Ansel Adams Worth a Trip to the Bay Area

Great California Artist Had Also Photographed for University of California

View of exhibition of Ansel Adams' work at deYoung museum
Installation view of Ansel Adams in Our Time, SF, 2023 (Photography/Gary Sexton).

The de Young Museum rarely disappoints the occasional, rare or even frequent visitor. But even museum visitors not particularly interested in photography as art will not be disappointed by a visit to the current exhibition Ansel Adams in Our Time.  Located in Golden Gate Park with easy access to a secure parking garage, de Young's current exhibition is worth a visit to the Bay Area. What you’ll notice, immediately, is that Ansel Adams’ body of work — and certainly the 100 well-chosen pieces for this exhibition — are not just about Yosemite.

A footnote about Adams and UC

Through this exhibition, you'll learn that Adams traveled the many landscapes of the United States, and even took portraits, something for which he is not well-known or remembered. Adams was once commissioned to take photos of all of the UC campuses during UC's centennial anniversary-year celebration, which ended in the publishing of a book. You will find some of his work dotted around the UC Davis campus, located in various buildings, including in Mrak Hall. And a full story about that celebration, the book that came from it, and Adams' role in it can be read here.

Man in black and white in art studio on UC Davis campus
Among the photos by Ansel Adams associated with UC Davis is this one of UC Davis faculty artist Tio Giambruni in the foundry Giambruni created in TB 9. (Photo by Ansel Adams, Courtesy California Museum of Photography, UC Riverside)

There are three photos in the UC Davis Fine Arts Collection from that series of photos, including one of a portrait of Roland Petersen, a former member of the art faculty. 

Images from throughout the country

In this selection currently at the de Young, you'll come across still-lifes, portraits, and a photographic history of many facets of the country, including desert scenes, towns and multiple settings from New Mexico to Alaska.

As the exhibition description points out: “These photographs by Ansel Adams (1902 – 1984) place him in direct conversation with contemporary artists and the photographers who influenced him. Laid out in seven sections tracing Adams’s artistic development, Ansel Adams in Our Time features some of his most-loved photographs, including images of Yosemite, San Francisco, and the American Southwest. Adams’s works are shown alongside prints by 19th-century landscape photographers, such as Carleton Watkins and Eadweard Muybridge, as well contemporary artists like Trevor Paglen, Will Wilson, and Catherine Opie.”

The exhibition is on view through July 23.

I liked the modern photography images less, even though I understand what museums are doing with “influencer” exhibits where they show how the artist influenced current work. This is a little trite with Ansel Adams. What serious or amateur photographer does not want to study and emulate Adams in some way? Just try to get a good photo of any iconic site at Yosemite on any given day....and you'll be competing with hundreds of shutterbugs many who aspire to be Adams-like. But I get what museums are doing with these exhibitions, and I appreciate that they are educating a variety of people of various ages about the impact the art has had.

I found myself skipping over many of the color photographic works displayed larger than life next to Adams' smaller works, often projected directly on paper at their original large-format film image size. I wanted to focus work specifically on the lines, gradients and shadow in Adams’ work that is always inspiring. There was a gelatin silver print called "Boards and Thistles" from 1932 that I stared at for a long time. I'd never seen it. It was amazing how the beaten up boards (a repaired fence, maybe) appeared as shades of brown, and the thistles in the foreground looked especially menacing and sharp-thorned, and silver. All in black and white. In contrast, there was a vivid photo of a Zuni Indian who looks frightened, wrapped in cloth, nearby, by John K. Hillers — a modern albumen print.  I liked it and really appreciated the "influencer" theme there.

The limits Adams faced, and preferred, using black and white film and fussy photography paper, added to the countless hours he spent in the darkroom to finish each creation makes the images he made more innately expansive than the modern inkjets displayed next to some of his great shots. 

When you go, see if you can find another shot near Davis — the local Roseville shot called "Rails and Jet Trails," from 1953. It shows the many rail tracks crossing on the ground, juxtaposed with the white jet trails streaming across the sky above. It is lifelike, retro-looking and surreal all the same time. (See photo below).

A video of his life and work finishes the exhibition, and the special gift store attached to the exhibition cannot go unmentioned. Mugs, photo books — including one of the exhibition — an autobiography, postcards of his works and even a child's toy camera that makes a nifty shutter sound are available.

So, there's plenty to see. Decide how you like the view for yourself. And enjoy a meal either at the museum or down the hill in the urban neighborhood where Asian foods, seafood, and restaurants of various kinds accommodate your hunger.

Find out more about tickets and hours here.

Art viewers look closely at black-and-white photographs in frames on gray wall in museum
Viewers at the de Young museum look closely at the work of Ansel Adams on view through July 23. The Roseville image, described above, is third from left.  (Karen Nikos-Rose)

Media Resources

Karen Nikos-Rose, UC Davis Arts Blog editor,, 530-219-5472

Primary Category

Secondary Categories

Society, Arts & Culture