a life as crowded with people and activity as his art was purged of them.

One motivation for reading the personal letters of artists is a kind of voyeurism, a curiosity about private lives, and especially—since the lives of artists are notoriously messy—the grubby hope of finding something scandalous and titillating. No reader of Ansel Adams' letters is going to have that pleasure, for there is nothing of that sort there. Nevertheless, a mutual friend has said to me that he wonders if these letters should be published at all. Must they mine him like a mineral deposit and then pail his tailings? he asks. Haven't The Eloquent Light and An Autobiography sufficiently revealed the man behind the camera? Will either a life-in-letters or a career-in-letters much alter our perception of either the life or the career? And isn't it possible that the publication of letters, which are often hasty and in this case are full of clowning and horseplay, jokes, puns, occasional pomposities, doggerel and dog-Latin, asterisks and exclamation marks, cries of Wow! and Ah Wilderness!!, and unquenchable high spirits that make comedy out of even fatigue and illness, will reduce rather than enlarge the public image of Ansel Adams? Would it increase our appreciation of the Gettysburg Address if a contemporary photograph could be produced showing that Lincoln's shirttail was out when he delivered it?

What happens to Ansel Adams' aloof serenity if we hear him exploding like a firecracker, or see him dirty and dog-tired at the end of a 26-hour day, physically and spiritually disheveled, trying to get enough of a boost from a second or third bourbon so that he can tackle the work that still has to be done that night? ("I can hardly see the keyboard. I have around me piles of letters, bills, etc. to be answered. I have no new jokes. I need—and am taking—a shower.") Is that the man who gave us Moon and Half Dome?

Of course it is. Our mutual friend is unduly concerned. For one thing, these letters are not tailings, but various, full expressions of the man. Ansel never adopted a godlike pose with his eyes sternly starward. Seriously as he took his art, and much as he made himself its instrument, he was never precious or pretentious. If there was a touch of theatricality in his public face and costume, it was as good-humored and accessible as the rest of him. It united him with his audience instead of elevating him above it. "Unfortunately," he wrote to Weston, "public presentation is a game, a trick." He played it with his tongue in his cheek and his sense of humor intact, and in fact it matched his private style of ebullience and exaggeration.

One goes to the letters for aspects of the whole man that the art excludes: how he coped with the warring demands of art and commercialism until the art by itself could support him; how his jocular and gregarious temperament at once contradicted and enhanced the high seriousness of the photography. Life-in-letters or career-in-letters (and it is both), it doesn't matter what this selection of his correspondence is called; it enhances both life and career, for they were inseparable. The artist was only the highest stretch of the man.

Art is a by-product of living, not an evasion of it or a substitute for it. Ansel Adams lived amply, warmly, enthusiastically, and well; and the strenuous diversity of his life, however completely the photographs exclude it, is still a part of their context. The photographs give us moments when he held his breath. The letters show him breathing, even panting.

They show him, that is, as his family and friends knew him, in the intimate interchanges of daily life and at the highest reaches of his thinking and feeling. Letters were a tradition and a need for him, the medium of a communion at once more serious and more intimate than conversation provided, and a means of clarifying himself to himself and explaining himself to others. They too, like the photographs, are equivalents.

Look at the earnest, filial, dedicated letters to his father and mother and Aunt Mary. Look at those in which he presents himself, his dreams, and his ambitions to Virginia. Look at the profound, self-searching, sometimes confident, sometimes deeply troubled, letters to close friends such as the Newhalls. Many times, letter writing was a safety valve for Ansel, a release for his enthusiasm or indignation or playfulness. Just about as often, he went to the typewriter as others might go to a chapel.

It should be noted that this is not the collected letters, but a selection. Though Ansel shows himself here as a theorist, a technician, a partisan, a son, father, husband, and friend, Mary Alinder's and Andrea Stillman's editing has cut away much that is merely casual or ephemeral, including many letters to and from some of his closest friends. It must also have cut away some things that, otherwise serious and important, did not contribute to a tracing of the main themes of his life. It is richer for the earlier years than for the later, busier years when it was easier to pick up the telephone than to write a letter.

Nevertheless this is a full and generous offering, all the more satisfying in that it so often provides both sides of a continuing dialogue, and thus reintroduces us not only to Ansel but to Ansel's mentors, friends, and colleagues, many of them major artists and tastemakers in their own right.

Everything central to both life and career is here: Ansel's family relations, first with his parents and Aunt Mary, then with Virginia and their children, Michael and Anne; his dedication to the art of photography, with all the self-examination that that entailed, first in letters to his father, then in correspondence with Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Weston, and others, and finally in the years-long communion with Beaumont and Nancy Newhall; his love affair with grand nature, especially Yosemite, that began at fourteen and continued throughout his life; and his activism in the cause of conservation, from the time when, as caretaker of LeConte Lodge, he led Sierra Club trips into the High Sierra, to his last years, when he let hardly a day go by without a challenge or a rebuke to the environmental policies of the Reagan administration.

Much of the history of photography in the twentieth century went through his house, his darkroom, and his typewriter. He had his favorites, particularly Weston and Strand, and his anathemas, particularly Edward Steichen, "the Antichrist of photography." He did not much like the documentarians, with the exception of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, and he liked them not because they were documenting social significance but because they were artists.

He resented the pressure of Depression times, and the gang mentality of "proletarian" photographers who used photography for a social or political purpose. Urged to turn his art to social significance, he guessed that a rock had as much social significance as a line of unemployed. Asked why he did not exploit great man-made monuments such as the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge, he replied that he would rather work on an old wall with moss on it. By some standards, his artistic principles were conservative, even narrow. He would have replied that they came from his personal conviction, not from a fashion or from social pressures. And it should be noted that what he did has lasted far better than the kind of photography he rejected.

The letters show his early self-questioning solidifying into a set of artistic principles over the years, and those principles rather crossly repudiated most modern and abstract art. However much his vision enlarged and glorified his subjects, he was consistently representational. But he never accepted the notion of photography as mere record, and he never submitted to what he called the tyranny of subject. That was precisely what he held against Steichen. Finally, though he was a consummate technician, capable of instructing even such a master as Weston, he never valued technique for itself. He would have agreed with Weston that it was only a way of seeing.

I have said that the artist is only the furthest stretch of the man. Nothing illustrates that continuity so well as the discussions of photography in the letters to Stieglitz, Weston, and the Newhalls. But the letters on conservation are out of the same body of conviction. The man who made unforgettable images out of the grandeur and mystery of nature did so because he could not help doing so, because he loved what he saw. The man who spent his energy defending nature against the careless and greedy also worked from love. His environmentalism was not a side issue, something done with the left hand in spare time. It sprang from the same source as his art, and involved him wholly.

So, to anyone who wonders if Ansel Adams' often hasty, sometimes unguarded, nearly always playful letters should be published, for fear of exposing some "lesser" side of him, I have to repeat: Don't worry. Ansel was not made of pieces or sides, he was all one thing. He had no more sides than a sphere does. And it is only the surface of these letters that is playful. The feelings, the convictions, the concerns, are serious, and the seriousness is somehow not diluted by the playfulness. In some odd way the playfulness is part of his shine, part of the light he shed. It would take a lot of work with prisms to separate his light into different and separate aspects of a spectrum.

I close this book of letters feeling as if I have just had a refreshing visit with a man whose character and attainments I greatly admired and whose company I loved. For the space of this reading, I have been back in the swarming vitality of his life. He has come out of the darkroom and joined those of us still hanging around in his living room. The atmosphere is jovial, the air is full of talk, our somewhat low-keyed waiting has been reanimated.

Outside the windows the hill falls away to the shore, and from the shore the Pacific spreads flat and varnished; at its far edge the sun is about to drown. The sea has the serenity of an Ansel Adams photograph, a glory of light that is in our vision even when we turn away from it.

In a moment, maybe, Ansel will pick up the padded drumstick and knock a deep, throbbing hum out of the Chinese drum on his mantel. He will be laughing at the sound, and at the way it instantly commands our attention. The throb of that drum is so deep it tickles the bottoms of our feet.

"It's an evening for the green flash," he tells us. "Wait. Don't watch the sun, or it will burn its image into your retina and you'll miss everything. Don't look until just at the moment when it disappears below the horizon. There'll be a streak of green light, just for a hundredth of a second."

We wait, wrapped in the geniality and warmth he creates, laughing because he is laughing, but watching sidelong, a little breathlessly, hoping to catch that flash briefer than the wink of a firefly—attending while he teaches us again, as he has taught us so many times before, how to see.

Wallace Stegner

Los Altos Hills, California

November 1987

Editors' Note

Ansel Adams had a passionate need to communicate. He wrote thousands of letters and postcards to family, friends, photographers, environmentalists, and politicians. He began consistently writing letters during his teenage summers in Yosemite. Handwritten, they were difficult to read and laborious to write; he thus quickly adopted the typewriter. He traveled with a portable model so that he could correspond no matter where he might be: at his studios in San Francisco, Yosemite, or Carmel; in cities like New York, Chicago, or Washington; in remote spots like Whites' Cabins outside Carlsbad, New Mexico, or on board a train in Wyoming or a ship to Hawaii; or in any one of more than a dozen national parks as far apart as Maine and Alaska.

Adams' abundant archives of photographs, letters, and related materials are now at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona in Tucson. The voluminous exchanges between Adams and Beaumont and Nancy Newhall are also at the Center. Adams' letters to Alfred Stieglitz are at the Beinecke Library at Yale University, and his environmental letters are at the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. The thirty-five-year interchange between Adams and the Polaroid Corporation, for whom he was a consultant, is at their corporate archives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

As Adams' assistants in the 1970s and 1980s, we were privileged to work with this prodigious body of correspondence in order to select the letters in this book. Sifting through mountains of papers, we chose those letters that show the development of the artist and the man. We edited some letters; text that was removed is noted with an ellipsis (…). We eliminated names and subjects that had no continuous meaning in Adams' life and sections that were repetitive or simply dull and corrected typographical errors and unintentional misspellings that added to the reader's burden and did not enrich the writer's meaning. We offer brief footnotes when necessary and, on occasion, clarification through the use of brackets within the text (e.g., [Sierra] Club).

We are grateful that Ansel entrusted us with this project. We thank his wife, Virginia Adams, who acted as our advisor every step of the way. Beaumont Newhall, with characteristic generosity, assisted our research. We appreciate the work of James Alinder, who read each draft of our manuscript and offered important comments and counsel, and Phyllis Donohue, Pam Feld, John Breeden, Peter Bunnell, Sarah Greenough, George Kimball, Alan Ross, and John Sexton, who provided important assistance.

Central to this book produced by Bulfinch Press for Little, Brown and Company have been Janet Swan Bush, Amanda Freymann, John Maclaurin, and Elizabeth D. Power. Our editor, Ray Roberts, skillfully guided us through many drafts.

Finally, we would like to thank the trustees of the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust, John P. Schaefer, William A. Turnage, and David H. Vena, who supported our efforts over many years.

Mary Street Alinder

Pebble Beach, California

Andrea Gray Stillman

New York, New York

November 1987

To Mary Bray1

Dear Aunt Mary,

I am sending you two pictures of Yosemite Valley that I have taken. Films are expensive to develop and I expect to be broke if I keep up the rate I am taking pictures. I have taken 30 already.

Yesterday I went up to Sierra Point and enjoyed lying on my chest and looking over the edge–about fifteen-hundred feet down–perpendicular.

… The swimming pool is fine and I am going in today. I expect to go to Glacier Point next week.

Hoping to hear from you soon.

I am,

Ansel Adams

To Mary Bray

Dear Aunt Mary,

I would have written sooner but I have not had time. I have walked 175 miles to date and feel fine.

I am sending you a picture of the Mt. Clark Range taken from the Cloud's Rest Trail. I can't seem to get as good finishing done here as in the city. The developing is all right but the printing and enlarging are frightful. I have quite a large number of negatives and most of them are good. I am going to print them as soon as I get home. I went to Glacier Point yesterday for the second time and I hope I got some good photographs. I took enough trouble lugging that camera 12 or 13 miles to get anything but I suppose I loaded the plates upside down or something. I carried it up to North Dome and found I had no plates left. I had a nice 20 mile hike anyway. That $5 you gave me helped me out a great deal. It almost all went for swimming.

Tell Pa I'm going to write to him soon and send him some of my pictures.

Hoping you are well and expecting to hear from you soon.

I am sincerely,

Ansel Adams

To Olive Adams1

Dear Ma,

I got your postal, also Pa's. Did Pa get indigestion from S[an]. F[rancisco]. lunch? I started out at 5 o'clock this morning with Mr. Holman2 for Mt. Starr King. There is no trail and it is one of the hardest trips I have ever taken—perfectly safe however. I should not have taken such a trying one the first day but I was surprised how little tired I got. We got to the base of the peak after a long tramp through big snow fields and began to look for a place to start the ascent. The only position was on the north side, intending to follow the line of snow over the summit. It was almost perpendicular for 500 feet and appeared so dangerous that I resolved to turn back. Mr. Holman cut steps in the snow and reached the top, I guess the first man to ever do so as it has been considered unclimbable. If he had slipped once he would have surely been killed. As soon as he got started I went back to some meadows about a mile away and watched him. I could just see him and it took 2 hours to reach the end of the snow bank. There is snow everywhere above 7000 ft. Even if I did not climb the peak the trip was well worthwhile. I promised you I would be careful and I haven't croaked yet. Today was the coldest day in the valley this month, 33 this morning at 5 o'clock. I don't mind it and really enjoy it. The valley was filled with fog this morning, but I don't know how it was the rest of the day. It is chilly tonight and my hands are so cold I can't write good. I would rather have it like this than any other way I know.

When I write again I will put "Dear Ma," but I mean the whole bunch, it saves writing separate letters.

I am going to take Mr. Dittman's camera3 out tomorrow morning and take a swim in the afternoon. The next day I am going to explore around Half Dome (not on top) with Mr. Holman, saying that he would also be careful himself, the experience today slightly unnerved him. But he said he couldn't rest until he reached the top of Mount Starr King.

I was the first in the swimming tank this season; they were filling it the day I got there. I went in that afternoon.

I hope Gramp feels better.

Will write soon,


To Olive and Charles Adams and Mary Bray

Dear Ma, Pa, and Aunt Mary,

Arrived safely after a wonderful trip up the Merced Canyon, and am having one grand time cleaning up the Lodge.1

It was very cold in Merced, and I think they use the mattresses for battleship construction—excellent steel plate and fine for office building foundation. I unwillingly listened to every train that came within 100 miles of Merced, simply because I couldn't help it.

Left Merced at 8:15 and enjoyed some very wonderful views of the Sierra from the train before we entered the foothills. I noticed particularly a group of snowpeaks that looked much like Mt. Clark, Red and Gray Peaks, but I doubted their identity as I could not believe they were visible from the plains. But as the train changed its course Half Dome and Cloud's Rest were quite clearly seen just a little to the left of the previous mentioned peaks.…

The ride up the Merced Canyon was very fine, cold and very clear. Everything is green—such a different aspect from the blast furnace heat and brownness of summer. Arrived at El Portal, attended to my baggage and reached Camp Curry at 2 pm. Snow everywhere, Cloud's Rest one mass of white, Glacier Point, Half Dome, North Dome and Eagle Peak are holding as much snow as the pitch of their slopes will allow. At Camp Curry the tennis court, swimming tank and a large area of the camp is covered with from 6 to 18 inches. I wouldn't have missed this for the would and consider it the finest season I have seen at Yosemite. Of course, it is cold at night but moderate at day time, and the air has more life and snap to it than ever. I do wish you were here—all of you.

Opened the Lodge this afternoon and found things in good condition. Will get settled Monday or Tuesday. Right outside the west window there is a nice pile of snow and I will take a photograph to show you the present aspect of my new mansion.

The wind is quite violent and although the sky is clear, great clouds of snow are blowing from the heights sometimes obliterating the topmost rocks. At present Half Dome looks like a volcano, and little swirls and eddies of snow dust are quite numerous on the cliffs of Glacier Point. I am going to attempt to photograph these snow clouds tomorrow and I do hope they will be successful.

Am feeling fine, and intend to keep so, mainly by diet and sleep.

Hoping all of you are as well as possible and will be careful and will not worry about me.

I am sincerely your son-prodigy-nephew,


P.S. I consider myself lucky to be here with the snow. Never saw anything like it before.

Am now going to write to the Sierra Club.


To Charles Adams


On Sale
Feb 20, 2001
Page Count
440 pages

Mary Street Alinder

About the Author

Ansel Adams (1902-1984) was the most honored American photographer of the twentieth century. Through the exhibition and publication of his, his writings, and his leadership in the Sierra Club, Adams was also a prescient and highly effective voice in the fight to preserve America's remaining wilderness. 

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