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By Ansel Adams
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If one feels inclined to embark on a journey into memory, after eighty-two years the experience promises to be kaleidoscopic and, perhaps, willfully colored. I have attempted to remove the filter from my memory lens, allowing more than my dreams to reach the page. Many things are clarified only by the passage of time. I distrust any lifelong memory of facts, but not the lifelong glow of experience that depends upon another form of reality. Possibly it would be too shattering to recall everything exactly, not because it was necessarily bad, but because it could reveal opportunities missed and errors made. Such might be best unremembered.
I think I have something to give my readers of the flavor of a good part of the twentieth century as seen through a life of creative experience. The worlds of nature and of people have been closely involved; a fact not too clear in the general opinion as I have chosen to stress the natural scene above other directions in my photography.
I am not going to retrace my life from past to present on a one-lane highway. I intend to recall varieties of experience, stretching tentacles of memory to the earliest sources in such sequences as seem logical, but without restrictions of time or place.
It is sometimes a desolate moment when one sees old photographs and realizes that all the humanity represented is dead and forgotten. Painting or sculpture of deceased persons, famous or not, does not evoke the same response in me as do photographs; there is a reality in the camera remembrances that compels respectful consideration. Likewise, literary discussion of the departed holds a certain poignancy and euphoric assurance of their continuing presence among us. As I write I find that while I use words denoting past situations and long-dead persons, I continue to acknowledge their living reality and their relationship to my life and work. It is my responsibility to recall them as essential spokes in the great wheel of life and to relate them to the conclusions I have drawn about my life and work.
Some of my friends were of tremendous importance in their time, yet what they accomplished was not the stuff of history books. Nevertheless, they continue in the lives of those influenced by their generosity and spirit. I have also known characters, both historical and famous, who were personally and immensely inspiring: Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Edward Weston, Charles Sheeler, Dorothea Lange, Minor White, Imogen Cunningham, Beaumont and Nancy Newhall, Edwin H. Land, David Hunter McAlpin, Georgia O'Keeffe, John Marin. Then the roster broadens; literally thousands of wonderful friends have accompanied me in life and many now await me in the secret eternity to come. I have enjoyed the long voyage and I thank all for their companionship and their affection.
I wish to express my deep appreciation:
To Mary Alinder, my dear friend and editor, whose devotion and love gave me the daily inspiration to continue writing this book, and whose editorial genius assembled it into a meaningful whole. She truly knows me better than I know myself—
To cherished Virginia, my wife of more than half a century, who gave excellent commentary on the text from the vantage point of remembering better than anyone both the joys and sorrows of my life in the world and in my art—
To James Alinder, who kindly read this tome as an historian, editor, photographer, and friend; his insights have served to clarify my chaos—
To Chris Rainier, Phyllis Donohue, and Rod Dresser for their continued and valued assistance—
And to my colleagues at Little, Brown: Janet Swan Bush, George Hall, John Maclaurin, Ray Roberts, and Arthur Thornhill, Jr., whom I have come to know over the past decade to represent the finest in publishing.
I began working for Ansel Adams as his executive assistant in 1979. While I supervised his staff and his many projects, my prime responsibility was to assist Ansel as he wrote his autobiography. We began by taking long, daily walks—me with tape recorder in hand—asking question upon question, jogging his memory, getting both of us excited about the possibilities that lay ahead with this book. During the five years we worked on this text, even during his increasingly frequent hospitalizations, we always continued in an established routine. We joked that the hospital was the one place I could get him to concentrate fully on the autobiography. Wherever we found ourselves, we worked well together, writing and rewriting the chapters of this book through seven drafts.
Ansel died peacefully on the evening of Easter Sunday, April 22, 1984. That day a concert by the great pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy, a close friend, was given in Ansel and Virginia's home. Ansel had been hospitalized a couple of days before, but we thought until the last minute that he would be able to attend. Although he was not physically there, everyone in the audience felt that Ansel was listening with us as Ashkenazy performed his inspired interpretation of music by Schubert, Schumann, and Chopin. Following the concert, family and a few close friends came to the hospital's intensive care unit and were greeted by Ansel's booming words of welcome, wide grin, and outstretched arms. Just hours later he quietly passed away. He had maintained his brilliance, vigor, humor, and purpose right to the end.
It was a great honor as well as a formidable task to complete Ansel's most personal book. I could not have done it without the selfless cooperation of our staff. Ansel had prepared us to continue without him through his patient teaching and then bestowing of responsibility.
With Ansel's death I realized the absolute necessity to recheck facts, since he was not here to confirm them. Very helpful comments on the manuscript were given by Jeanne Adams, Michael Adams, Peter C. Bunnell, Anne Adams Helms, Ken Helms, George Kimball, Beaumont Newhall, Otto Meyer, Sue Meyer, Andrea Gray Stillman, McDonna Sitterle Street, David Vena, and most important, by Virginia Best Adams, a woman of great gifts who gave them unselfishly in support of the man she loved.
Ansel's death left a void in my life, but surrounding that emptiness is the love provided by my husband, Jim, who had read and commented on many drafts of this manuscript and whose photographic documentation of Ansel's last years enrich this book; and our three children, who helped magnificently while my life was dominated by this project.
I would like to add thanks to my colleagues at Little, Brown, particularly Janet Swan Bush, George Hall, Michael Mattil, Nancy Robins, Ray Roberts, John Maclaurin, and the designer Susan Marsh. I am appreciative of Polaroid Corporation for their generous contribution of necessary advice and materials. Special thanks also to Arthur Thornhill, Jr., William Turnage, and David Vena, Trustees of the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust, for their counsel, support, and encouragement.
MARY STREET ALINDER
RECENTLY I MADE SOME NEW PHOTOGRAPHS, THE FIRST in several months. I had been occupied with printing, writing, workshops, and an accumulation of obligations that captured me. It was wonderful to set up the camera among the rocks at nearby Point Lobos and to work in the fresh sea air, experiencing again the empathies with scene and visualization and camera that every serious photographer comes to know. Just as a musician gets out of practice, I was slow with the mechanics involved in managing the equipment and even the exposure calculations. It took a little time to regain the facility I had when I was making new pictures every day. But all smoothed out and the miracle of the image on the ground glass revived me. I returned home to Carmel Highlands and a warming lunch and then spent a few hours working in the darkroom, processing the negatives I had made that morning.
People are surprised when I say that I never intentionally made a creative photograph that related directly to an environmental issue, though I am greatly pleased when a picture I have made becomes useful to an important cause. I cannot command the creative impulse on demand. I never know in advance precisely what I will photograph. I go out into the world and hope I will come across something that imperatively interests me. I am addicted to the found object. I have no doubt that I will continue to make photographs till my last breath.
Late that afternoon, as I do nearly every day, I sat by the living room window; the great Pacific Ocean stretched out before me, to the hazy line of the horizon, the borders gently interrupted by the silhouettes of pines, varied foliage, and the myriad colors of Virginia's flower garden. A small wind stirred. A bee explored the outer surface of the window. From my chair I can see the many miracles of day and night. The external events of majesty and beauty are very clear and direct.
The ocean and its rich foreground compose a familiar view. Dusk is my favorite time, sometimes sparked by the gentle green flash as the ocean finally receives the sun. The sky darkened, holding no crescent moon or evening star to make the situation impossibly pictorial. An approaching band of fog suggested that the next day might be one of silver and cool gray. Robinson Jeffers wrote of the "vast shield of the ocean." I do not forget its presence even during those many hours I am in my darkroom or at my desk, both so detached from the direct light of sun or sky. Every so often I emerge, reaffirm the splendor of the world, and then return to the caverns of my particular creativity.
The next morning was, as expected, chilly and foggy. Cobwebs on the trees and bushes quietly sparkled with fog drops, minute star clusters that, when the sun broke through, slowly faded from their prismatic glitter. I decided to examine a box of old family photographs, some of which may accompany these recollections. I found one snapshot that is supposed to be me, an infant in an impossibly long white gown. My memory bank trembled a bit and I recalled lying in a perambulator on a warm afternoon looking up past its bonnet to the eaves of the house and beyond to a pastel blue sky with fingers of fog flowing east in silence. Soon the sky was fully gray and my nanny gathered me in her ample arms and put me in a crib indoors.
This memory faded into another of my mother and father having a party, probably in late 1903 or early 1904. My mother brought me downstairs to display me to an audience of black ties, white shirts, high-collared lace dresses, necklaces, rings, generous smiles, and strange sounds. There was much light—chandeliers, candles, and reflections—and I remember squeezing my eyes closed and gurgling in some form of primal protest. This ability to remember clearly even my earliest days has persisted over the decades.
Another fragment floated into memory: I was a child of about three. It was a winter morning; I stood at the window in my mother's room, looking over the dunes to the Marin hills rising in the misty rain over the waters of the Golden Gate. I can still see, these many years later, a fishing boat, with a pale gray, pointed sail, drifting eastward toward the bay, almost hidden in the delicate shrouds of rain. Quiet as the scene was, it was vibrant with light of a cool translucence and a great mystery of presence.
Memories come to me as if they are scenes revealed by the stately opening of a proscenium curtain. A spring morning in about 1910 came clearly to me. I was up early and out in the sand dunes near our home. A gale blew out of the northwest, difficult to stand against. It was cold and clear, and the grasses and flowers were shivering violently in their shallow little spaces above the ground. The brittle-blue distances, including the horizon of the sea, were of crystal incisiveness. The ocean was flecked with whitecaps that appeared as countless white threads in a blue tapestry. My experience that day was a form of revelation that in some way became part of my creative structure.
I constantly return to the elements of nature that surrounded me in my childhood, to both the vision and the mood. More than seventy years later I can visualize certain photographs I might make today as equivalents of those early experiences. My childhood was very much the father to the man I became.
The Adams family was from New England, having originally emigrated from Northern Ireland in the early 1700s. My paternal grandmother spent her last years striving to connect the confused family line to the Adams presidential dynasty. No luck. We could not trace any association. My father's father, William James Adams, traveled west as a young man in the early 1850s. He established profitable grocery businesses in Sacramento and San Francisco but then lost everything to fires. Returning home to Thomaston, Maine, in 1856, he wed a young widow, Cassandra Hills McIntyre, whom he brought to California in 1857. They settled in San Francisco, where my grandfather built a prosperous lumber business. It was called Adams & Blinn, and later, the Washington Mill Company. They eventually had their own lumber mills in Washington and Mississippi, as well as a large fleet of lumber ships.
My father, Charles Hitchcock Adams, was born to Cassandra and William in 1868; he was the youngest of five children. In the same year, my grandfather built the family home in Atherton, south of San Francisco.
My mother's family came from Baltimore. My grandfather, Charles E. Bray, married Nan Hiler and they, in the company of thousands of other pioneers, proceeded west by wagon train to make their fortune. My mother, Olive, was born in Iowa in 1862 and her sister Mary came into the world in Sacramento in 1864. The family next moved to Carson City, Nevada, where Charles Bray began a successful freight-hauling business, although I was told that as soon as he got financially ahead he plunged his resources into ill-considered mining or real estate ventures with repeatedly catastrophic results.
The Bray family home in Carson City was popular as a social and cultural center. My mother was active in china painting, and we still have some of her handiwork. It always appeared to me to be of superior quality, but florid and decorative in the late Victorian manner. My Aunt Mary was a leader of the Browning Society, whose members spent frequent evenings reading the poems of the Brownings as well as less luminous local efforts at verse. These belles of Carson City, bustles and all, would attend glittering gatherings of San Francisco society, properly chaperoned, of course. At one such event Olive Bray met Charles Adams. He pursued his suit, traveling frequently to Nevada, and they were married there in 1896. After my Grandmother Nan Bray died in 1908, both Grandfather Bray and Aunt Mary came to live with us, and the family's Carson City era came to an end. Grandpa Bray and Aunt Mary had practically no resources and were additional financial burdens for my father until their deaths—Grandfather's in 1919 and Aunt Mary's in 1944.
I emerged into this world at about three in the morning on February 20, 1902, born in my parents' bed in their ample flat in the Western Addition of San Francisco. I was just a few hours into Pisces out of Aquarius: a fish out of water. So much for astrology. I was named for my uncle, Ansel Easton, a man of independent means who married one of my father's sisters, Louise.
At the time of my birth my father was building what was to be our family home on the dunes, out beyond the Golden Gate, the narrow passage from the bays of San Francisco and Oakland to the Pacific Ocean. This was thirty years before the famous bridge was built to connect San Francisco to Marin County, with its beautiful hills rising to the north. Our house was sturdily made; my Grandfather Adams, being a lumberman, gave my father the lumber in double the specification quality and quantity. A large brick chimney rose from the ground level and serviced the coal furnace and fireplaces in the living room and my parents' room on the second floor. The chimney continued upward through the eaves of the shingled roof to a noble height. A second, smaller chimney vented the kitchen stove.
My bedroom was on the second floor; it was about twelve feet square and situated in the northwest corner. I could see the Golden Gate from the north window and the cypress trees and rolling dunes around the old Chinese cemetery in what is now Lincoln Park to the west. I could also gaze well out to sea, beyond Point Bonita and the white glimmer of the Cabbage Patch, a dangerous shoal. I could watch ships of every description enter and leave the embrace of the Golden Gate.
There was always the distant bustle of the city, a deep and throbbing space-filling rumble of ironclad wagon wheels on cobbled streets and the grind of streetcars. It was almost like the sound of the ocean or the wind in the forest, yet deep with the brutality that only a city can offer in fact and spirit, no matter how glamorous the environment or euphoric the social veneer. This was a resonance we cannot experience today; rubber tires on smooth paved streets have muted the old, rough sounds of iron on stone and the clopping of thousands of horses' hooves, timing the slow progression of ponderous wagons and more sprightly buggies. It was a sound not to be forgotten: a pulse of life in vigorous physical contact with earth.
Returning from his downtown office, my father took a daily carriage from the end of the cable car line at Presidio Avenue to our home. I could see him coming for a mile over the sand dunes to the east, since hardly a structure interrupted the view over the dunes, from the Presidio to Lone Mountain. At Lake Street and 24th Avenue he would climb out of the "two-seater" and come down the boardwalk over the sand to our redwood gate between the two native laurel trees, carrying my milk and other groceries.
Though usually at home with us, April 17, 1906, found my father away on business in Washington, D.C. Mr. O'Connor, an old family friend, occupied the guest room. Our Chinese cook, Kong, slept in the basement. That evening all was quiet, except for the boom of the surf pounding on Baker Beach. I was tucked away in my child's bed. Nelly, my nanny, an elderly woman of expansive heart and frame, slept next to me in her bed.
At five-fifteen the next morning, we were awakened by a tremendous noise. Our beds were moving violently about. Nelly held frantically onto mine, as together we crashed back and forth against the walls. Our west window gave way in a shower of glass, and the handsome brick chimney passed by the north window, slicing through the greenhouse my father had just completed. The roaring, swaying, moving, and grinding continued for what seemed like a long time; it actually took less than a minute. Then, there was an eerie silence with only the surf sounds coming through the shattered window and an occasional crash of plaster and tinkle of glass from downstairs.
Nelly pulled me out of bed and quickly dressed me. My mother hastened into my room; I recall her as rather pale and dazed; the entire fireplace in her room had gone with the fallen chimney and she had awakened to a broad view of the Golden Gate and the cold morning breeze. She hugged me tightly and then we hesitantly went downstairs to assay the damage. Mr. O'Connor was already about in his dressing gown, warning us not to step on the many shards of glass and china. The pantry, with its bountiful shelves of homemade preserves, was a shambles; everything movable seemed to be broken on the floor. The living room fireplace had fallen in; a treasured cut-glass vase from the mantel was buried in the bricks but was later miraculously retrieved in perfect condition. Plaster was cracked and detached everywhere, but fortunately the ceilings and walls solidly remained.
Mr. O'Connor had taken a quick look outside the house and knew that both chimneys had collapsed. I next heard the sounds of an altercation from the kitchen. Mr. O'Connor had forcibly to restrain Kong from building a fire in the stove; it would have been an added disaster. Kong appeared stunned. I later learned that he had suffered a concussion from being thrown against the wall by the quake.
Mr. O'Connor and Kong moved the stove outside, and by ten o'clock a breakfast was ready, although it took much foraging to find edible food in the appalling mess. I am sure my father, if present, would have recorded it all with his Brownie Bullseye box camera.
I was a little over four years of age and was very curious, wanting to be everywhere at once. There were many minor aftershocks, and I could hear them coming. It was fun for me, but not for anyone else. I was exploring in the garden when my mother called me to breakfast and I came trotting. At that moment a severe aftershock hit and threw me off balance. I tumbled against a low brick garden wall, my nose making violent contact with quite a bloody effect. The nosebleed stopped after an hour, but my beauty was marred forever—the septum was thoroughly broken. When the family doctor could be reached, he advised that my nose be left alone until I matured; it could then be repaired with greater aesthetic quality. Apparently I never matured, as I have yet to see a surgeon about it.
The impressions of confusion during the following days and, above all, the differences in daily life, are still very much with me. I recall a great to-do about cleaning up the house and a large and growing mound of broken glassware, crockery, bricks, and assorted rubble, piled in a far corner of the garden. Mr. O'Connor walked into town and secured food. Soldiers from the Presidio came by and gave us fresh water.
Kong returned to Chinatown to be with his family and friends. He came back a day later, looking grim, and stated that he had found no one and that fire was everywhere. He never discovered what happened to his family. It is probable that they were lost with the many others in the fiery holocaust that consumed most of San Francisco east of Van Ness Avenue following the earthquake. Since the principal waterways and cisterns of the city were destroyed in the quake, there was no water with which to contest the fast-spreading flames. I have heard an estimate of four hundred lives lost; it was also said that the real total was closer to four thousand, as it is probable that the Chinese had never been counted. All personal and legal records in the city hall were lost: property records, birth certificates, recorded documents, all gone. The army moved in to maintain law and order. A meeting with the hangman or the firing squad was the assured fate of looters and other criminals; the word spread, and there was little crime.
From our house I saw vast curtains of smoke by day and walls of flame by night filling a good part of the eastern horizon. I remember the distant booms of dynamite as the program of blasting buildings to arrest the fire's progress continued. Refugees poured into our district, setting up their pitiful camps in the dunes with what they had carried from their burning or fire-threatened homes. We had several friends who had been burnt out of their dwellings sleeping on our floors.
I can understand now the intense anxiety my father must have felt, thousands of miles away, buffeted by outrageous telegraphed rumors of total disaster. It had been variously reported that all the city had burned, that San Francisco was slowly sinking into the sea, or that a huge tidal wave had wrecked the entire Bay area. My father left Washington as soon as he could find space on a train and arrived about six days later. Finally reaching the ferry docks, he was unable to get a horse and buggy, so he ran and walked five miles around the periphery of the fire to our home. Happily, he found all was well, with his family healthy and the house he had built largely intact.
An important family heirloom from New England, an 1812 grandfather clock with wooden works, had stood by the door in a corner of the living room. The shock transported it to a prone position, about twenty-five feet away in the opposite corner. The wooden gears and shafts were scattered about, and I am told that I exclaimed with glee, "Now I can play with the clockworks!" The parts were gathered up and within a year a clockmaker had put them all together. The old clock, serene in its antiquity, ticks on in our Carmel home today, still keeping astonishingly good time.
After the quake, field mice and sand fleas invaded the house. Our cat, Tommy, who had disappeared for two days after the quake, returned for a copious diet of mice, while fleas feasted on him and on us. Tommy did not get all the mice; some expired in the woodwork and with that came the usual week of wrinkled noses and resigned expressions.
My closest experience with profound human suffering was that earthquake and fire. But we were not burned out, ruined, or bereft of family and friends. I never went to war, too young for the First and too old for the Second. The great events of the world have been tragic pageants, not personal involvements. My world has been a world too few people are lucky enough to live in—one of peace and beauty. I believe in beauty. I believe in stones and water, air and soil, people and their future and their fate.
DESPITE A WIRY FRAME AND CONSIDERABLE STAMINA, as a child I was prone to frequent illness, with far too many colds and flu. I also had extremely poor teeth that plagued me later with diabolic toothaches, especially on cold mountain nights. I now realize that my diet as a child was atrocious: too many sweets and starches and not enough foods with the protein, mineral, and vitamin content I needed. I do not blame my parents for this; there was little knowledge of proper diet in the early 1900s.
My mental state was also precarious. At the age of ten I remember experiencing unsettled periods of weepiness. The doctor ordered me to bed in a darkened room every afternoon for two hours to calm me, but the effect was just the opposite. I remained alert, resistant and hostile to this routine. The sound of the surf from Baker Beach, of the gardener working outside my window, and of occasional children playing near the house created a yearning tension to get up and go that left me in much worse condition. I wanted to run down to the beach in sun, rain, or fog and expend the pent-up physical energy that simply fermented within me. Today I would be labeled hyperactive.
With a resolute whisper, Lobos Creek flowed past our home on its mile-long journey to the ocean. It was bordered, at times covered, with watercress and alive with minnows, tadpoles, and a variety of larvae. Water bugs skimmed the open surfaces and dragonflies darted above the stream bed. In spring, flowers were rampant and fragrant. In heavy fog the creek was eerie, rippling out of nowhere and vanishing into nothingness. I explored every foot, tunneling through the thick brush and following the last small canyons in the clay strata before it met the Pacific. The ocean was too cold for swimming, so I would skirt the wave-foamed edge and follow the rocky shore to Fort Scott to the east or climb along the rugged cliffs to China Beach to the west. These cliffs were dangerous, but I was light and strong and could pull myself by my fingertips over minor chasms.
A beautiful stand of live oaks arched over the creek. In about 1910, the Army Corps of Engineers, for unimaginable reasons, decided to clear out the oaks and brush. My father was out of town when the crime was committed. One of his favorite walks was through these glades to Mountain Lake in the nearby San Francisco Presidio; on his return, he became physically ill when he witnessed the ruthless damage.
- On Sale
- Feb 21, 2017
- Page Count
- 400 pages
- Little, Brown and Company