Ansel Adams in Our Time brings iconic artist home to San Francisco

Nov 3, 2022

Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams, The Tetons and Snake River, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, 1942. The Lane Collection. © The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Major exhibition places America’s most famous landscape photographer and environmentalist in conversation with contemporary artists 

de Young museum / April 8–July 23, 2023

SAN FRANCISCO – Beloved for his lush gelatin silver photographs of the national parks, Ansel Adams is a giant of 20th-century photography whose images have become icons of the American wilderness. Opening April 8 at the de Young, Ansel Adams in Our Time brings more than 100 works from this self-described “California photographer” to the site of his very first museum exhibition in 1932, placing him in dialogue with 23 contemporary artists who are engaging anew with the landscapes and environmental issues that inspired Adams. The exhibition is organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in partnership with the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and enhanced at the de Young by the addition of works from the permanent collection and new interpretive framing exploring Adams’ close connection to his hometown of San Francisco. 

“Ansel Adams’ photography is renowned for its formal beauty and technical prowess, but his work is equally one of advocacy,” remarked Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “Adams was a tireless conservationist and wilderness preservationist who fully understood the power of images to sway public opinion. Ansel Adams in Our Time is exceptional in underscoring his brilliant legacy and the critical role that his works and others’ before him have played in safeguarding our national parks and other public lands.”

Instrumental to Adams’ development as a photographer was Yosemite, one of the oldest national parks in the country, which he visited regularly from the age of 14 with his Eastman Kodak Brownie camera in tow. Ansel Adams in Our Time examines the critical role that photography has played in the history of the national parks, with Adams following in the footsteps of predecessors such as Carleton Watkins, whose efforts first secured Yosemite as protected land. A longtime member of the Sierra Club, Adams would go on to perfect the rich detail and tonal range of his landscapes in service of what he called the “spiritual-emotional” aspects of parks and wilderness, conveying their restorative power to as wide an audience as possible. Presenting President Gerald Ford with a print of Yosemite: Clearing Winter Storm (ca. 1937) in 1975, Adams urged, “Now, Mr. President, every time you look at this picture, I want you to remember your obligation to the national parks.”

At the de Young, the exhibition delves further into the artist’s Bay Area connections with new interpretive framing and works from the Fine Arts Museums’ permanent collection. Adams became a truly modernist photographer in San Francisco in the 1920s and 1930s, experimenting with the large-format camera that would yield the maximum depth of field and razor-sharp detail that are today considered his signature. He was a tireless champion of photography as a legitimate form of fine art. From his pristine Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras (1927), a landmark work in 20th-century photography, to images of oil derricks, ghost towns, drought conditions, and the sand dunes of Death Valley, Ansel Adams in Our Time spans the scope of the artist’s nearly seven-decade career and efforts to establish both environmental stewardship as a pillar of civic life and the photographic medium as a widely accepted art form. 

The works of 23 contemporary artists, including Catherine Opie, Abelardo Morell, Binh Danh, Trevor Paglen, Mitch Epstein, and Victoria Sambunaris, among others, provide a new lens for Adams, drawing on his legacy of art as environmental activism to confront issues such as drought and fire, mining and energy, economic booms and busts, protected places and urban sprawl. The exhibition’s five thematic sections—Capturing the View, Marketing the View, San Francisco: Becoming a Modernist, Adams in the American Southwest, and Picturing the National Parks—open up new conversations around Adams’s work, looking both forward and backward in time to present a richer picture of the relationship between photography, art, environmentalism, and conceptions of landscape. 

“Ansel Adams had close ties to San Francisco, and the California landscape, and the de Young museum was among the first institutions to celebrate his work when he was a rising artist,” noted Lauren Palmor, Associate Curator of American Art, who organized Ansel Adams in Our Time at the Fine Arts Museums. “His reverence for our region’s natural beauty drew him to photograph the natural diversity that can be found throughout the Bay Area over the course of his lifetime. Adams was also a tireless advocate for the environment, and the Bay Area shares that spirit as a global center of innovation in conservation and wilderness preservation today.”

Participating Artists

Ansel Adams, 1902–1984

Matthew Brandt, b. 1982

Lois Conner, b. 1951

Binh Danh, b. 1977

Mitch Epstein, b. 1952

Lucas Foglia, b. 1983

Sharon Harper, b. 1966

Frank Jay Haynes, 1853–1921

CJ Heyliger, b. 1984

John K. Hillers, 1843–1925

Mark Klett, b. 1952

Chris McCaw, b. 1971

Laura McPhee, b. 1958

Arno Rafael Minkkinen, b. 1945

Richard Misrach, b. 1949

Abelardo Morell, b. 1948

Eadweard Muybridge, 1830–1904

Catherine Opie, b. 1961

Trevor Paglen, b. 1974

Meghann Riepenhoff, b. 1979

Mark Ruwedel, b. 1954

Victoria Sambunaris, b. 1964

Bryan Schutmaat, b. 1983

David Benjamin Sherry, b. 1981

John Payson Soule, 1827–1904

Stephen Tourlentes, b. 1959

Adam Clark Vroman, 1856–1916

Carleton E. Watkins, 1829–1916

Will Wilson, b. 1969

Byron Wolfe, b. 1967

Exhibition Organization

Ansel Adams in Our Time was organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in partnership with the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. The exhibition was curated by Karen Haas, Lane Senior Curator of Photographs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The Presenting Sponsor is the Clare C. and Jay D. McEvoy Endowment Fund. Lead Sponsors are The Lisa and Douglas Goldman Fund and the San Francisco Auxiliary of the Fine Arts Museums. Major Support is provided by the Byers Family and The Herbst Foundation, Inc. Significant Support is provided by The Ansel Adams Gallery, Dagmar Dolby, and Jordan Schnitzer/The Harold & Arlene Schnitzer CARE Foundation. Generous Support is provided by David A. Wollenberg and Merrill Private Wealth Management. Additional Support is provided by Randi and Bob Fisher, Cheryl Frank and Michael Linn, and Georgia and Alan Rittenberg.

About Ansel Adams 

Ansel Easton Adams (1902–1984) made indelible images of the American landscape and successfully advocated for the environment and the preservation of natural resources. Adams was born in San Francisco in 1902, and he made his first trip to Yosemite when he was just 14 years old. Transfixed by the valley’s beauty, he took his first photographs of Yosemite’s waterfalls and rock formations. Adams went on to develop his photographic practice in parallel with his environmentalist outlook.

The de Young museum hosted several important early Adams exhibitions in the 1930s, celebrating the achievements of this local photographer whose star was rapidly rising nationally: Photographs by Ansel Easton Adams (1932); the landmark Group f.64 exhibition (1932–1933), which also featured the work of Imogen Cunningham, John Paul Edwards, Preston Holder, Consuelo Kanaga, Alma Lavenson, Sonya Noskowiak, Henry Swift, Willard Ames Van Dyke, Brett Weston, and Edward Weston; and Yosemite in Four Seasons: Photographs by Ansel Adams (1935).

Adams shaped the field for other practicing photographers on both coasts, and his impact is immeasurable. In addition to teaching, he authored a celebrated series of books on photographic techniques that distilled his expertise for generations of budding photographers. Parallel to his achievements in photography, Adams dedicated himself to environmental advocacy for over seven decades. In 1980, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, for his artistic and environmental efforts.

About the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), houses a global collection encompassing nearly 500,000 works of art, from ancient to contemporary. For nearly 50 years, the Museum has shared its deep collections and curatorial expertise with audiences around the world through traveling exhibitions. The MFA is located at 465 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA 02115. For more information, call 617-267-9300, visit or follow the MFA on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

About the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, comprising the de Young in Golden Gate Park and the Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park, are the largest public arts institution in San Francisco.

The de Young museum originated from the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition in Golden Gate Park. The present copper-clad landmark building, designed by Herzog & de Meuron, opened in 2005. Reflecting an active conversation among cultures, perspectives, and time periods, the collections on view include American painting, sculpture, and decorative arts from the 17th to the 21st centuries; arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas; costume and textile arts; and international modern and contemporary art. The Legion of Honor museum was modeled after the neoclassical Palais de la Légion d’Honneur in Paris. The museum, designed by George Applegarth, opened in 1924 on a bluff in Lincoln Park overlooking the Golden Gate. It offers unique insight into the art historical, political, and social movements of the previous 4,000 years of human history, with holdings including ancient art from the Mediterranean basin; European painting, sculpture, and decorative arts; and the largest collection of works on paper in the western United States.

The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco respectfully acknowledge the Ramaytush Ohlone, the original inhabitants of what is now the San Francisco Peninsula, and acknowledge that the Greater Bay Area is the ancestral territory of the Miwok, Yokuts, Patwin, and other Ohlone. Indigenous communities have lived in and moved through this place over hundreds of generations, and Indigenous peoples from many nations make their home in this region today. Please join us in recognizing and honoring their ancestors, descendants, elders, and communities.

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