Making the Special Edition Prints

Ansel’s Choice

I became Ansel Adams’ assistant in the middle of 1974, working with Ted Orland, who had been Ansel’s primary assistant for the previous two years.

When Ted left in early 1975, I inherited not only the responsibility of keeping all of Ansel’s photographic operations running, but also the making of the Yosemite Special Edition Photographs. Don Worth, Gerry Sharpe, Liliane DeCock and Ted had all served in this capacity before me, all of us working as Ansel’s eyes and hands in the darkroom. Not easy, but an immensely rewarding challenge.

Alan in Ansel's darkroom, 1984


Although Ansel’s hands were not in direct contact with the Special Edition printing, his vision always was. He was consulted through test and sample prints, and the challenge was to be able to anticipate and respond technically to his requests.

“Make it a little darker over here,” he would suggest, or “Can you make it a bit more contrasty?” he would ask. The final approval was a slap on the back along with a hearty, “Ya got it, man.”

In 1979, I left Ansel’s employ to open my own studio in San Francisco, but he liked the way I was printing his negatives and asked me to continue making the Special Edition prints.

In his autobiography, Ansel said, “Alan was my photographic assistant from 1974 until 1979, and he continues to make the Special Edition Prints with sensitivity. He knows those negatives thoroughly and interprets them as closely as possible to my original fine prints of those images.”

Making the Special Edition prints is an assignment I continue to this day, with Ansel’s vision and standards always in mind as I work. The prints are still made directly from Ansel’s negatives and in the “traditional” way: in a wet darkroom with amber safelights, chemicals and running water. The prints are still silver-gelatin prints, meaning that the image-forming element is literally metallic silver. Precious.

And after nearly 40 years, I can honestly say that I never tire of seeing these images come up in the developing tray. It’s an honor and privilege to play a small part in continuing Ansel’s legacy.

To see the full selection of the Yosemite Special Edition Photographs, please visit the Ansel Adams Gallery website.

For the technical details on the making of the Yosemite Special Edition Photographs, click here.