“The love that Americans poured out for the work and person of Ansel Adams during his old age, and that they have continued to express with undiminished enthusiasm since his death, is an extraordinary phenomenon, perhaps even one unparalleled in our country’s response to a visual artist.” -John Szarkowski, Classic Images
“At one with the power of the American landscape, and renowned for the patient skill and timeless beauty of his work, photographer Ansel Adams has been a visionary in his efforts to preserve this country’s wild and scenic areas, both on film and on Earth. Drawn to the beauty of nature’s monuments, he is regarded by environmentalists as a monument himself, and by photographers as a national institution. It is through his foresight and fortitude that so much of America has been saved for future Americans.” -President Carter, presenting Ansel Adams with the Presidential Medal of Freedom
A LONG LETTER TO A FELLOW PHOTOGRAPHER WITH REVEALING TECHNICAL INFORMATION ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHIC PROCESS.
Written by Adams to fellow photographer Nicholas Dean, this letter engages many topics: first listing off a variety of impressive engagements and exhibits the two were involved with at the time, then settling finally on a detailed section on photographic techniques and tips.
Adams explains first that he was arranging the logistics of a film about his life with art curator Beaumont (Newhall) which had been officially released the year before (1958). Then Adams goes on to congratulate Dean for his recent exhibition – a collection of photographs of the Boston Symphony Orchestra – and makes reference to an article called “Swell Egg” written in The New Yorker in October 1953 about the important American landscape photographer Paul Caponigro. Even in the first sentences, it becomes clear how well-ensconced Adams was in the photography world, how up-to-date he was with new developments and exhibits, for “photography was his calling, his métier, his raison d’être.” ( Britannica ).
Yet, what Adams seems most particularly interested in in this letter, however, is the light meter. These analog devices were used by photographers to ‘read’ the light in a situation, and then transfer the exposure information to a camera. Here, Adams makes reference specifically to the Weston meter – the most popular instrument of use by professionals at the time. In a marvelous moment of self-reference, the photographer uses the term “Zone VI value,” while trying to explain to Dean how non-Weston meters misrepresent optimal “brightnesses.” These “zone values” (numbered 0-X) were, in fact, formulated by Adams and Fred Archer, another celebrated American photographer, as part of the Zone System, a photographic technique for determining optimal film exposure and development.
Based on a meticulous study of sensitometry (scholarship around which reached as far back as the 19th century) and written up extensively by Adams in one of his ten manuals (The Negative), the Zone System allowed for photographers to define a relationship between the way they visualized the photographic subject and the final results. This invention became so widely-used that starting in 1966, the scale was printed directly onto the Weston light meters.
Adam’s counsel to Dean, moreover, extended beyond the pre-photographic moment of light measurement. At the top of the letter are a series of instructions on how to develop photos – what developer to use, how long to sit in the water, at what angle to place the photograph in the tray. What this letter brings clearly to the fore, then, is Adam’s “technical mastery [...] More than any creative photographer, before or since, he reveled in the theory and practice of the medium.” ( The Ansel Adams Gallery ).
The letter, typed on one 8.5x11 inch sheet of Adams’s stationery with “ANSEL ADAMS” printed in red in large type at the top and his San Francisco address below it to the right, is dated December 7 ’59 and reads in full:
Dear Nick - -
Good to get your two letters. This is just a rush reply because they are working out that Television movie with me (Beaumont is here) and things are hectic!
Your picture which I returned was excellent !
Cheers for Symp. Hall exhibit!
Camponiegro [sic] swell egg - have 3 prints of his for Polaroid collection. This “reading-in” business - Brrrrrrr!!
You are still a bit haywire with the Meter business !!! The Weston is a pretty accurate device to read brightness in c/ft2. Pointing the meter down is merely a crutch and would help only with dark-gray pavement or grass. The fact that other meters give accurate readings when the Weston gives 1/2 optimum reading merely shows that those other meters are calibrated to overcome the statistical “average” brightnesses. However - read a single gray (or white, or dark) surface with those other meters and you will get near Zone VI value. The question is merely this - do you want “accurate” readings of actual brightness values (which you can then “place” as required, or do you want to use a meter which has been altered to meet a somewhat uncertain statistical situation? Its your dream!!!!
Will be glad to get that Arts Fest cash so I can pay off the losersI [sic] What a lot of trouble that has been!!!!
Stillwater, Okla.?????? Don’t get it!
No, I plan to arrive about the middle of March and stay until May 1st (in Cambridge). Would be glad to serve if can make date. When is???? Soundslike a good show!
Look forward to the new 52!!! Sounds good! On what basis do you judge “speed” I have my own private systems which works BEAUTIFULLY (for me!)
More soon - - - Good luck with the prints!!!!!!! Best to you and yours - - - - -and a better and longer visit next time! I was tired and sniffly this trip.- just a drip - that’s what I wuz!
[signed in red marker] Ansel
[on top of page handwritten “TRY” followed by an arrow, then:] FG7 1 to 15 water 70 [deg] Tray HYPAN 15-16 minutes NORMAL
VERSAPAN 12-13 “ NORMAL
Water pH may change times!
San Francisco, CA: December 7, 1959. One side of one 8.5x11 inch sheet of Adams’s letterhead. Signed “Ansel” in red marker. Usual folds, fine condition. Housed in custom folder.
A WONDERFUL, IMPASSIONED LETTER WITH IMPORTANT AND SPECIFIC TECHNICAL CONTENT.
Price: $3,500 .