Archive for 2011

Would Ansel Adams Shoot Digital?

Friday, December 30th, 2011

There has been a lot of talk on the Internet lately about whether Ansel Adams would have embraced digital photography if he were alive today. From what I can tell, most everyone seems to think that he would be enjoying both “shooting digital” and HDR. Having been his full time photo assistant in Carmel from 1974 to 1979 with continued close association for the next five years until his death in 1984, I think I’d like to take this opportunity to weigh in with my own thoughts.

Let’s imagine that it is in the early 1980’s and that today’s digital technology was available then. To ponder to what degree he might have “gone digital” it should be useful to consider his nature, and his interests in technology and photography.

Ansel Adams, Ansel Adams Autobiography

Even from his very early years, Ansel was fascinated by science and technology in general. But rather than being a modernist, he was very much a classicist. He never had any interest in anything that was “the rage.” He had no interest in the craze or technology of motion pictures – except when Polaroid brought out their short-lived Polavision, and that was only because it was a Polaroid product. Upon its demise he had no interest in VCRs.

He was just about 80 years old when he bought his first television, but his personal involvement with the computer age began in the early 1980’s when he began writing his autobiography on an IBM word processor. Even in his own work in photography, he never had the newest-best of anything – except when Hasselblad set him up with a new 500C camera and a few lenses. Even most of his large-format gear was a mix of old and used, but it served his purpose.

By the 1980’s, digital technology was just starting to wend its way from research labs into practical use, and he was very enthusiastic about the quality the new scanning technology was giving to the reproductions in his new books. I have no doubt that he would have marveled at what Photoshop could offer – but I also think that this excitement would have been mostly directed at making repairs to damage or defects in his film archive. He had images from Alaska where mosquitoes had gotten into his 8×10 and were neatly silhouetted by having landed on the film before exposure! And then there were all the films damaged in his 1937 darkroom fire.

Color work didn’t really interest him – most of his color imagery was either on assignment for Kodak or testing films for Polaroid. So he would have likely passed up on the pixel passion in that regard.

I think he would also very likely regard current capture technology to still fall something short of what he could do with film. I’m sure he would have a digital camera of some sort but regard it as an intriguing work-in-progress. I can easily see him using it for some portrait work but think it would be left neglected in the car if he encountered a Moonrise, Hernandez, or Clearing Winter Storm.

A single exposure on a piece of BW negative film can record a hugely greater dynamic range than current digital devices, and while HDR techniques can certainly make up for this, it requires an extra bit of techno-tinkering and doesn’t offer the tangible gratification of holding a freshly developed sheet of 8×10 or 4×5 film. There is also nothing intrinsically permanent about a digital image.

In summary, I think Ansel would love scanning and Photoshop. He would have a fairly current digital camera and enjoy the immediacy and other advantages of pixel pictures. I think he would still prefer the look of a silver print over inkjet (as I still do), and that means film. He would keep a close eye on advances and have no qualms about working in the digital world if the technology fully met his own creative standards.


Too Close to Home – Even for Ansel Adams

Tuesday, December 6th, 2011


Removing Artists’ Block

Golden Gate Bridge Photos, San Francisco Photos, Alan Ross

Golden Gate Bridge, North Tower and Rocks, 1989 On Assignment for The Bank of America

When I first moved to Carmel to work with Ansel Adams in 1974, I made several significant images within the first month or two. Then for the next five years pretty close to nothing.

After I moved to San Francisco in 1979 to open my own studio, I got an assignment to photograph in the Big Sur-Carmel area, and I made two significant photos in one day. One was only a mile south of Ansel’s house!

In 1989 I accepted a contract with a large advertising agency in San Francisco for Bank of America. Project? Shoot the Golden Gate Bridge. Well, I grew up in Sausalito, California, and it is the first town on the north side of the bridge. I NEVER had ANY desire to make an image of something so familiar (and so over-photographed) but I took the job and the incentive kicked me into making a few of my very best images.

Now, having lived in Santa Fe for over 18 years, I find I hardly ever get a camera out at home. The reality? Over-familiarity and the distractions of daily life. I still am amazed by the boggling thunderclouds that build up in the summer and fall – but I haven’t DONE anything about them in years. Errands to run, darkroom work to do, etc.

In the early 1960’s, Ansel Adams, who was born, grew up in, and was still living in San Francisco, took on an assignment that essentially was going to be Ansel Adams’ San Francisco. Always a hard worker, he took to the task with enthusiasm – but after a few months, and a few fair images, he conceded that he was too close to the subject and regretfully bowed out. Conversely, even though he maintained a house in Yosemite, and his wife and children lived there pretty much full time, Yosemite wasn’t his daily environment, and it remained easy for him to maintain his visual enthusiasm about the place.

I think the most difficult thing for any of us, whose work is in the recording and expressive interpretation of our surroundings, is to work “close to home”. I am in Dallas as I write this, and I am promising myself that I will get a camera out when I get home to Santa Fe.

Some times you just have to prime the pump.



Assisting Ansel….the First Week

Friday, August 5th, 2011

Thirty-seven years ago today marks the end of my first week as Ansel’s full-time assistant.  What a week!  It started as I drove my car up a wooded road in Carmel, parked under the pines, and walked apprehensively up to the front door.  My knock was greeted by a beaming smile and a “How ya doin’ man?”  Pure Ansel!

My first assignment was to make some order out of the chaos of print boxes and equipment that were temporarily housed in the carport.  Ansel had just had some major renovations done in his work room, and everything had been moved out of the way.  What I noticed as I was sorting through prints was that Ansel had made quite a few very ordinary photographs.  I was somewhat stunned to learn that he had no illusions and no expectations that every piece of film he exposed would wind up being another one of what he fondly called his “Mona Lisas.”  As an awe-struck young photographer in the presence of “The Master,” this revelation came as an incredible relief and  released me  from the burden of expecting myself to produce only perfection.  Following Ansel’s model, it was better to experiment and try things that might work, and openly and simply respond to feelings, than to over-intellectualize when photographing.  In fact, I soon learned that one of Ansel’s favorite phrases was, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” Not a day goes by, even now, that I don’t hear him reminding me of this, and it’s something I try to emphasize with my students.

Assisting Ansel….Getting the Job

Sunday, July 31st, 2011

People often ask how I managed to land a job with the man who would become the most noted photographer of the 20th-century.  Ansel always liked to say that “chance favors the prepared mind,”  and maybe that’s what happened.  Here’s the story…you can decide!

After graduating from UC Berkeley in 1971, I had the good fortune to land a job as studio assistant for M. Halberstadt, the most in-demand advertising photographer in San Francisco at the time.  Hal, as he liked to be called, had been Moholy Nagy’s photo assistant at the School of Design in Chicago, and was innovative in his vision and a stickler for technical excellence.  He was also a long-time friend of Ansel Adams–they even had an assistant in common, although somewhat before my time.

In 1973, Hal retired and closed his studio, leaving me an unemployed freelancer.  I had met Ansel the year before in Yosemite, so I worked up the nerve to write and ask if he needed an assistant.  He wrote back almost by return mail, saying he didn’t need anyone at the moment, but because of my successful track record with Hal (who was known for chewing through assistants), he would be delighted to have me assist some of the numerous workshops at the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite, beginning that June.  By July 1974, I was running the darkroom for Ansel’s “Making of a Photographic Book” workshop.  A few days into the session, Ansel had his business manager pull me aside and ask if I would be interested in moving to Carmel to work full-time.  I thought about that for maybe a microsecond!

“Lost” Ansel Adams negatives, Supplier Concerns, New paper from Ilford

Thursday, March 24th, 2011

March Newsletter

Adams Trust and Norsigian Group Settlement

Thursday, March 17th, 2011



San Francisco and Los Angeles, California

March 14, 2011

On August 23,2010, The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust filed a civil complaint in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California against PRS Media Partners, LLC and Rick Norsigian. On December 28, 2010, Rick Norsigian and PRS Media Partners filed a Counterclaim against the Trust in the same court.

The parties deny the validity of the claims brought against them. PRS Media and Norsigian believe that sixty five glass plate negatives purchased by Rick Norsigian were created by Ansel Adams, and prepared a report they believe authenticated the Negatives as being created by Ansel Adams. The Trust disputes the conclusions of the report and that the Negatives were created by Ansel Adams.

The parties have now agreed to resolve these disputes and have entered into a confidential settlement agreement in which each side assumes its own costs and fees in connection with the claims. Under said agreement, Rick Norsigian and PRS Media agree to not use Ansel Adams’ name or likeness or the ANSEL ADAMS trademark in connection with the sales, promotion or advertisement of negatives, prints, posters, or other merchandise based on negatives. Norsigian and PRS Media may continue to sell negatives, prints, posters and other merchandise associated with negatives, subject to a disclaimer approved by The Trust, and provided they do so in a manner consistent with state and federal law. Further, both parties have agreed not to make any defamatory statements about the other or unlawfully interfere in each other’s businesses. As a result of the agreement, the parties today submitted a joint request asking the Court to dismiss the complaint and counterclaim without prejudice.


Saturday, March 12th, 2011


Andrew Smith Gallery. Santa Fe, next to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Masterpieces of photography.

Sun To Moon Gallery. Dallas Design District. Contemporary photographers, traditional color landscapes to gelatin silver, bromoil and platinum/palladium-over-gold-leaf prints.

Ansel Adams Gallery, Yosemite. Contemporary photographers, Ansel Adams fine prints, workshops, books, posters and the Ansel Adams’ Special Edition Prints.

Scott Nichols Gallery, San Francisco.

LUMAS. Based in Berlin, with retail galleries in Germany (8), Zurich, Paris, New York, Vienna, and London.


Hollywood.  The largest offering of darkroom consumables I have ever seen and an amazing selection of digital equipment and supplies. Freestyle believes in the future of black-and-white film and the traditional darkroom and is dedicated to keeping these products available to photographers. Also the best customer service anywhere!

Print File, Orlando, FL. I get all my Rising Museum Board here.

Reflective Image Studios. Orange County, CA. Drums scans, LVT film negs from digital files, printing and retouching.

Photo Eye, Books and Gallery, Santa Fe.

Yosemite Web-Cam


Workshops, Instant Film, New Developer

Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

Workshops, Instant Film, New Developer

New SX-70 Film?!

Monday, February 21st, 2011

While I was doing the research for a recent talk on Polaroid and Ansel Adams (in conjunction with a 900+ print exhibit of SX-70 images), I learned that SX-70 film is now being made by The Impossible Project in Holland.  They are also making black-and white SX-70 film and have plans to bring back 8×10!  You may also know that Fuji has an SX-70 type instant camera and Polaroid has reintroduced one!  Fuji is also offering color and BW films in both 4×5 and 3×4 packs (not individual sheets).

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