Ansel Adams’ Nephew Comes Out of the Closet

I never intended to write this post, or even discuss its contents with anyone. Some things are best kept secret, and I always thought this was one of them. However, recent events have caused me to change my mind.

People ask me all the time if I’m related to Ansel Adams. I always smile and say something like, “No, but I sure wish I was”. But, truth is, I’ve been lying. Ansel Adams was my great uncle. In fact, Uncle Ansel gave me my first camera and spent much of his time in my early years teaching me how to use it. I recall those times fondly, spending weeks at a time in Yosemite and Yellowstone. During the day, Uncle Ansel would let me help him set up his camera and while he was waiting for the light to get just right, which was often, he’d teach. At night, he’d continue teaching by the light of our campfire. It was some of the happiest times of my life.

The reason I’ve kept it secret all these years is because I didn’t want it to become either a hurdle or a springboard for my own career. I didn’t want people judging my work against my uncle’s, knowing that it would never measure up. And I didn’t want people giving me any breaks just because I was related to a great photographer. I wanted to make it on my own.

Sadly, though, recent events have caused me come out of the closet. My passion in night photography has created a stir among some folks and, unfortunately, has brought Uncle Ansel into the fray as well. It all started when I began explaining how I created many of my night images from multiple exposures—how it is impossible to “get it all in one shot” and how you sometimes have to shoot an exposure for the stars and a second (or more) exposure for the foreground, often incorporating light painting.

Many people understood this reality and embraced it, but others did not. They talked about how this was “cheating” and how if you don’t get it right in the camera with the first and only shot, you weren’t being a “real” photographer. I tried to explain that with night photography there isn’t a “real” to begin with, because the long exposures cause the resulting image to look far different from what we see with our eyes. So there are only degrees of non-reality and that, in effect, what I was doing was actually making the image look more real, as anything I’d try in a single shot would really look out of whack.

Unfortunately, these arguments didn’t work and that’s when they tried to play their trump card. They said that Ansel Adams would never do something like that, citing his “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” as an example. Ansel would never resort to such tactics as superimposing a moon to create an image like that, they said. My attempts to explain that neither would I—that I only use multiple exposures to allow me to convey effectively the scene in front of me and that I never take images shot at completely different times or locations and combine them into one, fell flat. They just kept on about Ansel and his purity.

A particularly nasty tongue lashing thrown at me just last night has propelled me not only to jump out of the closet regarding my relationship to Ansel Adams, but also to go back on a promise that I made to him on the very night he shot that “moonrise” image. You see, I was with him that night. In fact, I was driving the old Pontiac station wagon when we rounded the bend into Hernandez and I heard him scream STOP. (Yes, I was an underage driver without a driver’s license, but we had been out all day and Uncle Ansel was tired and asked me to drive so he could rest. He knew I was a safe driver.)

And now the broken promise. THERE WAS NO MOON THAT NIGHT! There was only Hernandez and those spectacular clouds. Uncle Ansel took the shot, then looked over at me and said, “You know, what this image really needs is a moon rising over the landscape.” Back in his darkroom later that night, he did just that. He took a shot of the moon he had taken in Oklahoma a month earlier and with the skilled kind of dodging and burning that only he was capable of, incorporated it into the shot of Hernandez. Afterward, he made me swear to secrecy.

I’ve kept that promise until now. Part of me feels relieved. It has not been easy keeping such a dark secret all these years, especially when I hear all the “Ansel would never do that” statements. But, of course, I also feel terrible that I have let Uncle Ansel down and tarnished his reputation. Of this I can assure you, any judgment you pass on me will not be as harsh as the one I give myself.

If there is any moral to this story, it would be that the only person truly worthy of judging your work is YOU. Yes, accolades are great; we all love them, but the only thing that really matters is whether YOU like the image. And there is little reality in photography, either. Let’s face it; most everything we do as a photographer, during both capture and post processing, is designed to make the image look “better”, not real. I’m much more conservative in my night photography than a lot of others I know, usually preferring to at least remain on the fringes of reality, but that fact doesn’t make my images any better or, for that matter, necessarily any more real than anyone else’s does.

Truth is, I have a pretty good idea that if Uncle Ansel were still shooting today, we’d be seeing some pretty funky stuff coming out of his digital “darkroom.”


3 Responses to “Ansel Adams’ Nephew Comes Out of the Closet”

  1. mdgellman Says:

    April Fool’s?

  2. CharlieT Says:

    Hello Kevin
    I will be more respectful of you since I now know you are at least 80 years old.
    You do remember(?) that “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” was taken in 1941.

  3. Kevin Adams Says:

    Sorry I’m just now responding. Had a bug in the system that wasn’t letting comments post automatically and I didn’t know they were there. All fixed now.

    Charlie, actually I was 14 years old at the time. If you’ve seen my white hair, you would know that it would have to take at least 85 years to get that color! 🙂

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