April 13, 2007
To Ansel Adams (1902-1984)
Via Air Mail, I suppose
My Dear Adams,
That’s how Stieglitz always opened all of his letters to you; with “My Dear Adams.” How simultaneously formal and personal; I’ll be the same.
There is a story I want to tell you. I wanted to tell it to you when you were still alive, but you got away. Specifically, I wanted to tell it to you on the day in 1980 when I drove you to Yosemite in your big white “Zone V” Cadillac, but you’d fallen asleep. So, instead, let me tell you now, some 27 years later. It’s the story of how you first moved me and when I think we first met.
It was sometime near ‘bouts 1955; I was 5. Every winter, we’d visit Yosemite, staying with Aunt Mary Tresidder in her apartment on the sixth floor of the Ahwahnee. We’d daily drive up to Badger Pass, strap on our old leather boots,ratchet them into the bear trap bindings of our wooden skis and spend our days tangled up in the rope tows and T bars.
I, being 5, was always relegated to the back seat of the automobile for the hour-long drive to and from the ski area. I always made it my business to wrangle the starboard seat for the morning drive and the port seat in the afternoon, and for a good reason.
See, there was this one particular stretch of road, straight as an Ahwaneechee Indian’s arrow, bordered on both sides by a long stand of huge, towering pine trees that created a long tunnel-like effect. About halfway through this tunnel, there was this “view” turnout offering a spectacular vista of the full countenance of El Capitan for any tourist hearty enough to actually pull over, get out and gaze upon that magnificent rock. Scant few did, including us, as we hurried on to ski.
So I learned that by sitting by the window, I could grab a quick glimpse, a “click,” of El Capitan as we breezed on by. Only later, did I come to associate that glimpse with the click of a shutter and an image frozen in time.
Every day, two times a day, with my little nose pressed to the cold glass, making little puffs of condensing steam on the glass in anticipation of the brief moment that we’d pass the viewpoint, I’d intently watch for that little click/glimpse, and I’d get it.
One particular night, I was sitting in the Ahwahnee dining room with the grownups and my brother and sister, known to me as “Bother” and “Screecher.” I was as bored as a rock, waiting to be asked (told) what I wanted for dinner, and so I plucked up a menu for something to look at. In those early days, the Ahwahnee dining room menus featured photographs on the covers, and when I gazed upon the front piece, I saw IT. El Capitan. The exact same picture that I saw every day. The very image that went click for me twice every day. I was flabbergasted and, frankly, just a little spooked. “Daddy,” I said, tugging at my father’s coat sleeve. “Daddy this is what I see every day.”
He nodded, a little dismissively.
“NO, DADDY,” I nearly shouted. “This is WHAT I SEE.” Dad slowly turned at my outburst and faced me (I remember his slow turn with a lingering sense of dread even now ~ over six decades later). He looked at me as he never really had before, and said,
I told him my little and meek story of how I’d sit and watch every day, of how I’d organize my sitting schedule, of how I’d privately see this particular cliff every day, twice a day, and, darn it, but here it is right here on the menu JUST LIKE I SEE IT.
Dad was quiet that night, I think. On the next day, on the way up to Badger Pass, Dad noticed where I sat. On the way back, he noticed that I sat on the opposite side of the car from where I’d sat in the morning. That day, on the return to the Ahwahnee, as we approached the click place, an extraordinary thing happened. Dad pulled out into the view turnout and said, “Larry, if you’d like to get out of the car and see El Capitan, you may.” Bother and Screecher groaned at the delay, but I got out anyway (cloaked in Dad’s permission) and, terribly self-consciously, walked to the front of the car and looked up at El Capitan.
I felt confusion in the distinct feeling that I was somehow it was my father on which I was gazing in the being of that cliff, while I knew he was sitting, patiently and mortally, in the car behind me. I also somehow knew that I had to ignore my confusion and absorb the power and the parental embrace of the huge granite.
There he was ~ The Captain ~ and in my little body and my little mind, I surrendered to that which I couldn’t understand, then or now… to the power and patriarchy of that grand rock.
Pretty quick, my self-consciousness overcame my reverie and I returned to the car, to the taunts of my siblings and to a perplexed look on Mom’s face. I did see, and it was my little salvation that day, a knowing and sort of smug look on Dad’s
face. He turned and asked if I’d seen enough. Not knowing how to answer such a primordial and profound question, I mumbled a squeaky, “Yes,” followed by an even quieter, “Thanks, Daddy.”
The meeting imagined or real
I was very quiet and reserved that night at dinner. My brother and sister had grown tired of teasing me. We were back in the Ahwahnee dining room again.
I’m not sure if this next part is even true, but I think it is, and I’ve told the story enough times that it is true even if it’s not. It goes, Dad looked across the dining room and saw his old friend from the 1920-30s, Ansel Adams, the author of the photograph on the menu that jump-started my spiritual life.
He took my hand (I’m told ~ I think I remember) and took me over to a table filled with happy and noisy grownups, up to a giant man of whom I should have been terrified, but, rather, I immediately loved. Dad said, “Larry, please say hello to Mr. Adams. He is the man who took the photograph that you liked so much.”
I don’t really remember this moment precisely. I do remember warmth and a surety that I was in the presence of a wonderful being who understood something that had no words and that all the other old people (and siblings) had somehow forgotten. I remember feeling safe and having a sense of belonging. I suppose I said “hello…” and I do seem to remember a huge hand enveloping my tiny one. That’s all I recall; I was overwhelmed and transported.
So, my old friend, that was our first meeting. It is the radiator of my spiritual being. I have many Ansel stories that I keep in my inventory of “cocktail party banter,” but that one is my own. You occupy many of my most special and impactful memories.
What I didn’t tell you
My most poignant memory is of the wonderful opportunity I seized when your assistant, my friend Andrea, asked me to drive you to Yosemite from Carmel that summer day in 1980 so you could participate in the documentary film she had organized. Your cardiologist, I understand, was concerned for your ticker and the attendant altitude, but had allowed you this one last visit, and Andrea had asked me if I’d chauffer you.
Oh, but we talked; mostly you, as we made our way across central California and you recognized so many of your old haunts. You pointed out an orchard where you’d made a photograph of blossoming apple trees (or were they walnut trees?). You pointed out where you thought the pea-picker’s camp might have been located, the one that was the site of Dorothea Lange’s famous picture of the Migrant Mother.
You rambled on and on about Weston, Stieglitz, O’Keeffe, Dorothea, Beaumont and Nancy, Mabel. All these names of your old pals rolled off your tongue; you were in a reverie. I drove your Zone V Caddy, absorbing every delicious moment, knowing how rare was this experience and how much I was in the moment with you.
As your old boat of a car chugged up the mountain road into Yosemite, you quieted down a little, becoming reflective. You said:
“Larry, this may be the last time I get back into this valley. It has been very nice to have you drive me up here. Thank you.”
Ansel Adams had just thanked me for driving him on perhaps his final trip to his valley.
As we approached the long tunnel of pine trees that was the site of my first and original epiphany, I studied how I’d tell you, this special old man sitting next to me, my private, early and very emotional story of my original meeting with you without seeming cheesy or overly infatuated. You saved me the trouble that day.
As we approached my click point, I looked over and your chin was on your chest, your white beard all akimbo and you were gently snoring away in the deserved sleep of the heroic and exhausted old artist returning to the realm of his muse.
I felt a sublime sense of completion and connectedness then, that I was delivering you, Ansel Adams, back into the embrace of your valley that had nurtured you and to which you’d given a face, fully a quarter of a century after you had introduced me into that very same embrace.
If my personal legend is true, then I met you in 1955 and, insofar as I’m concerned, we have maintained a close and personal relationship ever since, with and without the convenience of you walking this mortal plane. You’ve moved me and motivated me nearly every day of my life since our first meeting. I’m hanging on to that personal legend of mine and if anyone questions it, well, that’s their loss.
When I saw your photograph of El Capitan on the menu that wintry night, over six decades ago, I was a goner. You, and all you are, have had me in your thrall ever since.
In 1938, Stieglitz wrote you a letter that he closed with this blessing: “I can imagine how driven and how tired you are. But it’s good for me to know that there is Ansel Adams loose somewhere in this world of ours.”
To this day, I feel the same.
So, old man, thank you. And in being your greatest and most loyal admirer,