Ansel Adams: Photographer, Activist, and Leader

Ansel Adams is one of the great American artists. Known for his inspiring black-and-white photos of the American wilderness, he shot for more than a beautiful picture, but for a message. Adams was a pioneer in his day for a number of different reasons. Firstly, he fought for the legitimacy of photography as a form of high culture art. Whereas traditional mediums of art like painting and drawing dominated the art scene in the early twentieth century, Adams was one of the leading photographers to establish photography as a valid art form. Pictures like Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico (1941) and Grand Tetons and Snake River (1942) proved to society that photography could be just as beautiful and intricate as any other medium. Adams said, “It is easy to take a photograph, but it is harder to make a masterpiece in photography than in any other art medium.”

Another cause he cared about is the preservation of the environment. Widely regarded as the best landscape photographer ever, he had a keen eye for capturing the magnificence in nature, which he utilized to further the environmentalist movement that was already taking place. His pictures were masterpieces. Within any setting, he knew how to showcase the best aspects of it; he truly showed how beautiful America is to America. He decided to utilize his gift and join the Sierra Club, one of the first environmental preservation organizations in the world. He was involved in the club for a total of 37 years and, in that time, he helped lobby congressmen and presidents for the creation of national parks and for the prevention of destructive development projects. The Sierra Club was used as a platform to publish his change-evoking artwork. His photos were reminders to the American people and the government that there are few things as breathtaking and mystical as pure, untouched nature and that it’d be a shameful day in human history if we somehow were able to destroy all of it.

Taking a short departure from his signature landscape photography, Adams also photographed the huge injustice that was the Japanese-American relocation to internment camps during WWII. Specifically, he photographed the Japanese-Americans that were located at the Manzanar War Relocation Center in California. He photographed portraits of the internees, daily life, agricultural scenes, and leisure activities. Ultimately, he did this to show how inhumane and unfair these camps were. He saw the importance in documenting such a terrible event so that we would never forget the suffering Japanese-Americans had to go through during this dark time in world history.

I think that Adams’ “why” was capturing and preserving the beauty in the world. To him, beauty was the wilderness, the untouched unknown which perfectly exists without human interference. Beauty was also justice. Whether it be on environmental issues or social issues, I believe that he found fairness, equality, and peace to be beautiful. Therefore, throughout his life, he dedicated his time in trying to preserve what he found beautiful through his photography. His camera was his pen and his film was his paper and, through his photography, he expressed ideas about the environment and justice better than any writer could with words.

I find Adams’ “why” to be very similar to my “why”; while totally different mediums and messages, I admire the way he used his art as a catalyst for change. Adams saw unlawful things happening and he used his gift to try to change that. I aspire to do that. Today, I find inequity in the amount of representation of minorities in media. I find it wrong that the media perpetuates a false reality, one that excludes and ignores valid groups of people. I hope to enter the entertainment industry to create a reality that accurately reflects America and the world. In the way that Adams used his photos to spark discussion and debate, I want to do that with films or TV shows I help create.

Overall, I find this artist-activist’s work inspiring, impassioned, and important. Not only did Adams set the precedent of what it means to be an amazing photographer and artist, but he set the precedent of what it means to be an activist and work for change. Through the help of his work, photography is now an established, respected art medium that millions of people around the world study and love. Through the help of his work, America now has more protected pieces of land that showcase America’s natural beauty, unique geological features, and uncommon ecosystems. Through the help of his work, America will probably never have an executive order like that of Executive Order 9066 in which over 100 thousand Japanese-Americans were unfairly incarcerated. If I could make a fraction of the amount of change Adams was able to accomplish, I would be happy. Adams truly is an inspiration that I hope to emulate through my work.

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