Ansel Adams: Affirmation of Life

September 21, 2023 – March 31, 2024
Palm Desert, CA


“I believe… that art is the affirmation of life.” – Ansel Adams


Ansel Adams photographs are © The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust. Reproduced with permission. 


Heather James presents an intimate exhibition of photographs by Ansel Adams. Adams may be one of the most important and influential photographers from the United States – not only through his body of work but also for his advocacy of the America’s National Parks and the founding of Group f/64 and the magazine Aperture.

“Photography is more than a medium for factual communication of ideas. It is a creative art.” – Ansel Adams


The exhibition situates Adams’s photographs within the history of photography, Modernism, and American history. A native of San Francisco, Heather James shares this connection with Adams through our presence and roots in the Bay Area, Northern California, and in Palm Desert. We have been proud to showcase the pioneering spirit of Californian artists alongside giants of art history including Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, and more.

Adams legacy reverberates through his influence on photography, his shaping of Modern art, and his activism to protect and expand America’s National Parks. Few artists have shaped our conception of landscape, photography, and America itself as Ansel Adams.

Starting with his cofounding of Group f/64, Adams created a path for photography to be considered as “fine art”, expanding the conception of the medium’s capacity beyond mere reproductions. The group emphasized a depth of field to images by using the smallest aperture setting on a camera. Adams took these principles further through his technical knowledge of the camera and the process of turning negatives into prints.

If this was his only contribution to photography, his fame would still be assured. But it was his depiction of the American landscape, the composition and lucidity of each image, that shaped our conception of Modern art. The clarity and shade between areas of light and shadow show that his works are not just meditations on nature but studies in form and contrast.

  • Ansel Adams visiting the National Archives, The National Archives, NAID 286885725
  • Ansel Adams, “The Tetons – Snake River”, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, The National Archives, NAID 519904, Local ID 79-AAG-1
  • Jimmy Carter – With Ansel Adams, The National Archives, NAID 842161, NLC-WHSP-C-14131

As President Jimmy Carter noted when conferring the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Ansel Adams:

“At one with the power of the American landscape, and renowned for the patient skill and timeless beauty of his work, photographer Ansel Adams has been visionary in his efforts to preserve the country’s wild and scenic areas, both on film and on Earth. Drawn to the beauty of nature’s monuments, he is regarded by environmentalists as a monument himself, and by photographers as a national institution. It is through his foresight and fortitude that so much of America has been saved for future Americans.”

The viewing room takes the time to unpeel the layers and legacy of Adams, extricating his powerful imagery from the reproductions found in posters and postcards across homes the world to see through to the core of the artist himself, the power of his landscapes matching his stature as one of history’s most important artists.


  • Ansel Adams, View across river valley toward “Mount Moran,” Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, The National Archives, NAID 519908, Local ID 79-AAG-5
  • Ansel Adams’ Visit to the Still Picture Branch, The National Archives, NAID 286968389, Local ID 64-PF-9-10-79-4
  • Ansel Adams Wilderness, CA, September 1996, The National Archives NAID 7868691, Local ID 412-EPD-HI-RESAE-045

Ansel Adams’s activism for the National Parks extends beyond his powerful images. Adams was not afraid to campaign for their conservation and expansion noting that the act creating the National Parks system could be altered at any time. However, his monumental views of America’s landscapes stand witness to our need to protect not just the parks but also to halt and reverse the effects of climate change.

“…[A]rt is about the only way to bring about an adequate and exciting contact between the realities of society and implications and potentials of nature…” – Ansel Adams


It is not a widely known fact that Ansel Adams and Georgia O’Keeffe were friends. It is their relationship that sheds a light on the different ways that Modern Art could take shape in the 20th century. Despite the changing flux of their friendship, Adams held O’Keeffe in high regard, noting, “Her genius will always be in flower, no matter what age or events come upon her.”

  • Ansel Adams, Georgia O’Keeffe and Orville Cox, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona, 1937 (printed 1974), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


  • President Gerald R. Ford Talking with Ansel Adams and William Turnage, The National Archives, NAID 27575792, Local ID GRF-WHPO-A2948-27A
  • Ansel Adams photographing Director Edwin McMillan, taken November 18, 1966, The National Archives, NAID 7665658, Local ID 434-LB-2-XBD201004-0488TIF

Few artists have had the technical expertise as Ansel Adams. Adams continued to master the capabilities of the camera throughout his entire life and published many manuals that spread his knowledge to generations of photographers. He also valued the knowledge to physically print photographs, transferring the negative onto a surface. This combination of expertise of the camera and printing along with his eye for composition allowed Adams to create photographs of intense depth.


Through his passion to protect and promote the natural beauty of the United States, Ansel Adams shaped our conception of a majestic wilderness. Adams shades the landscape with gradations of black and white. In fact, the gradations were part of the zone system that Adams developed to help discuss the relationship between the subject and the end photograph. Nevertheless, the photographs reveal more than the beauty and enormity of the United States.

  • Ansel Adams, “Manzanar Relocation Center from tower”, 1943, gelatin silver print, Library of Congress, Manzanar War Relocation Center photographs, LC-DIG-ppprs000275
  • Ansel Adams, “Baseball game, Manzanar Relocation center”, 1943 gelatin silver print, Library of Congress, Manzanar War Relocation Center photographs, LC-DIG-ppprs-00369
  • Ansel Adams, “Tom Kobayashi (titlepage illustration), Manzanar Relocation center, California”, 1943 gelatin silver print, Library of Congress, Manzanar War Relocation Center photographs, LC-DIG-ppprs-00243

“When words become unclear. I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate. I shall be content with silence.” – Ansel Adams


Contact Us


“Ansel Adams: Technique & Working Methods” from the Getty Museum
“Ansel Adams + Richard Misrach: Exploring Legacies” from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
“Ansel Adams Photographer (1958)” from Inter-Pathé History
“Ansel Adams exhibit at San Francisco’s de Young Museum” from ABC7 News Bay Area