"I was his cheerleader and his spark plug," says Mary Street Alinder, who helped Ansel Adams write "Ansel Adams: An Autobiography" (New York Graphic Society Books/Little, Brown and Company), a 400-page volume illustrated almost entirely by Adams himself. The book is a fitting companion to "Ansel Adams: Classic Images," now on exhibit at the National Gallery of Art.

Alinder was introduced to Adams' work by her husband, James Alinder (who wrote a biographical essay for the exhibition catalogue). On the couple's first date, he presented her with a book of photographs by Adams, Edward Weston and Harry Callahan. "He said, 'Here, if we're going to get along, you had better know about these.' "

"Ansel hired me for my editing background," Alinder says, "but later, because he was ill so much of the time, my nursing background -- I was a midwife -- was a great solace to him. I would accompany him in and out of the hospital, and I always joked that if he wasn't in the hospital so often we wouldn't have gotten any work done on the autobiography. He was always so busy. There, at least, I had his undivided attention."

The book had a 1979 deadline, but by December of 1978, Alinder says, Adams "hadn't even written a word." She got him started, walking with him, interviewing and taking dictation on tape, then transcribing and editing. Then there was the daunting stockpile of 40,000 unproofed negatives that Alinder pored over to find the illustrations.

Adams lived up to his reputation as a workaholic. "He never took a vacation or a day off, and he hated holidays, because that meant that the staff was gone," Alinder says. "And any photo signed 'Ansel Adams,' you know he did all the work on it, all the developing and printing, unlike many photographers." Still, she says, he made time for people every day. "I remember he worked every day from 8 a.m., and then toward 5 o'clock, Adams' wife Virginia would start setting up the bar and glasses and people would start to appear -- students, hitchhikers with portfolios under their arms, teachers of photography -- and Ansel would hold open house."