Hours of Idleness-A Photographer's Journey in St. Louis

Ansel Adams in St. Louis

Posted in art, black and white, film, photography, Uncategorized by Jason Gray on August 2, 2013


At 8 o’clock, on the evening of April 9, 1945, an important guest gave a lecture to a capacity crowd in the galleries of the Fifth St. Louis International Salon of Photography at the City Art Museum (now Saint Louis Art Museum). Ansel Adams had been lured to the city by the Camera Club Council of St. Louis, a major organizer for the Salon, who had booked the photographer for a series of his famous workshops, to be held at their headquarters, nearby the Museum.


location of the Camera Clique, the 1945-era headquarters of the Camera Club Council of St. Louis; image via Google Street View

It’s unclear how exactly the lecture at the Museum came about, especially since none of the other fourteen Salons featured talks by famous artists. However, a connection between the Art Museum and Adams did form, which resulted in their purchase of some of his work. Interestingly, a 1945 letter from the Museum’s Director, Charles Nagel, Jr., discusses the inauguration of a photography collection for the City Art Museum. It also explains an intense commitment to the medium, and outlines the Museum’s intention to acquire works from that exhibited in the Salons. Why did the Museum wait until the fifth occasion of the annual exhibition to begin collecting photographs? Did Adams’ presence have an impact on this decision? I think that it did.

By 1945, Mr. Adams was already a legend in the art world (having exhibited at MOMA), and a veritable household name even to outsiders (for his widely published work benefitting the National Parks Service). In 1941, the artist drew on the explosion of amateur photography, and began his successful workshops where he led photographers into the field and gave one-on-one instruction (Harry Callahan, the famous Modernist photographer, was an early attendant). By all accounts, Adams knew how to carry an audience, and was a charming, if somewhat mischievous, personality, who was extremely passionate about picture-making. It’s entirely plausible then that he used his interpersonal skills to great advantage in championing photography as a viable medium for the City Art Museum to pay attention to. Indeed, shortly after his lecture, he wrote to Nagle the following, “I’m sure you realize that creative photography takes as much out of the artist as creative painting or writing.” And about a group of his own work that he showed to the Director, he offered, “I have thought of them…as being a part of the collection which I hope will develop in St. Louis…” No doubt, these statements must have had an impact. Some years later, the artist was introduced to Edwin H. Land, and began work as a technical consultant for the latter’s corporation, Polaroid. Over time, a friendship and mutual admiration grew between the two men, and Ansel Adams introduced the businessman to a world of art in pictures. In 1956, Adams assisted Land in suggesting photographs for acquisition; this became the basis for the Polaroid Collection (over 23,000 images). It seems that the photographer’s presence had a profound effect on collectors.

Incontestably, sometime during the course of Adams short stay in St. Louis, the artist and the Museum’s Director took a field trip to the beautifully landscaped and architecturally rich Bellefontaine Cemetery, where the photographer made some images. This sidetrack fostered a series of correspondences that extended throughout the remainder of the summer of 1945. Excerpts are posted below:

“It was a great pleasure to spend the morning with you before you got away. If your photograph of the Wainwright Tomb or any other of the Bellefontaine shots are particularly good, perhaps we should consider them for possible purchase. I am afraid I grew so interested in what we were discussing that I didn’t show you as much of Saint Louis as I should have.” (Nagle to Adams; April 27) [This letter illustrates that a decision to collect photographs had already been made.

“Just a line to say how much I appreciated your courtesies to me in St. Louis and to discuss a few other matters…I have been thinking about the photographic prospects in St. Louis insofar as your Museum is concerned…I am enclosing a list of photographers whose work I feel should be represented as a nucleus of a good collection [The list includes Edward and Brett Weston, Charles Sheeler, Paul Strand, Alfred Steiglitz, Lisette Model, Dorothea Lange, and several others.] (Adams to Nagle; April 28)

“I am anxious to see your photo department grow and prosper…Some of the negatives of the Bellefontaine Cemetery look fine and I shall see that you get at least proof prints very soon.” (Adams to Nagle; May 1)

“I am happy to say that at yesterday’s meeting the Board authorized the purchase of duplicates of the six photographic prints which you left…Yesterday I got permission from the Board to set up one of our small galleries for changing photographic exhibitions…It was a good idea and will, I trust, be really helpful to the photographers in the community. I enjoyed so much my time with you in Saint Louis and shall look forward to seeing the results of your visit to the Bellefontaine Cemetery. As far as I know, no really fine photography has ever been taken of the Wainwright Tomb which is a milestone in American architecture that deserves that kind of attention.” (Nagle to Adams, May 4)


the Wainwright Tomb


detail of the Tomb by Chrissy Huhn

“I am really pleased to hear about the new photographic gallery and I repeat that if there is anything I can do to aid and abet the photographic program please do not hesitate to call on me.” (Adams to Nagle; May 11)

“I am also including, with my compliments, two prints of the Wainwright Tomb, one for the Museum files and one for you. It was a pretty ‘milky’ day when we were out together and the sky and dome are not so well separated, but I do think the photographs have certain architectural interests.” (Adams to Nagle; July 17)

“I remember the day we were out at Bellefontaine, and that limestone which has become granulated through water action is not the most brilliant material to photograph anyway.” (Nagle to Adams; July 27)

“My own two prints make me extremely happy and I shall treasure them as wonderful portraits in the field of my two great interests, architecture and museum work. You were most generous to send them to me and they will be a happy reminder too of your visit here…I am hopeful of getting started on our small photographic gallery in the fall.” (Nagle to Adams, August 21)

01anseladams (1)

Ansel Adams; Wainwright Tomb, printed 1945; gelatin silver print; 9 3/16 x 13 in.; Saint Louis Art Museum, Gift of Ansel Adams; ©2013 The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust

No doubt, this visit was significant and lasting; according to Museum records, seven photographs by Ansel Adams were added to the collection in 1945 (including that of the Wainwright Tomb), sparking a diverse collection of images that now numbers in the thousands. Four prints by photographers from the Fifth Salon were also purchased that year.

Still, Ansel Adams’ visit to St. Louis was not limited to his interests with the City Art Museum. Adams had come to teach workshops for the Camera Club Council of St. Louis, and a fabulous account of that experience exists in the form of a recollection written by the Council’s Director, George D. Greene, in 1980 (I believe, at the request of SLAM’s then Director, James Burke, who the letter is addressed to). An excerpt of that letter is below:

We had a nice room for Ansel at the [Chase] Park Plaza. He invited all of the active committee [a reference either to that of the Council or the Salon] to a gathering on Sunday before the course started. When we arrived Ansel had expanded his reservation to a suite complete with grand piano, since he was a trained musician [he worked for over a decade as a professional musician, before discovering photography]. At each end of the keyboard was an orange. At a critical time in the Chopin number he took an orange in each hand and rubbed it vigorously over the keys with a hilarious effect.

The course was planned for twenty members, filling the Camera Clique quarters at 5579 Pershing. But more people wanted in on the action so two courses were formed. Three nights of lectures [quite possibly, one of these lectures was the one at the Museum] were followed by a field trip and the two courses dovetailed, one on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, the other on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday. The field trip that I attended was on a cold St. Louis April afternoon and was held on the premises of the Hydraulic Press Brick factory on S. Kingshighway, which was the kind of setting which Ansel wanted.

At the start of the session Ansel requested that he not be photographed and as far as I have been able to tell everyone obeyed his request. I have searched all over St. Louis and could not find a single shot involving him. He spent his time helping his ‘students’ compose photographs according to his teachings as outlined in the accompanying course notes [now lost].

I wish I could say that everyone enjoyed the experience but I am afraid such was not the case. The weather was unpleasant and Ansel was edgy. For instance, I was looking for a ‘set’ that was ‘intense’, his adjective describing a desirable photograph. I checked with him on one I found (a bright piece of china in a cobblestone area). He said it was ‘intense’. Then a few seconds later he asked me who found it. I told him I had. “Oh well,” he replied, “then it’s not intense.” See attached photo which I went ahead and made anyway [image now lost].

Then a strange thing happened. I do not remember the incident in any way, but Dean Penn does. Ansel got me to pose sitting spread-eagled on a brick kiln. Then he borrowed Dean Penn’s Speed Graphic camera and photographed me – after having me remove my glasses. At the time he ruffled Dean’s feathers by complaining that there was no cable release on Dean’s camera. Dean still remembers this clearly – as I do on the ‘intense’ picture that Adams approved, then rejected. At this stage of his career he said what he thought and let the devil take the hindmost.

…All this was thirty-five years ago. I spoke to Ansel Adams about two weeks ago by telephone and found him to be very friendly and cooperative… [It should be noted that George D. Greene was one of the photographers whose work was acquired by the Museum in the year that Adams visited. I wonder if Greene ever quite understood the true impact, over his own work, of the Master Photographer’s appearance in St. Louis.]

Certainly, all of these accounts of the photographer paint a vivid picture of the man behind the lens. From the savvy museum interlocutor, to the gregarious party host, to the waggish, slightly feather-ruffling, workshop instructor, Ansel Adams seemed to defy most expectations. As one of the 20th Century’s greatest artists, he gave so much to the artists who followed him; however, his most important gift to St. Louis’ photographers, and their patrons, may have been to change the local perception of their craft toward being that of an art form worthy of preservation. A parallel to this, until now, thankless gift to the city’s photographic artists can be found in a description of the Master’s work by John Szarkowski, “Adams’ pictures seem as dematerialized as the reflections on still water, or the shadows cast on morning mist: disembodied images concerned not with the corpus of things but with their transient aspect.” (from the press release to the 1979 MOMA exhibition, “Ansel Adams and the West”).

In his lifetime, Ansel Adams produced eight portfolios of work illustrating his commitment to the American landscape. He is a founder of Group f/64 (straight photography), the Zone System, and of the approach of Previsualization. Adams has authored dozens of books on photography, including the popular series represented by The Camera, The Negative, and The Print. His work is collected worldwide, and is featured in the permanent collections of most major institutions.


Ansel Adams giving the lecture at the Fifth St. Louis International Salon of Photography; possibly the only surviving photo of Adams while in the city.

Note: The preceding article is the third chapter in Hours of Idleness’ ongoing series, St. Louis and the History of Photography.

**A sincere thanks and much appreciation to Norma Sindelar, Pat Boulware and Shannon Sweeney at the Saint Louis Art Museum, and to the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust.

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  1. […] 3. Ansel Adams in St. Louis […]

  2. […] fact, the city boasts a long list of camera-toting artists who have produced work here, including Ansel Adams, Catherine Opie, John Gossage, Alec Soth, and more. St. Louis’ relationship with photography […]

  3. […] the connection between Ansel Adams and the photo collection at the Saint Louis Art Museum? Read here to learn […]

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