Ansel Adams' Lost Los Angeles Found
Excerpt from:

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 parking lots or small format images at all. Like you, Adams means the classic evocation of the great American wilderness in photography to me. It never crossed my mind that he had photographed any of the cities of men, much less Los Angeles. But there it was.

I backed up to "New Search" in the LAPL's database and 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 to 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.

So 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, so 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. 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 was.). There it was in the March 1941 special issue on Air Power.

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 article 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 found at the Los Angeles Public Library.

First I note that the holding of the LAPL contain no color images at all, just black and white 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 is the Burbank Bowl. We also know that the couple on the right of the two small inserts is Lockheed worker Cole Weston and wife in their $15 a month bungalow. Whether or not this is the son of Edward Weston and a famous photographer in his own right is unknown, but Cole Weston would have been 22 in early 1941 and his biography says that he worked as a welder for the Navy and as a photographer during the war. After the war he was lived in Los Angeles working as a photographer for Life Magazine. Ansel Adams and the Westons were, of course, close associates throughout.

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' great "Suffering Under a Great Injustice" Ansel Adams's 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 is a kind of Ansel Adams Walkabout on the streets of Los Angeles 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 and more than worth Adams' while for the money alone. On the other hand it allowed him to set aside the heavier equipment and 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.

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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.
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