Ansel, as we called him (he was not big on pretense), was getting on in years, but he still contributed heartily to the lectures. One day I found myself sitting in his living room, sipping tea and eating cookies as he told stories of life on the road, photographing his way from one national park to the next. He said that he never thought about making money, let alone becoming recognized. He became one of the seminal figures in American art, but he was simply doing what he loved.
At the time, I was an art student studying both painting and photography. In a one-on-one critique, Ansel said that I had "a very painterly eye." I explained my two interests to him, and he said, "I think you should keep painting. Why choose now when you are still so young?" When I told my family and friends what he had said, they laughed. When Ansel Adams looks at your photographs and tells you to keep painting, that can't be a good thing. All glibness aside, I remember Ansel talking at great length about painting and art of all kinds. But what struck me most was his genuine love for the land. His passion for making art seemed to be equaled only by his passion for the American landscape. He was courageous enough to stick his neck out a bit and talk about conservation, even if that meant being unpopular in some circles. In 1983, when Ansel visited Ronald Reagan, my friends and I exchanged and reveled in the many newspaper clippings. We were astonished and inspired that an artist could have the leverage to bring his concerns about the environment to the attention of the White House.
Today I am a painter and a studio-art professor. I see now that one aspect of Ansel Adams's work has affected me more than any other. I paint landscapes where there is no sign of human activity: no buildings, no cars, no roads, no telephone cables. Ansel's example taught me that the landscape needs many ambassadors to tell the story of all that unbridled natural energy. The land does not need to share the frame with a barn, or a bridge, or a lighthouse to be beautiful. My paintings aspire to translate a spirit of place that can only be understood by letting nature take the lead. I thank Ansel Adams for encouraging me on that trip as I winced my way to the top of Glacier Peak in Yosemite. The inspiration I found out there was more healing than I can say.
ANSEL AND BIG OIL
He took about 6 shots with black-and-white, 4-by-5-inch film. He slightly changed each exposure and camera angle. I don't think the actual picture-taking lasted over a half hour. And the final product ended up on the cover of the company's annual report. Its composition was very simple: The tall steel well was razor sharp and etched against clouds, and the foreground was the top edge of a foothill, slanted diagonally across the base of the well. But it made the well look very important.
On the drive back to Los Angeles, I said, "Your camera is really beat up. The varnish is peeling off the frame and there are patches all over the bellows." He grinned and said, "The box isn't important, it's the lens and these." And he pointed to his eyes. And I think he made his point many times.
"PRETTY GOOD" PHOTOGRAPHS
OPENING A DOOR
I tried the tests again with no luck. The negative was mottled and uneven and not at all what it should have been. I called Mr. Adams again the next day and he said, "Saint Louis, I don't know what to tell you. Try agitating differently," and then went on to explain how he developed his film. He was most generous with his time and his knowledge.
I again tried what he had suggested and finally it worked. I printed out one of the tests. It was an 8-by-10-inch gray rectangle. It was completely even. I sent it to the address the operator had given me. I titled it "Zone 5" and signed it "Saint Louis." I have no idea what happened to it. My hope was that Mr. Adams had a good laugh. Further, my hope is that he appreciated how much I appreciated him.
THE CONCERT PIANIST
A LIFE-CHANGING ENCOUNTER
As I stood there looking at the pictures, something woke up inside me. I was reminded that nature was a miracle of our Lord, as was I. That was the first step towards recovery for me. I have now been drug-free for almost eight years. I have a bachelor's degree and am a productive member of society. Thanks Ansel for giving me back my life.
THE ULTIMATE PERFECTIONIST
After we had spent our usual stimulating time together, I departed with the students for some photographing down the coast. As chance would have it, we returned after two days and I asked him how his edition went. He frowned and said, "Well, you know, I printed 250 of those things, looked at them for awhile, and threw them all out. They just were not good enough." It certainly said something about his desire for perfection. Most photographers would have tried to rationalize those prints as good enough. I'm sure most people would have thought they were, but not Ansel.
A MEMORABLE DAY
THE HEARSE DRIVER
Shortly after moving to the new facilities, I was sitting in the office of a colleague, chatting about some item of business. We glanced out the window and noticed that a vehicle that looked like an old hearse had parked outside. A man climbed out of the "hearse" and started unloading something from the back of it. First came a large box, and next a tripod. The man climbed on top of the hearse and set up the tripod. Next, he took a large view camera out of the box, took it up top, and attached it to the tripod. At this point my colleague said in an astonished voice, "It's Ansel Adams!" Since we both were amateur photographers, we had heard of Adams and were surprised to see him gearing up to take some pictures. We surmised that IBM had engaged him to take the official photographs of the new Research Lab, since it had been designed by a rather famous architect (whose name, sadly, I don't remember).
At that point, we rushed out to where Ansel was atop the hearse, keeping a respectable distance while he was working. Some minutes later, he came down from and talked with us for quite some time. We made the usual complements, and then, since he had recently started doing color photography, we asked him where he had his film processed, thinking that he would use the best processor available. He gave us the name of a lab in San Francisco, which both my colleague and I used from then on. I never did see the picture that Ansel took of the Research Lab, but I have not forgotten that day in San Jose.
A GRACIOUS HERO
CAUGHT ON FILM
For years I heard from Jimmy what a great piece of film it was. I never got to see it and I often wonder if it still exists in some archive somewhere. Ansel Adams, who I grew to admire tremendously, was known for his still masterpieces in black and white, as we all know, but not, I think, for motion pictures. But he made a movie of me a long time ago, and I am proud of that and of meeting him.
JUST DROPPING BY
When I rang, his wife answered; I introduced myself and the purpose of my call. Ansel came to the phone, and after a brief discussion, we mutually agreed upon a time for my visiting them. Ansel had thought I was an influential architect of the same name, but I told him I wasn't, but that I was from County Dublin, Ireland. I told him I had a great fascination with his work and would be honored if I could meet him. He had first requested I make an appointment with his secretary, but on explaining that my visit to the States was limited, he invited me to his home that afternoon. He gave me directions and along with divine inspiration, I arrived at his home 30 minutes later without getting lost. I knew I was at the right home, as he had a black car and a white car parked on the drive with number plates "Zone V."
Virginia, Ansel's lovely wife, greeted us at the door and showed us in. We were made very welcome. I had taken a bottle of Irish malt whisky and an Irish smoked salmon, which were greatly received. We had a great time talking about his work and a lot about his early years. Ansel showed us around his gallery; it was remarkable to see such wonderful photographs.
Ansel gave me a lovely brochure of his work, but was reluctant to sign it for me, at which I apologized for being so forward. After taking some obligatory photographs, we said our good-byes and gratitudes. Virginia said, "Ansel, I want you to do John a favor for me: I want you to sign his brochure." Ansel autographed my brochure, and to date it is one of my treasured possessions from a most remarkable man.
ANSEL AT HOME
When I was in my late 20s, I made many visits with my mother to Ansel and Virginia Adams's house south of Carmel, California. Ansel told me the house was financed by Kodak, whose film he used almost exclusively from the time his parents gave him a Kodak Brownie. The house was magnificent. The very large living room had a full-length window at the far end looking down on the rocks below, where the waves of the Pacific Ocean broke in flurries of white foam. Facing that window to the left was a large fireplace, flanked on both sides by very large Chinese drums. There were beautiful Native American baskets and some turquoise jewelry and photographs on the walls. The floor was covered with rugs acquired by Virginia's family's trading post in Yosemite, dating back to the 1800s. (Their trading post still survives there, as the only privately owned property in the national park). Although the room was large, with its chairs, rugs, fireplace, and decorations, it was very cozy.
The house was entered through a door that led into a corridor opening into the living room. A door on the right led into Ansel's studio, which was very large with another large window at the far end that looked out on the Pacific from a slightly different angle. Ansel was very generous in letting me into his studio and in explaining his techniques to me. The studio had several large tables and organized shelves that stored his unexposed film and photographic paper. There were special cabinets to store the reagents that he used for development.
While everyone interested in photography knows about his "zone system" for determining exposure time, not many seem to know about another device that he experimented with. This was a light box that had rows of lights, each of which could be controlled by a rheostat that determined its luminosity. By predetermining the lighting conditions of the scene photographed (he kept good notes when out taking pictures), he could approximate quite closely the lighting of the original scene. He used the device in the darkroom, first turning off the main switch to the box. Working with the safelight, he placed the unexposed photographic paper under the box, then turned on the switch for a fraction of a second. The box had a timer, thus exposing the film to lighting that was similar to the outdoor original. One of my favorites of Ansel's photos is "Moonrise Over Hernandez, New Mexico." I can't say for sure which method he used to expose it, the zone method or his experimental box.
There were other pioneering efforts that I saw at the Adams's home. When holography was a very new development, made possible by the invention of the laser, someone had given Ansel a hologram. Walking down the entrance hallway leading to the living room, on the wall to the right, a woman blew me a kiss! I walked back and tried to walk down the corridor again and again she blew me a kiss. I was flabbergasted. It was the first hologram I'd ever seen, and when I examined it, I was surprised to see the hologram was flat, although the dimensionality was fantastic.
I stayed over on many occasions and was always given a bedroom on the lower level. (The house was built on a hillside, so it had several levels; the Adams's own bedroom was on a lower level.) It was a privilege I will treasure all my life, a rare opportunity to meet this wonderful man and his wife, both so humble in spite of the fame that came to him in his lifetime.