The real Ansel Adams

One of Ansel Adams' pet peeves was when Alan Ross would forget to turn off a battery-powered digital thermometer in the dark room.

He communicated his displeasure about the batteries wearing out by leaving notes that read, "You left the thermometer on all night (sniff!!)" and "Naughty boy!!!!!! You didn't turn the [expletive] thermometer off!!!!" Since Ross wasn't accustomed to using a thermometer that needed turning off, he forgot — a lot.

When Ross followed through, though, Adams scribbled, "Dear Alan, I am peeved!! Disappointed, discouraged!!!! You did NOT forget to turn off the thermometer and I have nothing to gripe about! What is life without a gripe? Desolate, flat, etc. ..."

These missives, exhibited at the Forest and Ocean Gallery along with candid shots of Adams dressed as Moses and another in which he is clowning around with a dark cloth, showcase the photographer and environmentalist's gregarious nature. Titled "Alan Ross: The Ansel Adams Legacy," the show features 11 black-and-white landscape images from the 26-piece collection "Yosemite Special Edition." The pieces cost $300 when unframed and $395 with frames.

The airy venue, bathed in natural light, also houses images that Ross captured across the West Coast, in particular at Yosemite National Park and East Sierra and Death valleys, during his five-year tenure as Adams' assistant. These limited-edition creations range from $600 to $12,000.

"We are trying to show what Ansel Adams was like as a human being, not just as a man behind the camera taking beautiful pictures," said gallery owner Ludo Leideritz. "During the reception, Alan's presentation [touched on] Ansel's sense of humor — which a lot of people never really got to know — and the fact that he was a clown. He would dress in costume just to give a shock effect. He wanted people to be comfortable around him ... there was no snobbishness or puffery. And he was extremely dedicated to his craft."

Leideritz, a fellow photographer who has converted his Rancho Santa Margarita home's three-car garage into a studio and dark room, met Ross six years ago at a workshop. Since then, the two have collaborated regularly and become close friends, as have their wives.

Until a week ago, Forest and Ocean Gallery was a 900-square-foot space, committed to fine-arts photography. Now, the location has expanded into the spot next door and is more than double its original size. In time, Leideritz plans to bring down the wall separating the two so visitors, like the 200 who attended last week's opening of the Ross exhibit, can move freely throughout, taking in the work of other artists, including jewelry and sculpture.

Having watched his exposure and printing techniques, Leideritz believes that Ross is "one of the top 20 photographers on the planet," adding that he, like Adams, effortlessly zeroes in on his targets.

"When you look at Alan's images, you see that there's a master at work here," he said. "There is so much going on — it's not just a pretty picture. There's depth, thought behind the image, expression and quite a variety of subject matter. You can tell that this man is completely, 100% dedicated and accomplished in what he's doing."

Ross and Adams were initially connected in 1972 through a common friend, advertising photographer Milton Halberstadt. The two began working together full-time in 1974, with Ross moving near Adams in Carmel to help him in the field and with photographic processes like developing film and finishing prints. On most days, they ate meals together and formed what could best be described as a familial bond, he recalled.

Although he immediately noticed Adams' energy and good humor, Ross said he was most influenced by the man's simplicity, practicality and humility.

"There was nothing about Ansel's equipment — camera or darkroom — that was either extravagant or exotic," he said. "His camera gear was old and beat-up, his darkroom cabinetry was mostly painted plywood.... He had no interest in whether he had 'the best' of anything. If it served his needs, that sufficed."

Adams also drove a used Ford LTD, which he adored, and could easily be found in the phone book.

"He had no illusions that every one of his exposures would be a masterpiece. It was enough that he had responded to something seen and tried to make it work," Ross added.

"He never regarded himself as anything more than a hard-working human with a purpose. He was dedicated to his convictions regarding photography, the environment and politics, and that dedication kept him always in motion."

The duo spent extensive time in Yosemite, which Adams had visited as a young boy with his parents. Completely overwhelmed by its majestic beauty, he returned every year for the rest of his life to continue expressing his feelings about the environment.

His favorite spot lay at Inspiration Point, with a view of El Capitan, Bridalveil Falls and Half Dome. Ross traveled there the week his mentor died and took a shot of a rain-drenched valley with dark clouds overhead — the weather gods seemed to be mourning too, he reflected.

At the Forest and Ocean Gallery, Leideritz walked between images that spoke of Adams' time with artist Georgia O'Keeffe and noted photographers Imogen Cunningham and David Kennerly. The gallery owner said Ross is the only person whose shots were framed and hung in the photographer and environmentalist's home. Adams especially liked "The Onion" and "Bridalveil Fall in Storm" — the latter found a home behind his wife, Virginia's, chair.

"I think all of us learn from someone or, perhaps, more than one person," Leideritz said.

Ross finds that although he had his own style of photography, time with Adams helped improve his printing skills, while the technical practice he gained upped the overall quality of his work. He also stopped using a 35 mm camera and, per Adams' encouragement, switched over to large-format, 4-by-5- and 8-by-10-inch gear. Given the increased size of the negatives, such images contain more information, details and tones.

In 1979, Ross moved back to San Francisco to launch his own studio, but visited Adams every month to print images. When his friend died in 1984, the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust granted him exclusive rights to use Adams' negatives and make copies of the "Yosemite Special Edition" — some pieces of which will hang in Laguna Beach through Dec. 13.

Thinking back over the course of their partnership, Ross said the work was always peppered with "terrible jokes and puns" — some repeated for the sixth or seventh time. Regardless of whether listeners groaned or chuckled, Adams would erupt into his trademark "infectious and mountainous laugh."

Ross said a perfect example of his cheerfulness occurred in New York City in 1974, just short of a scheduled show at the Metropolitan Museum.

"He exited his hotel one morning, wearing his favorite Stetson, waiting for some friends to pick him up," Ross recalled. "In a short while, a very dapper gentleman came striding down the sidewalk, and upon seeing Ansel, stopped dead in his tracks, grinned, outstretched his hand to shake and announced, 'Well, I'll be! I never thought I'd meet Hoot Gibson in the flesh!'

"Not wanting to disappoint, Ansel responded cordially, shook the man's hand [and thanked] him for his best wishes."

If You Go

What: "Alan Ross: The Ansel Adams Legacy"

Where: Forest and Ocean Gallery, 480 Ocean Ave., Laguna Beach

When: 1 to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays through Dec. 13


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