Lake County Museum Hosts Unique Exhibition of Early Works From the Ansel Adams Estate

Article by Kim Micus

Photography by Ansel Adams, Lake County Forest Preserves

Originally published in SW Lake Lifestyle

As a photographer, conservationist, writer and teacher, Ansel Adams (1902-1984) was overwhelmingly influential with generations of artists and environmentalists. 

The Bess Bower Dunn Museum of Lake County, at 1899 W. Winchester Road, Libertyville, is featuring the photographer’s work from November 6, 2021 through March 27, 2022. This nationally-acclaimed exhibition, “Ansel Adams: Early Works,” provides insight into Adams’ evolution as a champion of wilderness and the environment.

“Ansel Adams, a giant in the field of landscape photography, was one of the most influential photographers of his generation,” said Andrew Osborne, superintendent of educational facilities for the Lake County Forest Preserves, which operates the Dunn Museum. Many viewers are familiar with Adams’ heroic, high-contrast prints from the 1970s. “The upcoming exhibit focuses on the artist’s masterful, less-well-known small prints from the 1920s through 1950s,” Osborne said.

The exhibition features more than 40 original small-scale black and white photographs. Exhibit designers at the Dunn Museum created interactive components geared toward children and families as part of the exhibition. Another feature is a video that includes footage of the landscape photographer and interviews with his son.

“I am so proud that an exhibition of this caliber is opening at the Dunn Museum,” said Angelo Kyle, president of the Lake County Forest Preserves. The Dunn Museum is nationally accredited, a distinction held by only 3% of American museums. Other accredited museums include the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Science & Industry. 

This is not the first time Adams’ work will be featured at the Lake County museum. “Classic Images: Photography of Ansel Adams,” ran from September 2011 through January 2012 and was a popular exhibition. “I am excited about giving Lake County residents another opportunity to connect with this beloved artist through a new exhibit featuring images that have rarely been seen,” Osborne said. A handful of the artist’s most popular photographs from later in his career will also be on display.

“Every time you look at an Ansel Adams image, you see something you didn’t see the last time. It’s incredible,” said Steve Furnett, exhibitions and collections manager for Dunn Museum. “In addition, sharing and educating visitors about the nature photographer’s work fits in perfectly with our mission.

"A fascinating aspect of Adams’ work is that there is so much artistry behind every printed image,” Furnett said. “He was a genius in building the equipment in his darkroom to work much like Photoshop does today. He was an artist in the field and in the darkroom. His manipulation of photos was masterful.”

Getting to Know the Artist

Adams was born in San Francisco, California and was an only child. He did not adapt well in school and was painfully shy. When he was only four, an aftershock of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 threw him to the ground and badly broke his nose, noticeably marking him for life. In his later years, he noted that he might have been diagnosed as hyperactive. He may have also suffered from dyslexia, according to his biography. It was during this difficult childhood that he found a joy in nature.

In 1919 Adams joined the Sierra Club, an environmental organization founded in 1892 by conservationist John Muir. During the summers he worked in the Yosemite Valley as “keeper” of the club’s LeConte Memorial Lodge. He became friends with many of the club’s leaders, who were trailblazers in America’s early conservation movement.

It was at Yosemite that he met his wife, Virginia Best, an aspiring singer and daughter of landscape painter Harry Best. After a long courtship, they were married in 1928 and had two children, Anne and Michael. Virginia’s father owned a gallery in Yosemite, where Adams would exhibit his photographs. Virginia, who acted as producer, archivist and proofreader for her husband, later inherited the gallery. It has since changed its name to The Ansel Adams Gallery and is still in operation today in Yosemite National Park.

Like Monet with his serial paintings of haystacks or Edward Weston with his variegated photographs of the sand dunes in Oceano, Adams would return again and again to his favorite spots from which he would capture the spectacular changes of the seasons and endless variations in light and clouds at Yosemite. 

Adams was also a musician. For much of his early adulthood, he was torn between a career as a concert pianist versus one in photography. He famously likened the photographic negative to a musical score, and the print to performance. 

He said that family and friends tried to convince him to continue with piano. “Do not give up your music; the camera cannot express the human soul,” friends told him. Adams replied, “I found that while the camera does not express the soul, perhaps a photograph can!” 

The famed artist suffered financial pressures until late in life. In an effort to make ends meet, he spent much time as a commercial photographer for clients including the National Park Service, Kodak, IMB, and Life, Fortune and Arizona Highways magazines. He said that the commercial work was necessary for practical reasons but that it was very restraining to his creative work.

While other notable photographers felt compelled to document the Great Depression, and later World War II, Adams recognized his strengths and remained true to his purist vision. “I still believe there is a real social significance in a rock—a more important significance therein than in a line of unemployed,” he asserted in a letter to Weston.

The “Ansel Adams: Early Works” exhibition is organized by art2art Circulating Exhibitions LLC. All photographs are from the private collection of Michael Mattis and Judith Hochberg. Support for this exhibition was provided by Dan and Shirley Mayworm and a grant from the Preservation Foundation, the charitable partner of the Lake County Forest Preserves. 

“Adams was committed throughout his professional life to the promotion of photography as a fine art,” said Rebekah Snyder, director of community engagement & partnerships and Preservation Foundation executive director. “He played a key role in the establishment of the first museum department of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.”

Over the years, Adams became an unrelenting activist for wilderness and the environment. His images became the symbols and icons of wild America, according to his biography.

In 1980 Adams was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Jimmy Carter. The award was in recognition of Adams' contribution to photography and the preservation of the great American landscape. In his citation, President Carter stated that "It is through [Adams’] foresight and fortitude that so much of America has been saved for future Americans."

Dunn Museum admission for Lake County residents is $6 for adults, $3 for seniors, $3 for youth ages 4–17, and free for children ages 3 and under. Nonresident admission is $10 for adults, $6 for seniors and youth. Plan your visit at An array of events and education programs will take place at various times while the exhibit is on display.

Kim Mikus is a communications specialist with the Lake County Forest Preserves. Before visiting the museum, please visit to check COVID-19 mitigation protocols.    

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