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spacer Ansel Adams, Point Lobos, California, 1979
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Ansel Adams, Point Lobos, California, 1979

Harry Lunn, the former CIA operative and late Georgetown gallery owner who was instrumental in establishing photography as a fine art, introduced me to Ansel in the early Seventies. Harry suggested that I write a piece about the great landscape photographer as musician. (Harry always had an angle to help him move more prints; at the time, Ansel’s were selling for four hundred dollars.) Ansel had studied piano from the age of three, bound for a career as a concert pianist, and in later years wrote the “Concerto for Left Hand and Orange” – which involved rolling an orange around the treble keys, and almost always required the ingestion of several martinis before any performance. “Everyone thinks of Adams as an artist,” the painter Georgia O’Keeffe once told me. She was the only person I ever met who addressed him by his last name, although it should be noted that she similarly insisted that everyone call her “O’Keeffe.” “You’ll understand him better if you think of him as the eternal life of the party” – a party which apparently started quite early. At the age of thirteen, Ansel’s father allowed him to stop attending school – and start taking piano lessons. He spent the entire year of 1915 at the Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, wandering through rooms of cubist paintings with a Brownie box camera, and working as a volunteer demonstrator of one of the world’s first adding machines. This sealed his fate as a photographer and gadget lover. Where he would ply his trade was determined that same year: he came down with the flu, and his mother gave him a copy of J. M. Hutching’s wondrously descriptive “In the Heart of the Sierra” to read while bedridden. He went to Yosemite the next year, kept coming back, and never left in spirit. Although I didn’t write the story Harry wanted, Ansel became a great friend: he would stay at my home in rural Virginia when he visited Washington; I would stay at his in Carmel when I traveled to Northern California. I did eventually write one long piece about Ansel, timed to coincide with his first one-man show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1979. I was given an amazing carte blanche: he opened closets and drawers in the home he shared for decades with his wife Virginia and said, “Go through everything. Don’t be bashful. I’m 75 years old. Why would I want to hide anything?” I was most intrigued by hand-written receipts for prints he had sold, ranging in prices from twenty-five cents to one dollar and fifty cents, home movies made with a short-lived Polaroid movie camera, and a note from someone questioning why Ansel had refused to make a portrait of Richard Nixon. “ Why? He was a lying bastard,” Ansel said. One day while watching him print in his darkroom, I asked a question about how he had achieved some especially fine shadow detail in an image shot at Point Lobos. Always the mentor, Ansel gathered up one of his view cameras, put it in the trunk of his Cadillac, and drove the ten miles up the road to expose some film that would reveal, once we got back in the darkroom, the answer to my question. I asked him to let me take this portrait after he was done shooting. You can easily see Ansel’s nose tilting to its left here – a consequence of a fall during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. He considered it part of the provenance of his life, and never had it fixed.

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