Photo: "Yuppies Marching Into The Sea," 1992 handcolored gelatin-silver print by Ted Orland.
There have been may exhibitions celebrating the life and artistry of Ansel Adams in this centenary of his birth, but none promises to reveal more about the man behind the camera than "Ansel Adams, 100 Years: The Assistants," opening Friday at the Center for Photographic Art.
Featuring a selection of images by Adams along with works by Don Worth, Ted Orland, Alan Ross, John Sexton and Chris Ranier, all of whom served as full-time assistants for Adams and who have gone on to earn widespread recognition as accomplished artists in their own right, the CPA exhibit pays tribute to perhaps Adams'' most important and enduring legacy, that of teacher and mentor for an entire generation of photographers.
"There are legions of photographers who may never have met Ansel or have any idea they were consciously influenced by him, but so many respond to Ansel early in their career," says Carmel Valley-based photographer John Sexton, who served as Adams'' assistant from 1979 to 1982. "Ansel was an inspiration as a teacher and mentor, and it wouldn''t be an exaggeration to say I would likely not be doing the type of photography I do or living on the Peninsula if not for Ansel."
According to CPA Executive Director Dennis High, the "Assistants" show was consciously designed to provide a different perspective on Adams'' career and to recognize his contribution to the local art scene. It was Adams, along with Cole and Brett Weston, and Wynn Bullock, who founded the original Friends of Photography at the site currently occupied by the CPA.
"What will be intriguing about the exhibition is even though many of the photographers'' works are completely different from Ansel''s, a lot of the same ''process'' is there," says High, noting that the work of the assistants ranges from traditional landscape and still-lifes, to documentary and digital photography.
It was Adams'' commitment to his craft, his example as an artist and advocate for the emotional and expressive potential of fine art photography that affected and influenced Adams'' assistants in the most singular way.
"There are a lot of people who don''t appreciate Ansel''s work because they feel he didn''t deal with sociological issues and only showed this pristine world," comments Don Worth, who was Adams'' assistant in San Francisco between 1956 and 1960. "What was important to Ansel was the intense emotional content of his work. Every spare moment was spent on photography."
Ted Orland, who worked for Adams from 1971 to 1974 and now teaches digital photography at Cabrillo College, remains most impressed by Adams'' remarkable stamina and productivity.
"I was probably the last of the assistants who worked for Ansel in the days before photography was discovered by the big East Coast art galleries," recalls Orland.
"By the time I was working at his house fulltime he was nearly 70, yet he had an immense amount of energy in terms of taking on a work load that would stagger most of us. The sheer energy level and productivity of the man was most impressive."
In addition to Ansel''s great technical and artistic accomplishments, Orland believes the strength of Adams'' personality was equally influential in helping promote fine art photography. "Prior to Ansel there were great photographers everyone recognized, but except for Steiglitz, people didn''t have a sense of their personal lives. Ansel was gregarious and outgoing and he forcefully proselytized photography as art."
It was Adams'' unwavering commitment to technical excellence tempered by his humanity and belief in the importance of emotional honesty that most influenced Alan Ross. Ross was Adams'' assistant from 1974-1979 and now, in addition to teaching his own workshops and working as a fine art photographer in Santa Fe, prints special edition photographs of Yosemite from Adams'' original negatives under contract with the Ansel Adams Trust.
"I wasn''t prepared to find what a gregarious and funny person Ansel was," Ross recalls. "He was a wonderful human being and very even-tempered. Hardly anything rattled him except James Watt.
"One of Ansel''s favorite phrases was ''the perfect is the enemy of the good.'' He lived by that. Ansel didn''t like technically perfect but lifeless prints. If you worked hard and did your best to express yourself that was sufficient."
What was most reassuring to Ross when he worked for Adams was the way his mentor, like every photographer, struggled at times to create truly great photographs.
"Professionally what surprised me when I started going through Ansel''s files was the revelation of how many ''ordinary'' photographs he made," says Ross. "As a young photographer that was comforting to me, and it took a huge weight off not worrying that every image I made was great."
It was Adams'' commitment to photography as art, and his generosity of spirit toward, younger aspiring photographs that Sexton considers the photographer''s most enduring legacy. He had a policy of buying a photograph for $100 from young photographers whose work he liked. This was at a time when he was selling his own photos at workshops for only $250.
"Ansel was the genuine article," Sexton continues. "He had drama in his vision, and he wanted to create photographs that were compelling in their sheer physical beauty. What he professed he practiced and I respected how damn hard he worked."
Ansel Adams, 100 Years: The Assistants opens August 9 at the Center for Photographic Art in Carmel.