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Making a Photographer: Reviewed by Scott B. Davis

Book Review Making a Photographer Text by Rebecca A. Senf Reviewed by Scott B. Davis In this first monograph dedicated to the beginnings of Adams’s career, Rebecca A. Senf argues that these early photographs are crucial to understanding Adams’s artistic development and offer new insights into many aspects of the artist’s mature oeuvre.

Making a Photographer. By Rebecca A. Senf.
Making a Photographer:
The Early Work of Ansel Adams
Text by Rebecca A. Senf

Yale University Press, New Haven, 2020. 
288 pp., 175 color + b/w illustrations, 8x10".

As the calendar flipped to 2020, a new book on Ansel Adams was probably not what most of us saw coming. I naively assumed that the most compelling stories about Ansel Adams had already been published, filmed, and passed down in the oral tradition that keeps his reputation, reproductions, and workshops alive. As the pandemic set in and our lives turned upside down, Making a Photographer: The Early Work of Ansel Adams has felt increasingly relevant. The book primarily focuses on the photographer’s life leading up to and during two global crises, the Great Depression and WWII, exploring his influences and what led Adams to go on to make some of his most celebrated works. Rebecca Senf’s interpretation of the ubiquitous photographer’s career and life is not one filled with familiar stories or a retelling of biographical facts — in fact, it is anything but.

The book connects two stories: Adams’ work as a documentary, outdoor, and lifestyle photographer, and the man who created symphonic masterworks that would come to be identified with the symbolic ideals of our nation. Having previously read many books written by or about Ansel Adams, I found that Making a Photographer offered a fresh understanding of the pathways that shaped his career, facilitated his travels, and fueled the development of his unique photographic vision.

Making a PhotographerBy Rebecca A. Senf.

The book itself is a page-turner, humanizing Adams’ life and presenting a thorough understanding of his work in the 1920s and 30s — a critical period in his creative development, and, perhaps, the most overlooked period of his career. Illustrated by a mix of commercial and creative photographs, the book sheds light on specific assignments, considering how they helped shape his better-known work.

For me, the most illuminating understanding of Adams’ development as an artist comes from Senf’s thorough investigation of his work with Yosemite Park and Curry Company (YPCCO), the concessionaire that marketed the park’s early tourism efforts. As is common in most professional relationships, Adams’ work with YPCCO had unexpected effects on his career. These assignments helped shape his understanding of photography’s persuasive capacity, and instill a sense of the medium’s ability to communicate nuanced messages to the general public.

While enriching, Adams’ relationship with YPCCO was complex. As part of his contract, Adams’ photographs had to meet the varied needs of park guests and prospective visitors, most of whom had the means to enjoy a recreational wilderness experience. Numerous assignments are thoughtfully presented, describing the work in vivid detail; at times they feel like private dinner table conversations about the complexities brought by commercial work. These stories make clear Adams’ uneasy association with tourism and commerce. At one point he is quoted, “The old Yosemite spirit has long past [sic] and the atmosphere of several years ago is no more. The crowds are of the cheapest and commonest cast [sic] and social doings supercede [sic] the Natural Attractions.”

It was such assignments, however, that afforded Adams an understanding of audience. They provided a steady income, allowing him to pursue the independent projects that fostered a love for the natural world, while simultaneously developing an understanding of the vast landscapes spread across the American West. Nearly 40 years after Adams’ rich and storied lifetime ended, we have something remarkable: a fresh perspective on one of America’s most talked-about and well-known photographers.

Making a PhotographerBy Rebecca A. Senf.

scott b. davis is a photographer and the founder of Medium Photo, a non-profit organization based in San Diego. His photographs are made with experimental platinum/palladium formulas and are held in prominent museum collections. Additional information about his work is available online at