5 Things You Didn't Know About Ansel Adams

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You probably know Ansel Adams as the man who helped promote the National Park Services' beauty through his magnificent photographs. Here are five things you might not know about the celebrated photographer.

1. An Earthquake Made His Face

Adams was a four-year-old tot when the 1906 San Francisco earthquake struck his hometown. Although the boy managed to escape any sort of injury during the quake itself, an aftershock threw him face-first into a garden wall, breaking his nose. According to a 1979 interview Adams gave to TIME, doctors told his parents that it would be best to fix the nose when the boy matured. He joked, "But of course I never did mature, so I still have the nose."

The nose became Adams' most striking physical feature. His buddy Cedric Wright liked to refer to Adams' honker as his "earthquake nose."

2. He Was Slated to Be a Pianist

Adams was an energetic, inattentive student, and that trait coupled with a possible case of dyslexia earned him the heave-ho from private schools. However, he was obviously a sharp boy when motivated.

When Adams was just 12 years old, he taught himself to play the piano and read music, and he quickly showed a great aptitude for it.

For nearly a dozen years, Adams focused on little other than his piano training. He was still playful—he would end performances by jumping up and sitting on his piano—but he was a serious student. Although Adams diligently devoted over a decade to his study, he eventually came to the realization that his hands simply weren't big enough for him to become a superb concert pianist. He decided to leave the keys for the camera after meeting photographer Paul Strand, much to his family's dismay.

3. He Helped Create a National Park

muir-adamsIf you've ever enjoyed Kings Canyon National Park in California, tip your cap to Adams. In the 1930s Adams took a series of photographs that eventually became the book Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail. When Adams sent a copy to Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, the cabinet member showed it to Franklin Roosevelt. The photographs so delighted FDR that he wouldn't give the book back to Ickes. Adams sent Ickes a replacement copy, and FDR kept his in the White House.

After a few years, Ickes, Adams, and the Sierra Club successfully convinced Roosevelt to make Kings Canyon a national park in 1940. Roosevelt's designation specifically provided that the park be left totally undeveloped and roadless, so the only way FDR himself would ever experience the park was through Adams' lenses.

4. He Wasn't Afraid to Take on Commercial Assignments

While many of his contemporary fine art photographers shunned commercial assignments as crass and materialistic, Adams went out of his way to find paying gigs. If a company needed a camera for hire, Adams would generally show up, and as a result he had some unlikely clients. According to the Ansel Adams Gallery, he snapped shots for everyone from IBM to AT&T to women's colleges to a dried fruit company. All of this commercial print work dismayed Adams' mentor Alfred Stieglitz and even worried Adams when he couldn't find time to work on his own projects. It did, however, keep the lights on.

5. He Didn't Always See Eye-to-Eye with Georgia O'Keeffe

Adams and legendary painter O'Keeffe were pals and occasional traveling buddies, but they weren't huge fans of each other's work. They met through their mutual friend/mentor Stieglitz—who eventually became O'Keeffe's husband—and became friends who traveled throughout the Southwest together during the 1930s. O'Keeffe would paint while Adams took photographs.

Although these journeys together led to some top-notch work—one of Adams' notable pictures is a portrait of O'Keeffe—the two had very different artistic visions. O'Keeffe didn't think the outgoing, commercially minded Adams took his craft seriously enough, while Adams once admitted, "In the presence of O'Keeffe's paintings, I can't fully claim to understand them." O'Keeffe similarly dismissed Adams' work by saying, "He doesn't take the time to say anything."

Surprisingly, though, the two remained close. Adams would visit O'Keeffe's ranch, and the two wrote to each other until Adams' death in 1985.

'5 Things You Didn't Know About...' appears every Friday. If there's someone you'd like to see covered, leave us a comment. You can read the previous installments here.

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March 5, 2010 - 9:12am
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