10 Facts About Ansel Adams

Famed photographer Ansel Adams drained the color from life to great effect. His black-and-white photographs of famous landscapes like Yosemite National Park have been seen by millions, reproduced on calendars and posters, and recognized by presidents as being crucial to conservation efforts. If you’re curious to learn more about Adams (who was born on this day in 1902), take a look at some of these lesser-known facts about both his life and his life’s work.

1. An earthquake broke his nose.

Born in San Francisco to Charles and Olive Adams on February 20, 1902, Ansel was just 4 years old when San Francisco was struck by the great earthquake of 1906. During an aftershock, he lost his balance and fell face-first into a garden wall, breaking his nose. The damage was so severe that it would become a remarkable feature of Ansel’s face. Between his nose—which caused him a lot of problems socially—and a disdain for the formalized education he was receiving, Adams eventually elected to be tutored at home by his father and aunt before he got a “legitimizing diploma” and graduated with an approximately eighth grade education.

2. He originally wanted to be a concert pianist.

Adams was a solitary kid, studying at home and wandering trails by himself. He began practicing the piano at the age of 12, and by 18, he decided he would make it a profession and began a path to becoming a concert pianist. Throughout the 1920s, however, Adams’s frequent visits to the Sierra Nevada region stirred an interest in photography. After contributing images to the Sierra Club newsletter and opening a one-man exhibition in 1928, he decided, in 1930, to make photography his full-time career.

3. A granite summit made him famous.

As he became more interested in photographic pursuits, Adams got assistance from Albert Bender, an art patron in San Francisco who told Adams that he would help him circulate a portfolio of his work. One of the last images needed to complete the sampler was of the Half Dome, a sheer granite summit in Yosemite that extends 5000 feet above the valley. In April 1927, Adams climbed to a rock cliff known as the Diving Board and managed to get the shot he wanted. The image, Monolith, the Face of Half Dome, became one of his best-known works.

4. His work appeared on a coffee can.

Adams often agreed to commercial work in order to subsidize his more creative pursuits, trying to strike a balance between paying bills and garnering satisfaction from his environmental awareness ambitions. In 1969, the Hill Brothers Coffee Company licensed Winter Morning, Yosemite Valley for their 3-pound coffee tins. The containers can bring up to $1500 when they come up for auction.

5. He didn't shy away from critiques of World War II.

Portrait of internee Tom Kobayashi at Manzanar War Relocation Center, Owens Valley, California, 1943
Portrait of internee Tom Kobayashi at Manzanar War Relocation Center, Owens Valley, California, 1943

Though Adams is best known for his nature photography, the outbreak of World War II drew his eye to an entirely different topic. He photographed the interment camp at Manzanar, one of many such sites that detained Japanese-Americans, depicting their prejudiced treatment at the hands of the U.S. government while being forced to exist in war relocation centers. Adams donated the collection, which included more than 200 photographs, to the Library of Congress in 1965, writing that “The purpose of my work was to show how these people, suffering under a great injustice, and loss of property, businesses and professions, had overcome the sense of defeat and dispair [sic] by building for themselves a vital community in an arid (but magnificent) environment ... All in all, I think this Manzanar Collection is an important historical document, and I trust it can be put to good use.”

6. He was presented with the Medal of Freedom.

Collectively, Adams’s art was a giant portrait of conservation efforts intended to reveal the beauty of national landmarks and the value in preserving them for future generations. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor awarded to civilians, to acknowledge his efforts on behalf of environmental causes. Carter dubbed Adams a “national institution.”

7. HE "mutilated" some of his own negatives.

In order to stir up interest for his Portfolio VI book collection in 1974, Adams purposely limited the number of copies available by advertising that no more reproductions could ever be struck from the original negatives—he had run them across a check canceling device, destroying them. Adams later regretted the decision, writing in his autobiography that “negatives should never be intentionally destroyed.”

8. He had problems with a couple of presidents.

Adams’s political views on environmental conservation were embedded in the fabric of his identity. When politicians didn’t agree, he had no problem butting heads. Adams refused to take a presidential portrait of Richard Nixon due to Nixon's reluctance to support public lands. After meeting Ronald Reagan in 1983, Adams expressed disinterest in any further communication, telling The Washington Post that the president had no “fundamental interest or knowledge in the environment.” An earlier exchange with Playboy was more cutting: “I hate Reagan,” Adams said.

9. He didn't see any financial rewards until late in life.

“Professional nature photographer” was not considered a lucrative vocation when Adams was devoted to his craft. It wasn’t until the 1970s, when an associate advised him to stop selling prints and focus on his book collections, that Adams became financially solvent.

10. He had too many photos to print.

When Adams died in 1984, curators of his extensive 40,000-plus photo archives marveled at the fact that the photographer never found time to print many images they considered to be masterpieces. Thousands of portraits and color photos were tucked in shoeboxes, with some later appearing in collections of his work. Adams, a perfectionist, insisted on developing and exposing prints himself. He had taken so many photos that there simply had not been enough hours in the day to process them all.

8 Surprising Facts and Misconceptions About Recycling

iStock.com/KatarzynaBialasiewicz
iStock.com/KatarzynaBialasiewicz

If you pat yourself on the back for just remembering to separate the recycling or haul that big blue bin to the curb each week, you're not alone. Despite the strides we appear to be making toward eco-consciousness as a country, we have a long way to go in helping the Earth, as evidenced by our complicated relationship with recycling. These facts about the most prevalent of the three Rs will make you pause the next time you throw anything away.

1. The United States's recycling rate is low—really low.

Figures from the Environmental Protection Agency show that America recycles about 34.7 percent of the garbage it produces. (The world's top recyclers—Germany, Austria, Wales, and South Korea—report a rate between 52 and 56 percent.) But Mitch Hedlund, founder and Executive Director of the organization Recycle Across America isn't even sure the recycling rate often quoted is accurate because there is so much junk mixed in with actual recyclables.

Recycle Across America is currently working to encourage the use of standardized labels for recycling bins to eliminate the confusion over what actually belongs in these receptacles. "If the U.S. gets the recycling number up to 75 percent, which we believe is completely possible once the confusion (over what to place in the bins) is removed, it will be the CO2 equivalent of removing 50 million cars from the roads each year in the U.S. and it will create 1.5 million permanent new jobs in the U.S. (net)."

2. Proper recycling can result in monetary savings.

Businessman stepping on green squares with recycling symbols
iStock.com/Rawpixel

While Hedlund admits the idea of providing universal labels clearly stating what should be placed in the bins is a simple one, it's making a serious impact on those who have jumped on the bandwagon. "Many schools are seeing dramatic increases in their recycling levels since using the society-wide standardized labels on their recycling bins," she says. "For instance, in the pilot program at Culver City schools in Los Angeles [County], their recycling levels doubled when they started using the standardized labels and the materials they were collecting in their recycling bins were so much less contaminated with garbage." Another story, she says, is that "as a result of a donation from Kiehls (who makes a donation to Recycle Across America each April in the sum of $50,000), all of the schools in the San Diego Unified School District and San Diego County started using the standardized labels. San Diego Unified School District reduced their landfill hauling fees by about $200,000 (net) in the first year."

3. Recent changes from China have severely impacted the recycling industry.

Until 2018, China took 40 percent of the United States's recycled paper, plastic, and metal. But in January of that year, China imposed strict new rules on the levels of contamination (think food or other garbage mixed in with the recyclables) it's willing to accept—standards American cities are largely unable to meet. Because of that, and a lack of suitable destinations closer to home, many cities have been forced to incinerate or stockpile recyclables until they can find a better solution.

4. Only 9 percent of plastic is recycled in the U.S.

The nation recycles less than 10 percent of its plastic, compared to 67 percent for paper materials, 34 percent for metals, and 26 percent for glass. And China's restrictions have especially affected plastic—while exports of scrap plastic to China were valued at more than $300 million in 2015, they amounted to $7.6 million in the first quarter of 2018, down 90 percent from the year before.

5. Clothing can be recycled, but it rarely is.

Clothing at a garage sale
iStock.com/alexeys

Unfortunately, most curbside haulers don't accept textiles, and America has a serious problem with old clothes ending up in the trash. In 2019, the nation is on track to throw away more than 35 billion pounds of textiles, according to the Council for Textile Recycling—almost double the number from 1999. On the plus side, some cities have set up drop-off points for unwanted clothes, and there are a variety of ways to sell or donate unwanted items. Some brands, including Eileen Fisher and Patagonia, have also introduced buy-back programs for their items.

6. Aluminum is the world's most-recycled packaging product.

Crushed aluminum cans
iStock.com/hroe

Nearly 70 percent of aluminum cans are recycled internationally, according to Novelis, a leader in rolled aluminum products and recycled aluminum. Aluminum is infinitely recyclable without degrading, meaning it can be reused in a way completely different from what it was in its previous life, or recast into its original form. Not only is aluminum the world's most-recycled product, it's also the most profitable and the most energy-efficient. Using recycled aluminum instead of virgin materials saves about 95% of the energy, compared to 60% for paper and 34% for glass [PDF].

7. That soda can you're drinking from could find its way back to you more quickly than you think.

According to Novelis's research, an aluminum can that is recycled can be back on a grocery store shelf within 60 days [PDF]. That's a seriously speedy turnaround.

8. Scrap recycling is big business.

While the words scrap recycling might have you humming the Sanford & Son theme song, it's far from being a junkyard industry. According to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), in 2017 U.S. scrap recyclers processed more than 130 million tons of scrap metal, paper, plastic, glass, textiles, and more—material that was sold back to industrial consumers in the U.S. and around the world, generating close to $18 billion in export sales. All told, scrap recycling was a $117 billion industry in 2017 [PDF].

This list first ran in 2015 and was updated by Mental Floss staff in 2019.

From Cocaine to Chloroform: 28 Old-Timey Medical Cures

YouTube
YouTube

Is your asthma acting up? Try eating only boiled carrots for a fortnight. Or smoke a cigarette. Have you got a toothache? Electrotherapy might help (and could also take care of that pesky impotence problem). When it comes to our understanding of medicine and illnesses, we’ve come a long way in the past few centuries. Still, it’s always fascinating to take a look back into the past and remember a time when cocaine was a common way to treat everything from hay fever to hemorrhoids.

In this week's all-new edition of The List Show, Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy is highlighting all sorts of bizarre, old-timey medical cures. You can watch the full episode below.

For more episodes like this one, be sure to subscribe here.

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