Adams & Levy ~ In Their Time

Ansel Adams and his influence on Portland photographer Stu Levy

The American photographer Paul Strand once said, “I think of myself as an explorer who has spent his life on a long voyage of discovery.” Strand, considered one of the most important photographers of the 20th century, influenced many of the great masters of the craft, including Walker Evans, Edward Weston and Ansel Adams, each of whom lived a fascinating life of discovery in his own explorations with photography. Adams in particular credits Strand with his decision to give up a promising career as a concert pianist in favor of a life in photography. When the two photographers were introduced by chance in Taos, New Mexico, Strand invited the young Adams to view some of his negatives, as the seasoned photographer had no prints with him to show. For Adams the negatives proved to be a tremendous epiphany. In his autobiography Adams writes, “My understanding of photography was crystalized that afternoon as I realized the great potential of the medium as an expressive art. I returned to San Francisco resolved that the camera, not the piano, would shape my destiny.” In turn, Adams was to influence a generation of young photographers as they embarked on their own photographic journeys. Among them was Portland photographer Stu Levy.  


This story coincides with the Ansel Adams in Our Time exhibition at the Portland Art Museum, which remains open until August 1. See Updating Ansel Adams, Laurel Reed Pavic’s ArtsWatch review of the museum show, here.


When Adams was approaching the end of his long photographic life, Stu Levy was just beginning to find a direction for his own. The two would first cross paths in the summer of 1979, when Levy attended an Ansel Adams Workshop in Yosemite National Park. Levy later became an instructor at the workshops for several years, starting in 1981, three years before Adams died at the age of 82. Although the two men lived in very different times and grew up in very different places, they shared some important common interests that influenced the direction of their lives. Aside from their mutual passion for photography, they both loved music and became accomplished musicians. They also shared a deep love of nature and spent much of their time hiking and exploring the magnificent landscapes they photographed.

Ansel Adams, “The Tetons and the Snake River,” Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, 1942, gelatin silver print. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Lane Collection, © The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

ANSEL ADAMS

Portrait of Ansel Adams by J. Malcom Greany, first published in the 1950 Yosemite Field School yearbook.

Ansel Easton Adams was born in San Francisco in 1902. He grew up in the home his father built, well-situated on the dunes overlooking the Golden Gate, with expansive views of the sea beyond. In 1906 the house was partially destroyed in the devastating San Francisco earthquake, with no immediate injuries to the Adams family. But in one of the many aftershocks, the four-year-old Ansel was thrown against a garden wall, permanently damaging his nose, which remained bent for the rest of his life. As a child, Adams attended a succession of schools due to behavioral problems and a general incompatibility with institutional education. His father eventually pulled him out of school and hired tutors to teach the high-strung boy at home. As a young teenager, Adams also was given piano lessons when his father noted his son’s aptitude for music. Those lessons were to provide an important emotional outlet for the boy and the beginning of a lifelong relationship with music.

In 1916 Adams was given a copy of In the Heart of the Sierras by J.M. Hutchings. He was so enthralled with the author’s descriptions of Yosemite that he persuaded his father to take the family there during their next summer vacation. Upon their arrival in Yosemite, Ansel’s parents presented their son with his first camera, a Kodak Box Brownie, planting the seeds for his enduring love for both Yosemite and photography. It was the first of many increasingly more adventuresome visits to explore and photograph Yosemite and the broader Sierra Nevada. In time he would join the Sierra Club and serve as custodian of the club’s headquarters in Yosemite, leading small parties of visitors on hikes throughout the Yosemite Valley. In these early years, Adams considered himself an ardent photography hobbyist, taking mostly snapshots and learning how to make his own prints. Applying the discipline he learned from his music studies to his photography, Adams would spend the next decades mastering the craft of photography and embracing it as his primary means of personal expression.

Ansel Adams, “The Sentinel,” Yosemite National Park, about 1923, gelatin silver print. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Lane Collection, © The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Before 1927, Adams felt he had achieved only limited success in making an exceptional photograph. That year things would change. In April Adams set out on a hike in Yosemite, armed with a forty-pound pack loaded with his 6 ½ x 8 ½ Korona view camera, several lenses, and holders carrying a dozen glass plates. After using all but one plate, Adams had his first experience with the concept of visualization by considering how his finished print might convey the emotions he felt while observing the scene before him. By choosing a particular filter to intentionally darken the sky, he was able to achieve the desired emotional effect he had visualized rather than simply a depiction of how the subject appeared in reality. He titled the image he created that day Monolith: The Face of Half Dome, his first fully visualized photo, and arguably the first photograph to possess his eventual signature style. The glass plate for the image survived breakage and a 1937 darkroom fire, and it rested in his vault for the rest of his life. Soon after he made Monolith, Adams published Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras, a portfolio of 18 prints of photographs he had also made in 1927.

Ansel Adams, “Monolith – The Face of Half Dome,” 1927, gelatin silver print. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Lane Collection, © The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

In the early 1930s Adams joined several West Coast photographers, including Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham and others, to form Group f/64 (referring to the smallest aperture setting to achieve the greatest sharpness in a photograph) in reaction to their collective aversion to pictorialism, a dreamy, impressionistic style of fine-art photography in vogue at the time and championed by photographers like Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen. Group f/64 preferred the direct, sharp-focused style of straight or pure photography practiced by photographers such as Paul Strand, who espoused the philosophy that photographs should look like photographs rather than imitations of other forms of art. The group wrote a manifesto declaring their views about the new direction photography should take, and they were immediately offered an exhibition at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. Although there was much negative reaction to the group’s style of photography at the time, the members of Group f/64 would become some of the most influential photographers of the 20th century.

In 1931 the Smithsonian Institution mounted the first significant solo exhibition of Adams’s work, and in 1936 Alfred Stieglitz gave Adams a solo show at An American Place, Stieglitz’s gallery in New York City. Countless solo exhibitions in many other important venues were to follow in the years ahead. In the 1930s Adams also turned his attention to commercial photography and teaching in order to support his family, while also allowing time for his creative work. During this decade Adams would learn a great deal about the technical aspects of photography, perfect his concept of visualization, and create The Zone System, a nomenclature developed for discussing the shades of gray between black and white, which he designed with the photographer Fred Archer while teaching at the Art Center School in Los Angeles. Adams was also elected to the Sierra Club Board of Directors in 1934, and he worked tirelessly for the conservation movement, especially for the protection of our national parks. He was to become director of the organization from 1969 to 1971.

Ansel Adams, “Clearing Winter Storm,” Yosemite National Park, about 1937, gelatin silver print. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Lane Collection, © The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

During the 1930s and 1940s, Adams did not follow the examples of some of his contemporaries, such as Dorothea Lange, who changed the focus of her photography to help put a human face on the social upheavals created by the Great Depression, or Margaret Bourke-White, who photographed the events of World War II as a war correspondent. Adams was often criticized for continuing to make photographs romanticizing the landscape while the country was in economic turmoil following the financial collapse of 1929. However, as he was too old to engage directly in WWII on the battlefront, he felt a keen obligation to help in the war effort by volunteering his photographic skills to every war-related job he was offered. Of particular importance was the work he did documenting the conditions of Japanese internees in Manzanar, one of ten relocation camps established in the country following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. 

Ansel Adams, “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico,” 1941, gelatin silver print. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Lane Collection, © The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.      

In the 1940s and throughout the 1950s, Adams made many of his most celebrated photographs, wrote several photography books and articles in photography publications, worked as a consultant for the Polaroid Corporation, continued his conservation efforts, and exhibited his work in venues across the country. In June of 1955 he began teaching his annual Ansel Adams Workshops, which operated in Yosemite until 1981. In 1982 he would transfer his workshops to Carmel, California, under the umbrella of The Friends of Photography, an organization he had helped found in 1966. In the 1960s Adams also began his first association with three American presidents, Johnson, Ford and Carter, each of whom asked Adams for help with conservation issues. In 1980 President Carter presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Adams, whom he described as “visionary in his efforts to preserve this country’s wild and scenic areas, both on film and on Earth.” Ansel Adams died four years later at age 82 with his wife, Virginia, their two children, and five grandchildren by his side. His cremated remains were scattered on Half Dome at Yosemite National Park.

Cedric Wright, Ansel Adams: Photographing in Yosemite, 1942, gelatin-silver print. Collection Center for Creative Photography, The University of Arizona, © 1942 Cedric Wright.

STU LEVY

Portrait of Stu Levy by Joni Kabana, 2013. Photo courtesy Stu Levy.

Stu Levy was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, an early baby boomer raised in a conventional Midwestern home. Although there was no art in the family, he was exposed to the arts as a schoolboy during occasional field trips to the local art museum, where he felt most attracted to the Surrealists, particularly Miro, Magritte and Escher. Aside from being the designated family photographer from an early age, he became fascinated by photography as an art form when he learned of The Family of Man, a photography exhibition curated by Edward Steichen, director of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art. After its opening in New York in 1955, the popular exhibition also toured the world in the late ’50s and early ’60s. As a teenager Levy was given a publication of the exhibition, and he treasured the gift. 

At the age of fifteen, Levy applied for a position on the photo staff of his high school. He was appointed the new school photographer, primarily because he was the only student interested in the job! As the official photographer for the high school yearbook, he spent much of his time photographing school activities, sports, candid moments on campus, and—of growing interest to him at the time—musical events. Levy developed a passion for the music of the 1960s and soon became an early follower of the culture it represented. In 1965 Levy photographed the first concerts he attended: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan.

After high school Levy attended the University of Cincinnati, where he served as the photographer and photo editor of the college yearbook, and continued his work as student photographer by shooting campus life, as well as musical events. He mostly made publicity and performance photos of musicians, but as a member of the campus Concert Committee, he helped persuade the school to book a Grateful Dead concert in April 1970. During his undergraduate years at the university, he also played rhythm guitar in his own rock and roll band, Surdy Greebus, a popular band in Cincinnati at the time. Music and photography were to become lifelong passions for Levy.

Surdy Greebus, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1967; clockwise from left: Eugene Katona, Stu Levy, West Davis, Seymour Duncan, Tom Hogeback, Paula Webb. Photo courtesy Stu Levy.

After college Levy attended medical school, and in 1974 he moved to Portland with his wife, Cris Maranze, also a doctor in training, to complete his family medicine residency. Although there was very little opportunity during these years to pursue his interest in photography, he spent some of his limited free time hiking and backpacking in wilderness areas. He always brought his camera along on these excursions, and the photos he made served as his introduction to landscape photography. In 1975 Levy attended an Ansel Adams exhibition at the Portland Art Museum, which was to be a seminal moment in Levy’s journey with photography. He had never seen prints of such quality with light that seemed to glow from the images, and he decided on the spot that he would learn to make those kinds of prints. With some free time to spare during his final year of medical residency, he set up a darkroom in his house and tried his hand at making his own prints.

Following the completion of their respective medical residencies in 1979, Levy and his wife decided to take an extended period of time off to enjoy backpacking through the Sierra Nevada and the Southwest. While also taking in a few photographic art galleries in Carmel, California, Levy learned that Ansel Adams was continuing to offer photography workshops. He immediately signed up for the summer workshop scheduled for that June in Yosemite National Park. There, he learned the essentials of making a good negative and a good print from the negative, as well as many of the other technical aspects of image-making, such as determining correct exposure using the Zone System. Levy also learned many of the non-technical aspects of photography, such as the concept of visualization espoused by Adams, and he began to comprehend the power of photography as an art form and the notion that photographers could be artists.

Stu Levy, “Havasu Stream,” 1979. Photo courtesy Stu Levy.

In the months following his experience as a student at the Ansel Adams Workshop, Levy made his first significant photographs, including Havasu Stream, which he submitted to Adams and his staff for their consideration. On the strength of his work, Levy was hired as an assistant instructor at the 1981 workshop in Yosemite. His fellow instructors were to become his good friends, including the photographers Jerry Uelsmann, Ruth Bernhard and Olivia Parker, as well as John Sexton, Adams’s technical and photographic assistant at the time. For the next decade, Levy would teach as an assistant or full-time instructor at many workshops associated with Adams, including the Ansel Adams Workshops and Ansel Adams Gallery Workshops in Yosemite, and the Friends of Photography Workshops in Carmel, California.

Levy also taught photography at other workshops in the 1980s and 1990s, including the Sante Fe Photographic Workshops in New Mexico, the Photographic Arts Workshops in Page, Arizona, and the Pacific Northwest Art School (formerly the Coupeville Arts Center) on Whidbey Island in Washington state’s San Juan Islands. Closer to home in Portland, Levy taught at the Pacific Northwest College of Art, and in 1982, together with the photographer Stewart Harvey, he founded the Portland Photographic Workshops, which later evolved into the Portland Photographers’ Forum, a fine art photography group still in existence. For the past thirty-five years, Levy has conducted annual summer workshops on the southern Oregon coast, in locations such as Coos Bay, Shore Acres and Bandon.

Levy has now spent decades teaching photography and making photographs. His landscape photography has been influenced heavily by Ansel Adams, but there were also other important influences. The photography of Eliot Porter and the writings of Edward Abbey inspired Levy to begin photographing fragile landscapes threatened by human impact, including the Columbia River Gorge and the Escalante River area of Utah. Levy was also deeply influenced by the photographer Minor White. In 1982 he was invited to join The Interim Workshop, a group founded by photographers who had studied under White in the 1960s and remained disciples of his teachings. And, inspired by the work of painter and photographer David Hockney, Levy began his Grid-Portrait Project in the mid-1980s, turning his attention toward making environmental portraits of musicians, artists, politicians and others in multi-frame, collage-like compositions that tell a story about the subject’s life. A monograph of his grid portraits was later published by Nazraeli Press, and it was selected as one of the best books of 2011 by PhotoEye Books in Santa Fe.

Stu Levy, “Choprock Amphitheater,” Grid-Portrait Project, 1989. Photo courtesy Stu Levy.

Stu Levy’s photographs have been exhibited in a number of group and solo exhibitions around the country. Much of his work is housed in various public and private collections, including the Portland Art Museum, the Center for Creative Photography, the George Eastman House, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, among others. He also has several awards and honors to his credit, and his photographs have appeared in many publications. He is the author of three books of his work published by Nazraeli Press and a monograph of his landscape photos published by Lenswork in 2014. In 1995 Levy printed several dozen vintage Minor White negatives for the permanent collection in the Portland Art Museum. He is one of the founders and a current board member of the Photography Council of the Portland Art Museum, and was president of the Council from 2003 to 2006. He is also on the Board of Directors of Photolucida and the Pacific Northwest Photographers Archive.

Stu Levy, “Sailboat and Shadow,” 1994. Photo courtesy Stu Levy.

AN INTERVIEW WITH STU LEVY    

ArtsWatch caught up with Stu Levy via email to find out more about his photography, as well as his association with Ansel Adams. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

When did you first become aware of Ansel Adams’s work?  What drew you to his photography at that time?

Levy: In my early years of interest in photography, I was only vaguely aware of Ansel. I remember being asked to name some famous photographers in 1969, and I mentioned Yousuf Karsh and Henri Cartier-Bresson, but not Ansel. In 1973, I was told that the musician Graham Nash was buying Ansel photos, but that still didn’t mean a lot to me. Moonrise was not on my radar. I’d been on a few backpacking trips in Colorado in 1972 and 1973, and that began my appreciation of landscape photography. But in 1974, when I moved to Portland, I started checking photo books out of the library, alphabetically, and Ansel was in the first batch. The work struck me as being monumental and dramatic. That’s the first time his work really engraved itself on my memory. In 1975 I bought Images, a large Ansel Adams book which reproduced his photographs exceptionally well. Then I saw a big show of his work at the Portland Art Museum. This was my first exposure to real photographs made by a master printer, not just reproductions in a book, and I was awestruck.

Installation view of the “Ansel Adams in Our Time” exhibition at the Portland Art Museum in 2021. Mural photo: Ansel Adams, Self-Portrait, Monument Valley, Utah, 1958, gelatin silver print. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Lane Collection, © The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

You were a student in the Ansel Adams summer workshop in Yosemite National Park in 1979. Tell us the story of your decision to attend the workshop and a bit about your experience as a student.

Levy: Some time before I began the workshop, a friend told me about an organization in Carmel called The Friends of Photography, a group Ansel co-founded to promote photography as a fine art. After I joined the group, the monthly newsletters I received mentioned photo workshops that they offered, all of which sounded interesting, so I put these on my wish list. In 1979 my wife, Cris, and I took most of the year off work after completing our medical residencies. In January of that year, we visited Carmel and stopped in at the Friends of Photography Gallery. Then we went to the Weston Gallery, a gallery founded by the family of the photographer Edward Weston. I remember it was a cold, rainy day, and no one else was in the gallery. We were asked by the Weston Gallery assistant what we wanted to see, and over the next hour or so, we were shown about a hundred Ansel Adams prints, several prints by Weston, and a handful of prints by the photographer Paul Strand.

As we were leaving, I told the assistant that as a photographer myself, I was thinking about taking a Friends of Photography workshop. She suggested it was a better idea to take Ansel’s workshop. I’d never seen his workshop advertised and didn’t realize it was still happening. I said, “What’s wrong with the Friends of Photography workshops?” She responded, “Look, my husband is the director of the Friends of Photography—take Ansel’s workshop!” The gallery “assistant” turned out to be Mary Alinder, who later became Ansel’s administrative assistant, and her husband is Jim Alinder. So, I signed up for the next Ansel workshop in June.

The workshop in Yosemite Valley was a week long. There were 72 participants, divided into six groups of twelve students. Each group had an assistant instructor, and there was another assistant for the darkroom demonstrations. There were also evening presentations by the instructors, and informal print viewing sessions late into the night. In addition to Ansel, the other instructors were Jim Alinder, Paul Caponigro, Roy DeCarava, Marion Patterson, Alan Ross, Al Weber and John Sexton, who became a good friend.

Portrait of Stu Levy & Cris Maranze by John Sexton, Yosemite, 1979. Photo courtesy Stu Levy.

How did that workshop experience influence the direction of your photography? What lessons did you learn?

Levy: In regard to my initial goal of wanting to learn how to make a good print, the simple answer was that to make a good print you need a good negative, and I learned how to do that. Ansel also taught me the difference between taking a photograph (an external, impersonal exercise) and making a photograph (an interpretive, personal exercise). So, in addition to mastering the craft of photography, I now tried to think about having each photo contain a personal statement, usually about my feelings toward my subject matter. In other words, the workshop provided me with context for my work on both a craft level and an artistic level. But I also learned two life-changing lessons at the workshop. The first was that I was exposed to the world of photography as art. The second was that I was exposed to the world of photographers as artists. And I think that would never have happened had I not taken Ansel’s workshop.

Portrait of Ansel Adams by Stu Levy, Yosemite, 1979. Photo courtesy Stu Levy.

Two years later you were hired as an assistant instructor at the Ansel Adams Workshop in Yosemite.  How did this happen?

Levy: Toward the end of our year off, Cris and I traveled east to visit family and friends, and we also had the chance to check out an Ansel show at the Museum of Modern Art and explore other photo galleries in New York. When we got back west, I bought a wide-angle lens for my Rollei SL66, as well as a very expensive Pentax Digital Spotmeter, the same exposure meter Ansel used at the time. We then made a trip to the Grand Canyon intent on hiking the ten miles from the Havasu trailhead, through Supai Village, and on to the campground for a two-night stay. On our hike, we came upon the scene for the photo I made called Havasu Stream. I used my new wide-angle lens, and I was able to successfully calculate the exposure with my new Spotmeter for a very small aperture and an 8-second exposure.  The image became my first post-workshop success, and it was a night-and-day difference from my pre-workshop photos. I kept in touch with the Alinders and with John Sexton, and I showed them how my work was evolving. I asked about becoming an assistant instructor at the workshop, and they had me apply. I was accepted as an assistant instructor in 1981.

Ansel Adams & Stu Levy, Yosemite, 1981. Photo courtesy Stu Levy.

Starting in 1982 you were an assistant instructor for the Friends of Photography Workshop in Carmel, as well as the Ansel Adams Gallery Workshops in Yosemite. Tell us a bit about these organizations and your involvement with them.

Levy: The Friends of Photography was an organization in Carmel founded in 1967 by Ansel and a group of friends, including Beaumont and Nancy Newhall, Brett Weston, and Adams’s wife, Virginia Best Adams, among others. The group presented exhibits and lectures, created a series of publications and had a workshop program. In addition to his Yosemite workshops, Ansel was an instructor at the Friends of Photography Fall Landscape Workshop, offered every year. I was encouraged to apply to be an assistant instructor at that workshop. I was accepted for 1982, and I continued as a workshop assistant with the Friends each year through the 1980s. When Ansel became too frail to go to Yosemite, he merged the Ansel Adams Workshops into the Friends of Photography program. The Friends organization eventually moved to San Francisco in about 1990.

Meanwhile, back in Yosemite, Ansel’s daughter-in-law, Jeanne, became the director of the Ansel Adams Gallery, and she also continued the workshop program in the same spirit as it had been run by Ansel. I became an assistant at that workshop for a week every summer from 1984 through the late 1980s, and I was asked to be a full instructor at the workshop in 1989, sharing the “stage” with John Sexton, Philip Hyde and Joan Myers. As an instructor at the workshop, the major difference from being an assistant was giving an evening lecture, and being exposed to all the attendees at the workshop, although less thoroughly than the small group that stayed with each assistant. All in all, I felt quite honored.

Stu Levy, Half Dome over full dome (Ansel Adams), Friends of Photography Workshop, Carmel, 1982. Photo courtesy Stu Levy.

Did teaching at the various Adams Workshops inform your decision to launch the Portland Photographic Workshops?

Levy: Yes. I had bought my Rollei SL-66 from another Portland photographer, Stewart Harvey, and we became friends with our common interest in photography. He attended the Ansel Workshop in 1981 also, and we drove to and from Yosemite together. On the way home from that workshop, we were so excited about our experience that we hatched the idea of creating a similar experience in Portland. And that was the start of the Portland Photographic Workshops, which began with monthly meetings and eventually included field-trip workshops. After several years, Stewart and I both dropped out of the monthly meetings, and that part of the organization eventually morphed into the Portland Photographers’ Forum, which is still active today. But I have continued teaching workshops at least once a year on the southern Oregon coast.

One of Adams’s contributions to photography was the notion of visualization, a tool which directs the photographer to interpret a scene and decide on the final shot before pressing the shutter. Tell us a bit more about this concept.

Levy: As Ansel composed a photograph, he understood the limitations of what the film would capture, and he knew what manipulations of filtration, exposure and development he could use to make the final image look the way he had visualized it. The genesis of this concept was the 1927 photo he made while hiking in Yosemite, which he called Monolith: The Face of Half Dome. With only two unexposed film plates left for the day, he made the first exposure using a standard yellow filter. (For black and white film, this color of filtration usually makes the blue sky look the way our eyes perceive it, while using no filter at all makes the sky look lighter than we perceive.) But in his mind’s eye, Ansel visualized a darker sky. So for his second exposure he decided to use a red filter, which would render the sky almost black and enhance the relative contrast of the snow to the face of the rock. It was a manipulation and a departure from reality, but by visualizing what he wanted before he pressed the shutter, he was able to make an artistic statement rather than merely a factual documentation. That new awareness changed the direction of his approach to photography.

The concept of visualization led to Adams’s formulation of The Zone System as a way to guide the photographer to the desired light and dark values in the final image. Can you tell our readers something about this system?

Levy: The Zone System was developed to create a language for describing shades of gray along the scale from black (Zone 0) to white (Zone X), analogous to the naming of musical notes. Ansel knew that his negatives could record a certain contrast range of light, and that he could expand or contract the negative’s response by adjusting his exposure and the development time of the film. He understood the range of negative densities his photo paper could respond to, and he also understood that he could “nudge” the responses at either extreme by dodging the shadows to make them lighter and burning in the highlights to make them darker.

The Zone System and Exposure Formula, developed by Ansel Adams & Fred Archer. Photo courtesy Stu Levy.

The most famous story about the Zone System involves the making of his photo, Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, in 1941. As he was frantically setting up his camera as the afternoon light was fading, he couldn’t find his light meter. But he remembered that the moon reflected 250 candles per square foot, and if he set his shutter speed to the reciprocal of that light value (1/250th of a second) and set his aperture at the square root of the film speed (f/8 if using ISO 64 film), he would expose the moon at Zone V (middle gray). To make the moon look bright, but maintain detail, it would have to be 2 stops brighter – Zone VII, so he slowed his shutter speed to 1/60th of a second. For more depth of field and sharpness, he wanted to use a smaller aperture (f/32), so he had to slow his shutter speed by another 4 stops to ¼ second. Then he used a deep yellow filter requiring adding two more stops of light – so his final exposure was 1 second at f/32. The result was that Moonrise became the most popular photograph he ever made.

One of Ansel Adams’s lasting legacies was his support for the environment, especially for the protection of our national parks through his work with the Sierra Club. John Szarkowski, the former director of photography at MoMA, once said that Adams was a “patron saint of the conservation movement responsible for enlarging our emotional knowledge of the natural world.” Do you agree with Szarkowski’s assessment? How have Adams’s attitudes about the environment impacted your own landscape photography?

Levy: I think Szarkowski’s statement is accurate. Ansel leveraged his love of Yosemite and his work with the Sierra Club into a model for political change. He became involved in the Sierra Club in his early years in Yosemite. He joined their hikes, photographed their trips, and eventually became a member of the Sierra Club board of directors from 1934 to 1971. In 1936 the Sierra Club sent him to Washington, D.C., to lobby congress for the establishment of Kings Canyon, an area south of Yosemite, as a national park. When Ansel published Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail, a large-format book of the photos he made in Kings Canyon, he sent a copy of the book to Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, who gave it to President Roosevelt. The result: Kings Canyon was designated a national park in 1940.

In 1960 the Sierra Club started publishing a series of photo books by Ansel, Cedric Wright, Eliot Porter and others, illustrating the value of wilderness and the importance of protecting these areas from development. The publications became the model followed by a generation of photographers who became involved in the environmental protection movement. I was also influenced by this aspect of Ansel’s work, as well as by the photos of Eliot Porter and the writings of Edward Abbey. Because of their influence, I started photographing what I perceived to be threatened landscapes, and a few of my photos were published in books advocating wilderness protection.

Ansel Adams, “Sand Dunes, Sunrise,” Death Valley National Monument, California, about 1948, gelatin silver print. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Lane Collection, © The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

As a young man Adams almost pursued a career in music as a concert pianist, but he chose to pursue photography instead. Adams often compared making photographs to making music by saying, “The negative is the equivalent of the composer’s score, and the print to its performance. Each performance differs in subtle ways.” What do you think Adams meant by this?

Levy: A musical score gives information about the notes, the timing and the accents, but there is a broad realm of interpretation available. Ansel thought it would be boring to hear a piece of music performed identically by different performers, or even by the same performer, over time. Similarly, he found that each time he reprinted an image, it might not look identical to previous prints he made, but it was still one of several correct answers for that performance. He could recognize a bad performance and not show it, or throw it away, but his prints did change over time, reflecting his sensibilities as well as the materials available to him. Another explanation of this would be that the same piece of music might sound different on different pianos or on different guitars. They might each be correct but different interpretations of the score. I have seen a couple of exhibits showing up to six variants of Moonrise Hernandez, New Mexico, some with subtle differences and some with dramatic differences.

Like Adams, you are also a musician. Has music affected your own approach to photography?

Levy: Although I loved performing with my band Surdy Greebus, I realized that my musical skills were rather modest, so I went into medicine. But for me, practicing photography seemed to have a parallel to music. There was the act of making the photograph, which is experientially similar to playing an instrument. And there was the experience of performing, which is similar to having work seen either as prints or in publications. But even though Ansel was trained in classical music, and my tastes run more towards jazz and rock, it’s the subtle differences in each new performance that I’ve come to appreciate.

To continue with the analogy, my approach to darkroom printing has been to explore the potential of the negative by always asking “what if” I tried something else during the printing? Each time I reprinted a photo, I might tune into another aspect of the negative. This may explain part of my interest in the Grateful Dead. I am an unapologetic Grateful Deadhead and listen to their music whenever given the opportunity. In addition to my love of the music, it was the fact that they never played a song the same way twice that fascinated me. When the Grateful Dead issued a double-vinyl album several years ago and used five of my photos on the record jacket, I think I may have reached the pinnacle of my photographic career!

Tell our readers a bit about how your medical practice fits in with your pursuit of photography. Do you still practice medicine?

Levy: My late wife, Cris Maranze, and I both became family medicine physicians. In 1980 we took full-time jobs with Kaiser Permanente in Portland. It was all-consuming work, and except for vacations, there was little time for photography or almost anything else. So, in 1982 we both decided to reduce our work time to 50%, essentially sharing a full-time job between us. That gave me enough time to pursue photography and stay committed to my practice of medicine. I continued to work half-time for the next thirty years, but I got progressively more involved in the Electronic Medical Record. I retired from my clinical practice in 2013, but I still teach EMR (EPICCare) efficiency skills to clinicians in my post-retirement phase. In 2010 I was named a Distinguished Physician by Northwest Permanente, the local Kaiser medical group. 

What’s on the horizon?

Levy: This August I’m going to resurrect my annual southern Oregon coast workshop, which didn’t happen last year. It’s called Shore Acres & the Oregon Coast, and it’ll be an intensive photographic experience that Willie Osterman and I will conduct together. This fall I’ll join Bruce Barnbaum and Mark Gardner to co-lead a photography workshop called Astonishing Southeast Utah: From Bears Ears to Four Corners. And in late October I’ll be displaying some of my photos of musicians from the 1960s in a retrospective exhibition called Life on the Edge: Cincinnati R’n’R Legacies 1960-1980, An Exhibition of Period Correct Memories, put on by the Cincinnati USA Music Heritage Foundation.

***

See more of Stu Levy’s work on his website at www.stulevyphoto.com.

About the author

Pat Rose is a Portland-based photographer whose work includes landscape, street, portrait and botanical photography. She is a retired English as a Second Language teacher who has taught in Saudi Arabia and Turkey, in Austin, Texas, and most recently at Portland State University. She has shown her work in various juried group exhibitions in several galleries around the country, and her landscape photos have been published in two outdoor guidebooks. Much of her work can be found on her website at www.patrosephotography.com.

Join the discussion

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.