Ansel Adams and a vanished Los Angeles [updated]

February 17, 2011 

Ansel Adams/Los Angeles Public Library Collection

He gave the world majestic images of Yosemite, not to mention the unforgettable “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico.” But Ansel Adams was no sentimentalist when it came to disposing of his old work.

In the early 1960s, the celebrated photographer happened upon a trove of negatives and small contact prints dating back to an assignment for Fortune magazine in Los Angeles. Some of his photos ran in the magazine’s March, 1941 issue with a story on the aerospace industry’s WWII buildup in Los Angeles.

Ansel Adams/Los Angeles Public Library Collection

Ansel Adams/Los Angeles Public Library Collection

But Adams had photographed far more during the assignment—bowling parties, quirky architecture, trailer park life, a cemetery reposing next to oil wells. So he wrote to the Los Angeles Public Library offering the images not as art but as a slice of the city’s history. (His letter is here.)

“The weather was bad over a rather long period and none of the pictures were very good,” he wrote. “If they have no value whatsoever, please dispose of them in the incinerator.”

Fortunately, the city did not put the images out with the trash. The library accepted the photos and gave Adams a letter valuing them at $150 for his income tax purposes—more than the $100 valuation he’d suggested.

Since then, the photos have periodically been “rediscovered” and given a public viewing. (Here’s a link to Huell Howser’s “California’s Gold” segment; a Flickr gallery is here, and NPR’s online feature “The Picture Show” has featured them as well.)

Ansel Adams/Los Angeles Public Library Collection

Ansel Adams/Los Angeles Public Library Collection

Fans of photography and Los Angeles history had a chance to learn more about the images during a free presentation last year at the library’s Los Feliz Branch. The presentation by Richard Stanley was part of the library’s “Architecture & Beyond” lecture series. (See details in update below of a gallery exhibition of the images that begins Feb. 18, 2012.)

“He photographed virtually the whole city, from Santa Anita to the Santa Monica Pier,” said Stanley, who’s a realtor as well as an Adams admirer and frequent photography lecturer in the series. The images demonstrate that Adams “was a working photographer, not just a fine artist.”

Christina Rice, acting senior librarian for the Los Angeles Library, last year initiated a three-month project to better present the images online and to research the historic (and often vanished) locations where the photos were made. But some of the details seem to have been lost to the ages—like the location of that cemetery by the oil wells.

Still, Rice said, “”from a Los Angeles history viewpoint, I think they’re amazing.”

Ansel Adams/Los Angeles Public Library Collection

Ansel Adams/Los Angeles Public Library Collection

Posted 2/17/11

Updated 2/1/12: L.A. Observed reports that the photographs will be getting a gallery show, with sales benefitting the Library. The exhibit opens Feb. 18. Details are here.

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