Ansel Adams, American Artist and Activist
Grades: 9, 10, 11, 12
Related Subjects: English - Language Arts, History - Social Science, Science, Visual & Performing Arts
Medium: Drawing, Painting, Photography, Sculpture
Class time required: 3 X 50 minute sessions
Author: Museum of Photographic Arts
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In this multi-session lesson, students will be introduced to the work of acclaimed photographer Ansel Adams. Ansel Adams was a dedicated artist-activist who played a decisive role in the growth of environmental consciousness and in the development of a citizen environmental movement in the United States. His work is associated with the redemptive beauty of the wilderness and the importance of its preservation. Using selected photographs from the work of Adams, students will discuss and analyze the different ways in which art influences past and present culture. Students will learn about the role that art can play in the context of a social and environmental consciousness. As well as learning about the intentions of Adams efforts in his work, students will examine social problems and domestic policy issues that arise in contemporary American society. Students will record their ideas and reflections and incorporate them into their own original artwork as commentary on a social condition. A final critique will be held in culmination.
- Paint, charcoal, colored pencils, pastels, clay, camera, etc.
- Familiarize yourself with the work of Ansel Adams and his role as an artist-activist.
- Print the images listed above onto overhead transparencies or use a document camera.
1. Begin a discussion with the students about photography: Can photography influence one’s social or environmental consciousness? How? Where have you seen this occur? How have you been influenced by photographs?
2. Choose one photograph by Adams to start off the discussion. Engage the students in a conversation about what it means to have a social and environmental consciousness. Allow the students to vocalize their own thoughts about the images they are viewing, describing the ways in which Adams portrayed the subject matter in his images and how these ideas evoke messages concerning social issues. Have the students describe the principles of design used in the work of art.
3. Look at another selected image and have the students discuss the artists’ intentions and implications. Relate the discussion of the photographs to the environment, the evolution of technology, and development in contemporary society.
4. Discuss the role of Ansel Adams as an environmentalist. Talk about how his images are a record of what the landscape was like before human intervention, travel, and industry. Explain how Adams, through his photography, and passion for conservation brought environmental issues to the surface of the American public. Inform students of Adams activism with the Sierra Club, America’s oldest, largest, and one of the most influential grassroots environmental organizations. Adams began working with the Sierra Club in 1919 as a custodian and later moved on to the position of club photographer. As his success as a photographer grew, so did his role in the club. Adams was active in suggesting proposals to improve the parks and wilderness of the United States. He later served as a member of the board of directors for 37 years.
5. Adams was often criticized for not including humans in his photographs as well for representing an often-idealized wilderness that no longer exists. Discuss how his imagery and photographic intention set the precedence for an appreciation of natural beauty while proposing a strong conservation ethic and consciousness.
6. Inform the students that they will be creating their own works of art in response to the lesson. Encourage the students to be as original and inventive as possible in their endeavors while reinforcing the idea of creating a work of art that addresses a social issue or concern. This concern can be environmental, social, cultural, political, or personal. Let the students know that there will be a final critique and discussion of all work. The students will lead a discussion about their own work, as well as the work of their peers.
Session Two through Four
1. Students should be given ample time and art materials to complete their works of art.
1. Allow each student to vocalize his/her thoughts upon completion of his/her artwork as well as any problems, outcomes, successes, or failures along the way. Have the students talk about their steps, beginning with the creative process and medium of choice up to the end results. Constructively critique all of the works, and allow for adequate time for each student to present his or her work. During the critique, clearly display each work or all works so that they can be visible during discussion.
Visual Arts: This lesson can be modified if cameras and/or a darkroom are available. Students can use their observations of the work of Adams as an activist to take their own images and create a photographic essay. If so, allow the students ample time to research their topics of interest, while providing supporting notes and commentary along with photographic imagery.
CA Content Standards
Ninth – Twelfth Grade Visual Arts
1.1 Identify and use the principles of design to discuss, analyze, and write about visual aspects in the environment and in works of art, including their own.
1.2 Describe the principles of design as used in works of art, focusing on dominance and subordination.
2.6 Create a two or three-dimensional work of art that addresses a social issue.
4.1 Articulate how personal beliefs, cultural traditions, and current social, economic, and political contexts influence the interpretation of the meaning or message in a work of art.
4.2 Compare the ways in which the meaning of a specific work of art has been affected over time because of changes in interpretation and context.
4.3 Formulate and support a position regarding the aesthetic value of a specific work of art and change or defend that position after considering the views of others.
4.5 Employ the conventions of art criticism in writing and speaking about works of art.
Teachers and Students
Adams, Ansel. Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs, Bulfinch Press, New York, New York. May 1989.
Alinder, Mary Street. Ansel Adams: An Autobiography. Bulfinch Press, New York, New York. February 1996.
Barker, Robert. Ansel Adams: The Camera (Book 1), Bulfinch Press, New York, New York. June 1985.
Barker, Robert Ansel Adams: The Negative (Book 2), Bulfinch Press, New York, New York. June 1985.
Barker, Robert. Ansel Adams: The Print (Book 3), Bulfinch Press, New York, New York. June 1985.
Burns, Rick. Ansel Adams: A Documentary Film, PBS Home Video, Sierra Club and Steeple Chase Films, Inc. 2002.
Cohen, Michael P. The History of the Sierra Club: 1892-1970. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, California. 1988.
Spaulding, Jonathan. Ansel Adams and the American Landscape: A Biography. University of California Press, Berkeley, California.1998.
The Visual Classroom: Integrating Photography into the School Curriculum. Education Department: Museum of Photographic Arts, 2000. To order, call 619-238-7559x236 or E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org to order. It is $25. Additional shipping charges may apply.
Library of Congress: American Memory
Sixty-two collections of photographs and prints from the Library of Congress American Memory project. Includes Ansel Adams and photos from the Civil War.
Photography for Kids: Photography Projects, Ideas and Resources
A list of good Web sites for helping kids learn photography techniques, projects, cameras and optics, and history of photography. Includes book and software reviews.
Photography: Western History from the Genealogy Dept, Denver Public Library
Collections of photographs from western history including railroads, children, covered wagons, Buffalo Bill, and famous western photographers.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art: Ansel Adams at 100 (PDF)
In conjunction with an exhibit on the centennial of Ansel Adams's birth, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art built this Web site. It provides an excellent Flash-based introduction to Adams's photography. The site works best with high-speed Internet connections.
Teaching Digital Photography: Showing Kids How to See With the Camera's Eye
A site that introduces digital camera and photography techniques, and helps kids understand media images and observe the world around them.
The Columbus Museum: Ansel Adams Celebration of Genius Educator Guide
This Educator guide includes a biography on the artist, images of photographs, and K-12 lesson plans using Adams’ photographs as inspiration.
The Sierra Club
An organization dedicated to the preservation, responsible practice, and promotion of the environment.
The Museum of Photographic Arts
Permanent collections and current exhibits at the Museum of Photographic Arts, Balboa Park, San Diego, CA.
Vue: A Solution to Education’s Challenges
Visual Understanding in Education (VUE) conducts educational research focused on aesthetic and cognitive development that results from interaction with art. Based on its findings, VUE develops programs for schools and museums, principally Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS).