Jay Sousa: Ansel Adams an inspiration

December 3, 2011 

There are always some jitters before a big photo shoot but none like I experienced before an assignment back in 1983. I was going to photograph one of the greatest photographers in history and an idol of mine since I was very young.

Ansel Adams gained fame as a landscape photographer with his images of Yosemite and the High Sierra. Adams first went to Yosemite with his family in 1916 at the age of 14 and started taking photographs with a Kodak No. 1 Brownie box camera.

I, too, started going to Yosemite when I was around 14 and began taking photographs with an old Minolta SRT 101 35mm camera.

One day, I went into the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite to buy film and was amazed by the images of Yosemite that hung in the gallery. I became an instant Ansel Adams fan and tried to copy his images, unsuccessfully. I read all of his books and tried to learn his techniques. I went into his gallery every time I was in Yosemite and marveled at his amazing images.

As I got older, I learned to climb and started to roam the Yosemite high country just like Adams. My career path led me to photojournalism rather than landscape photography and in 1979, I landed my first full-time job in photography as a staff photographer at the Merced Sun-Star.

In 1983, the Sun-Star was doing a large special section, and the managing editor at the time, Burt Fogelberg, thought that we should do a story on Adams for the special section. Reporter Mike Conway and I were chosen to travel to Carmel, where Adams and his wife, Virginia, had a home overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

I remember being very nervous. I was not sure of where we would be doing the interview and what kind of light I'd have to work with for the photo shoot. I didn't know if he would let me do some posed portraits or if I would just be able to photograph him as he talked with Mike. The uncertainty of it all bothered me. I wanted to be prepared. I wanted to at least look like I knew what I was doing. I remember thinking, what if he says "young man you are doing that all wrong"?

The big day finally came and we were off to Carmel. An assistant let us in and explained that Adams was in the darkroom and would be with us in a few minutes.

The first thing that I noticed as we were led into the home was a beautiful grand piano. Adams was trained in his youth as a concert pianist, and one of my favorite images of his, the original version of "Moonrise over Hernandez, New Mexico" hung over it.

The assistant introduced us to Adams' wife, who greeted us warmly.

She offered us plates of snacks, and gin and tonics. Soon, Adams came up from his darkroom and greeted us as if we were old friends. We sat in their living room overlooking the Pacific as Mike interviewed our gracious host. He was so nice; he and Virginia made us feel right at home.

At the time of the interview, Adams was 81 years old; when asked if he still played the piano, he answered by holding up fingers ravaged by arthritis.

I was able to ask questions about how he made some of his images, including the image hanging over the piano. Near the end of our time with Adams, I asked if I could do some portraits of him, using the window light. He was a gracious model and even complimented me on my use of the window lighting. As our time to leave grew near, he even posed for pictures with us.

I'll never forget the experience -- not only was Adams one of the best photographers of all time but also a warm, gracious man. We were there for two hours, but it seemed like 20 minutes.

Adams died one year after we interviewed him, but his work will live forever. More than 120 of his images are on display at the Carnegie Arts Center in Turlock through early January.

On a personal note, my next show, "The Mystical Landscape," will be on display at Gallery on the Square. The opening reception will be Dec. 16 from 6 to 9 p.m. All are invited. The gallery is located at 1636 Canal St. in downtown Merced.

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