The Philosophy of Ansel Adams’s Photography

An analysis of Ansel Adams’s photography in connection with the philosophy of wu wei.

Ansel Adams is one of the most well-known American photographers. He was born in 1902 and worked as a professional photographer from the 1920s. He mainly took black-and-white landscape photos, especially of the Yosemite National Park. An active environmentalist, he was passionate about nature. He also developed a system to adjust contrast in his photographs, which made them gain a certain clarity and depth. Adams died in 1984 of cardiovascular disease.


Adams passed away before the arrival of the digital camera and the resulting widespread explosion of photography during the 21st century. When Adams was active, photography was a complicated process, an art practiced by few and mastered by fewer. Today, anybody with a mobil phone can take a photo with just a click of the thumb. According to research, the average number of photographs taken per person daily is three, and two of those is with a smartphone.

The accessibility and ease of todays photography is positive in many, but also has negative side effects. Because the more photos we take and see, the less we value every photograph. It’s so easy to make our photographs look profession using filters, that we forget to appreciate the real art of professional photography. Most don’t practice photography as an art. Photography is highly connected to experience and travel. Photographs will offer indisputable evidence that a trip was made, that an event was carried out, that fun was had. Social media such as Instagram has radically changed our usage of photography. On Instagram we control, frame, and package our lives — our idealized lives — for presentation to others, and even to ourselves. We photograph our lives to amen them appear better than they are, instead of realizing how art as an artform has the capacity of truly make our lives better.

We need to return to the original purpose of photography to understand the potential and importance of this artform. By studying the secret of Ansel Adams’s genius photography, we can learn how to apply his mindset to ourselves.

To Adams, taking a photo was not just capturing a moment or scene, it was creating a piece of art. He loved nature—that’s why he took photos of nature—and to him, photography was a way of identifying with the beauty and greatness of the his surroundings. It made him appreciate nature even more, it made him see detail he had never noticed. Adams always strived to express emotions in his photography—one of the most important capacities of art.

“A great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed.”  ― Ansel Adams

According to Adams, a photograph should be open to interpretation. He wanted his photos to speak to people, to make them see beyond the actual motif, into its deepest, most significant essence. Adams’s photographs are not just a rendering of reality, but timeless expressions of life itself.


Adams’s view of photography is reminiscent to a philosophical concept in Daoism called Wu wei. Wu wei is a desirable state of being or way of life that can be described as uniting oneself with ones environment. Wu wei is closely connected to the Daoist reverence for the natural world. Achieving Wu wei means understanding aspects of nature and alining ones own mindset with the natural processes of the world. It involves losing self-consciousness and immerse completely into a single moment, in order to achieve true fulfillment in unity with existence in the world. Wu wei is an important part of Chinese oil painting. Rather than laboriously attempting to reproduce nature faithfully, the artist should find nature within themselves and surrender to its calls. The painter’s task is not to imitate the external surface of things, but to present the qi or ‘spirit’ of things like mountains, trees, birds and rivers by feeling some of this spirit in themselves  – and then letting it flow out through the brush onto silk or paper.

The philosophy of Wu wei is reminiscent to Ansel Adams’s view on photography, and drastically different from the way photography is used today. We would benefit from applying a different mindset to our photography. Looking at photography from the same perspective as Ansel Adams will definitely make us appreciate the art a lot more, and applying the philosophy of Wu wei when photographing will both improve our photographs, but most importantly, improve our lives.