How Many Followers Would Ansel Adams Have?

How Many Followers Would Ansel Adams Have?

The world of landscape photography has grown exponentially since the transition from film to digital and even more recently with a large social movement to get outdoors. What would your feed look like in 1943?

A man who doesn't need an introduction, Ansel Adams is likely the most famous landscape photographer in history. Not only did he shape the world of landscape photography, he brought the beauty of U.S. national parks to the masses and inspired many people for decades to come. It's a concept that seems almost impossible to fathom in today's world considering we have access to images from nearly everywhere at all times. Imagine if you could go somewhere and take photos of a place the majority of the world has yet to see or what it would be like to experience seeing those places for the first time again.

Where would his work fall in today's societal expectations and constant bombardment of perfect landscapes? The actual answer is impossible to truly find but hypothetically the results are quite eye opening.

Ansel Adams front view of church taos pueblo national landmark

Front view of entrance, "Church, Taos Pueblo National Historic Landmark, New Mexico, 1942"

In the world of social media there are more than a dozen tips and tricks you can follow in the hopes of grabbing new followers. Let's take a look at how Adams would fare in today's world.

The Bad

  1. Black and white feeds are typically much harder to grow.
  2. Many of his photos are landscape oriented which results in less engagement.
  3. Doesn't post frequently.
  4. Many photos would be considered "snapshots" as their true beauty has to be seen in print.
  5. Lacks engagement with followers because he's too busy taking more photos.

The Good

  1. He's one of a handful of people posting content.
  2. He's possibly the only person posting outdoor photography.
  3. No one has ever seen these places before.
  4. People want an escape from the great depression and war times.
  5. Who else even has a camera, let alone knows how to use it?

Judging by these lists we could assume Adams wouldn't do very well in today's social media game but if it hypothetically existed in his era he would flourish. So what's the take away here?

Ansel Adams photo overlooking the hoover dam

Photograph Looking Over the Top of the Boulder Dam; From the series Ansel Adams Photographs of National Parks and Monuments, ca. 1933-1942

To me this image explains everything. Remember that every image he took was deliberate. Requiring film to be loaded, exposure to be calculated, long setup times; no image was a snapshot. Yet to us this looks like a snapshot but back then it was a modern marvel. Taken at the Hoover Dam which had recently been finished, Adams has quite a few images of the transmission and power systems surrounding the area. These are the types of things I would Photoshop out of my images or never even point my camera at. It is fascinating to think that what brought wonder and awe back then is now something we try to keep out of our images today. Adams' feed would be filled with images we wouldn't even notice yet in his era they would make headlines.

The Ugly

I write quite a bit about social media and one of the biggest common themes in the comments is questioning if any of it matters. Does gaining followers actually matter? The long answer is complicated but overall I'd say no unless that's what you truly want. As a photographer you have to decide if you want to take photos and share them or if you want to gain followers and shoot content to do so. Otherwise you'll fall in an endless trap of wondering why an image you cherish didn't get the reception you expected, or you put too much value in your work based on your growth socially. I've been in that pit and it's not easy to get out.

So if you're ever questioning your work because of social media just think about the fact that Adams wouldn't do too well today either and his work is timeless. Maybe it's time we stop focusing on what will gain more "likes" and more on what will become timeless for years to come. What do you think?

All images by Ansel Adams, used under public domain.

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36 Comments

Owain Shaw's picture

Ansel hired a publicist, and as a related article from this very website points out, used advertising to promote his work - he was an artist but he also knew how to make his work seen in the media of the time. Had it been otherwise, he would not be the household name he has been for decades and remains to this day, nor would this discussion surround Ansel Adams but rather another photographer who had both talent but also the ability to play the games of the time.

Alex Armitage's picture

I'd love to see other work of the national parks from that time period.

Owain Shaw's picture

Eadweard Muybridge (of running horse and other studies of movement fame) has some early landscapes from Yosemite, among other locations among his work. Sadly I can't help point toward much else from that time, although I'm sure there were others besides Ansel, who probably was the greatest of them but was certainly the best at getting his work seen.

Marcin Świostek's picture

So he'd probably be using bots and buying followers. Hahaha.

Adriano Brigante's picture

This made me think. I remember a time when books were the only source of images and it was very limited. When I was a kid in the 80s, seeing a beautiful image of a far away land in a book was something special. And then, when I had my first Encarta encyclopedia on CDROM in the 90s, seeing color photographs on a computer screen felt exciting and new. Now, I feel like this sense of wonder is gone. We collectively overdosed on images. God, I feel old and I'm not even 40... :)

Alex Armitage's picture

It's a double edge sword though because in the same way it's very possible I'd never know many of these places existed either.

Timothy Roper's picture

Ansel wasn't "just" a photographer, he was an environmental activist. And that's as issue even more popular today--maybe even the most popular/important one. He'd have millions of followers, would be flying around in private jets, raising millions or billions, and would be even more well-known that he is as things stand.

Timothy Gasper's picture

What type of people concern themselves with how many followers they have? I wonder.

Mark Guinn's picture

Scary to think the addiction to social media likes and followers has become so prevalent in our society that it is now classified as a legitimate psychological disorder.

Timothy Gasper's picture

It's all about acceptance. We all want others to recognize our efforts...but really..."How many followers would Ansel Adams have"? Is this a competition? He would care less. Which leads to my original query.....'what type of people concern themselves with how many followers they have'? Certainly professionals should have no need.... I know I don't and I've been doing this for over 45 years. Too many people are caught up in this 'appearance' thing these days. I guess I am just looking at this from a social/psychological view as I have a Master's in Social Psychology. I should stop doing this.

Mark Guinn's picture

It's like Peter Gabriel sang: "I need to be needed, I love to be loved." I read an article not too long ago about the effects of social media addiction on the brain, and I have to admit it made me think about my daily usage. Studies show that seeing those likes and follows creates a wide range of activity in the brain that is akin to a highly pleasurable "winning" experience. When you don't get the likes and follows that you think you should, it encourages depression and anxiety (that "less than" feeling). When taken away, it fires off the same areas of the brain that are active during drug detox.

The problem with all of this is we naturally begin to compare our "success" on social media with the success of others. For example, I look at my instagram account vs Elia Locardi. Automatically, I feel like I'm just a nonprofessional schmuck with a camera because there's no way I could get 125k followers. Since I can't get the followers, it's obvious my work isn't good enough. The depression kicks in, and I become addicted to getting one more like with each pic posted.

The internet is the drug, and most of us are junkies. lol

Timothy Gasper's picture

Yes I understand. Before I retired I NEVER went on social media or made any comments on articles. I have only done so recently and only a little anyway. I need to get out and do more shooting. Just waiting for better weather....and my wife's approval - another story.

Alex Armitage's picture

I certainly struggle from these exact same things. I totally fee you. It’s partially why I wrote this article! A little reminder to focus on other things likely matter more.

Alex Armitage's picture

Plenty of people do! I don't think there is anything wrong with validating your business presence with how much work you're getting or engagement you receive on social platforms. It's all about you approach and perception of purpose. Are you a photographer or an influencer? What's your goal? etc

Timothy Gasper's picture

I don't recall saying anything is wrong with it. Which then leads to another tidbit....why do some people take the wrong inference from a statement.

Alex Armitage's picture

So what were you implying then?

Timothy Gasper's picture

Perhaps what I should have said was....Why is there a need for such a question? I mean...how many people have asked you that question? No one's ever asked me and don't think about such things. Why....all of a sudden is this type of question popping up? Popularity contest?

Alex Armitage's picture

Sure you could simplify it into a popularity contest but the simple fact is people make their entire living off of posting to Instagram. But if they are doing that, are they a photographer or an influencer?

Timothy Gasper's picture

No...really. Read the title of the article. Why is it neccessary to know how many followers Ansel Adams would have today? That's all I mean. Who cares? He surely wouldn't. As for your answer...yes they rely on it for their living. On Instagram. As for if they are a photographer or an influencer...they will have to answer that. My point was why is the author asking such a question?

Alex Armitage's picture

This was more of a thought provoking article than it was intended to be interpreted literally. I don’t think anyone actually cares if he’d have 1 follower or a million. For me it’s more about the curiosity or hypothetical and what I can learn from my own curiosity.

Timothy Gasper's picture

Yes I agree with that. More of a mundane, curiosity sort of view. I guess I am looking too seriously at things these days. I have a Master's in Social Psychology and looked at it in that vein. Being a disabled veteran now retired...I need to focus more. I maybe should not read any more or less into things. I never used to comment on things before. Perhaps I should get out and shoot more photos.

Alex Armitage's picture

Hey we can't shoot all the time! Speaking of, maybe I should go shoot :)

Jeff Thayer's picture

People who are in this business because they think it makes them "cool" and need to bolster their fragile egos to compensate for a lack of actual ability. Those who could never get the image if software wasn't so advance it can be used to cover up ones inabilities.

Ryan Cooper's picture

I think it is critical to remember that it is likely Ansel Adams, if he were alive today, would be walking around with a medium format and shooting in color. His work would look completely different. Adams was a master of using the technology of his era to its utmost potential. I have no doubt he would have pursued the same if he was alive today.

Robert Trimbach's picture

Ansel Adams' work is the total opposite of digital photography and Instagram. He'd probably hate it.

David MacKenzie's picture

Actually, Ansel shot a lot of Polaroids, and wrote this the year before he died: "I am sure the next step will be the electronic image, and I hope I shall live to see it. I trust that the creative eye will continue to function, whatever technological innovations may develop." (Ansel Adams, 1983, "Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs", p.59)

Robert Trimbach's picture

Agreed. He definitely took polaroids. He consulted for them. I'm sure he'd be excited about the technology. I don't think he would have strayed from the darkroom if he was around today.

William Faucher's picture

I have a feeling he wouldn't be very popular at all, actually. His work isn't "Instagram popular". If you don't adopt a fairly limited aesthetic and composition style, your work tends to fall through the cracks and never get noticed. Some of the most amazing photographers I know don't even have that many followers. And then you have "insert generic backpacker influencer here" with hundreds of thousands if not millions of followers, posting the same stuff we have seen hundreds of times with the same presets and centered compositions. It is aesthetically pleasing for the IG format, but when I see prints of their photos, it just looks odd, because the instagram style doesn't translate to print quite as well. Crushed blacks and faded looks just don't quite hold up in print, compared to a well-graded image with a greater dynamic range.

Instagram isn't really about the quality of the work, it isn't for photographers. It's for all things trendy. Which is totally fine. But I really wish we could find a platform that is catered to photographers and photography, with quality over quantity.

To be honest, the Fstoppers community here has some incredible work. I find myself looking through the community posts more and more often now.

If Fstoppers had their own app for posting and rating images, I would be ALL OVER IT.

Rayann Elzein's picture

He was blessed enough to live in a time without social media, why on earth do you want to associate him with those pieces of sh*t that social media are?!

Ed Sanford's picture

If, woulda, coulda, shoulda..... This article is totally out of context. You really can’t compare the times. Ansel Adams was the first photographer that knew how to consistently make a full tone image. What you call a snap shot was cutting edge technology in 1934. In fact, full tone panchromatic film had just been invented. Moreover, chemical developers were still experimental. Digital photography in my opinion has actually degraded quality to an extent because the ease of use enables photographers to transmit a lot of substandard work and cliches. In addition, many photographers pushing out jpegs on social media are incapable of making a quality print. If you want to place Adams in this contact, you have to extend your imagination. Specifically, imagine image making that has not yet been invented; once you wrap your mind around that, you can begin to see where Ansel would fit. From the the 1930s to the end of his life, he was at the cutting edge.

Alex Armitage's picture

I don’t disagree with anything you said. I tried to touch on that in a much more simplified form when I said “these images need to be seen in print.” To compare what he was doing from now to then is nearly impossible.

I think it’s possible I didn’t drive home the conceptual idea and thought provoking nature that I intended with the article. It wasn’t meant to be taken literally. But that’s something I can learn from for next time. Thanks for the comment!

Ed Sanford's picture

Well Alex, with all due respect, your article was very thought provoking, but maybe not in the way you intended. To me, your major thrust, though not specifically stated, was that Adams’ work today would be substandard in a social media environment. Well, that’s like saying that Magellan would be an average navigator today. The fact is that Ansel Adams discoveries in the zone system and sensitometry are the basis for exposure in photography including digital. So, I was trying to create a moral equivalence. That is to say, that because of his natural genius, he would be working with camera developers and researchers on such things as sensor size in view cameras or trying to expand color spaces. He would then use those technologies to push the capabilities for enhanced creativity. I say that because this is what he did in his day.... comprendez?

Alex Armitage's picture

Of course. In the hypothetical world where he was still working today, it's very likely he would be doing exactly what you describe. Or he'd never sign up for anything and not care. Or someone else would run a platform for him. The possibilities are numerous and for me it's interesting to theorize. I may have simplified those thoughts too much as I said before though.

I did push on the idea that his work may not do well on a 4 inch screen because that's something I personally relate to in my work. I want perfection on a large sized print and all that detail is irrelevant with how we consume media today. So it's something I relate to and remind myself often in the sense that his work has to be seen in person - like much great art in the world.

Daniel Bliss's picture

He did TV shows; he was an environmental activist; he held workshops; he maintained the family photography business and Yosemite park concession (which survives to this day); he had a publicist; he was enthusiastic about technological advances (with the caveat that he stuck with monochrome)....I think he'd be totally effective in today's market.

A Grz's picture

It's a interesting idea to imagine social media existing during the depression.

Since Ansel Adams was so heavy into manipulating an image in the darkroom; I've always imagined he'd be an enthusiastic proponent of Photoshop if he were still alive today.

Not sure if you're aware; Ansel Adams did shoot in color when it was possible:
"Renowned as America's pre-eminent black-and-white landscape photographer, Ansel Adams began to photograph in color soon after Kodachrome film was invented in the mid 1930s. He made nearly 3,500 color photographs, a small fraction of which were published for the first time in the 1993 edition of ANSEL ADAMS IN COLOR."

James Zorn's picture

I read his book on negatives long ago. I still have my 4x5 but donated all my darkroom equipment to the local community college. I shot his zone system, had a cold-head enlarger and a 16x20 darkroom setup for prints. When he printed, the paper had a lot more silver content but I was able to make great looking prints without a lot of burning and dodging. I have a attached a photo I did of this abandon train barn that was a 30 minute exposure with Tri_X at ASA 10. This is a poor scan of the negative but the idea is there.