Ansel Adams’ photos of 1940 L.A. show him working in urban mode

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About 60 of Ansel Adams’ stepchildren will spend the coming four weeks hanging out in a downtown art gallery.

They’re pictures the great photographer of natural landscapes took of urbanized Los Angeles around 1940 – and donated to the Los Angeles Public Library more than 20 years later, with apologies because he thought that “none of the pictures were very good.”


John Huckert, director of drkrm gallery, which on Saturday will open “Ansel Adams Los Angeles: Photographs From the Los Angeles Public Library Ansel Adams Collection,” says the idea is to prove that Adams underestimated himself, while showing a side of his work far removed from the majestic scenes of Yosemite and the Southwest that made him famous.

Adams took the pictures while on assignment for Fortune magazine, which was featuring the burgeoning city and its aviation industry. They include shots of a hot dog stand and the Ocean Park pier in Santa Monica, a view of downtown’s Hill Street from the heights of Bunker Hill, and pictures shot in a bar and a bowling alley. The exhibition will run through March 17, occupying both the drkrm space and the adjoining Edgar Varela Fine Arts gallery, both at 727 S. Spring St.

The Fortune article, “City of the Angels,” ran in March 1941 and included just a few of the 216 photos Adams had taken, Huckert said. Adams kept the negatives and apparently forgot about them until the early 1960s, when he looked through his files during a move from San Francisco to a new home in Carmel. He donated them to the library rather meekly, noting in a letter that when he shot them -- he guessed it was around 1939 -- “the weather was bad over a rather long period and none of the pictures were very good…. If they have no value whatsoever, please dispose of them in the incinerator…. At any event, I do not want them back.”

Writing to thank Adams in 1962, Mary Helen Peterson, head of the library’s history department, said librarians were “delighted” to have his pictures. “Even though you say they are not your best work, they present an interesting and useful study of the Los Angeles area in the late 1930s.”

For Adams’ tax purposes, she said, the library had valued the gift at $150 -- $50 more than the minimum worth he’d estimated in the letter he’d included with the negatives and prints.

Now the pictures are going to sell in limited edition silver-gelatin prints, starting at $2,500 or $10,000 each, depending on size. The library will get a cut of the proceeds, Huckert said, along with prints of the pictures.

John Matkowsky, who owns drkrm and is the show’s curator, developed the prints for the show. The library had engaged him last summer to do its photographic printing work, Huckert said; when Matkowsky learned about its collection of never-shown Ansel Adams negatives, he proposed the exhibition. Matkowsky “tried to duplicate the way Ansel Adams would have printed them,” Huckert said, trying to bring out some of the striking dark-and-light contrasts that are an Adams signature, and compensating in some images for the lack of contrast owing to the overcast weather that the photographer complained about in his donation letter to the library.

Huckert said that Matkowsky picked some of the images because they were so unlike anything the public associates with Ansel Adams. The bowling alley shots include one (pictured above) that’s “an out-of-focus weird shot that’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen from him.... One of a little girl outside a market, holding this weird little doll, looks like something Diane Arbus would have shot.”

William Turnage, who was Adams’ business manager for 12 years until the photographer’s death in 1984, said he only knows of one other set of negatives that Adams didn’t hold on to -- pictures of the Manzanar Relocation Center he’d taken in 1943 because he was outraged over the wartime imprisonment of West Coast Japanese Americans. Adams gave those to the Library of Congress.

“It was unusual for him to give up or give away negatives,” Turnage said. “He was always pretty protective of them.’

As Adams moved to a new home in the early 1960s, Turnage said, ‘he probably was looking at his negatives and thinking, ‘Do I really need to keep all these?’ He built a vault behind his new house in Carmel that was like Ft. Knox, but it wasn’t very big. My surmise is they were given away because he didn’t have the space to properly store them, and didn’t anticipate any future use for them. He had a great respect for the Los Angeles Public Library. He often spoke of it as an extraordinary place.”

The exhibition is affiliated with the Getty Trust’s Pacific Standard Time initiative, although the pictures predate the 1945-1980 time frame of that regionwide project’s examination of the L.A. art scene’s coming-of-age.

‘Ansel Adams Los Angeles’ will provide the second public glimpse in little more than a year of Adams working in L.A. as a photographer-for-hire. Last winter, 13 pictures he took for the Chadwick School in Palos Verdes were exhibited at the Palos Verdes Library, along with other Chadwick-related photos taken by Adams’ mentor and close friend, Cedric Wright. Wright had lived at a Chadwick-owned house for a time and sent his children to the school.

Adams’ other L.A. connection during the early ‘40s was Art Center College of Design, where he taught photography. That figured into the 2010 controversy ignited when Rick Norsigian claimed that old-fashioned glass plate negatives he had bought at a garage sale in Fresno were “lost” pictures of Yosemite and coastal Northern California that Adams took during the 1920s and 1930s.

Norsigian -- whose claim was hotly protested by Turnage and other Adams experts and associates -- said the person he bought the negatives from had mentioned they’d long been stored in a Los Angeles warehouse -- leading to his theory that Adams might have left them behind after bringing them to L.A. to share with his students at Art Center.


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-- Mike Boehm