Intimate Nature: Ansel Adams and the Close View

The photographs in Intimate Nature: Ansel Adams and the Close View represent an under recognized and rarely examined aspect of Ansel Adams's half-century-long career: his study of the intimate details of nature through the close view of his camera. This guide addresses historical, technical, and aesthetic issues central to Adams and to this body of work It explores issues such as the beauty of the natural world, interaction with nature on a direct and human scale.

Intimate Nature is drawn exclusively from the Ansel Adams Archive at the Center for Creative Photography, The University of Arizona. The archive contains over 3,000 exhibition prints and a complete research collection of the artist's negatives, correspondence, contact prints, and other original material.


Curator's Overview

The long career of Ansel Adams (1902-1984) represents a prolific and rich contribution to American photography including many hundreds of images that continue to profoundly influence the conception and practice of the art of photography. This selection addresses a less popularly recognized and rarely examined aspect of Adams's vision: his preoccupation with photographing the intimate details of nature. In this close-up approach, the form and surface of the natural world's particulars—the anatomy of leaves, the delicacy of a spring blossom, the murky crevice between rocks, the sunlight playing on a wet patch of sand—captivate the photographer and inspire works of strength and power equal to his more celebrated majestic views such as Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park, 1944; Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941; or Half Dome, Yosemite Valley, ca. 1956.

With this lesser known but equally meaningful body of images, another side of Adams is revealed. Expressed throughout his career, Adams's vision reflects interaction with nature on a direct and human scale. These works move away from the nineteenth-century example of the idyllic panorama of the American West, where Adams himself photographed, and exhibit a more contemporary application of photography's abilities. Experimenters and modernists, Ansel Adams and his fellow California photographers developed a straight and highly formal, sometimes even abstract, approach to their subjects. Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, and others shared Adams's interest in photography's ability to capture nature's most intimate details, those aspects of form and texture, as realized through light and shadow, which parallel actual experience in nature—the appreciation of what is close enough to touch and smell. These elemental, personal interpretations are not offered in contrast to Adams's exalted distant views, but stand as complements—allowing for a truer understanding of the photographer's complete vision of the natural world.

Trudy Wilner Stack, Curator


Ansel Adams

Musician, teacher, scientist, advocate, conservationist—these are some of the terms that describe the most renowned photographer in American history—Ansel Adams. He grew up in San Francisco where he was born in 1902 and was introduced to the expanse of California's Yosemite Valley while on a family vacation at the age of fourteen. At this time he was also given a No. 1 Brownie Box camera. These two seemingly small events strongly influenced the course of Adams's life. Fascinated by photography and impressed with the beauty of the Sierra mountains, Adams worked with a photofinisher in commercial processing in San Francisco during the winter and returned to Yosemite every summer.

For four years, beginning at age seventeen, he was the custodian of the Sierra Club's LeConte Memorial Building in Yosemite. This introduced him to an arena that became a driving force throughout the rest of his life—the preservation and conservation of wilderness areas and national parks in the United States. Among his many later accomplishments in this field, he served as board member and, ultimately, director of the Sierra Club and as environmental spokesperson for land protection before Congress. He also conducted annual photographic workshops in Yosemite that combined appreciation of the landscape's aesthetic beauty with technical instruction.

As a teenager, Adams decided to become a concert pianist, but by 1930, after viewing negatives made by east coast photographer Paul Strand, he chose instead a career in photography. His decision to become a full-time photographer contributed to the formation of a new vision in photography in the West. Adams, with other California Bay Area photographers—Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, Sonya Noskowiak, Henry Swift, and John Paul Edwards—founded Group f/64 in protest to the sentimental and imitative style prevalent in the long-standing, turn-of-the-century, photographic trend of pictorialism. The name f/64 refers to the smallest lens opening on the camera through which light passes: images photographed at this setting yield sharp focus and fine detail of subject matter. This loose organization of photographers concentrated on exploring what they termed "straight" or pure photography. They emphasized form and texture, rather than soft focus and emotionalism, and translated scale and detail into an organic, sometimes abstract, design. By 1935, Adams published his first book, Making a Photograph, which was enthusiastically received. Six years later, his groundbreaking Zone System was formulated, which introduced a way for the amateur and professional alike to determine and control the exposure and development of prints for maximum visual acuity.

Adams's sense of social responsibility and obligation to share knowledge with succeeding generations is evident in his life's work. Over the years, he became well known for the clarity of his instruction and his hands-on workshop approach to the medium. He influenced generations of photographers through his teaching and publishing. Adams served the field of photography in many capacities: for example, he was a guest lecturer and course instructor at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; founder of the first department of photography at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco; and author of numerous books.

He was instrumental in the formation of the museum and research center at the University of Arizona in Tucson, known today as the Center for Creative Photography. Adams's dream was to ensure the preservation and conservation of photographs as well as to make them available for public education purposes. Today, the Ansel Adams Archive at the Center includes his fine prints, correspondence, negatives, study prints, and memorabilia.

His technical ability in the darkroom remains unsurpassed. He set the standard for black-and-white printing for the Pacific coast group, and his discriminating taste and meticulously produced prints continue to amaze those who see his original work. His large encompassing landscapes, for which he is best known, are inspired by the archetypal nineteenth-century idealized panorama, which was a typical genre in early painted and photographic depictions of the American West. Adams was influenced by these examples, but he was also an experimenter and a modernist.

His close-up, intense studies of isolated natural objects that capture nature's most intimate details were often made on the same day as his more famous dramatic vistas. Adams advocated the role of photography as a fine art inspiring new ways of seeing and communicating.

All art is a vision penetrating the illusions of reality, and photography is one form of this vision and revelation. . . . My approach to photography is based upon my belief in the vigor and values of the world of nature, in aspects of grandeur and minutiae all about us.

-Basic Techniques of Photography

Adams remained active as a photographer and conservationist until his death in April 1984. The following year, a mountain peak on the southeast boundary of Yosemite National Park was officially named Mount Ansel Adams in his honor. In the same year, as a testament to his public popularity, his autobiography appeared on best-seller lists across the United States. Ansel Adams's view of America, produced in over half a century of imagery, invites us to reexamine our visible world from the most intimate details in nature to the broadest of landscapes.


The View Camera

Why Choose a View Camera?

The view camera is a large-format camera used by photographers who want to control every step of taking a photograph. Controlling tonal range may be crucial, they may need large negatives to create prints that clearly show even the tiniest detail, or they may want to decide exactly which parts of the picture are in focus. The photographer who uses a view camera devotes a lot of time to taking each photograph. Think about how this is different from using a camera with automatic focus and automatic exposure.

Using a View Camera

The photographer using a view camera has to handle the film in total darkness. To load the film, the photographer sits in the dark with a stack of film holders and a stack of sheets of film [dark bags with baffles can be used in emergencies]. He or she picks up each sheet of film by its edges, feels the notches that indicate position, inserts the film in the holder, and slides a light-tight cover over the film. After the photograph has been taken, the steps are followed in reverse, again in total darkness, until the exposed film is safe inside a light-tight box or developing tank. In contrast, the film for an automatic camera is already loaded inside a dark cartridge, which can be put in the camera in daylight. A view camera is not only large in format, it is also heavy. The 8x10-inch camera with lens and tripod, usually carried over the photographer's shoulder, weighs about thirty pounds. The pack with extra film holders and lenses weighs about the same. Photographers—from those small in physical stature such as Edward Weston to Ansel Adams, who was a large man—carry this weight into the field because they want to make photographs that can only be made with a view camera. Every step of taking a picture with a view camera requires the photographer's time and concentration. If he or she is focusing, both the position of the lens and the film holder can be adjusted. Each exposure requires a separate light-meter reading and separate settings for the aperture size and the amount of time the film is exposed to the light. The extra control means the photographer has to think about every procedure. Nothing is automatic about it.

Some Famous Artists Who Used View Cameras

Ansel Adams, master of the view camera, is revered for the exceptional print quality of his photographs. Using a view camera allowed him to control several aspects of photographing, each one of which contributes to this print quality. For instance, because he was exposing only one sheet of film at a time, he could use the Zone System to previsualize each photograph and to both take the picture and develop the negative specifically for the way he wanted that image to look. Using the Zone System also allowed Adams to achieve a wide tonal range; very few photographers match the density range—from the whitest white to the darkest black—found in Adams's photographs. As a young man, Adams and several other artists who used view cameras—like Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, and Willard VanDyke—formed Group f/64 to declare their dedication to photographic seeing; several of these artists went on to become the most celebrated American photographers of the twentieth century. The group adopted its name from the aperture f/64, which is a very small focal setting available on most view camera lenses.* Using it requires a long exposure and a still subject. If the photographer has perfectly aligned the plane of the lens and the plane of the film holder and focused the image, this long, slow exposure can yield a photograph that has maximum depth of field: the image is in focus from the surface closest to the viewer to the areas as far away as the eye can see. The ability to focus carefully with a view camera was important to artists like Adams and Weston. They wanted to assure that their principal subject was in sharp focus. This kind of clarity, this sharpness of focus, is most easily seen along the edges of objects. The view camera has a large focusing screen, a ground glass that is slightly larger than the film. In order to see clearly, the photographer has to go back into darkness again. A large dark cloth is slung over the photographer's head and the back of the camera creating a dark space where the subject is seen upside down, glowing brightly, allowing the photographer to focus precisely. The control that the view camera offers attracts artists who have the patience and concentration to use it. Ansel Adams, who knew the places he photographed very well, often set up his camera and waited for the light to fall the way he envisioned or for a storm to move through Yosemite Valley just as he expected. Adams also knew his camera equally well. His most famous photograph Moonrise,Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941, was taken in the heat of the moment. Imagine Adams driving his car, seeing the picture, and pulling to the side of the highway. Deftly setting up his tripod and camera, he then focused quickly under a dark cloth, prepared his lens and shutter settings, and took the picture in the fading light at the moment the sun was setting and lighting a row of adobe houses and a cemetery in the foreground.

view-camera (1).gif

Most parts of the view camera can be seen and manipulated.

The Parts of a View Camera and How It Is Used

A view camera might best be described as a large box with a lens on one end, a place for a film holder on the other end, and a long, accordion-like bellows in between that can be collapsed or expanded to bring the subject into focus. The closer the photographer gets to a small object, the longer the bellows must be extended in order to focus. The view camera gives the photographer great control because both the front standard, which supports the lens, and the rear standard, which supports the film, are moveable and can be adjusted to bring the foreground and background of the subject into sharp focus. These movements can also be used to correct distortion or to distort the subject intentionally.

Using the Negative In the Darkroom

View cameras require sheet film, as opposed to roll film. The 4x5-, 5x7-, or 8x10-inch film used in such a camera becomes the negative after the exposed film is developed. The negative is used to create a positive print by passing light through the negative onto photographic paper, which has been coated with a chemical solution containing light-sensitive metallic salts. For most black-and-white photographs, the light-sensitive material is silver. The closer the negative is to the photographic paper, the smaller the enlargement and the greater the resolution, or fineness of detail, in the finished print. In fact, the best resolution achieved through any negative is in a contact print, when the negative is in direct contact with the photographic paper. Such prints are noted for their sharpness, clarity, minute detail, and lack of grain. To enlarge an image beyond the negative size, light passing through the negative must first go through a lens and be projected onto the photographic paper from a distance away. The larger the negative, the less distance is needed to make a particular image size. Imagine an artist using 35mm roll film. Since the film is only 1/62th of the size of an 8x10-inch sheet of film, the 35mm negative would have to be much farther from the paper to project the same size image, and consequently, some resolution would be lost. At the same time, a contact print made from a 35mm negative is too small to have any significant visual impact. There are, of course, artists who work in the 35mm film format; but their artistic concerns are different from those of artists who choose to use a view camera. In addition, sheet film can be processed in the darkroom one sheet at a time, if desired, allowing for precise use of the Zone System. If the Zone System is used with roll film, one set of calculations must apply to the entire roll, which would dictate that a whole roll be used for subject matter photographed under identical lighting conditions with the same type of previsualized image in mind.

* The photographers in Group /64 did not use view cameras exclusively. For instance, several of the photographs in the Center for Creative Photography's exhibition Intimate Nature: Ansel Adams and the Close View were taken with a Hasselblad, a medium-format camera that uses 120mm roll film and is known for its high quality lenses (the individual negatives are 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 inches). Edward Weston used a Graflex, a medium-format camera often used by photojournalists, to take his famous series of nudes of dancer Bertha Wardell.

The Zone System

Creating a fine print is a process with many steps. The first is producing the best possible negative to print the photograph as the photographer previsualized it. Once mastered, the Zone System allows photographers to consistently control the tonal range in the negative. Formulated by Ansel Adams and Fred Archer in 1939/40, the Zone System is a set of techniques that allows photographers the greatest possible control over the characteristics of black-and-white film. The system works best with sheet film, which can be exposed and developed one piece at a time. This film becomes the negative used in printing the photograph.


Zone-Scale Card

Using the Zone System

  • previsualize the subject scene in shades of black and white [using the Zone-Scale Card]
  • take a light meter reading of target zones using a hand-held light meter, and sometimes a gray card as well
  • decide if adjustments need to be made in the exposure to effectively record the amount of light on the film
  • determine if the contrast, or range of values from black to white, will need to be adjusted by varying the development time of the film. A shorter than normal development time decreases contrast; a longer than normal time increases it.
  • analyze the print during the printing process to determine if the tones of the photographic image are aesthetically pleasing as they were previsualized.


development: a chemical process, carried out in the dark, which makes the image exposed on the film visible and permanent in negative form.

exposure: the amount of light that falls on the film (which will become the photographic negative). This is regulated by controlling the size of the aperture through which light enters the camera and/or the length of the exposure.

gray card: a standardized card, used for measuring light, which corresponds to Zone V, or mid-tone gray.

hand-held light meter: a light-measuring device that is separate from the camera. A spot meter, which covers a one degree angle, is ideal for measuring target zones.

previsualization: a mental exercise in which the photographer imagines the subject in terms of the black, white, and grays desired in the final photographic print.

spot meter: a type of hand-held meter that allows the photographer to easily measure light falling on very small areas within the subject matter.

zones: a specific set of tonal values consisting of pure black, the base white of the black-and-white photographic paper, and eight or nine shades of gray in between [see Zone Scale Card]. When the Zone System is used, the darkest areas of a photographic image are referred to as low values (Zones I — III), the gray areas are called middle values (Zones IV — VI), and the light areas are high values (Zones VII — IX). The zones are always referred to by roman numerals.

Suggestions for Discussing and Interpreting the Photographs

Photographs are the result of aesthetic, social, political, personal, and cultural influences on the artist. These affect and help direct the construction and content of the image. Through careful analysis of photographs, students will develop and improve observational skills, increase their vocabulary to express responses, and sharpen their interpretive skills.

Initiate Discussion

Have students spend a few minutes just looking at a selected work. Ask them to respond to these questions:

  • What do you see?
  • What is it about?
  • How do you know?

Ask them to talk about details in the photograph and encourage them to use specific words from their own experience, rather than general terms.

Stand in the Photographer's Footsteps

Ansel Adams made decisions about composition and content when working, both when clicking the camera's shutter and when printing from the negative in the darkroom. Three of his important considerations were the angle, framing, and light. Select an image and explore these issues with your students:

  • Has Ansel Adams chosen an angle from above the subject, from below, or at eye level? What effect does the angle have on the way you view the subject? How would the photograph have changed if it had been taken from a different angle?
  • Adams framed his subject by determining what the edges or boundaries of the photograph would be. Where in the photograph does the framing draw your attention? Imagine the setting where the photograph was taken and what might be visible outside of the frame. How would a different framing (closer or farther away) affect the viewer's sense of the subject?
  • In a photograph, light reveals details, creates shadows, and often contributes to the mood or feeling of the work. Ansel Adams worked in natural light and sometimes waited for days to get just the right kind of light in his photographs. Use adjectives to describe the quality of light in his work and discuss what it contributes to the photograph.

Conduct a Thorough Visual Analysis

Spend at least fifteen minutes looking at and discussing one or more selected images using the Learning to Look at Photographs lesson.


Ansel Adams believed our natural environment should be cherished and protected. Do his photographs impact your feelings about the environment? Discuss.


Selected Bibliography On Close-up Nature Photography by Ansel Adams and Others

Adams, Ansel. The Camera (The New Ansel Adams Photography Series, Book 1). Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1980. Adams, Ansel and Mary Street Alinder.

Ansel Adams: An Autobiography. Boston: Little, Brown, 1985. Adams, Ansel and Robert Baker. The Print (New Ansel Adams Photography Series, Book 3). Boston: Little, Brown, 1983.

Adams, Ansel and Andrea Gray Stillman. The American Wilderness. Boston: Little, Brown, 1990.

Adams, Ansel, Peter Wright, John Armor, and Cynthia Anderson. The Mural Project: Photography by Ansel Adams. Santa Barbara: Reverie Press, 1989.

Alinder, Mary. Ansel Adams: the Eightieth Birthday Retrospective. Monterey: The Monterey Peninsula Museum of Art, 1982.

Braasch, Gary. Photographing the Patterns of Nature. New York: Amphoto, 1990.

Gray, Andrea. Ansel Adams: An American Place, 1936. Tucson: Center for Creative Photography, 1982.

Newhall, Nancy. Ansel Adams: The Eloquent Light. Millerton, N.Y.: Aperture, 1980. Nuridsany, Claude and Marie Perennou. Photographing Nature. London: Kaye and Ward; New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Pritzker, Barry. Ansel Adams. New York: Crescent Books, 1991. Schaefer, John Paul. An Ansel Adams Guide: Basic Techniques of Photography. Boston: Little, Brown, 1992.

Wolfe, Art and Martha Hill. The Art of Photographing Nature. New York: Crown, 1993.