Who wants to look at an image Ansel Adams himself composed? Are you kidding me? We fell over ourselves getting behind that camera. It was upside-down and reversed left-to-right, but we all got the idea. Ansel waited patiently until we each had our turn, then asked us, "What do you think?" We all nodded and said we thought it was a good image to shoot. What else were we going to say? Ansel looked at us and said, "I would have taken that shot twenty years ago."
He then instructed Ross to move the tripod half the distance to the trees, framed and focused again, and invited us to check out the new image. Where before we had the roots, the textured bark and even a few low-hanging branches, now the photograph was only about the base of the trees and their roots. We all agreed this was better. Again he nodded and looked at the trees. "That one I might have taken ten years ago."
The third and final image he showed us was composed just a few feet from one of the trees. The photograph was all about the forms and textures of the bark, and the soft light wrapping around one side of the tree. That light had been there all along, but none of us had noticed it. "This is what I'll take today," Ansel said with a smile and a wag of his finger. "Remember, if it's not good enough, you're not close enough." I found out later that that quote is actually attributed to another giant of photography, photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson, but Ansel said it first for me, and it stuck.
As if it mattered, we were all in agreement. This was the best of the three photos Ansel composed that day by far.
I also got to sit with George as he and I had coffee and tea with Paul Caponigro on the last day of the workshop. George was searching as hard as I was in those days, and he wanted to know how he could know what path he should pursue. Like Ansel and Caponigro, George was a pianist, and loved both the piano and photography. Caponigro was patient with the two of us, and more or less reminded us that it was up to us to decide how and what we were going to do with our lives. He wished us luck, and told us to trust ourselves. Oddly enough, I still carry a scrap of paper in my wallet with my mother's handwriting on it, and it says the same thing: "Know thyself. Love thyself. Trust thyself." I don't know if George ever found his answer.
We said our goodbyes, and joined up with Jim and Ray for our last afternoon and evening together before we all headed home. We were giddy with the emotions the entire week had inspired, and took a bus ride on an open-topped double-decker tour bus around the park. As we rode, we laughed, told stories, and generally let off steam. I remember shooting some photos with my teeth, telling the group that this was "The Jimi Hendrix Method" of photography. At some point Ray stopped and looked very serious and said, "You know what I'm trying to communicate when I photograph - whether it's a photo of a flower, a landscape or a person?" We all shook our heads. "It's, 'Well, GOLLL-EEE, wouldcha look at THAT?!?" After all the high-minded talk about photography during the week, it struck us all as hilarious. I know. You really had to be there.
I stayed in touch with Ray for the next 10 years or so until his sister wrote me that he had passed away sometime in the early nineties. We had several long and very good phone conversations about photography and the world of fine-art photographers, and I find that I miss him more than ever when I think about that time. George and Jim and I exchanged Christmas cards for a few years, but lost touch after that. The internet tells me George is still out there, and I actually just tried calling him, but got an automated answer machine. I'll keep trying. I'd like him to read this, and tell me whether or not I got it right. The Jim Mulvaney that answered my call yesterday wasn't the one I knew. I'll keep looking. And after writing this, I'm developing an urge to dust off the 4x5 view camera and take a trip to the Cascades for old times' sake. I'll think about Goerge, Ray and Jim. I know I'll think about mom. She loved the spring. But more than anything, I'll think about Ansel, Roy DeCarava, Marion Patterson and Paul Caponigro and the week that they changed my life. I'm grateful they did.
What about you? Do you have heroes in the photo world? I'd love to hear your stories. Leave a comment or two when you get a chance. And thanks for stopping in.