Remembering Ansel Adams: A Hands-on Experience
By Richard Newman, Calumet’s Director of Education
When I moved from my previous career in the music and movie industry, fine art photography became my passion and my life.
I had always used a camera but now threw myself into it full time as a profession. I had taken a few workshops with Ansel Adams’ last assistant, John Sexton, and I was totally hooked. One of John’s assistants was Rod Dresser, who worked for the Ansel Adams Trust. Rod reviewed my work and offered me a summer position as a darkroom assistant in Ansel’s darkroom. I felt like the luckiest person in the world. I didn’t get paid in money, but the rewards for that summer of hard work were priceless.
My first assignment was with author Mary Alinder who was working on her book, Ansel Adams, Letters and Images, 1916-1984. Every morning, after I’d cleaned the darkroom, Mary would meet me at the door with 10 of Ansel’s negatives and ask me to make my best print from each one. Was she kidding me? Apparently not.
Ansel lived in Yosemite for a number of years and it was apparent that he took out his camera every time it snowed. There must have been over 1,000 negatives of snowy trees. Having access to a master’s work is something that every photographer should have the opportunity to experience once in a lifetime. The ability to work in a true hero’s workspace, on his enlargers, with all of his tools was life changing for me.
(c) James Alinder. Jim recounts Ansel describing these photos, “The print on the left is a straight image. No dodging and burning. This is what Ansel saw on that November afternoon in 1941. And the print on the right is what he felt.”
Because I arrived on the scene after he had passed, I never got the chance to meet him first hand, but I could feel his passion and see his vision in every negative I worked on. Sometimes I made great looking prints, a few times I printed the image upside down (really hard to tell with snow abstracts) and many of the prints I made never got past the trash can. (Ansel always called the trash can the most important tool in the darkroom!)
What I saw in his negatives was pure vision, albeit in the raw form. I know for fact that, for example, Moonrise Hernandez 1941, possibly his best know photograph, his negatives were not perfect. The printing of Moonrise changed much over the course of Ansel’s life. Early prints showed the sky much lighter, and as Ansel’s vision and technique progressed, the sky in the prints got darker. Truth be told, SW227 (his filing number for the Moonrise negative) was a pretty bad negative; possibly as much as three stops underexposed. But Ansel knew the light value of the moon, and that was the most important subject matter in the photograph. When Ansel made the print in later years there were 27 different dodges and burns needed to make the image a successful print. WOW, what vision!
After that summer I worked in the darkroom, I was gifted with a few keepsakes, a box of 4×5″ Tri-X sheet film, a can of Dektol print developer and amazing memories of my summer. I did get the opportunity to spend time with Ansel’s wife Virginia, who was gracious and very giving of her memories and experiences.
What I took away from this experience was a new understanding of the craft of photography in ways that I never knew possible, learning to pre-visualize my own work, to actually see what the finished image would look like when I stood in front of the subject. I learned a new dedication to my own work and to really appreciate and be respectful of the work of others.
If he were alive today, would Ansel have used Photoshop? I’m fairly certain that he would. He had one of the first Apple computers in his office and I’m sure he would have found many new ways to show us the world as he saw it through his eyes.
Please visit the Alinder Gallery if you would like to learn more about Ansel Adams and see more of his work.