February 21, 2014

Ansel Adams' Lost Los Angeles

[Happy Birthdaythis week to Ansel Adams, 1902- 1984.]

Unknown photographs from when Adams was, if only for a few days, an urban photographer.

I don't recall what I was searching for when I came across the Ansel Adams photographs of Los Angeles at the beginning of World War II, but I don't think it was a handsome rendering of Half Dome or a Moonrise in New Mexico. It was something much more gritty. On reflection, it might have been photographs of my original elementary school, Benjamin Franklin in Glendale. In any case I was running a search in the Los Angeles Public Library's immense online collection of photographs when something in a record caught my eye, the name "Ansel Adams." The image attached to this record was of a parking lot with a cars jumbled together around a prominent No Parking sign.


I don't normally associate Ansel Adams with ironic snapshots of parking lots or small format urban photography at all. Like you, a photograph by Adams means the classic evocation of the great American wilderness. It never crossed my mind that he had photographed any of the cities of men, much less Los Angeles. But there it was. Maybe, I thought, there were more.

I backed up to "New Search" in the LAPL's database and, entering "Ansel Adams," got 189 records. All of them from Los Angeles in 1940 and all of them made with a small square format camera. Then I backed to Google and ran a search to see what other note had been made of these images. Nothing other than a few hits coming out of the same database emerged. The standard biographical pages for Adams made reference to his work at the Los Angeles Art center during this time, but there were no references to this particular series of photographs.

A call to the Reference desk at the LAPL's photo collection brought the information that the images were from "negatives given to the Library in the early 1960s" by Adams himself. The librarian told me that the photos were done "on assignment from Forbes magazine." I subsequently called Forbes in New York to find out if they had any record of this, but was referred to their legal department for reasons that are obscure -- other than that any question a functionary for a magazine cannot answer is always forwarded to the legal department.

I thought I would see if I could see for myself. I learned that the stunning and invaluable Seattle Public Library's Main Branch kept hard copies of Forbes going back into the 1930s. In a highly unusual move for the Internet age, I got in the car and found my way to the seventh floor of what is called "The Spiral" -- probably because it disorients patrons more quickly than any other shelving system ever invented.

At any rate, after going through all the issues of Forbes for 1940 and 1941 I struck a dead end. Nothing. Very frustrating. Lawyers on one end of the continent and no trace on the other end. Then I thought, "Forbes wasn't the only business magazine in the 1940s. As a matter of fact it was the runt of the litter." The other magazine was Fortune. I got up and pulled the extremely heavy volumes for Fortune in 1941 (What a hefty magazine it once was.). And there it was in the March 1941 special issue on Air Power.

Click to enlarge this and subsequent images where necessary,

The article was called: City of the Angels: The U.S. breeds its air power in the fabulous empire of oomph. That means trouble for the Axis, but booming Los Angeles has its worries, too. Adams' credit is found under the upper left picture on the opening spread.

The "City of Angels" opens across two spreads and gives us a few clues as to not only the provenance of the Adams work, but the nature of the negatives and prints held at the Los Angeles Public Library.

First Spread:

Second Spread:

First I note that the holdings of the LAPL contain no color images at all, just black and white prints that map to the subjects seen on the first spread: a motor scooter salesman, Ralph's Grocery in Westwood, a group portrait that we know from the LAPL and the caption was taken the Burbank Bowl. We also know that the couple on the right of the two small inserts is Lockheed worker Cole Weston and his first wife in their $15 a month bungalow. Cole was the fourth son of Edward Weston and a brilliant and famous photographer in his own right. Ansel Adams and the Westons were, of course, close associates throughout their careers.

This is a remarkable bit of "friendly and casual photojournalism" in which Adams manages to work his friends and associates into a photo essay on war workers, but that was during another brighter era where everyone in America did their part. We meet this couple again in the LAPL photographs which are much clearer than the photographs of the Fortune spread.

First at home in a shot clearly near in sequence to the shot published by Fortune.

Then during an intimate early morning good-bye at their cottage door.

Then a very warm moment as Cole heads off too work.

The Westons also show up later in in the LAPL photos, relaxing in a series taken in a bowling alley or bar.

From the two Fortune spreads it is clear that the photographs held by the LAPL are Adams' out-takes from the Fortune Magazine assignment. This is underscored by the second level of compositional and technical quality that runs through LAPL images. Many of those photographs have the feeling of casual snapshots that any photographer would hold back from a magazine photo editor if he possibly could; especially a photographer of Adams' intensity and integrity.

It is also significant that no color is present in the holdings at the LAPL since color, and the processing surrounding it, would have been both expensive and/or time consuming for Adams. Overall, the LAPL photos have the feeling of a work-for-hire. Adams, always under financial pressure during this time, would have wanted to curtail any of the expense of color processing. At the same time, he would have processed the black and white himself as a matter of course and submitted only those negatives and/or prints he felt satisfied had the bare minimum of quality. Even though he was clearly doing this for the money, Adams always had standards.

So I would conclude that with the LAPL material we are getting a rare chance to look at photographs a great photographer chose not to show the world. Obviously none of these images even touches upon the vast and central work that establish Adams as one of the greatest American photographers, but they do provide an interesting footnote to what Ansel Adams saw and thought worthy of photographing while ambling about Los Angeles during the opening months of World War II.

It is also worth viewing these photographs since, with the exception of the Adams' enduring "Suffering Under a Great Injustice" Photographs of Japanese-American Internment at Manzanar , photographs of people by Adams are thin on the ground. Working as he did with large format cameras , there was little reason for him to use the medium format (in this case probably, given the format of the images, the classic Graflex Speed Graphic, possibly borrowed from Edward Weston ). The results that we see in the Fortune article and much more informally in the LAPL material represent a kind of Ansel Adams walkabout on the streets of Los Angeles that ambles from parking lots to street scenes, from Burbank to Beverly Hills.

I like to think of the images, the out-takes, left in the care of the LAPL Photo collection as a kind of casual record of a busman's holiday for Adams. It would have been a plum assignment to get a job from Fortune in those days -- more than worth Adams' while for the money alone. On the other hand it allowed him to set aside the heavier equipment and just take a hike for a couple of days, not among the vast landscapes of America that he was to record and idealize forever, but among the more mundane but still fascinating urban landscape of the "City of the Angels... the fabulous empire of oomph" as the Greatest Generation, men and women, our fathers and mothers, went to war and went to work.

Selected Images [Titles my own]:

Over the Foul Line: A rare, perhaps singular, Ansel Adams double exposure.

The Newsy

Dubious Dogs: A hot dog stand in Venice

Mean Motor Scooter and a Bad Go-Getter

Republished from March, 2006 [Important Links for this essay: My selection of somewhat cleaned-up Adams images can be found on Flickr @ Ansel Adams' Lost Los Angeles Found - a photoset on Flickr.

The complete Ansel Adams material at the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection is seen by going to the Los Angeles Public Library Web Site, selecting "Browse the Photo Collection" on the main page and entering "Ansel Adams" in the "Author" search field. Entering "Ansel Adams" in the keyword field will bring up a slightly different selection.]

Posted by Vanderleun at February 21, 2014 4:55 PM | TrackBack
Bookmark and Share



"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

Absolutely terrific & useful post. Thanks.

Posted by: David Sucher at March 23, 2006 3:15 AM

I bet Lileks will be jealous. Cool stuff. Great detective work.

Posted by: Eric Blair at March 23, 2006 5:00 AM

Great photos and story. Submitted it to digg here http://www.digg.com/technology/Ansel_Adams_Lost_Lost_Angeles_Photographs

Hope this gets lots of attention.

Posted by: Thomas Hawk at March 23, 2006 6:08 AM

"So I would conclude that with the LAPL material we are getting a rare chance to look at photographs a great photographer chose not to show the world."

And for good reason, too. He would have done better to have burned the negatives and any prints he could get his hands on.


Posted by: A.C. Douglas at March 23, 2006 7:21 AM

Love the photos. Keep them coming.

Did Adams take the photo of the P-39 Airacobra in flight?

A very cool airplane with a powerful canon in the spinner, rear mounted engine and tricycle landing gear. The Soviets loved it too and acquired many through lend/lease.

Posted by: Doug at March 23, 2006 9:49 PM

My gut feel is that, in part, some of what Adams was doing with the unpublished pictures was getting used to the camera, but mainly that's the double exposure. I've used old cameras, and that's a mistake I've made with an unfamiliar type.

As you say, colour film and processing was expensive. I'm not going to even try and guess what emulsion was used, but I can see Adams wanting to be sure of his camera.

Posted by: Dave Bell at March 25, 2006 8:25 AM

A rare glimpse of the LA in which my father grew up. Also, nice to see images that weren't related to Hollywood.

Posted by: Jen at April 21, 2006 12:15 PM

I believe that Adams wrote some about this assignment in his autobiography. I remember his comments about photographing some of the 'horrible' architecture found in L.A. at that time, specifically, the Brown Derby. He also wrote about problems with the weather and the assignment as a whole not being very satisfying. But apparently he was well paid for his work.

Posted by: Wade at May 24, 2006 8:17 PM

Love the site and the story. I've often told friends that some of my favorite work of Adams is his urban stuff. They look at me with glazed over eyes. Most people have never seen his urban stuff. I may be wrong, but I think he did some stuff here in NY too. And, again, this might be a myth, but I've heard rumors that he knew Steiglitz and Georgia O'Keefe and shot NY when he came to visit them.
I'm off to do some research of my own.
Thanks for the pics.

Posted by: Marc at June 24, 2009 6:09 PM

Ansel Adams' eponymous autobiography doesn't specifically mention that Los Angeles sojourn, but it does address his commercial photography in one of the chapters; it might shed some light on his thoughts around the time he took these pictures. It's a good biography, I think, valuable in that it gives me his perspective on himself and the people, and causes, he valued. Adams, Ansel. Ansel Adams, An Autobiography. New York: Little, Brown, 1985. ISBN 0-8212-1596-5

Posted by: oldshoe at July 31, 2009 12:10 AM

They had motor scooters back then? Cool.

Posted by: Don Rodrigo at July 31, 2009 10:33 AM

Double-A also worked in color, (and was mighty conflicted about it): http://www.amazon.com/Ansel-Adams-Color/dp/0821219804

I was able to see some of his color prints at a show at the Center for Creative Photography in the Old Pueblo a few years back. His compositions were strong as usual, but the color only playing a minor role; far, far less than it does in, say, Pete Turner's work.

Posted by: ExurbanKevin at July 31, 2009 3:01 PM

Thank you.

Wonderful. It's good to get away from today's turmoil and what better way than through the eyes of Ansel Adams.

Good job.

Posted by: Cathy at July 31, 2009 3:16 PM

I love the Newsy photo, especially the fresh comics on the rack below him.

I wonder if the hot dog stand was the one used as a reference by Dave Stevens' for his "Rocketeer" series?

Posted by: Bill Peschel at July 31, 2009 5:18 PM

"...A very cool airplane with a powerful canon in the spinner, rear mounted engine and tricycle landing gear. The Soviets loved it too and acquired many through lend/lease."

Very cool, and innovative in a lot of ways, but an aircraft prone to some very strange handling characteristics, owing to the rearward CG (because of where the engine was mounted). The US and Brits got them out of front-line fighter squadrons as soon as better aircraft were available, because P-39s were easily outclassed by Me-109s, FW-190s, and Zeros. The Red Air Force did make the best use of it, as a ground-attack plane. If the Russians could mount a heavy cannon on it, and hang rockets or bombs off the wings, they used it in the ground-attack role, and the P-39 fit the bill nicely.

Posted by: waltj at July 31, 2009 5:39 PM

Well done, Vanderleun.

Posted by: feeblemind at August 1, 2009 6:37 AM

fyi that very first parking lot photo shows a 1940 California license plate.

Posted by: Pete Madsen at August 1, 2009 8:58 AM

Exciting Love and Lone Eagle were not comics. They were pulps -- monthly fiction magazines printed on cheap paper, with those nice bright covers.

A different issue.


Also a different issue.

Posted by: Maureen at August 17, 2009 8:16 AM

Good catch, Maureen. Thanks.

Posted by: vanderleun at August 17, 2009 8:35 AM

Michael Adams Son of Ansel Adams is a video interview with Ansel Adams' son by Frederick Van of Adobe. Michael talks about life in Yosemite, the role he peyald in assisting with his father's work, and the course of his own career.

Posted by: Abrahammuyi at June 3, 2012 5:22 AM

I gotta tell you that photo of the news stand brought back a stunning olfactory sensation.

Remember how pulp paper smelled? Imagine how that stand smelled when he opened up a fresh bale of pulps or comics. Them was the days, bub.

Posted by: Rob De Witt at August 28, 2012 12:12 PM

Words cannot express how excited I am to have found this treasure trove of photos showing the lay of the land here in LA in the Forties. Thanks quite sincerely.

Posted by: Otis Criblecoblis at August 28, 2012 3:17 PM

The cars parked by the "No Parking:sign look li the SP mainline near the Lockheed plant in Burbank, not far from where we lived.

I don't remember a "Franklin" school in Glendale.

Oh. Way out there. Near where the airport was. (I lived next to that airport when the Army had it. There was a 40mm gun next to our driveway.

Posted by: Larry Sheldon at August 28, 2012 6:24 PM

Nope. Not near the airport but where the Ventura and the Golden State Freeways intersect. Near Griffith Park.

Posted by: vanderleun at August 28, 2012 8:03 PM