Old Faithful Geyser, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, 1942
Ansel Adams, American, 1902–1984
Gelatin silver print
Image: 9 3/16 × 6 in. (23.4 × 15.2 cm) Sheet: 9 3/16 × 6 in. (23.4 × 15.2 cm)
Museum purchase funded by Thurmon Andress, Michael F. Curran, and Gary Petersen in honor of Lilly Andress at "One Great Night in November, 2006", The Manfred Heiting Collection

Habits of Mind

  • OBSERVE DETAILS Observe details / time to think and reflect
  • DEVELOP GRIT Develop endurance / grit / desire to rework ideas / open to a range of ideas and solutions/ possess self-discipline and self-confidence

Tones in the Zones

Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.






Observe Details

Develop Grit

Connecting to the Work of Art

Born to a wealthy San Francisco family, Ansel Adams divided his young adulthood between music as a career and photography as a hobby. Inspired by photographer Paul Strand’s modern style that capitalized on the camera’s ability to control sharpness, abstractness, and tonality, Adams eventually made a full time commitment to photography. In 1932, Adams and other San Francisco photographers founded GROUP f.64, an organization that promoted photography as an independent art medium. This kind of photography became known as “Straight” photography.

Adams’ participation in the acceptance of photography as a legitimate art medium did not end with his technical contributions. In 1940, Adams helped to institute the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, co-curating its first exhibition. With the prestigious museum’s support, Adams advanced photography to the status of fine art. Adams also established the Friends of Photography, an organization that sought to promote visual literacy through exhibitions and public workshops. Even after his death in 1984, the Friends of Photography has continued to operate the Ansel Adams Center for Photography in San Francisco.

Old Faithful Geyser is the most famous of the hundreds of geysers in Yellowstone National Park. It erupts for 1.5 to 5 minutes at intervals of between 35 minutes and two hours. It reaches heights of up to 180 feet, making it the largest predictable geyser in the park. “Old Faithful” was named by the Washburn Expedition of 1870 that explored the Yellowstone region in its prime and declared the area the nation’s first national park. The geyser is the most visited and most studied at Yellowstone.

Inspired by boyhood trips to Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks, Adams’s combined interest in environmental conservation and photography produced many scenic photographs of nature such as Old Faithful Geyser.

GROUP f.64 opposed traditional “pictorialist” photography that imitated Impressionist paintings and graphic arts. Pictorialist landscape photography typically produces soft-focus, manipulated prints, whereas Adams’s famous natural landscape photographs were done in sharp detail, with no alterations made to the negatives. 

In addition, Adams developed a "zone system" to ensure complex, balanced, and appealing compositions. He mentally divided every photograph he took into multiple "zones", and ensured that a full range of tones--blacks, midtones, and whites--was represented in each zone. In this photograph, which is an excellent example of the zone system, one can see a wide range of tones, even in the white spray of water; nothing is overexposed or underexposed, and the photograph is detailed and complex.

In 1941, the National Park Service commissioned Ansel Adams to take photographs for a mural to be displayed at the Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C. When America entered World War II the following year, the project came to an end, but Adams continued to work in the western wilderness, producing many outstanding photographs.

Conversation Starters


  • What is this a photograph of? How can you tell?
  • Where are the darkest places in this photo? Where are the lightest? How many shades of gray are in between?
  • There are no humans or animals visible in this image. If there were, try to imagine where they could stand and how big they would appear in comparison to the landscape.
  • How did Adams crop his image? Why do you think he cropped it the way he did?
  • What do you think Adams was trying to say about his subject? How does he communicate that message?


  • Adams was often critiqued for producing images that were too similar to “real life”. Do you think that this image is too boring or objective? Why?
  • When Adams was working, most people preferred pictorialist photography—photographs that had been edited to look more like paintings. Adams decided not to follow this path. Why do you think he did so? What are the merits of an unedited photo like this one? Why do you think so many people wanted pictorialist photography instead?
  • Adams was very interested in the tonal range of his work. Look again at the range of tones in Old Faithful. How would this photo be different if there were fewer tones in it? What if it was overexposed (too much light) or underexposed (not enough light); how would you react to the photo then?
  • This image stemmed from a commission for the U.S. Department of the Interior; they wanted Adams to create a mural of images from the country’s National Parks. Why do you think they chose Adams for the job? Based on this image, what do you think the completed mural would have looked like?


  • Ansel Adams is famous for his “zone system” , which he used to ensure complex, balanced, and appealing compositions. He mentally divided every photograph he took into multiple "zones", and ensured that a full range of tones--blacks, midtones, and whites--was represented in each zone.
  • Research Adams’ “Zone system”.
  • With this system Adams was able to perfectly control the contrast in his black and white photos. Adams’ basic rule was: “Expose for the shadows; develop for the highlights.”   Investigate the shadows and highlights in this photograph.
  • Utilizing the “Zone System”, carefully examine the tones used in this photograph.  Label the areas of the photograph using the Roman numerals that best represent the tonality of specific areas.
  • Take photographs, either in black and white mode, or converting color photos to grayscale.  Employ some of Ansel Adams’ personal photography philosophies:
    • Pre-visualize photos before you want to make before you take them
    • Position yourself for the most unique perspective
    • Photograph how a scene feels, not how it looks
  • Label areas of personal photographs using the zone system.

Subject Matter Connection

Research and discuss geothermal and hydrothermal energy. Investigate the formation and features of geysers. Old Faithful is one of nearly 500 geysers in Yellowstone and one of six that park rangers currently predict. Geysers and other thermal features are evidence of ongoing volcanic activity beneath the surface.  Watch a Live-Stream Webcam of Old Faithful at National Park Service. Conduct an Inner Outer Circle Discussion using LTA Handouts: HOTS. Inner Outer Circle.

The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.

The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.