Ansel Adam’s Commercial Photography

May 14, 2012

There is a poster hanging in Ansel’s darkroom in Yosemite that prompts many a smile.

Titled Ted Orland’s Compendium of Photographic Truths, it features a collection of humorous observations about photography assembled and published by Orland, one of Ansel’s former photographic assistants. Centermost on the poster is an image of Ansel himself, peeking out from beneath the dark cloth of a view camera that is pointed at a group of school children. The caption below states “Even Ansel Adams had to earn a living.”

Given the iconic status Ansel’s wilderness imagery enjoys today, it is often difficult for people to imagine his humble beginnings, toiling as a commercial photographer in San Francisco, struggling to simultaneously learn the craft, earn a living with portraits, editorial and documentary work while still allowing sufficient time and energy for his creative efforts.

He writes in his autobiography, “I struggled with a great variety of assignments through the years. Some I enjoyed and some I detested, but I learned from all of them. The professional is subject to pressures and adjustments that sometimes seem impossible. But learning how to complete just such an impossible assignments on time is rewarding, because it develops discipline and a reputation for dependability. I have little use for students or artists who, from their particular plastic towers, scorn commercial photography as a form of prostitution. I grant that it is not difficult to make it so, but I learned greatly from commercial photography and in no way resent the time and effort devoted to it.”

Success came slowly, but steadily in spite of early (and entertaining) gaffes typical of anyone starting out in a new field. By the time he’d hung up his hat, however, Ansel’s list of clients included major corporations such as AT&T and IBM. The biggest challenge, especially in the early years, was weathering the peaks and troughs of income typical of sporadic assignment work. At times, he relied on Virginia ‘s summer earnings at Best’s Studio to see them through the lean periods. Not until the 1970s, more than forty years after he began, did Ansel cease accepting commercial assignments.

Not surprisingly, Ansel’s commercial work displays his unwavering commitment to quality. The compositions of his most successful commissions are arguably as compelling as his better known landscapes, and the prints display his mastery of the medium. Even though the subject is a factory instead of El Capitan , or a detail of human hands instead of a bough of dogwood blossoms, they are clearly the work of Ansel Adams. Indeed, images like Magnetic Core, Hands, “Weaving,” IBM Factory, Poughkeepsie are some of his most enduring.

Fiat Lux , is probably the most widely known commercial assignment that Ansel completed, if not for the sheer volume (over 1,700 prints) but because Ansel collaborated with Nancy Newhall to produce a book, and portions of the collection are frequently on exhibit. The project was an inventory of the University of California campuses in the 1960s leading up to the system’s centennial in 1968.

Also well-known is The Story of a Winery , a project that documents construction of the Paul Masson winery and the birth of the California wine industry. Like Fiat Lux, the project was a collaboration, this time with Pirkle Jones, one of Ansel’s former students and assistants. Many of the images from that effort are part of a permanent exhibit at Mumm Napa Valley in Rutherford , California .

Most of the commercial work, however, is rarely seen outside of corporate collections which is cause for pause when one stumbles across an album cover or coffee can graced by an Ansel Adams photograph.