Authors: Mary Street Alinder
Thunderstorm over North Palisade, the Sierra Nevada
Sierra Club Outing
Ansel Adams sometimes joked that I remembered more about his life than he did. Having read the thousands of letters he had written and received, studied proof prints of all forty thousand of his negatives, worked closely with him during the roller coaster of his last years, I knew Ansel very well. His achievements as a great photographer and environmentalist were singular, but the truth of what drove him to create his inimitable images and to fight his consequential battles will evaporate with the passage of time. While he was joined by an incredible cast of people who shared these adventures, today, those who truly knew him are few in number. Now, with his afterimage still luminous in my mind, I must share what I have learned.
Although this biography has been carefully researched throughout, the tenor of the book changes when, in the late 1970s, I entered Ansel’s world as his assistant, because from that point on it is told from the inside. My job—directing Ansel’s staff, producing his autobiography, and taking care of him—was not a simple matter of nine-to-five. I was on call seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day, from his Carmel studio to the White House, from Ansel’s vigorous days to his repeated hospitalizations. Following his death, in 1984, I spent the next four years completing many of the projects he had left unfinished, formed in spirit although not fully in substance.
Carefully considered, this book is personal in the telling. Beyond knowing the man, beyond admiring the work, I loved Ansel as if he were my son, and at times he called me Little Mother. If I lack absolute objectivity, I have nonetheless tried to achieve a balance resonant with the truth as I have seen it.
The question I am most often asked is, “How did you get to work for Ansel Adams?” My husband, Jim, and I first met Ansel in 1967, when we attended a summer workshop at the University of Oregon on Group
.64, the venerated standard-bearers of straight photography. The teachers included original group members Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, Willard Van Dyke, and Brett Weston. Jim and I arrived weary after driving for a night and a day and a night from Albuquerque; we would rather purchase a book or a print than pay for a motel room—couldn’t afford both.
Jim and I are very much children of the sixties. We met and were married in Somalia, where Jim was posted as a Peace Corps volunteer and where I ventured between college semesters to visit my family. (My father worked there on behalf of the U.S. government in the field of education.) After Somalia, Jim and I resumed our pursuit of higher education at the University of New Mexico, I in English and he in photography, attracted by Professor Van Deren Coke and the offer of a fellowship.
Civil rights, the Vietnam War, and the women’s movement: events mandated an involved generation. Art photography was also in ferment. It was an exciting place to be. The perception of photography students was probably unanimous: rich and famous Ansel Adams was the fat cat of photography. In this we voted with the majority, finding that his images of a great America did not speak to us. They were irrelevant icons. America was napalm and Nixon, Montgomery and King. Our concerns were immediate and deadly; the Sierra Nevada did not have social significance. Later, we saw that it did (and still does).
But in 1967 we pledged allegiance to full-frame, assaultive imagery. We were fired by protest and by the injustices of our country. Ansel’s decades of critical leadership in the environmental movement were either little known to the photography community or judged immaterial. At the Group
.64 workshop, Ansel appeared to be in every way a monolith: unapproachable because he was unrelatable, an anachronism.
Imogen Cunningham, in contrast, was always a woman of today. At the age of ninety-one, she was an enchantress who rode around in a VW camper wearing long, hippie dresses just like ours, although hers were ironed. During the days of Group
.64, she had produced powerful close-ups of leaves and flowers, but thirty-five years later she was photographing the street people of San Francisco. Imogen was
Although our respect for Ansel was limited by his apparent disregard of the turmoil of the real world, we had enough sense of the history of photography to hold him in awe, and were mostly silent in his presence. In the panel discussions, Ansel romanticized the past and Imogen gave him hell, insisting on the unvarnished truth: “Oh, Ansel, it wasn’t like that at all!” And so she became our heroine, playing David to his Goliath.
Returning to New Mexico, I discovered that the University Art Museum had purchased and placed on long-term display his most famous photograph,
. I found I could not just walk by it: each time it stopped me.
In addition to my coursework and engaging in political activism, I became the editor of the student-run literary and art magazine. In 1968, Jim received the first master of fine arts degree in photography awarded by the university. I was still a few credits shy of a bachelor’s degree when we moved to the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, where Jim had been hired as an assistant professor to teach photography in the Department of Art. Over the next nine years, with maturing crops of undergraduate and graduate students, we traveled the country to partake in almost any photography event or workshop held. Jim became recognized as a photographer and curator of exhibitions and was very active in the Society for Photographic Education, editing its journal and serving on its executive committee for many years, eventually as chair.
I moved to Lincoln with great anticipation: I was ready to nest. I attended university classes throughout my pregnancy, although I had to have special permission from each department—a shocking rule. (The chairman of anthropology turned out to be Preston Holder, another original member of Group
.64.) Although we remained involved in peace causes, when Jasmine was born, my life became totally wrapped up in her. We taught ourselves natural childbirth but had to travel seventy miles, to Omaha, to find a hospital that would allow Jim in the delivery room and would let me give birth without drugs.
Back in Lincoln, I soon began a one-woman crusade for open delivery rooms, rooming-in, and the Lamaze method. I became a certified childbirth educator, began teaching the first Lamaze childbirth courses offered in the state, formed a parenting organization, commenced classes for single parents, and ultimately initiated the first teacher-training program for the Plains states.
Did giving birth change me that much? Maybe some sort of linkage with life past and future became undeniable when we became a family of three—as if I now felt that life on earth must be positive, or what was the point? At Oregon, Ansel had stated that the ugliness, tragedy, and cruelty of the world were all too apparent, but that we could be restored by beauty. The making and the giving of beauty were his life’s work.
I read Nancy Newhall’s biography of Ansel’s early years,
The Eloquent Light
, as well as the
Daybooks of Edward Weston.
I learned that Edward and Ansel, the two great leaders of mid-twentieth-century photography, had chosen opposite ways of life, Edward’s as simple as Ansel’s was complex. With shock I realized that it was Ansel who had lived what I had come to define as the good life—that is, a moral life. My requirements for a hero were tough, for I demanded not only a superb artist but a responsible citizen.
In 1974, Jim and I took off on a long-awaited sabbatical with our full family, now three children strong, to photograph America. Ansel had asked Jim to judge a competition for the Friends of Photography in Carmel, so we worked that into our itinerary. With the jurying accomplished, Ansel invited both of us for cocktails at his home. Little did he know we were camping with an infant, a two-year-old, and a four-year-old; either we had to bring them along or one of us had to stay at the campsite.
The five of us arrived and were warmly greeted by both Ansel and his wife, Virginia. Potential disasters were everywhere, from graceful crystal bowls containing floating flowers to tiny Baccarat animals and fragile shells; at least Ansel’s photographs hung safely above our children’s reach. Somehow, all three little ones behaved wonderfully. Years later, when we had become part of Ansel and Virginia’s household, as I opened the front door for the nightly group of cocktail guests, it was easy to remember the special first time for us, and the thrill of being generously welcomed into that spectacular space in the Carmel Highlands.
Shortly before we left that night, Ansel said to Jim, “We will gladly pay you the judging fee of five hundred dollars, or you can choose any one of my prints.” To his everlasting credit, Jim turned to me without hesitation and asked, “What photograph would you like?” Without a doubt, it would be
We returned to Lincoln and placed our framed print over the fireplace, so no longer did I have only the memory of the one I had so loved in New Mexico.
Although I finally earned my B.A. from the University of Nebraska, with Jim and the kids attending my graduation, childbirth education continued to be my career. I decided that I needed more legitimacy, since I had been criticized for being neither a doctor nor a nurse. I won a fellowship, but I felt there was no way I could begin medical school in Omaha with three children, so I returned to the university to become a registered nurse, graduating in June 1977. I am detailing my convoluted story here simply because it would turn out to be important to my relationship with Ansel that I was this strange combination of English major and registered nurse.