Ansel Adams: I Know What Love Is


A portrait of photographer Ansel Adams, which first appeared in the 1950 Yosemite Field School yearbook (Photo by J. Malcolm Greany)


Today is Valentine’s Day–a day for candy hearts, sentimental cards, flowers, garish lingerie, and romantic dinners for two. It’s another holiday aimed at consumers, a holiday especially tortuous for my friends who are “single and still looking.”

So today, out of respect to the singles of the world, I’m bucking the trend and sharing a post that’s fit for everyone, regardless of your romantic status.


Ansel Adams, photographing in Yosemite National Park from atop his car in about 1942 (Photo courtesy the Cedric Wright Family)


The website Letters of Note is a treasure trove of interesting correspondence. I recently came across this moving letter written by the legendary landscape photographer Ansel Adams in the Letters of Note archive…

In 1936, in the midst of an overwhelming workload and the near-demise of his marriage, Adams suffered a nervous breakdown. After a stay in the hospital, desperately in need of escape, Adams returned with his family to the one place where he could find solace: Yosemite, California.

Some months later, as his health returned, he wrote this letter to his best friend, Cedric Wright. A violinist and wilderness photographer, Wright was Adams’s mentor and closest friend. In his autobiography, Adams described Wright as “almost an occupant of another world and a creator and messenger of beauty and mysteries. Perhaps his greatest gift was that of imparting confidence to those who were wavering on the edge of fear and indecision; often it was me.”


Ansel Adams, Cedric Wright, and Adams' son Michael packing for a trip in 1941 (Photo by Virginia Adams from the book The Grand Canyon and the Southwest by Ansel Adams)


June 19, 1937

Dear Cedric,

A strange thing happened to me today. I saw a big thundercloud move down over Half Dome, and it was so big and clear and brilliant that it made me see many things that were drifting around inside of me; things that related to those who are loved and those who are real friends.

For the first time I know what love is; what friends are; and what art should be.

Love is a seeking for a way of life; the way that cannot be followed alone; the resonance of all spiritual and physical things. Children are not only of flesh and blood — children may be ideas, thoughts, emotions. The person of the one who is loved is a form composed of a myriad mirrors reflecting and illuminating the powers and thoughts and the emotions that are within you, and flashing another kind of light from within. No words or deeds may encompass it.

Friendship is another form of love — more passive perhaps, but full of the transmitting and acceptance of things like thunderclouds and grass and the clean granite of reality.

Art is both love and friendship, and understanding; the desire to give. It is not charity, which is the giving of Things, it is more than kindness which is the giving of self. It is both the taking and giving of beauty, the turning out to the light the inner folds of the awareness of the spirit. It is the recreation on another plane of the realities of the world; the tragic and wonderful realities of earth and men, and of all the inter-relations of these.

I wish the thundercloud had moved up over Tahoe and let loose on you; I could wish you nothing finer.



Ansel Adams, Half Dome, Merced River. Mural sized (Photo courtesy Sotheby's-Click to Enlarge)


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By | 2016-11-11T21:53:13+00:00 02.14.12|Greatest Hits, Images, Words|4 Comments

About the Author:

I’ve spent almost 20 years helping thousands of successful artists of all disciplines and working to make the arts more accessible. (One friend likes to call me “the arts enabler.”) From 1999-2012 I worked at The MacDowell Colony, the nation’s oldest artist colony, but I've also done time at an arts magazine, a library, an art museum, and a raptor rehabilitation center. In May of 2012 I left MacDowell to pursue writing, speaking, curating, and creative projects full-time. In 2015 I was named a “Top 100 Artist, Innovator, Creative” by Origin magazine. I've appeared as an arts and culture commentator on New Hampshire Public Radio, and in 2017 I was the recipient of the Wampler Art Professorship at James Madison University. I am the founder of the Gwarlingo Salon series, which connects artists like DJ Spooky with rural audiences in the Monadnock region. In 2017 my collaborator Corwin Levi and I will publish our first book, Mirror Mirrored, which combines Grimms’ fairy tales with vintage illustration remixes and the work of contemporary artists like Kiki Smith, Carrie Mae Weems, and Amy Cutler. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, but have called New Hampshire home since 1999. My studio is located in the historic, mill village of Harrisville. I miss fried okra, the early southern spring, and restaurants that stay open past 9:00 p.m., but rural life agrees with me. In New Hampshire I can see the stars, go kayaking or snowshoeing, watch bald eagles fish in the lake, and focus on my creative work in silence. I no longer have to worry about traffic jams; deer, wild turkeys, and frost heaves are the primary road hazards here. Although I live in the country, I’m fortunate enough to be part of a vibrant arts community that extends beyond this small New England village. The quiet days are punctuated by regular travel and frequent visits to museums, theaters, readings, arts events, lectures, and open studios around the country. (You can read my full CV here.) Thanks for visiting Gwarlingo. I hope you'll be in touch.


  1. Tricia Rose Burt February 14, 2012 at 11:26 am

    Wonderful, wonderful. Thank you for sharing. Favorite line… Children are not only of flesh and blood — children may be ideas, thoughts, emotions. Very important.
    Happy Valentine’s Day to you!

  2. Jonathan Brusby February 14, 2012 at 5:18 pm

    Wonderful words. Imagine receiving a letter like that. Thank you for highlighting it, it made my evening.

    (now off to explore more of your fascinating site!)

    • Michelle Aldredge February 14, 2012 at 6:35 pm

      Thanks Jonathan. I hope you enjoy Gwarlingo. Stop by again!

  3. Photography Today - Globe Glimpser February 6, 2013 at 3:53 am

    […] Ansel Adams is a famous photographer born over a century ago. His work is still relevant today.Image originally from this webpage […]

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