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News . Feature Stories . Faculty Emeritus John Paul Miller talks about his experience with Ansel Adams

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July 02, 2007

Faculty Emeritus John Paul Miller talks about his experience with Ansel Adams

John Paul Miller answers a Q&A about his encounters with the legendary Ansel Adams...

As far as we know, you are the only Cleveland Institute of Art faculty member to ever have worked with Ansel Adams. Tell us about your experience?

Around 1963 or 64, I got information from the Sierra Club that he was offering his first seminar for, I think it was a week and a half in Yosemite Valley. So I signed up for it and I went out and camped in the valley and every day he would take the group -- there were 16 or 18 of us -- someplace in the park to photograph. I was doing all the photography for (The Cleveland Institute of Art) at that time I had gotten a good, second-hand 4 X 5 view camera and that's what he advised us to bring, if we could. A view camera is like an old fashioned camera; it has a bellows in the front. It's a fairly big camera and you use it with a tripod always.

Did you learn any new techniques?

Polaroid had just brought out 4 X 5 sheet film for view cameras and Ansel thought it was the best film he had every worked with. So we would take a picture with the Polaroid film and it was positive-negative film, you had to do a special trick of washing this negative to get the developer out of it but then you could dry it and you had a beautiful negative. He taught us tricks. The main one was pre-exposing film to get it to the point where it was ready to respond to the subtlest tones. By pre-exposing, you expose it to a gray card for a certain amount of time, depending upon what the light was, and this got it ready to take a picture. It would mean that you could take a picture that had a lot of dark areas in it but because it has been pre-exposed, the dark areas would register details in those areas which you couldn't get if you gave it just an ordinary exposure.

Where in Yosemite did you take pictures?

We went one place and it was by the Merced River and we were working there to photograph to try to get the brilliance of the water. We went to the Big Tree area; we went up to Tuolumne Meadows where there were some lakes and things like that, peaks; and we went up to Glacier Point where he made one of his famous pictures of the moonrise and he exposed to get the moon and the rest of the landscape properly exposed. We went to his studio in the valley twice for parties. So he would take us in to see his darkroom. I was really excited about being able to see his darkroom and how he worked.

Did you ever see Ansel Adams again?

In the early 1970s he put out a really big coffee table book and he came to a bookstore on Shaker Square for a book-signing and I was invited to that. I went to dinner with him.

Did you ever purchase any of Ansel Adams' photographs?

Fred Miller (1940 graduate and longtime professor at the Institute) and his wife and two girls and I went out west in about 1948, I think, and we camped at Tenaya Lake, which is in Yosemite, at the top. Ansel Adams photographed Tenaya Lake from our campsite. I saw it in a book. So I called him and said I'd like to buy a fairly large print of that picture of Tenaya Lake. ... I ordered it and it was $150.

Years later, I had seen the one of an iceberg that he did at Glacier Bay and I had always liked the Mount McKinley picture. So I called him and ordered those two. They were about $175 each. I also bought two of his portfolios of about 15 prints each from the Sierra Club. So at one time I had 33 Ansel Adams (photographs). I've sold most of them ... Ansel has been very good to me.

Did you have any other encounters with Ansel Adams?

We hung a show of his here at The Cleveland Institute of Art in 1967 ("The Eloquent Light: Photography by Ansel Adams," circulated by the George Eastman House). It was a traveling show they offered. We didn't have to provide insurance on it or have security guards or anything like that, if you can imagine, and it was a huge show, a beautiful show. It had some of his really big prints.

"Ansel Adams: A Legacy" is a co-presentation with The Cleveland Museum of Art and is on view through August 19.

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