Artisan Style: Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams wearing a corduroy suit and Western hat
Image credit: J. Malcolm Greany / Public domain

In all of the years I’ve been interested in clothing, when seeking out wardrobe inspiration outside of social media and the blogosphere, I have typically turned to the filmmakers, authors, musicians, and fine artists I admire for some styling stimulus. For whatever reason — despite relying on the medium of photography in order to conduct this type of survey to begin with — it’s only recently that I’ve started paying proper attention to the clothing of photographers themselves. 

In retrospect, it seems an obvious thing to have done ages ago. A photographer by their nature is likely to be someone with a keen aesthetic sense and an eye for detail, even if portraiture or fashion photography isn’t their stock in trade. Moreover, the active, technical, and often fiddly nature of the medium means that photographers often wear hardworking garments with a clear practical purpose — the kind of thing, in other words, that really gets a menswear enthusiast’s gears going. Think, for instance, of Bill Cunningham’s trademark French chore coats, or the trench coats and ranchwear Gordon Parks wore on location. 

Perhaps the first photographer whose wardrobe I took a keen interest in was Ansel Adams, the legendary landscape photographer whose black-and-white images of the American West made him probably the medium’s best-known practitioner in America within his lifetime. His fifty-year career comprised more than 35 books and portfolios, hundreds of exhibitions, a Medal of Freedom, as well as accomplishments as a pianist, critic, teacher, curator, activist, publisher, spokesperson, consultant, and mountaineer, in addition to his singular photographic achievements. 

Ansel Adams The Tetons and the Snake River
The Tetons and the Snake River (1942)
Image credit: Ansel Adams / Public domain

Moreover, Adams serves as an ideal example of a photographer whose output had little to do with clothing but whose wardrobe perfectly matched the conditions of his work. Photos taken of Adams throughout his 82-year lifespan show a man nearly always dressed as though he were ready to hit the trail in search of another landscape to capture on film. Derek Guy a few years ago referred to him as a ‘tailored cowboy’, which seems a perfect summation of his aesthetic: rugged, pragmatic, in tune with the landscape he was shooting, all while showing a touch of flair and personality in everything he wore.

Adams’s staples were plentiful and uniformly rugged: There were always lots of hard-wearing corduroys, tweeds, flannels, and cavalry twills, along with field jackets, fisherman vests, and various workman’s jackets that offered the protection and ample pocket space his outdoor setting and pictorial trade required. And while there was the occasional suit and sport coat rolled out for dressier occasions — an official engagement, say, or a spot of portraiture where Adams was in front of the camera for once — the photographer always seemed most at ease in his everyday working duds (Little surprise, perhaps, for a man known to work eighteen hours a day, seven days a week). 

Lest it seem as though I’m painting Adams as a pure pragmatist in matters of style, however, it’s worth pointing out the undeniable flair that animated seemingly everything he wore. The Western setting that was his canvas, for instance, clearly fed into his styling choices. He was known for his penchant for bolo ties, trousers with pleated fronts and flared legs, and, most famously of all, a range of well-travelled felt cowboy hats. Then there were the ample raffish touches: the decidedly impractical fun prints, the large shirt collars worn outside of his jackets, and all of those jauntily angled long-billed caps and cowboy hats. 

Ansel Adams style
Image credit: Los Angeles Times / CC BY 4.0

Reading through Adams’ autobiography, you see hints of the attention he paid to clothing all throughout. He’ll often introduce a character via a description of what they wore, for example, and even his professional life, much as it came to be dominated by his landscape work, also featured some well-observed portraits and the occasional bit of fashion-based commercial photography. What’s more, Adams demonstrates a strong sense of sartorial impishness: He mentions, for example, that on his wedding day his wife wore her best dress, which happened to be black, while adding ‘with perhaps a trace of scorn for tradition, along with a coat and tie, I wore knickers and my trusty basketball shoes’. Ditto on a trip to a friend’s stately home in Princeton, New Jersey, where he was to be initiated into the rituals of Eastern equestrianism, he decided to bring ‘only the suit I wore’ and duly took to the saddle in ill-fitting borrowed riding breeches and his everyday oxfords in lieu of riding boots. 

Looking at photos of Adams nearly forty years after his death, it seems striking that nearly everything he wore feels on-trend in the present day. Yet even outside of the Western-infused menswear landscape in which we find ourselves, one does get the sense that Ansel Adams’ outfits — much like his body of work — have the touch of timelessness that only gets better the longer you look at them.

Ansel Adams wearing a suit
Image credits: Ur Cameras / Public domain; Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library / Public domain

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