Adams was born in the Western Addition of San Francisco, California, to distinctly upper-class parents Charles Hitchcock Adams and Olive Bray Adams. He was an only child and was named after his uncle Ansel Easton. His mother's family came from Baltimore and his maternal grandfather had a successful freight-hauling business, but squandered his wealth in failed mining and real estate ventures in Nevada. The Adams family came from New England, having migrated from the north of Ireland in the early 18th century. His grandfather founded and built a prosperous lumber business, which his father later ran, though his father's natural talents lay more with sciences than with business. Later in life, Adams would condemn that very same industry for cutting down many of the great redwood forests.
In 1903, his family moved two miles west to a new home near the Seacliff neighborhood, just south of the Presidio Army Base. The home had a "splendid view" of the Golden Gate and the Marin Headlands. San Francisco was devastated by the April 18, 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Uninjured in the initial shaking, the four-year-old Ansel Adams was tossed face-first into a garden wall during an aftershock three hours later, breaking his nose. Among his earliest memories was watching the smoke from the ensuing fire that destroyed much of the city a few miles to the east. Although a doctor recommended that his nose be re-set once he reached maturity, this was never done; as a result, Adams's nose remained crooked for his entire life.
Adams was a hyperactive child and prone to frequent sickness and hypochondria. He had few friends, but his family home and surroundings on the heights facing the Golden Gate provided ample childhood activities. Although he had no patience for games or sports, the curious child took to nature at an early age, collecting bugs and exploring Lobos Creek all the way to Baker Beach and the sea cliffs leading to Lands End,  "San Francisco's wildest and rockiest coast, a place strewn with shipwrecks and rife with landslides." 
His father bought a three-inch telescope and they enthusiastically shared the hobby of amateur astronomy, visiting the Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton together. His father went on to serve as the paid secretary-treasurer of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific from 1925 to 1950.
After the death of his grandfather and the aftermath of the Panic of 1907, his father's business suffered great financial losses. By 1912, the family's standard of living had dropped sharply. After young Ansel was dismissed from several private schools for his restlessness and inattentiveness, his father decided to pull him out of school in 1915, at the age of 12. Adams was then educated by private tutors, his Aunt Mary, and by his father. His Aunt Mary was a follower of Robert G. Ingersoll, a 19th century agnostic, abolitionist and women's suffrage advocate. As a result of his Aunt's influence, Ingersoll's teachings were important to Ansel's upbringing. During the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915, his father insisted that, as part of his education, Adams spend part of each day studying the exhibits. After a while, Adams resumed and then completed his formal education by attending the Mrs. Kate M. Wilkins Private School, until he graduated from eighth grade on June 8, 1917. In his later years, he displayed his diploma in the guest bathroom of his home.
His father raised him to follow the ideas of Ralph Waldo Emerson: to live a modest, moral life guided by a social responsibility to man and to nature. Adams had a warm, loving and supportive relationship with his father, but had a distant relationship with his mother, who did not approve of his interest in photography.
He taught himself piano at age twelve. Music became the main focus of his later youth. Possessing an eidetic memory, Adams quickly learned to read music and play the piano. Soon he was taking lessons, and the ardent pursuit of music became his substitute for formal schooling. One of his childhood tutors was composer Henry Cowell. For the next dozen years the piano was Adams's primary occupation and, by 1920, his intended profession. Although he ultimately gave up music for photography, the piano brought substance, discipline, and structure to his frustrating and erratic youth. Moreover, the careful training and exacting craft required of a musician profoundly informed his visual artistry, as well as his influential writings and teachings on photography.
Adams first visited Yosemite National Park in 1916 with his family. He wrote of his first view of the valley: "the splendor of Yosemite burst upon us and it was glorious... One wonder after another descended upon us... There was light everywhere... A new era began for me." His father gave him his first camera, a Kodak Brownie box camera, during that stay and he took his first photographs with his "usual hyperactive enthusiasm". He returned to Yosemite on his own the following year with better cameras and a tripod. In the winter, he learned basic darkroom technique working part-time for a San Francisco photo finisher. Adams avidly read photography magazines, attended camera club meetings, and went to photography and art exhibits. With retired geologist and amateur ornithologist Francis Holman, who he called "Uncle Frank," he explored the High Sierra, in summer and winter, developing the stamina and skill needed to photograph at high elevation and under difficult weather conditions.
A black-and-white close-up photograph of palmate, conifer, and small fern-like leaves overlapping, all visibly damp. One slightly larger and brighter palmate leaf rests in the upper foreground, covering all but one third of the photograph.
Close-up of leaves In Glacier National Park (1942)
While in Yosemite, he had frequent contact with the Best family, owners of Best's Studio, who allowed him to practice on their old square piano. In 1928, Ansel Adams married Virginia Best in Best's Studio in Yosemite Valley. Virginia inherited the studio from her artist father on his death in 1935, and the Adams continued to operate the studio until 1971. The studio, now known as the Ansel Adams Gallery, remains in the hands of the Adams family.
At age 17, Adams joined the Sierra Club, a group dedicated to preserving the natural world's wonders and resources, and he was hired as the summer caretaker of the Sierra Club visitor center in Yosemite Valley, the LeConte Memorial Lodge from 1920 to 1924. He remained a member throughout his lifetime and served as a director, as did his wife. He was first elected to the Sierra Club's board of directors in 1934, and served on the board for 37 years, until 1971. Adams participated in the club's annual High Trips, and was later responsible for several first ascents in the Sierra Nevada.
During 1919, he contracted the Spanish Flu during the 1918 flu pandemic. Adams fell seriously ill but recovered after several months to resume his outdoor life.
During his twenties, most of his friends came from musical connections, particularly violinist and amateur photographer Cedric Wright, who became his best friend as well as his philosophical and cultural mentor. Their shared philosophy came from Edward Carpenter's Towards Democracy, a literary work which espoused the pursuit of beauty in life and art. Carpenter was an English socialist philosopher and gay activist. For several years, Adams carried a pocket edition with him while at Yosemite. It soon became his personal philosophy as well, as Adams later stated, "I believe in beauty. I believe in stones and water, air and soil, people and their future and their fate." He decided that the purpose of his art from now on, whether photography or music, was to reveal that beauty to others and to inspire them to the same calling.
In summer, Adams would enjoy a life of hiking, camping, and photographing, and the rest of the year he worked to improve his piano playing, expanding his piano technique and musical expression. He also gave piano lessons for extra income, finally affording a grand piano suitable to his musical ambitions. An early student was mountaineer and fellow Sierra Club leader Jules Eichorn.
His first photographs were published in 1921 and Best's Studio began selling his Yosemite prints the following year. His early photos already showed careful composition and sensitivity to tonal balance. In letters and cards to family, he expressed his daring to climb to the best view points and brave the worst elements. At this point, however, Adams was still planning a career in music, even though his small hands, easily bruised by bravura playing, limited his repertoire to practiced works which benefited from his strengths of fine touch and excellent musicality. It took seven more years for Adams to finally concede that at best he might become a concert pianist of limited range, an accompanist, or a piano teacher.
In the mid-1920s, Adams experimented with soft-focus, etching, Bromoil Process, and other techniques of the pictorial photographers, such as Photo-Secession leader Alfred Stieglitz who strove to put photography on an equal artistic plane with painting by trying to mimic it. However, Adams steered clear of hand-coloring which was also popular at the time. Adams used a variety of lenses to get different effects, but eventually rejected pictorialism for a more realistic approach which relied more heavily on sharp focus, heightened contrast, precise exposure, and darkroom craftsmanship.
In 1927, Adams produced his first portfolio, Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras, in his new style, which included his famous image Monolith, the Face of Half Dome, taken with his Korona view camera using glass plates and a dark red filter (to heighten the tonal contrasts). On that excursion, he had only one plate left and he "visualized" the effect of the blackened sky before risking the last shot. As he stated, "I had been able to realize a desired image: not the way the subject appeared in reality but how it felt to me and how it must appear in the finished print". As he wrote confidently in April 1927, "My photographs have now reached a stage when they are worthy of the world's critical examination. I have suddenly come upon a new style which I believe will place my work equal to anything of its kind."
With the sponsorship and promotion of Albert Bender, an arts-connected businessman, Adams's first portfolio was a success (earning nearly $3,900) and soon he received commercial assignments to photograph the wealthy patrons who bought his portfolio. Adams also came to understand how important it was that his carefully crafted photos were reproduced to best effect. At Bender's invitation, he joined the prestigious Roxburghe Club, an association devoted to fine printing and high standards in book arts. He learned much about printing techniques, inks, design, and layout which he later applied to other projects. Unfortunately, at that time most of his darkroom work was still being done in the basement of his parents' home, and he was somewhat limited by barely adequate equipment.
After a cooling off period with Virginia Best during 1925–26, during which he had short-lasting relationships with various women, many of them students of colleague Cedric Wright, he married Virginia in 1928. The newlyweds moved in with his parents to save expenses. His marriage also marked the end of his serious attempt at a musical career, as well as her ambitions to be a classical singer.
A black-and-white vertical photograph shows an adobe wall in the foreground, rising in the middle with a stair-step pattern and a white wooden cross at the pinnacle, with an open doorway beneath. Through the doorway and above the wall, an adobe church with white double doors and a similar stair-stepped roof and cross stands, slightly larger than the wall in front of it. The midday sun casts harsh shadows on the dirt ground.
Church, Taos Pueblo (1942)
Between 1929 and 1942, Adams's work matured and he became more established. In the course of his 60-year career, the 1930s were a particularly productive and experimental time. Adams expanded his works, focusing on detailed close-ups as well as large forms from mountains to factories. In 1930 Taos Pueblo, Adams's first book, was published with text by writer Mary Hunter Austin. In New Mexico, he was introduced to notables from Stieglitz's circle, including painter Georgia O'Keeffe, artist John Marin, and photographer Paul Strand, all of whom created famous works during their stays in the Southwest. Adams's talkative, high-spirited nature combined with his excellent piano playing made him a hit within his enlarging circle of elite artist friends. Strand especially proved influential, sharing secrets of his technique with Adams, and finally convincing Adams to pursue photography with all his talent and energy. One of Strand's suggestions which Adams immediately adopted was to use glossy paper rather than matte to intensify tonal values.
Through a friend with Washington connections, most likely Francis P. Farquhar, Adams was able to put on his first solo museum exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution in 1931, featuring 60 prints taken in the High Sierra. He received an excellent review from the Washington Post, "His photographs are like portraits of the giant peaks, which seem to be inhabited by mythical gods." Despite his success, Adams felt he was not yet up to the standards of Strand. He decided to broaden his subject matter to include still life and close-up photos, and to achieve higher quality by "visualizing" each image before taking it. He emphasized the use of small apertures and long exposures in natural light, which created sharp details with a wide range of focus, as demonstrated in Rose and Driftwood (1933), one of his finest still-life photographs.
In 1932, Adams had a group show at the M. H. de Young Museum with Imogen Cunningham and Edward Weston and they soon formed Group f/64, which espoused "pure or straight photography" over pictorialism (f/64 being a very small aperture setting that gives great depth of field). The group's manifesto stated that "Pure photography is defined as possessing no qualities of technique, composition or idea, derivative of any other art form." In reality, "pure photography" did borrow from some of the established principles of painting, especially compositional balance and perspective, and some manipulation of subject and effect. By these standards, not only were "soft focus" lenses prohibited but Adams's earlier photo Monolith, which used a strong red filter to create a black sky, would have been considered unacceptable.
Following Stieglitz's example, in 1933 Adams opened his own art and photography gallery in San Francisco which eventually became the Danysh Gallery after Adams's commitments grew too burdensome. Adams also began to publish essays in photography magazines and wrote his first instructional book Making a Photograph in 1935. During the summers, he often participated in Sierra Club outings, as a paid photographer for the group, and the rest of the year a core group of the Club members socialized regularly in San Francisco. During 1933, his first child Michael was born, followed by Anne two years later.
During the 1930s, many photographers including Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans believed they had a social obligation to reveal the harsh times of the Depression through their art. Mostly resistant to the "art for life's sake" movement, Adams did begin in the 1930s to deploy his photographs in the cause of wilderness preservation. In part, he was inspired by the increasing desecration of Yosemite Valley by commercial development, including a pool hall, bowling alley, golf course, shops, and automobile traffic. He created a limited-edition book in 1938, Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail, as part of the Sierra Club's efforts to secure the designation of Sequoia and Kings Canyon as national parks. This book and his testimony before Congress played a vital role in the success of the effort, and Congress designated the area as a National Park in 1940.
Yosemite Valley, to me, is always a sunrise, a glitter of green and golden wonder in a vast edifice of stone and space. I know of no sculpture, painting or music that exceeds the compelling spiritual command of the soaring shape of granite cliff and dome, of patina of light on rock and forest, and of the thunder and whispering of the falling, flowing waters. At first the colossal aspect may dominate; then we perceive and respond to the delicate and persuasive complex of nature.
In 1935, Adams created many new photos of the Sierra and one of his most famous photographs, Clearing Winter Storm, captured the entire valley just as a winter storm relented, leaving a fresh coat of snow. After courting Stieglitz for three years, Adams gathered his recent work and had a solo show at the Stieglitz gallery "An American Place" in New York in 1936. The exhibition proved successful with both the critics and the buying public, and earned Adams strong praise from the revered Stieglitz. During the balance of the 1930s, Adams took on many commercial assignments to supplement the income from the struggling Best's Studio. Until the 1970s, Adams was financially dependent on commercial projects. Some of his clients included Kodak, Fortune magazine, Pacific Gas and Electric, AT&T, and the American Trust Company. In 1939, he was named an editor of U.S. Camera, the most popular photography magazine at that time.
In 1940, Ansel put together A Pageant of Photography, the most important and largest photography show in the West to date, attended by millions of visitors. With his wife, Adams completed a children's book and the very successful Illustrated Guide to Yosemite Valley during 1940 and 1941. He also taught photography by giving workshops in Detroit and his pupils included future photographer Todd Webb. Adams also began his first serious stint of teaching in 1941 at the Art Center School of Los Angeles, which included the training of military photographers. In 1943, Adams had a camera platform mounted on his station wagon, to afford him a better vantage point over the immediate foreground and a better angle for expansive backgrounds. Most of his landscapes from that time forward were made from the roof of his car rather than from summits reached by rugged hiking, as in his earlier days.
On a trip in New Mexico weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Adams shot a scene of the Moon rising above a modest village with snow-covered mountains in the background, under a dominating black sky. The photograph is one of his most famous and is named, Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico. The photograph's fame was probably enhanced by Adams's description in his later books of how it was made: the light on the crosses in the foreground was rapidly fading, and he could not find his exposure meter; however, he remembered the luminance of the Moon, and used it to calculate the proper exposure. Adams's earlier account was less dramatic, stating simply that the photograph was made after sunset, with exposure determined using his Weston Master meter. However the exposure was actually determined, the foreground was underexposed, the highlights in the clouds were quite dense, and the negative proved difficult to print. The initial publication of Moonrise was in U.S. Camera 1943 annual, after being selected by the "photo judge" for U.S. Camera, Edward Steichen. This gave Moonrise an audience before its first formal exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1944. Over nearly 40 years, Adams re-interpreted the image, his most popular by far, using the latest darkroom equipment at his disposal, making over 1,300 unique prints, most in 16″ by 20″ format. Many of the prints were made in the 1970s, finally giving Adams financial independence from commercial projects. The total value of these original prints exceeds $25,000,000; the highest price paid for a single print reached $609,600 at Sotheby's New York auction in 2006.
A black-and-white photograph shows a large, still lake extending horizontally off the frame and halfway up vertically, reflecting the rest of the scene. In the distance, a mountain range can be seen, with a gap in the center and one faint smaller mountain in between. The sky is cloudy and large dark clouds rest at the very top of the frame.
Evening, McDonald Lake, Glacier National Park (1942)
In September 1941, Adams contracted with the Department of the Interior to make photographs of National Parks, Indian reservations, and other locations for use as mural-sized prints for decoration of the Department's new building. Part of his understanding with the Department was that he might also make photographs for his own use, using his own film and processing. Although Adams kept meticulous records of his travel and expenses,he was less disciplined about recording the dates of his images, and neglected to note the date of Moonrise, so it was not clear whether it belonged to Adams or to the U.S. Government. But the position of the Moon allowed the image to eventually be dated from astronomical calculations, and it was determined that Moonrise was made on November 1, 1941, a day for which he had not billed the Department, so the image belonged to Adams. The same was not true for many of his other negatives, including The Tetons and the Snake River, which, having been made for the Mural Project, became the property of the U.S. Government.
When Edward Steichen formed his Naval Aviation Photographic Unit in early 1942, he wanted Adams to be a member, to build and direct a state-of-the-art darkroom and laboratory in Washington, D.C. In approximately February, 1942, Steichen asked Adams to join. Adams agreed, with two conditions: He wanted to be commissioned as an officer, and he also told Steichen he would not be available until July 1. Steichen, who wanted the team assembled as quickly as possible, passed Adams by, and had his other photographers ready to go by early April.
Baton practice at the Manzanar War Relocation Center, 1943
Adams was distressed by the Japanese American Internment that occurred after the Pearl Harbor attack. He requested permission to visit the Manzanar War Relocation Center in the Owens Valley, at the foot of Mount Williamson. The resulting photo-essay first appeared in a Museum of Modern Art exhibit, and later was published as Born Free and Equal: The Story of Loyal Japanese-Americans. He also contributed to the war effort by doing many photographic assignments for the military, including making prints of secret Japanese installations in the Aleutians. Adams was the recipient of three Guggenheim fellowships during his career, the first in 1946 to photograph every National Park. This series of photographs produced memorable images of "Old Faithful Geyser", Grand Teton, and Mount McKinley.
In 1945, Adams was asked to form the first fine art photography department at the California School of Fine Arts (CSFA). Adams invited Dorothea Lange, Imogen Cunningham and Edward Weston to be guest lecturers and Minor White to be lead instructor. The photography department produced numerous notable photographers including Philip Hyde, Benjamen Chinn, Charles Wong, Bill Heick, Ira Latour, Cameron McCauley, Gerald Ratto and many others.
In 1952 Adams was one of the founders of the magazine Aperture, which was intended as a serious journal of photography showcasing its best practitioners and newest innovations. He was also a contributor to Arizona Highways, a photo-rich travel magazine which continues today. His article on Mission San Xavier del Bac, with text by longtime friend Nancy Newhall, was enlarged into a book published in 1954. This was the first of many collaborations with her. In June 1955, Adams began his annual workshops, teaching thousands of students until 1981.
By the 1950s, Adams came to believe that he was on the down side of his creative life. He continued with commercial assignments for another twenty years and became a consultant on a monthly retainer for Polaroid Corporation, founded by good friend Edwin Land. He made thousands of photographs with Polaroid products, El Capitan, Winter, Sunrise (1968) being the one he considered his most memorable. In the final twenty years of his life, the Hasselblad was his camera of choice, with Moon and Half Dome (1960) being his favorite photo made with that brand of camera.
Adams published his fourth portfolio, What Majestic Word, in 1963, and dedicated it to the memory of his Sierra Club friend Russell Varian, who was a co-inventor of the klystron and who had died in 1959. The title was taken from the poem "Sand Dunes," by John Varian, Russell's father, and the fifteen photographs were accompanied by the writings of both John and Russell Varian. Russell's widow, Dorothy, wrote the preface, and explained that the photographs were selected to serve as interpretations of the character of Russell Varian.
In the 1960s, a few mainstream art galleries (without a photographic emphasis) which originally would have considered photos unworthy of exhibit alongside fine paintings decided to show Adams's images—notably the Kenmore Gallery in Philadelphia. In March 1963, Ansel Adams and Nancy Newhall accepted a commission from Clark Kerr, the President of the University of California, to produce a series of photographs of the University's campuses to commemorate its centennial celebration. The collection, titled Fiat Lux after the University's motto, was published in 1967 and now resides in the Museum of Photography at the University of California, Riverside.
In 1974, Adams had a major retrospective exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Much of his time during the 1970s was spent curating and re-printing negatives from his vault, in part to satisfy the great demand of art museums which had finally created departments of photography and desired his iconic works. He also devoted his considerable writing skills and prestige to the cause of environmentalism, focusing particularly on the Big Sur coastline of California and the protection of Yosemite from over-use. President Jimmy Carter commissioned Adams to make the first official portrait of a president made by a photograph.
Contributions and influence
Romantic landscape artists Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran portrayed the Grand Canyon and Yosemite at the end of their reign, and were subsequently displaced by daredevil photographers Carleton Watkins, Eadweard Muybridge, and George Fiske. But it was Adams's black-and-white photographs of the West which became the foremost record of what many of the National Parks were like before tourism, and his persistent advocacy helped expand the National Park system. He skillfully used his works to promote many of the goals of the Sierra Club and of the nascent environmental movement, but always insisted that, as far as his photographs were concerned, "beauty comes first". His stirring images are still very popular in calendars, posters, and books.
Realistic about development and the subsequent loss of habitat, Adams advocated for balanced growth, but was pained by the ravages of "progress". He stated, "We all know the tragedy of the dustbowls, the cruel unforgivable erosions of the soil, the depletion of fish or game, and the shrinking of the noble forests. And we know that such catastrophes shrivel the spirit of the people… The wilderness is pushed back, man is everywhere. Solitude, so vital to the individual man, is almost nowhere."
A dramatically-lit black-and-white photograph depicts a large river, which snakes from the bottom right to the center left of the picture. Dark evergreen trees cover the steep left bank of the river, and lighter deciduous trees cover the right. In the top half of the frame, there is a tall mountain range, dark but clearly covered in snow. The sky is overcast in parts, but only partly cloudy in others, and the sun shines through to illuminate the scene and reflect off the river in these places.
The Tetons and the Snake River (1942)
Adams co-founded Group f/64 with other masters like Edward Weston, Willard Van Dyke, and Imogen Cunningham. With Fred Archer, he pioneered the Zone System, a technique for translating perceived light into specific densities on negatives and paper, giving photographers better control over finished photographs. Adams also advocated the idea of visualization (which he often called "previsualization", though he later acknowledged that term to be a redundancy) whereby the final image is "seen" in the mind's eye before taking the photo, toward the goal of achieving all together the aesthetic, intellectual, spiritual, and mechanical effects desired. He taught these and other techniques to thousands of amateur photographers through his publications and his workshops. His many books about photography, including the Morgan & Morgan Basic Photo Series (The Camera, The Negative, The Print, Natural Light Photography, and Artificial Light Photography) have become classics in the field.
He was elected in 1966 a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1980 Jimmy Carter awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.
Adams's photograph The Tetons and the Snake River has the distinction of being one of the 115 images recorded on the Voyager Golden Record aboard the Voyager spacecraft. These images were selected to convey information about humans, plants and animals, and geological features of the Earth to a possible alien civilization. These photographs eloquently mirror his favorite saying, a Gaelic mantra, which states "I know that I am one with beauty and that my comrades are one. Let our souls be mountains, Let our spirits be stars, Let our hearts be worlds."
His lasting legacy includes helping to elevate photography to an art comparable with painting and music, and equally capable of expressing emotion and beauty. As he reminded his students, "It is easy to take a photograph, but it is harder to make a masterpiece in photography than in any other art medium."
"Ansel Adams", wrote John Szarkowski (New York Museum of Modern Art), "attuned himself more precisely than any photographer before him to a visual understanding of the specific quality of the light that fell on a specific place at a specific moment. For Adams the natural landscape is not a fixed and solid sculpture but an insubstantial image, as transient as the light that continually redefines it. This sensibility to the specificity of light was the motive that forced Adams to develop his legendary photographic technique."
In September 1983, Adams was confined to his bed for four weeks after leg surgery to remove a tumor. Adams died on April 22, 1984, in the ICU at the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula in Monterey, California at the age of 82 from a heart attack. He was survived by his wife, two children, (Michael, born August 1933, and Anne, born 1935) and five grandchildren.
Publishing rights for most of Adams's photographs are now handled by the trustees of The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust. An archive of Ansel Adams's work is located at the Center for Creative Photography (CCP) at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
John Szarkowski states in the introduction to Ansel Adams: Classic Images (1985, p. 5), "The love that Americans poured out for the work and person of Ansel Adams during his old age, and that they have continued to express with undiminished enthusiasm since his death, is an extraordinary phenomenon, perhaps even unparalleled in our country's response to a visual artist."