UC Berkeley, as seen through Ansel Adams’ camera

Nearly 50 years, ago, American photographer and environmentalist Ansel Adams shot black-and-white images of the University of California campuses, creating a vast repository of 1960s photographs that was named “Fiat Lux” (“Let there be light”), after the university’s motto.


Wheeler Hall and the Campanile, (Photo by Ansel Adams)


Incoming freshmen and transfer students arriving at UC Berkeley starting today (Friday, June 1) for summer orientation are each receiving a special gift copy of the 1967 volume by Adams and Nancy Newhall as part of the campus’s annual On the Same Page program. The program for all new students and all faculty members was created in 2006 by the College of Letters & Science to give the campus community something in common to talk about, such as a book, a film or a theme, during the school year.

Viewing Adams’ images, taken at a turbulent time for the UC and commissioned by then-UC President Clark Kerr, may inspire students and faculty to think about the UC today and to imagine its future, organizers said.

“We are all stewards of the University of California,” said Catherine Cole, professor of theater, dance and performance studies, who proposed this year’s theme to the deans who selected it.

The Bancroft Library in September will open “Fiat Lux Redux,” an exhibit of Adams’ UC photos, so that members of the campus community can see the original prints.

Other events, activities and classroom opportunities tied to the chosen theme will unfold beginning in the fall.

An innovative aspect of this year’s program will be “Fiat Lux Remix,” a chance starting in mid-June for students to download images from the collection from the On the Same Page website and use them as a basis for their own creative and intellectual projects. There will be a prize for the best project, and student submissions that present the most thoughtful and creative visions of the UC’s future will be shared with the chancellor, UC president, UC Regents and other influential audiences.

More about this year’s “Fiat Lux” program and how to join in can be found on the OTSP website. Professor Ken Goldberg also contributed a blog post on the topic to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Ansel Adams’ assistant to speak at Effingham chamber banquet

Photographer Alan Ross says the advent of digital cameras has given more people the opportunity and inclination to take photographs, resulting in more ordinary people capturing extraordinary images.

Ross, an internationally respected photographer and educator, will speak at the annual banquet of the Effingham County Chamber of Commerce at 7 p.m. Thursday, June 7, at Effingham County High School.

Friday, June 1, is the last day to make reservations to attend the banquet.

Ross lives in Santa Fe, N.M., and is best known for his black-and-white photographs of the American west. His photographs hang in collections and galleries around the world.

Ross also worked for years as Ansel Adams’ photographic assistant and will speak about the famous photographer and environmentalist’s approach and technique.

He said one of the things that struck him most about Adams, when he first went to work for him, was that he made “an awful lot of very ordinary photographs.”

“I was somewhat stunned to learn that he had no illusions and no expectations that every film he exposed would wind up being another one of what he fondly called his ‘Mona Lisas,’” Ross has said.

Amateurs have fancied themselves as photographers for quite some time now, and that’s “really not a bad thing,” he said.

He quotes a friend of his as saying, “If you buy a camera, you’re a photographer. If you buy a flute, you own a flute.”

Ross said serious photographers don’t feel threatened by people who enjoy taking photographs.

He enjoys teaching and specializes in helping photographers at any level and using all formats and styles. He said one concern he has is that people are taking thousands of digital photographs but are failing to back up the images.

When a hard drive dies, which is a very common occurrence, or when technology is outdated, people’s whole photo albums are sometimes lost. “Who has the equipment to read a 5 ¼-inch floppy?” he said. “Have prints made of stuff that means something to you.”

Some of Ross’s prints will be available for purchase after his speech.

Also at the banquet, the chamber’s 26th annual meeting, will be the presentation of the Treutlen Award for outstanding community service in Effingham County. The Small Business of the Year Award and the Beacon Award for a top local Ambassador volunteer will also be presented.

Awards will go to this year’s Leadership Effingham class, the Members of Distinction and others. Brooke Graham will be presented a plaque as retiring board president.

Tickets for the banquet, with dinner from Poppy’s BBQ, are $50 each. Tables of six, eight or 12 may be reserved.

For more information or to purchase individual tickets or tables, contact the chamber by emailing to beckyshea@effinghamcounty.com, ricklott@effinghamcounty.com or calling 912-754-3301. Fees may be paid by check or credit card.

For more information about Ross, go to www.alanrossphotography.com.

Ansel Adams’ photos of 1940 L.A. show him working in urban mode

Ansel Adams 1940 photo of Los Angeles City Hall
About 60 of Ansel Adams’ stepchildren will spend the coming four weeks hanging out in a downtown art gallery.

They’re pictures the great photographer of natural landscapes took of urbanized Los Angeles around 1940 – and donated to the Los Angeles Public Library more than 20 years later, with apologies because he thought that “none of the pictures were very good.”

John Huckert, director of drkrm gallery, which on Saturday will open “Ansel Adams Los Angeles: Photographs From the Los Angeles Public Library Ansel Adams Collection,” says the idea is to prove that Adams underestimated himself, while showing a side of his work far removed from the majestic scenes of Yosemite and the Southwest that made him famous.

Adams took the pictures while on assignment for Fortune magazine, which was featuring the burgeoning city and its aviation industry. They include shots of a hot dog stand and the Ocean Park pier in Santa Monica,  a view of downtown’s Hill Street from the heights of Bunker Hill, and pictures shot in a bar and a bowling alley.  The exhibition will run through March 17, occupying both the drkrm space and the adjoining Edgar Varela Fine Arts gallery, both at 727 S. Spring St.

The Fortune article, “City of the Angels,” ran in March 1941 and included just a few of the 216 photos Adams had taken, Huckert said.  Adams kept the negatives and apparently forgot about them until the early 1960s, when he looked through his files during a move from San Francisco to a new home in Carmel.  He donated them to the library rather meekly, noting in a letter that when he shot them — he guessed it was around 1939 —  “the weather was bad over a rather long period and none of the pictures were very good…. If they have no value whatsoever, please dispose of them in the incinerator…. At any event, I do not want them back.”

Ansel Adams 1940 LA bowling alley photog
Writing to thank Adams in 1962, Mary Helen Peterson, head of the library’s history department, said librarians were “delighted” to have his pictures.  “Even though you say they are not your best work, they present an interesting and useful study of the Los Angeles area in the late 1930s.”For Adams’ tax purposes, she said, the library had valued the gift at $150 — $50 more than the minimum worth he’d estimated in the letter he’d included with the negatives and prints.

Now the pictures are going to sell in limited edition silver-gelatin prints, starting at $2,500 or $10,000 each, depending on size. The library will get a cut of the proceeds, Huckert said, along with prints of the pictures.

John Matkowsky, who owns drkrm and is the show’s curator, developed the prints for the show. The library had engaged him last summer to do its photographic printing work, Huckert said; when Matkowsky learned about its collection of never-shown Ansel Adams negatives, he proposed the exhibition.Matkowsky “tried to duplicate the way Ansel Adams would have printed them,” Huckert said, trying to bring out some of the striking dark-and-light contrasts that are an Adams signature, and compensating in some images for the lack of contrast owing to the overcast weather that the photographer complained about in his donation letter to the library.

Huckert said that Matkowsky picked some of the images because they were so unlike anything the public associates with Ansel Adams. The bowling alley shots include one (pictured above) that’s “an out-of-focus weird shot that’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen from him…. One of a little girl outside a market, holding this weird little doll, looks like something Diane Arbus would have shot.”

William Turnage, who was Adams’ business manager for 12 years until the photographer’s death in 1984, said he only knows of one other set of negatives that Adams didn’t hold on to — pictures of the Manzanar Relocation Center he’d taken in 1943 because he was outraged over the wartime imprisonment of West Coast Japanese Americans. Adams gave those to the Library of Congress.

“It was unusual for him to give up or give away negatives,” Turnage said. “He was always pretty protective of them.”

As Adams moved to a new home in the early 1960s, Turnage said, “he probably was looking at his negatives and thinking, ‘Do I really need to keep all these?’ He built a vault behind his new house in Carmel that was like Ft. Knox, but it wasn’t very big. My surmise is they were given away because he didn’t have the space to properly store them, and didn’t anticipate any future use for them. He had a great respect for the Los Angeles Public Library.  He often spoke of it as an extraordinary place.”

The exhibition is affiliated with the Getty Trust’s Pacific Standard Time initiative, although the pictures predate the 1945-1980 time frame of that regionwide project’s examination of the L.A. art scene’s coming-of-age.

“Ansel Adams Los Angeles” will provide the second public glimpse in little more than a year of Adams working in L.A. as a photographer-for-hire. Last winter, 13 pictures he took for the Chadwick School in Palos Verdes were exhibited at the Palos Verdes Library, along with other Chadwick-related photos taken by Adams’ mentor and close friend, Cedric Wright. Wright had lived at a Chadwick-owned house for a time and sent his children to the school.

Adams’ other L.A. connection during the early ’40s was Art Center College of Design, where he taught photography.  That figured into the 2010 controversy ignited when Rick Norsigian claimed that old-fashioned glass plate negatives he had bought at a garage sale in Fresno were “lost” pictures of Yosemite and coastal Northern California that Adams took during the 1920s and 1930s.

Norsigian — whose claim was hotly protested by Turnage and other Adams experts and associates — said the person he bought the negatives from had mentioned they’d long been stored in a Los Angeles warehouse — leading to his theory that Adams might have left them behind after bringing them to L.A. to share with his students at Art Center.

Ansel Adams in LA

Eye local photos taken by the photo legend.

Quick. Think “Ansel Adams” and then tell us what the next thing is that springs to mind. Is it a stunning, ethereal shot of Yosemite’s Half Dome? Is it a panoramic take on some distant, snow-capped mountain range?

Did we hit close? Mr. Adams, a legend among legends in the photography pantheon, took many an iconic photo in his lifetime, but he is much associated with epic, breathtaking nature shots. But the California-born and California-loving auteur also snapped his share of city photos, too.

That subset includes many snaps taken in our own city. And now the Los Angeles photos of Ansel Adams have gone on display at drkrm gallery on Spring Street.

The exhibition is on now through March 17.

In the collection: A rather amazing depiction of Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills circa 1940. A domestic-themed picture of the Olympic Trailer Court. And some silver-gelatin-y wonders that capture the vigor and spirit of our downtown.

The photos are from the Los Angeles Public Library Ansel Adams Collection. Mr. Adams took the pics for a Fortune magazine assignment, says the gallery. And, here’s an interesting tidbit: The photos were “rediscovered” by the photographer in the 1960s. (They were “in his papers”; isn’t that where so much of our own stuff disappears?) It’s a plot point that adds just a bit more juicy backstory to a series that is already intriguing enough in its own right.

Ansel Adams Wilderness


“The Mountains That Made the Man”

A portfolio by Peter Essick pays tribute to Ansel Adams and the craggy California wilderness named in his honor.

On his first trip to the Sierra Nevada, in June of 1916, Ansel Adams went armed with a camera—a Kodak No. 1 Brownie—and started shooting. “I expect to be broke if I keep up the rate I am taking pictures,” the budding 14-year-old photographer wrote to his Aunt Mary in San Francisco that summer. “I have taken 30 already.”

He kept shooting for almost seven decades, until his death at age 82 in 1984, by which time he had become a world-famous photographer and a powerful voice for wilderness. Although he traveled far and wide, he returned again and again to the Sierra—”a noble gesture of the earth,” in his phrase—for the adventure, artistic inspiration, friendship, and solace he found among its jagged granite peaks, snow-swept passes, and brooding skies. His uncompromising portrayal of these subjects still draws pilgrims to the wilderness that bears his name, deep in the heart of the High Sierra, in hopes of seeing what Ansel Adams saw there.

On a bright August morning, a group of Adams admirers emerged from the trees on horseback, making a cloud of dust as they came into view of Thousand Island Lake, at 9,833 feet a splendid prospect in the strong, slanting sunlight. The boulder-strewn lake, surrounded by lush alpine meadows, glittered under a flawless blue sky, with the black hulks of Banner Peak and Mount Ritter anchoring the scene. The horsemen picketed their mounts in a stand of pines, and one of them explained the object of this journey. “We’re looking for Ansel’s tripod holes,” said Michael, at age 77 an ebullient internist from Fresno, now retired. He was joking about the tripod holes but not about his hope of finding the exact spot where Adams had made a memorable early image of the lake and Banner Peak—and surprised himself in the process.

“I made many drab shots and suffered some embarrassing failures,” Adams wrote in his autobiography, recalling the 1923 trip to Thousand Island Lake. But one image proved an exception. “I can recall the excitement of the scene,” he went on. “It seemed that everything fell into place in the most agreeable way: rock, cloud, mountain, and exposure … This picture still has a unity and magic that very few others suggested in those early years.”

It was a defining moment for Adams, then 21 and still undecided over whether to pursue a career as a classical pianist or a photographer. “That trip in 1923 helped push him toward photography—he knew he really had something,” said Michael, who had followed Adams’s career closely, analyzing his pictures, absorbing his writings, and traveling to many of the places where he had worked. But Michael had never visited this corner of Adams country, accessed via narrow trails that climb the eastern slope of the Sierra to emerge in the wilderness.

“Well, I finally made it to Thousand Island Lake,” crowed Michael, celebrating his arrival on the heights and seeming very much at home there. He wandered easily among the lakeside boulders in an old Stetson, and with his rugged good looks and white beard, he was the spitting image of Ansel Adams—for good reason: Michael Adams was the photographer’s only son, here to reconnect with the old man and round out a footnote of family history involving Banner Peak.

“When my father made that picture,” said Michael, “he was traveling with his friend Harold Saville. They had a burro to carry their equipment. Ansel took pictures, and Harold held the donkey. When the Banner Peak photo became famous, Harold loved telling everybody, ‘I held Ansel’s ass while he made that picture!’ Harold loved that story. And now I can say I’ve seen the place where Harold held Ansel’s ass!”

Michael was still chuckling over that one as he picked his way along the lakeshore, searching for the ass-holding place, while his son, Matthew, and I wandered up and down the lake, scrutinizing the scene, roasting in the unobstructed sun, and feeling deflated that none of the venues looked quite right. Finally we triangulated a couple of boulders with Banner Peak and nailed the location at 37° 43′ N, 119° 10′ W. The view was just as Ansel Adams had seen it, except for the absence of the feathery clouds that brushed his mountains and the presence of a pine on the right, which had insinuated its way into the composition since 1923.

“Otherwise, pretty much what my grandfather saw,” said Matthew Adams, who continues the family interest in photography as president of the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite National Park. Loose-limbed and rangy, Matthew is a young version of his grandfather, with his Roman nose and dark, arching eyebrows. He whipped out a pocket camera and snapped a picture of his father, who took off his Stetson and beamed by the lake that had caught Ansel’s eye so long ago.

Mission accomplished, we saddled up and plodded back to camp on the sturdy, steady horses we had picked up in June Lake. We eased down one trail and up another, through high meadows bright with lupine and Indian paintbrush, past twisted junipers on the heights, and over the pass to the Clark Lakes, where our tent camp commanded a fine view of the mountains. The shadows lengthened, the stars popped into place, and the air chilled abruptly. We pulled our chairs closer to the fire, remembering the man who had brought us together.

“I think my father was happy that the Sierra Club and others put his work to good use,” Michael said. He had been fiddling with a new Polaroid camera, which prompted the obvious question: Was he a photographer too? “No, I’m not,” he said. “That’s the first thing people ask me. The second thing they ask is what my father would think of digital photography. My answer is that he’d love it. He was always excited by the technical aspects of photography. He was always experimenting. So yes, I think he’d be very enthusiastic about digital, and he would find some way to use it.”

To look at his photographs, you might get the mistaken notion that Ansel Adams was a severe man who viewed the world coldly, from a great distance and with little interest in humanity. In reality he was a gregarious creature with a salty sense of humor, a voluble style, and a sprawling network of friends who felt his death keenly.

Two such friends were William A. Turnage, then president of the Wilderness Society, and Alan Cranston, the California senator who rose to the position of Democratic whip in the late 1970s. When Adams died, Cranston wasted little time in calling Turnage to commiserate.

“What can we do for Ansel?” the senator asked. Turnage was ready with an answer: create a new Ansel Adams Wilderness area, which, along with the expanded John Muir Wilderness, would link two of the great High Sierra national parks, Yosemite and Sequoia. “This would thrill Ansel more than anything else could do—but it requires an act of Congress,” Turnage recalls telling Cranston.

The senator readily agreed and ran with the idea. He persuaded his Republican colleague from California, Senator Pete Wilson, to cosponsor legislation that added 119,000 acres to the existing Minarets Wilderness and renamed it to honor their friend. Within months of Adams’s death, the designation sailed through Congress with bipartisan support and was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan.

The campfire at the Clark Lakes was burning down. Michael Adams stared into the embers and spoke again of his father, now a permanent presence in the mountains all around us. “He’d be tickled to know that this part of the country has his name on it. He’d love that.”

Robert M. Poole’s latest book is On Hallowed Ground: The Story of Arlington National Cemetery. Photographer Peter Essick counts Ansel Adams as a major source of inspiration for his career.