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Ansel Adams and Me

Ansel doing the Datsun TV commercial where he talks about nature and says that Datsun will pay the US Forest Service to plant a tree in the national forest for every person that test drives a car. Image courtesy of the Datsun 510 Again site.

Ansel Adams was one of the 20th century's greatest photographers. He and I were best friends. Well, not really, but I did have a number of fascinating meetings with him and with Bill Turnage, the business manager who made him more famous and wealthy than ever.

The First Meeting

It was sometime in 1972 and I was a young editor in Prentice-Hall's college textbook division. My job was to locate authors for engineering textbooks and when time permitted, explore new fields in which we weren't currently publishing. A lot of my time was spent visiting colleges around the country talking with faculty members about trends in their fields. On one trip to California I noticed students on every campus using tripods to take photographs.My curiosity was triggered (by the number of tripods more than anything else) and I began looking into what was going on a journey— I am still on. It soon dawned on me that I had stumbled into a huge and growing interest in photography courses. It was partly the times. Michelangelo Antonioni's 1966 hit movie "Blowup" had appeared a few years before and was still playing art houses. In the movie David Hemmings portrayed a young fashion photographer accompanied by Vanessa Redgrave, Sarah Miles, Verushka, and Jane Birkin. I have always harbored a suspicion that this movie played a role in the 70s boom in photography. As a result of that movie, lots of guys came to believe that photography was a great way to get young women to take their clothes off. Others were attracted to photography for more meaningful reasons. For one, photography as a fine art was very hot in the media at the time.Whatever its driving force, the exploding number of courses would certainly support a small publishing program. I decided to give it a shot.

Once I had decided to start publishing in the field, my first goal was to find a series editor. I was what's called an acquisition editor. In that role I made the final decisions about what books to publish, but to get the best books takes a lot of work. The role of a series editor is to help design the program and attract the best authors to write the books. To do so, they have to be very highly regarded in their fields and have lots of contacts. As I made my round of colleges, on each visit I would ask "who would make a good series editor in photography?" One name kept coming up over and over—Ansel Adams.

At the time, Ansel had a TV commercial airing nationally. It was Datsun's "Drive a Datsun, plant a tree" campaign to build showroom traffic. Datsun was pitching an offer that if you'd test drive one of their cars, they'd underwrite the planting of a tree somewhere (I assume a National Forest that had been clear-cut by some timber company subsidized with your tax dollars). Until this commercial aired, Ansel was well known by a relatively small circle of people— mainly those in the environmental and photographic fields. It was this ad that brought him to the attention of a much wider audience. I saw the power of these commercials when I decided to call Ansel to see if he'd meet with me to discuss a new series of books. I picked up the phone in my room at the Santa Ynez Inn in Pacific Palisades and told the operator "I'd like to place a person-to-person call to Ansel Adams in Yosemite". She responded with excitement "Ansel Adams, the photographer??" It was at that moment that I knew I had the right guy! If the operator knew who he was, everyone must.

When Ansel picked up the phone at his end, I briefly explained what I was interested in and asked if there was a time we could meet. He told me he had a workshop ending that afternoon with a parting cocktail party at 5pm. He asked if I could make it. In the room with me was Chuck Murphy, a Prentice- Hall representative who lived nearby in Manhattan Beach. I asked him if we could be in Yosemite by 5. Chuck, a very kind-hearted and free-spirited guy was the owner of a Datsun 240Z (a hot car at the time). He smiled and assured me we could be.

The Merced River flowing through Yosemite Valley.

A few hours later, we pulled up to the ranger's gate at Yosemite Valley. There was normally an admission fee, but when Chuck explained we were there to visit Ansel we were given a free pass. Although this was probably customary for visitors to all residents, I took it as another sign of Ansel's influence. After winding through the mountains we finally entered Yosemite Valley and located Best Studios, Ansel's place in the valley. Within view of Yosemite Falls and many of the other landmarks, this location was beyond belief. Not many photographers get the opportunity to locate their studio and residence in the heart of a national park. Ansel was able to because his wife Virginia Best Adams had inherited the property from her father Harry Best, an earlier Yosemite photographer.

Chuck Murphy (left) with Ansel Adams in Yosemite Valley. Neither is in focus and from the expression on Ansel's face, I think he knew that.

Chuck and I mingled at the cocktail party where we met Bill Turnage, Ansel's new business manager. That night we had dinner with Bill Turnage and his wife Charlotte. Other guests that evening were Marie Cosindas (who'd just done some movie stills of George C. Scott), and Paul Caponigro.

Paul Caponigro (left) with Chuck Murphy (right) at Ansel's studio and gallery in Yosemite Valley. This time I at least got one of them in focus.

The next day we weren't scheduled to meet with Ansel until the afternoon so Chuck and I drove though the park as fast as we could, seeing as much as possible. We both shot lots of film; none of it "previsualized".

Chuck high up a slope of glacial rock to take some photos. Trying to figure out how to use the Zone System with his point and shoot 35mm.

The meeting with Ansel later that afternoon went well, but had no immediate results. Ansel explained how Morgan & Morgan had published all of his books, but that he was no longer writing new books for them. Apparently, he had made a deal with the firm's founder, Willard Morgan, that he'd get $0.10 a copy for his books at a time when they sold for a dollar. He had assumed he was earning a 10% royalty. When Willard died, his son Doug Morgan took over the firm. Doug's position was that Ansel's royalties were a dime a copy, regardless of the selling price. With time having inflated the selling price to $10, Ansel's royalty rate had plunged to 1%. Even with this serious ongoing dispute, Ansel still felt loyal to the firm and wouldn't take his books away from them. He was willing to stick to an agreement, even when it had become terribly one-sided against him.

Ansel chats with some students as his workshop breaks up.

One memory stands out from the meeting. Ansel was telling me how at one time he'd been simultaneously pursuing photography and concert piano. There came a point where he couldn't do both and had to choose. As he told the story I couldn't help but notice his hands. He had very large fingers, badly swollen and twisted by arthritis. Had he chosen piano, his career would have been over long ago. Because he'd chosen the right field, he was still active and creative as he approached his eighties. It would be nice if we all made such good choices in our own lives.

Ansel and I left open the possibility of his becoming a series editor and after a few nights in Yosemite, I returned to New Jersey. I'll never forget some advice Turnage gave me as I left. "Buy all the Ansel Adam's prints you can afford Denny. I'm raising the price to $300!" I couldn't afford any. It wasn't the last investment advice I ignored to my later regret.

Ansel and Georgia O'Keeffe

A few years later (I don't recall the circumstances), I was having dinner with Ansel and Virginia Adams at their Carmel home. When the phone rang, Virginia answered it and told Ansel, it's "Georgia." He chatted with her for a few minutes, then hung up in disappointment. Ansel's 80th birthday was coming up and Georgia had agreed to attend the party. She was calling to tell him that her fear of flying was such that she just couldn't do it. As disappointed as Ansel was, I was excited. I'd actually been in the room when Ansel was talking to Georgia O'Keeffe! A virtual link had been established from me, through Ansel and Georgia, to Stieglitz.

At the time, Georgia O'Keeffe lived in New Mexico and I had recently been in her neighborhood, attending a meeting in Abiquiu of the Society of Photographic Educators (http://www.spenational.org/). This group held an annual meeting that was a gathering place for many of the leaders in fine art photography. People like Peter Bunnell, Bob Heinecken, Harry Callahan, Minor White, and Beaumont Newhall were frequent visitors. Peter Bunnell at Princeton had encouraged me to attend so I made plans to do so, jumping off from LA.

At the time, a very good friend, Dave Grady, had just moved out his basement apartment in LA where his only furniture was a stereo he'd charged at Sears and a wall poster of a starving Indian sitting cross-legged in front of a pile of Clark candy bars. As you sat on the floor in this apartment, you'd see in the windows high on the wall, the march of passing legs from the knees down. Dave had been brought to this desperate state of affairs by a California contagion of the era-divorce. He had finally managed to marshal enough resources to move to a newer apartment over a garage in Manhattan Beach. This one even had a view of the ocean. Due to the expenses he was dragging behind him, Dave was not on the best of terms at the time with either his credit card company or Sears. He had a strong desire to temporarily "disappear" and saw my trip to Abiquiu as his ticket out. He offered to accompany me and even to drive. We shortly hit the road. Just before we did though,we were playing ping-pong at the Santa Ynez Inn and in the heat of the game Dave had inadvertently slipped a spare ping-pong ball into his pocket. This ball was to play a large role in a few days.

As Dave and I crossed Arizona on the old Route 66, we stopped at the usual tourist sites; the Grand Canyon, the Meteor Crater, the Painted Desert, and the Petrified Forest. At the Grand Canyon, Dave reached into his pocket for something and mistakenly pulled out the ping-pong ball which bounced (ping, pong, ping, pong) toward the precipice. Dave grabbed it, just before it made its final plunge into the gorge. The same thing with variations happened again at the Meteor Crater. The ball, which hadn't even been formally invited to accompany us, had already used up two of the lives allocated to such objects.

Dave at the Grand Canyon just after rescuing the ping-pong ball from the precipice.

Later that day we pulled into the Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, the site of the meeting. There were hundreds or people there, only a few of whom I knew. Dave knew no one. We wandered around the grounds and buildings, finally entering a very large hall that had the look of a recreation room. Standing at a ping-pong table was a guy who appeared very frustrated. He was angry that the place had a ping-pong table and paddles but no balls. How dare they! He shouted out in frustration, "does anyone here have a ping-pong ball?" Dave smiled and held his out. The guy he handed it to was Bob Heinecken, one of the founders of the group and a highly respected photographer. Dave had leverage. No Dave, no ping-pong. There probably wasn't another ping-pong ball between where he stood and a circle drawn a hundred miles out. Dave had found acceptance in the inner circle.

Me at the Grand Canyon; for once in front of the camera instead of behind it. Courtesy of Dave Grady.

This particular year, I'd decided to host a wine party for the gathering on behalf of Prentice-Hall. (I was the only one at the meeting with an expense account. Like Dave, I had found my ticket to acceptance. No Denny, no party!) Dave Grady, Bill Turnage, and I hopped into Turnage's Mercedes (he loved cars and has the speeding tickets to prove it), to drive into Espanola for supplies. On the way we passed by Hernandez, New Mexico. Bill was neither repressible nor shy and jokingly asked if I'd like him to throw a moon over Hernandez for me. It must have been my Irish-Catholic upbringing but I demurred, suggesting a cut-out moon instead. I still regret not having a photo of Turnage "dropping trou" over Hernandez. He might have paid good money at some point over the years to buy it back.

Turnage holds up a cutout moon over the Hernandez, New Mexico skyline-site of one of Ansel's most famous photographs.

Ansel and Little, Brown

I'd kept in touch with Turnage, but nothing happened because of Ansel's loyalty to Morgan & Morgan. Then in 1973, I moved to Boston to take a job with Little, Brown, and Company. I moved to get my hands on the Life Library of Photography-a tremendous series of 20 or so books on the field of photography- printed in gravure. I wanted them to use as the basis for a new college photography textbook. That process is another story, but one day the phone rang, and it was Turnage. He told me Ansel was now ready to make the move to a new publisher and wondered if Little, Brown would be interested. I told him I'd check it out and immediately went to Tim Hill, the editor of a Little Brown subsidiary, New York Graphic Society. Tim was well-versed in photography, even having published an avant garde magazine on the field while in college. He was all for it. I reported back to Turnage that we were interested.

A meeting was scheduled at Little Brown's Beacon Street headquarters on the corner of the Boston Common. In the room were Bill Turnage, Arthur Thornhill (president), Tim Hill, Joe Consolino (marketing director), and George Hall (Treasurer). Turnage gave one of the most amazing presentations I had ever seen. He spoke of Ansel as the Rembrandt of Photography and how, like Rembrandt's, his work would live on in the centuries to come. By the time he was done, Thornhill, who knew not one thing about photography nor photographers, believed he was within reach of a master. Turnage then explained that he could not accept an offer on Ansel's behalf. All he could do was carry one back to Ansel and call in with his final decision. (Publishers hate to have the decision leave the room because they lose control of it.) He then said that in all fairness he should tell us Ansel already had a standing offer for $200,000 and was tempted to accept it. (Creating a sense of urgency). For all of the wrong reason's Thornhill made one of the most brilliant moves in a career that had few of them to point to. He said that Little Brown would love to have Ansel as an author and that if he already had a $200,000 offer, it would only be honorable to match that. At the time, $200K was a very large sum, comparable to the best-selling authors of the era. George Hall's jaw dropped-dumbfounded. It wasn't even spelled out if this was an outright gift or an advance to be repaid from future royalties. In any event, Turnage despite his earlier disavowal of an ability to make a decision told Thornhill, "You have a deal!" (Locking him in!) One of the great selling jobs of all time was over. And despite the way it was decided, it turned out to be a great deal for both parties. Ansel's works are in the hands of one of the better publishers and Ansel was probably even more important than Turnage had claimed at the time.


One day I visited the Beacon Street headquarters of Little Brown and the general manager was moaning about having to spend the night there. I asked him why. He said that a few years ago, Thornhill had left on a trip to Tahiti or some such place to watch a group try to cross the Pacific in a straw boat. Thornhill had invested heavily in the project, buying rights to a book documenting the trip. Well the boat sank like a brick shortly after leaving the harbor, and with it sank Thornhill's investment. Cutting his trip short he returned to Boston. In his absence the world-wide headquarters (a quaint 19th century building) had been broken into. As a result, the employees had had the locks changed. Thornhill, arriving unannounced one night couldn't get into the building. In a rage so characteristic of him, he smashed in a sidelight with his fist, cutting himself badly and leaving a trail of blood on the light carpet through the foyer and up the stairs to his office. It took days and thousands of dollars to remove the stains and the employees took quite a bit of abuse for having "caused" the problem. I asked the manger what this had to do with him staying the night. He told me "Arthur is out of town again and there has been another break-in. We've had to change the locks. In case Arthur shows up unannounced again, we've divided up the clock and are making sure the building is occupied 24 hours a day to let him in".

Off to Carmel

With the deal done, it was off to Carmel to get to work. Tim Hill, Joe Consolino, and myself flew out for a two-day meeting on the first book "Photographs of the Southwest". I don't recall a lot of the details from the meeting. Most of it was taken up with standard publishing talk-paper, printing, binding, schedules, etc. However, there are a few vignettes that still stand out.

At one point during the meeting, I'm sitting next to Ansel on the couch and he turns to me with a contact print asking "Denny, do you think we should use this one in the book?" I hadn't expected this, and was in no position to make any suggestions of the kind to Ansel or anyone else. I don't recall what I answered, but I'm sure it was as vague and meaningless as possible-without sounding too dumb (editors either have this skill naturally, or they have to develop it quickly).

Ansel in the foreground with Tim Hill and Joe Consolino behind him. On the right are Paul Q. Forester, Ansel's book designer, and Charlotte Turnage.

Ansel chats with Tim Hill as many of his books lie scattered on the table.

Turnage converses with Ansel's attorney about some details. Speaking of details, notice the rotary dial phone on the table! Could this really have been that long ago?

In the center of the living room was an easel with a print on it. I asked Turnage what it was doing there and he told me Ansel had a woman come in a few times a week to spot his prints. Another photographer, Joe Novak, had written a book chapter for me on spotting prints which he had titled 'So You Have To Know How To Paint After All?" It struck me at the time that maybe Ansel couldn't paint!

As we left to return home, Ansel gave each of us a print. As we pulled our rented car down the driveway heading for the airport, Consolino turned around in the front seat and sailed his print back onto the package tray beneath the rear window. I told him "Joe, I wouldn't treat that print that way". He asked why, and I told him that Ansel's prints were now selling for $5000. For the rest of the trip, Joe's print never left his hand-he even carried it on his lap on the plane. Ansel had brought an appreciation of photography to one more person.

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