Ansel Adams’ Yosemite Special Edition Photographs

Affordable Authentic Ansel Adams Prints

Thunderstorm, Yosemite Valley

Thunderstorm, Yosemite Valley

One of Ansel Adams’ personal commitments was to share his energy and abilities in support of the things he believed in, most notably, photography and the environment.

In the cause of both, Ansel and his wife, Virginia, selected six photographs of Yosemite and offered them for sale through her family business, Best’s Studio, in Yosemite National Park. The years was 1958.

Ansel’s intent was to present photography as an affordable art and to showcase the environmental grandeur of Yosemite National Park. Never much of a fan of the “curios” that were the staple of most Park concessioners at the time, he also wanted to offer visitors a quality memento of their time in Yosemite.

The 8×10 prints would be made from the original negatives by an assistant under Ansel’s precise direction and be printed in sufficiently large batches to make them affordable.

This collection, entitled the Yosemite Special Edition Photographs, proved immensely popular and over the years, Ansel added more images to the set until the total was capped at 30 at the time of his passing in 1984.

Today, Best’s Studio is known as the Ansel Adams Gallery, and continues as a family-run business. Ansel’s Special Edition Photographs of Yosemite are a mainstay of the Gallery’s offerings and heritage. Each print is still made by hand directly from Ansel’s original negatives, using his approach and methodology to ensure strict adherence to his standards and aesthetic.

And while Ansel’s archives eventually became part of the permanent collection of the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona at Tucson, he made special provisions for the Special Edition Photograph negatives to be held back from the archive so that the tradition of offering high-quality original art at affordable prices would continue as his personal legacy in support of the arts and the environment.

Making the Special Edition Prints: Chosen by Ansel

I became Ansel’s assistant in the middle of 1974, working with Ted Orland, who had been Ansel’s primary assistant for the previous two years.

When Ted left in early 1975, I inherited not only the responsibility of keeping all of Ansel’s photographic operations running, but also the making of the Special Edition prints. Don Worth, Gerry Sharpe, Liliane DeCock, and Ted had all served in this capacity before me, all of us working as Ansel’s eyes and hands in the darkroom. Not easy, but an immensely rewarding challenge.

Although Ansel’s hands were not in direct contact with the Special Edition printing, his vision always was. He was consulted through test and sample prints, and the challenge was to be able to anticipate and respond technically to his requests.

”Make it a little darker over here,” he would suggest, or, ”Can you make it a bit more contrasty?” he would ask. The final approval was a slap on the back along with a hearty, “Ya got it, man!”

In 1979, I left Ansel’s employ to open my own studio in San Francisco, but he liked the way I was printing his negatives and asked me to continue making the Special Edition prints. In his autobiography, Ansel said, “Alan was my photographic assistant from 1974 until 1979, and he continues to make the Special Edition Prints with sensitivity.  He knows those negatives thoroughly and interprets them as closely as possible to my original fine prints of those images.”

Making the Special Edition Photographs is an assignment I continue to this day, with Ansel’s vision and standards always in mind as I work. The prints are still made directly from Ansel’s negatives and in the “traditional” way: in a wet darkroom with amber safelights, chemicals and running water. The prints are still silver-gelatin prints, meaning that the image-forming element is literally metallic silver. Precious.

And after nearly 40 years, I can honestly say that I never tire of seeing these images come up in the developing tray. It’s an honor and privilege to play a small part in continuing Ansel’s legacy.

To see the full selection of the Yosemite Special Edition Prints.

For the technical details on the making of the Special Edition prints, click here.

Blog post courtesy of Alan Ross Photography and  Freestyle Photographic Supplies

Ansel Adam’s Commercial Photography

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.

weaving ibm factory

“Weaving,” IBM Factory, Poughkeepsie NY

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.

Hills Brothers Coffee Can - Yosemite Valley Winter

Hills Brothers Coffee Can – Yosemite Valley Winter

More Ansel Adams Images of the Bay Area – Leaves, Mills College

Ansel Adams is rightly celebrated for his iconic images of Yosemite, National Parks and the Southwest. We sometimes overlook some of his more sublime images from his home in San Francisco and the Bay Area.

Leaves, Mills College, California – In 1933 Adams showed a selection of his photographs to the dean of the Art Department at Yale University. Adams wrote, “The dean was a most gracious and kindly person but had never seen my type of photographs. He was taken with ‘Leaves, Mills College Campus’ and asked, ‘Just what is this?’ I said, ‘It is a picture of foliage.’ ‘Yes, I understand that, but what is the subject?’ I said ‘What do you mean?’ He replied (just a bit testily), ‘What is the medium – is it an etching, a lithograph or a detailed painting?’ I said, ‘It’s a photograph!’ I was finally able to convince him that it was a direct photograph from nature. He became quite excited and arranged an exhibit of my work at Yale in 1934.”
Ansel Adams: 400 Photographs, pg 416 Little, Brown

The Golden Gate, Before and After The Bridge

Ansel Adams is rightly celebrated for his iconic images of Yosemite, National Parks and the Southwest. We sometimes overlook some of his more sublime images from his home in San Francisco and the Bay Area.

The Golden Gate before the Bridge, San Francisco, CA, 1932 — One beautiful storm-clearing morning” Adams wrote, “I looked out the window of our San Francisco home and saw magnificent clouds rolling from the north over the Golden Gate. I grabbed the 8 x 10 equipment and drove to the end of 32nd Avenue at the edge of Seacliff. I dashed along the old Cliff House railroad bed for a short distance, then down to the crest of a promontory. From there a grand view of the Golden Gate commanded me to set up the heavy tripod, attach the camera and lens, and focus on the wonder evolving landscape of clouds.”

To the author Mary Austin, he wrote, “I am going to send your latest picture I have made — a view of the Golden Gate. I have been after that for ten years, and at last got a really satisfactory plate.”

The Golden Gate and Bridge from Baker Beach, San Francisco, CA, 1953— Long before the bridge was built, the teenage Adams often took the streetcar from his home near Baker Beach to the waterfront downtown, caught the ferry across the Golden Gate, and spent the day roaming the Marin hills seen to the left this photograph. Compare this image with the Adams’ earlier view without the bridge (above) made in 1932.

In the 1960s, the Sierra Club, with Adams’ help, found the proposal to allow construction of high-rise apartment building on these hills. As a protest, he pasted tiny pictures of apartment building on top of the hills in this photograph and exhibited it in a San Francisco storefront. The Golden Gate National Recreation Area was established in 1972 and now protects these headlands.