Mt. Williamson, The Sierra Nevada, from Manzanar, California

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Mt. Williamson, The Sierra Nevada, from Manzanar, California


By: Ansel Adams

Date: 1945

Source: Adams, Ansel. Mt. Williamson, The Sierra Nevada, from Manzanar, California, 1945.

About the Photographer: American photographer Ansel Adams (1902–1984) is best known for his dramatic black-and-white photographs of the American West, particularly the Sierra Nevada and Yosemite Valley. A native of San Francisco, Adams lived through the great earthquake of 1906 but was permanently scarred by a broken nose suffered when he fell during an aftershock. The teenaged Adams fared poorly in traditional schools and completed his education with the help of private tutors. He began a lifelong association with the Yosemite Valley during a family trip in 1916, and three years later became an active member of the Sierra Club. Adams trained as a concert pianist but, motivated in large part by mountain trips, developed a passion for photography and in 1930 decided to pursue it as a career. One of his early books, the limited edition volume Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail, was assembled during the 1930s and is considered to have been instrumental in the creation of Kings Canyon National Park. Adams also worked as a commercial photographer and spent time in New York City. He wrote three seminal books on photographic technique that remain highly respected among modern photographers: The Camera, The Negative, and The Print. Adams was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1968 and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980.


Adams' photograph of Mt. Williamson typifies his use of dramatic lighting, shadows, shapes, and texture to capture the essence of Western American landscapes. The photographs are remarkably sharp and vivid because he often used a large format camera with 8-by-10-inch (20-by-25-centimeter) sheets, rather than rolls, of film for most of his photographs. Photographs lose sharpness as they are optically enlarged. By using large format cameras and film, however, Adams was able to produce prints that required little or no enlargement. A typical 35mm film negative, in contrast, must be enlarged by a factor of sixty before it reaches the size the 8-by-10-inch negatives that Adams used for many of his landscape photographs. Large format cameras are also large and heavy, requiring a sturdy tripod that eliminates camera movement and produces sharper images.

Adams mastered the technical aspects of photography and carefully calculated the exposure necessary to produce an image that he visualized before the photograph was taken. He invented the Zone System, a widely used method of assessing the tonal variation of a scene and using that information to select the combination of shutter speed, lens aperture, and film type necessary to create the desired image. Because each sheet of large format film contains only one photograph, as opposed to a roll of film that can contain many photographs taken under different light, large format photographers such as Adams' can develop each sheet separately and adjust process to produce the best possible images.

Adams' commitment to sharp and compelling photographs is also reflected by his role as a cofounder of Group f/64, a group of photographers who disdained the soft-focus impressionistic photography that was popular during the early part of the twentieth century. Other members of Group f/64 included notable photographers Edward Weston and Imogene Cunningham. The name f/64 is in reference to the smallest lens aperture available on their cameras, which produced the greatest depth of field (portion of the photograph that is in focus).



See primary source image.


This photograph of Mt. Williamson is one of many that could have been selected to typify Adams's approach to landscape photography. It clearly conveys his mastery of light and details of the photographic process, his straightforward approach to photography, and his love for the American landscape. Unlike some of his other photographs, however, this well-known Mt. Williamson photograph has additional historical significance because of the location from which it was taken. Working for the U.S. Department of the Interior during World War II, Adams produced series of photographs documenting daily life of Japanese-Americans imprisoned at the Manzanar Relocation Center in California. Adams later donated the collection to the Library of Congress, writing that those held at the center had suffered a great injustice and that he hoped the photographs could "…be put to good use." Some of the photographs from his Manzanar collection show the same subject, Mt. Williamson, as it was seen by the prisoners.



Adams, Ansel. Ansel Adams: An Autobiography. New York: Bulfinch Press, 1985.

―――――. The Camera. New York: Bulfinch Press, 1995.

―――――. The Negative. New York: Bulfinch Press, 1995.

―――――. The Print. New York: Bulfinch Press, 1995.

Web sites

Adams, Ansel. "Ansel Adams & the Sierra Club: Ansel Adams Photo Gallery." Sierra Club. 〈〉 (accessed February 28, 2006).

Library of Congress. "Suffering Under a Great Injustice: Ansel Adams's Photographs of Japanese-American Internment at Manzanar." The Library of Congress. 〈〉 (accessed February 28, 2006).