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"Zoning" the World

A Review of Mary Alinder's Ansel Adams: A Biography

Mary Alinder is a photography enthusiast and scholar, who after meeting Ansel Adams secured a job working as his secretary. She examined works, wrote letters, and helped right the autobiography of her perfectionist employer. Adams always joked that she “remembered more about his life than he did”1. After he died, she spent the next twelve years perfecting his biography to eternally memorialize him.

Starting with only a simple Kodak camera, Ansel Adams was able to reach recognition in his later years. Some of his success he owed to his trusted friend and secretary, Mary Alinder who after his death wrote Ansel Adams: A Biography. Alinder tells Adam's story from the very beginning, leaving out no important detail.

In the beginning, Ansel Adams at the age of four experienced his first major natural disaster, the San Francisco earthquake. Adams, born on February 20th 1902, walked out of his room only to see the extent of damage caused to his house. Oliver Adams, his mother, quickly ran to his side to ensure that he was unharmed by the earthquake and its multiple aftershocks. Charles Adams, a successful businessman, was on a business trip away from the family. However big a failure in school he was, Ansel still excelled in other studies such as musics, where his teachers, Marie Butler, Frederick Zech, and Bejamin Moore inspired his pianist dreams. While at the San Fransisco's Panama Pacific International Exposition, Ansel asked a curator, “there are really no straight lines in nature”.2 This was Ansel's first experience with the idea of photography. In 1916 Adams took a family vacation to Yosemite where, equipped with a small consumer camera, documented the vacation. Often invited back on camping trips by Francis Holman, Adams became enamored with nature, especially that of Yosemite. Alinder credits John Muir, the founder of Yosemite national park with ultimately inspiring Adams. Photography had made it to nature with the invention of the collodion wet plate process, which allowed mobility of a camera. Outside of his visits to Yosemite with his little camera, Ansel was constantly exposed to photography through studios and exhibitions held in San Fransisco. Adam's first recognition for photography was in a advanced competition where he got an honorable mention in 1918 by Photo-Era. From there one of his works appeared in a San Fransisco magazine. Adams met his future wife, Virginia Best in Yosemite in 1921. Adams continued his career in photography when he took one of his most famous pictures, Monolith in 1925. Ansel's fame jetted forward and was soon bombarded with requests for portfolios and exhibitions. His first solo exhibition came in 1931 at the Smithsonian Institution. Among other photographers of the time, Imogen Cummingham, sixteen years older than Adams, respected the young artist. Another photographer Willard Van Dyke paired up with Ansel to start the famous Group f/64 as a response to challenges from modern art.

Ansel constantly traveled all over the United States to find that one perfect place. However he soon realize that that one place was Yosemite. Joining the Sierra Club in 1920, Ansel became interested in the conservation of the Sierra. Ansel soon regarded the Sierra Club as close friends, who shared in campfire songs and theatrical performances with Ansel. Ansel continually created new portfolios that were often centered around the Sierra in an attempt to promote the conservation of the area. In 1932, Ansel found out that his wife, Virginia was pregnant with their first child. Hoping for the future of his career and family, they moved to New York City. Ansel's hopes came true, his fame rapidly increased as prints began to circulate in New York City. He also met and became friends with other artists such as Georgia O'Keeffe and Stieglitz. Ansel's first attempt to fund a gallery was shut down by the fact that funding was near impossible to get as an up and coming artist. Outside of his photography, Ansel often wrote critiques and pieces for magazines such as Camera Craft. He also published an essay and a book on modern photographic techniques. Virginia gave birth to Michael Adams and two years later Anne Adams while Ansel was away in Yosemite finishing one of his projects. After hardwork and determination, Ansel was finally offered his dream show by Steiglitz as an exhibition in An American Place. Ansel's future seemed perfect, a young and upcoming artist in a new developing field was something that America needed. Sadly, he fell for the temptations of lust when he cheated on his wife with a young girl named Patsy. In order to save his marriage, he had to plead Virginia not to divorce him. Another one of Ansel's dream exhibitions came in the form of a show at the Museum of Modern Art where Murals by American Painters and Photographers was shown. Sadly, according to Georgia O'Keeffe “none of the prints that Ansel made in the coming years compared in beauty to those in his 1936 show”.3 Despite new arising lawsuits over use of his photos in books, Ansel continued to produce photographs. He was again asked by the Museum of Modern Arts to produce six photos for its exhibition. Ansel's use of an automatic dark room surprised many of his friends including, Edward Weston, the first winner of a Guggenheim for photography. He constantly traveled with others friends such as Georgia O'Keeffe and David McAlpin around the country. While on a trip in the Colorado Mountains with these friends, Ansel snapped the photos, Aspen, Dawn, and Dolores River. Because of the lack of subjects in such photographs, critics began to ask questions such as “where are the people”. Landscape photography was seen as weird by the majority of the public who were used to the modern painters who include subjects. Ansel's conservationist side constantly came out especially when he was commissioned by Fortune magazine to write two articles on the topics of Del Monte Forest and Gas and Electric Company. These articles were often accompanied by photos to show the beauty of nature.

Also a famous location of Ansel, Santa Fe was the location of one of his most famous photographs, Moonrise. Moonrise was created when Ansel was “contracted to make photographs for the department of the interior, and piggybacked that task onto assignments for the U.S. Potash Company.”4 It first appeared in the Katherine Kuh gallery in Chicago. Ansel was then hired by Ickes, a government official, to start the Mural Project. His specific job was to photograph land under the Department of the Interior's boundaries whether it included Native American territory or not. During the project he created one of his most famous photographic techniques, the Zone System. This system divided visible light into eleven sections with black at zero and white at eleven. Ansel committed to using the Zone System as a teaching tool for future photographers. In 1948 he published two educational books, Camera and Lens and The Negative as instructional books for the basics of photography. Ansel's personal life was still in trouble. He constantly cheated on Virginia with other woman who often worked for him in some capacity. Despite these troubles, he was still able to finish his Basic Photo Series with Natural-Light Photography and Artificial-Light Photograph. Dorothea Lange, a documentary photographer, followed Ansel around to document in photo Ansel's life. Outside of her documentary with Ansel, Dorothea Lange was also famous for her work Migrant Mother. When war broke out, Ansel was commissioned to take pictures at Manzanar, a Japanese internment camp. This was a rare incident of Ansel outside of his comfort zone of landscape photography and instead put him with a subject to work with. He brought out his conservationist side and focused on the idea that the Japanese were normal people like anybody else and did not deserve their imprisonment. Ansel's exhibition set to display these images was shut down due to a scared museum director who called them propaganda. Ansel continued to find work such as the Arizona Highways project on which he collaborated with his friend Nancy on, argued for better conservation of parks while promoting the development of highways. Camera Work magazine eventually died off to its massive competitor, Life magazine. Life magazine showcased some of Ansel's photos, along with a less well known magazine, Aperture. The Polaroid Corporation financially backed Ansel and his adventures and used his prints to advertise their company. As he got older, Ansel found that commercial projects required less and less of him and soon became second nature to him to complete. Using his already published books as reference, Ansel became a teacher for photography students, yet his love for his own photography and nature never stopped.

Ansel's fight for conservation of Yosemite and other national parks never stopped. Despite personally knowing the Secretaries of Interior and heads of the Park Service, Ansel made minimal progress despite his persistence. Ansel produced the portfolio, This Is the American Earth accompanied by a lyrical free-verse by Nancy in promotion of conservation. Corporations and the government constantly bid for the land of the parks to set up towns and shops for revenue among the tourists population there. In 1970, Ansel was awarded a Chubb Fellowship by Yale University. Ansel began to travel from college to college giving lectures on conserving the environment rather than letting it fall to companies and technologies. Creation of the Ansel Adam Gallery led to increase in exhibitions solely by Ansel. He used the gallery to showcase a selection of his Yosemite images of which he would sell prints of. Prints became his main source of income and “as the decade of the seventies progressed, interest in photography skyrocketed”5, overall increasing sales. Ansel began to appear on television for his activism in conservation, including starring in an automobile commercial for which his critics slammed him for. However the criticism from many, including his only family and friends, caused him to stay away from advertising . Ansel's popularity and number of orders surpassed his ability to constantly and quickly produce prints. He often had to send out letters to people who order his product to tell them he would be late. Ansel accepted nothing but perfection. On Alinder's first day of work, he had her examine 500 prints of Moonrise for any flaws at all. Photographs of such perfection soon demanded hundreds and even thousands of dollars in the markets as prices and demand rose. Soon every museum set was not complete without Ansel's fifteen most famous works. As he aged Ansel began to meet health problems. In 1979 he had his first surgery which inserted a replacement valve in his heart along with a triple coronary bypass. However, after his rehabilitation, he was able to continue his work and was eventually given the Medal of Freedom by President Carter. Sadly Ansel died on April 22nd, 1984. His photographs have and will always out live him and be an example of the American genius of twentieth century photography.

Through her writing of Ansel Adam's biography, Alinder urges the reader to preserve American culture and tradition whether it be in the form of a photographer or in the form of nature. Alinder says at the end that, “ In the longest run, his reputation will rest both on his photographs and his actions.”6 Ansel will always be about of the great American society of the twentieth century, and if we forgot him we may lose touch with some of our roots. But if we keep his images part of present society we will always be reminded of the progress that he and others of his time went through to help carve out the model for today. Alinder also talks about Ansel's environmental dedication when she says, “he bombarded Washington with telegrams, letters, personal appearances, and phone calls.”5 Ansel's activism towards the saving of the environment helped set a precedent for future generations. Alinder and Ansel hope that people realize how beautiful nature is and how people should preserve it rather than destroy it with technology. In death the overall message that Ansel wanted to send is to preserve the American culture and the American nature.

Alinder believes that what Ansel lived for and what he believed in was right. As a photography scholar Alinder shared similar beliefs with Ansel which included the “idea of blasting a highway in such a place infuriated Ansel”7. They both believed photography could be used to instigate change. Her life as Ansel's secretary has also fused her thoughts with Ansel because of the fact that everything Ansel sees she will see. Her husband also has a degree in fine arts in photography, which allows her to indirectly know more about Ansel's profession, thus connecting on a more personal level. Alinder wrote this biography during a time that society was still forming into what it is today. Because of the still ever evolving nature of the world, writing about photography, especially Ansel Adams helps remind people of the origins of such a practice. Especially the idea to preserve nature intensified during the time that Alinder wrote this book. More and more fossil fuels are now burning and more forests are being cut down than even. Alinder attempts to deliver the message of preservation through Ansel's biography and his life. The technological attitudes of the near present have overlook the needs of nature, and Alinder's book brings the problem to the forefront once again.

Both of the reviews praise Alinder for her expertise on the subject and wellness of the subject itself. One review says that, “Alinder knows her subject well: she worked for several years as Adam's executive assistant, led the team that helped the master assemble his 1985 memiors.”8.Alinder made sure her facts were one hundred percent accurate before publishing the biography. She also put in very little criticism of Ansel, and the criticism she did put in was often decent and sometimes offered an uplifting very of Ansel. Alinder does get distracted from the point when she get immersed in the story, but that is offset by Ansel's majestic figure and story. Another review says that “Alinder captures the professional mastery but paints a fuller portrait, delving into the emotional character of the legendary photographer.”10 With access to thousand of letters, Alinder was able to depict every detail of Ansel's life in stunning detail. She devoted herself to his legacy when she took up the task of finishing his memoirs and writing a biography on him. Despite getting too personal at some points, Alinder is still able to portray the main points effectively.

This book as a whole gives a great sense of the overall feel of the 20th century. It provides social, economic and artistic aspects of the century without going into took much detail or going too far off of the main point. Alinder knows a lot more about Ansel than anyone else and it shows. She's able to depict everything that happened in his life including things on a personal level. While some information could have been left out, such as background information that occurs when talking about Yosemite or the collodion glass plate process. Despite the needless information, Alinder still gives plenty of information to the reader. All of Ansel's achievements are covered along with the process in which he takes to get there. Good details such as names of certain exhibitions and names of people are at some points useless but at others not so. She does get a little personal and does use the first person in the last two chapters which somewhat offset what those were about. However, Ansel's legacy was still made obvious by Alinder through her use of first person. Alinder is ultimately able to portray Ansel's three most important contributions: “his art; his role in the recognition of photography as a fine art; and his work as an environment activist”11. This book is a great read, boring at some points and exciting at others and a little bit longer than it should be.

American nationalism is especially rampant in photography. Ansel felt that American “nature was the source of all goodness and man's best friend.”12 His pictures of nature resonated without the American population, creating a unifying feeling through art. Ansel's conservatism based around national parks is different from the whole world because he's one of the first to do it. People in America will want to live in America because of the art of photography and those who want to immigrate will see the greatness of the country. American photography helped develop new styles around the world and it especially promoted landscape photography rather than portrait or any other form. New developments in equipment and methods also came along as a result of this American art. The idea of an automatic dark room or the idea of glass plate method originate from photography institutions in America. It brought people to love rather than fear a growing country and even invited people around the world to come as an enticing force of visual stimulation. Photography gave rise to a new style of advertising and information exchange around the world.

In the end Salinder perfectly captures Ansel Adams and his ideals in her book. His contributions to America and to the field of photography along with his conservation will also be present in modern society and his legacy will last forever. 


  1. Alinder, Mary. Ansel Adams: A Biography. New York: Henry Holt Publishing. 1996. xi.
  2. Alinder, Mary. 14.
  3. Alinder, Mary. 155.
  4. Alinder, Mary. 186.
  5. Alinder, Mary. 303.
  6. Alinder, Mary. 386.
  7. Alinder, Mary. 281.
  8. Alinder, Mary. 286.
  9. Ansel Adams: A Biography. Kirkus Reviews. 1996. Online Journal.
  10. Art and Humanites. Library Journal. 1996. Online Journal.
  11. Alinder, Mary. 386.
  12. Alinder, Mary. 47.