Ansel Adams was complaining about the clouds when I first met him. They weren't yet what they ought to be, but he thought they would get better. David Brower, former director, Sierra Club
Standing on Point Lobos, on California's Monterey Peninsula, the scene of a few of his landscapes, photographer Ansel Adams is about to be snapped by a certified amateur.
"Let me see that," he says, taking a light meter and pointing it at his hand. "Zone 6. That's between f16 and f22 at one 125th of a second for a good flesh tone."
The portrait done, he walks back to his three-month-old, white Sedan De Ville Cadillac.
"Look at this," he says playfully, "You touch the door latch and the lights turn on inside. A car's coming toward you and a photometer automatically dims your headlights. Oh, I do love technology. Why do people get so upset by it?"
Unlike most artists, Ansel Adams finds delight in the ridiculous as well as the sublime. Although he's best known for a half-century of sumptuous landscape photographs that epitomize the detail and grandeur of the West, and for his landmark efforts in the conservation movement, he is more familiar to his friends as an impishly entertaining 77-year-old-man.
"Everyone talks about Adams as an artist," says painter Georgia O'Keeffe, an old friend. "You'll understand him better if you think of him as a real ham, the eternal life of the party."
"Just call me the Julia Child of Photography," suggests Adams. "Sometimes I dry prints in the microwave oven in the kitchen."
Beep. . .beep. . .beep. . .beep. . .beep. . .The seconds are ticking off audibly in the darkroom. And Ansel Adams is standing before his huge enlarger with a paper-and-cardboard wand and an old box top with a hole cut in it.
Counting aloud with the beeper, he uses the wand to block out two dark areas of an image for six seconds. Two seconds later and still counting, he uses the box top to focus the light on various portions of "Monolith: The Face of Half Dome." After 46 seconds he covers the lens and removes the 16-by-20 inch photographic paper from a magnetic holder.
"I love the beeper," he says, noting that it drives lesser mortals crazy. "I compose all kinds of fugues to it while I'm printing."
Adams inserts another sheet of Ilford No. 2 Gallery Paper and begins exposing a second print -- one of 60 he will make this Thursday morning. It's taken him a full day to prepare for the job: testing paper, determining exposures, arriving at a final precise blend of chemicals. He is known equally well for his meticulous eye and meticulous printing.
"Monolith: The Face of Half Dome" is classic Adams, shot in Yosemite in 1927, one of scores of his photographs that will go on display next week in a retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art. The image is a powerful display of stone, sky and snow: richly detailed in the rock surface, dark and dense in the sky, pure white in the frosting of snow. This dramatic range of tones, blended with an unwavering sense of composition, makes Adams a photographer admired by technically savvy professionals as well as awestruck amateurs.
"There is no doubt," says John Szarkowski, director of the photography department at the MOMA, "that Ansel Adams is one of the great photographers of this century."
Ironically, although he helped fround the MOMA photo department in 1940, this is Adams' first one-man show at the museum -- if a documentary of Japanese prison camps in California, stuck in the basement in 1944, can be overlooked. [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] photographer announced that he would no longer take orders for images after Dec. 31, 1975, Lunn ordered 1,000 prints.
"He took a great chance, in my opinion," says Adams, "and for that order alone I was paid $500,000. Some people think this was a move engineered to drive up prices, but I don't think my popular appeal has been engineered. I certainly can't explain it and sometimes I wonder why I have finally become so financially successful as a photographer, when someone like Edward [Weston, another great landscape photographer and close friend of Adams'] died in rags. Of course I think it's crazy that 'Moonrise [Hernandez', another Adams classic, of the moon over a New Mexico cemetery ] now goes for $10,000. Maybe it's inflation. Maybe now it should be called 'Quarter.' or 'Half-Moonrise Hernandes.'"
Adams still seems like a big outdoorsman, although arthritis has gnarled his hands and slowed his gait. He is bald now, but he still sports the beard he first grew in the mountains and wears the string ties and cowboy hats of the land he loves. He is tough and stubborn.
Once, a few years ago when visiting Georgia O'Keeffe in New Mexico, he refused to be shown up by a woman, and insisted on following her up an old wooden ladder into an adobe cave. On another occasion, he refused to take a portrait of Richard Nixon. He used to drive his hiking companions crazy, mocking their heavy hiking boots and claiming that sneakers were the best things for trail wear. (He still wears rubber soled shoes virtually all the time.)
He is obviously close to his wife of 51 years, Virginia, whom he met in Yosemite when he would visit the studio of her painter father, Harry Cassie Best, to play the piano.
He has no use for organized religion and says "I was baptized in an Episcopalian church and haven't been back in -- intentionally."
Adams has processed 40 prints of "Monolith," eight at a time, five minutes in the developer, then stop bath, and five minutes of fixer. Each of the prints looks uniformly perfect -- all bound for universities and museums, the only collections Adams will now sell to.
"You can see how consistent it is when you do them this way," he says. "A lot of people think you should expose the print, develop it, and then keep repeating the process, but you'd go stir crazy."
After lunch, a few hours later, he refixes the prints, and then tones them with selenium bath that softens the blacks slightly and makes the prints more permanent. It has been a long day, but Adams is hardly flushed -- in spite of open-heart surgery in March.
"I love spending days in the darkroom," he says. "I'm just a well-preserved man."
"Ansel's archival," says his assistant John Sexton. "He's so full of selenium."
This has become a standard Adams day; into the darkroom by 8, break for lunch, an afternoon of toning, vodka martini at 6:30 and dinner, often with guests, at 7:30.
His home is simple and spacious, perched on a rise in Carmel Highlands that juts out into the Pacific just two miles from Point Lobos on the Monterey Peninsula. The furniture inside is old and comfortable; the walls are covered with cases of alphabetized photography books and Adam's photos hung against a gray background. There's a huge Chinese drum over the mantel, mounds of shells and polished rocks on his desk, potted plants everywhere and, hanging on a wall, a gift from O'Keeffe; an old cow skull, worn down by the desert.
Tonight, Ethel and Phil Fein are visiting from San Francisco for dinner. Fein used to assist Adams 30 years ago, and recalls being in the darkroom the day Adams made his first print of "Moonrise."
"You've become venerated," he says to Adams.
"Vinegrated is more likely," the photographer replies.
"But you've grown considerably," says Fein.
"I have also grown considerably," says Adams, assessing his girth.
"You were always so exhilarated," says Ethel Fein.
"What she means is tight," Adams says to another guest.
They begin talking about nuclear power. The Feins are dead against it. Adams often considers himself a pragmatist first, conservationist second.
"All these fears of dry mounting tissue," he says, referring to the modern method of matting photographic prints. "All this fear of microwave ovens, this fear of nuclear power, I just can't see getting in a religious state of fear over these things. It's like cars on the road -- the problem is the people . . ."
Adams' wife, Virginia, interrupts:
"How would you all like to come and eat some dinner and stop worrying about the bomb?"
Ansel Adams was born on Jackson Street in his parents' San Francisco home on Feb. 20, 1902. On April 18, 1906, the San Francisco earthquake threw the boy to the ground and broke his nose. It is still noticeably tilted to the left.
He was an only child and, although his father was involved in the logging business, Ansel benefitted from the elder Adams' broad range of interests. Charles H. Adams was a renaissance man, particularly a devoted member of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific -- so devoted that there is an Adams crater on the moon.
At 12, young Adams was taking piano lessons. By 13, his father had let him stop attending school, and he spent the entire year at the Panama Pacific International Exposition with a Brownie box camera, wandering through rooms of cubist paintings and working as a volunteer demonstrator of one of the world's first adding machines.
"My father told me," Adams says, "that he'd wait until I found out exactly what I wanted to do before he made me go back to school. I never went back." That same year, 1915, Adams also caught flu, and his mother gave him a copy of Hutchings' "In The Heart of the Sierra" to read while bedridden.
"I just had to go see it the next year," he says.
That first impression of the valley -- white water, azaleas, cool fir caverns, tall pines and stolid oaks, cliffs rising to undreamed of heights, the poignant sounds and smells of the Sierra -- was a culmination of experience so intense as to be almost painful. From that day in 1916 my life has been colored and modulated by the great earth-gesture of the Sierra. -- Adams in his introduction to "Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada."
In the deep, tall closets at Adams' house, there are dozens of archival boxes filled with memorabilia that document one of the great American romances, between a rich young man -- descendant of the Boston Adamses -- and the vastness of the western landscape that obsessed him.
Snapshots, turning brown, of 14-year-old Adams with mule in Yosemite; Adams running the Sierra Club's headquarters there at the Le Conte Lodge; Adams sporting the beginning of a beard, leaning against the wooden wall with a swagger in his hips and a cigarette in his lips that long precede Bogart; Adams dressed as a shepherd, or playing the piano with an orange ("A travesty on Chopin's Black Key Study"), or standing on a table at a party.
Newspaper clippings: the Stockton Record, Saturday, April 16, 1927, "Yosemite Valley From Awesome Heights As Seen By Intrepid Climbers," And there is Adams, almost too good-looking, leaning over his 8-by-10 view camera, facing off with his eternal subject, Half Done.
There are images of photographer Paul Strand, who in 1930 convinced Adams that photography was worthy of a lifetime pursuit; notices from Adams' important 1936 show at Alfred Stieglitz's gallery, An Anerican Place, And receipts for prints sold at 25 cents and $1.50; a black ink on brown stock poster from the insurance company of Albert Bender, his patron, the businessman who convinced wealthy friends in the '30s to buy portfolios of Adam's work.
There are fading photographs of Virginia Best, whom he married in 1928; copies of mock Greek tragedies titled, "Exhaustos" and "the Trudgin' Women" that he scrawled in the backs of exposure record books while on the trail, to be performed later at fireside; letters from his two children; correspondence with the Sierra Club; copies of industrial reports he photographed; tear sheets of photojournalism done for Fortune. His one cover shot for Life magazine, Christmas 1938, made in Yosemite. And the first publication, in a 1947 issue of Time magazine of his now famous "Mount Williamson, Sierra Nevada, from Manzanar, California": the foreground boulders in perfect focus, the mountains towering in the distance, everything bathed in ethereal cloud-tinged beams of sunlight.
And now it is Time magazine that beckons again: a message from photographer David Kennerly, who calls to say that his portrait of Adams will be on this week's cover along with a nine-page story on the photographer and his Museum of Modern Art show.
Somehow it is finally starting to sink in: the 60 years of work, exposing 10,000 negatives; the dozens of books he has done, from the 1930 "Taos Pueblo" with Mary Austin to a guide to Polaroid photography; the 30,000 prints he has made; the 5,000 students he has taught; the hundreds of shows and signings and lectures; the $250,000 gift to the MOMA to establish a new photographic curatorial fellowship; the Ansel Adams archives at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson.
"This old man on the cover of Time magazine," he muses, glancing at his digital watch.
"I'm going to charge for autographs now."
And then the impish Adams glimmer:
"For 10 dollars, I'll sign 'Stieglitz.'"