Neil and Ansel

So, as we’ve been bragging about all week (and are quite excited about), our school patriarch and founder, Neil Chaput de Saintonge, had at one time studied with Ansel Adams in the early 70s. In light of this fact, and tonight’s opening of the exhibit Ansel Adams: A Legacy at the Missoula Art Museum, I thought it would be fitting to close out “Ansel  Week” on Paper Airplanes with a one-on-one conversation with Neil.

Before I begin however, all of us here at RMSP hope you have enjoyed learning a bit about Ansel. He is a true icon in photography. Obviously there is more to this man than we could cover in a week on the blog, so we STRONGLY encourage you to check out his work at the MAM. Surrounding yourself with 130 of his prints is perhaps the best possible way to learn from him.


When and where was the class you took with Ansel?
It was in June of ’73 in Yosemite National Park. It was roughly a week and a half course taught by Ansel and four other professional photographers teaching various advanced techniques. In particular, I attended the course to study the Zone System from Ansel. Since he invented this technique with Fred Archer in 1940, I figured I had better take advantage of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn it from him.

Were you already a teacher of photography at the time?
Yes. I had been teaching for about two years in the Art Institute of Atlanta photography program. I convinced them to send me to this course. I then came back and taught the Zone System for them. I adapted my own way of teaching it based on what I learned from Ansel. Same information, just my unique way of teaching it. In fact, one day another photographer asked me if there was a Zone System for color photography, which there wasn’t at the time. That got me to thinking, “Hey, why couldn’t there be?!” So I adapted the information to create a Zone System for color. I’m pretty sure there was nobody else who had done this before that time. For at least twenty years I was the only one teaching it…that I knew of, anyway.

What was the learning experience like during the course?
There were five groups of fifteen students. Each group would spend about a half a day with a different instructor on various things. A half a day shooting, in the darkroom, having our work critiqued, or in Ansel’s case, with him critiquing his own work. He was a tough but fair critiquer, but he was especially tough on his own work. Almost brutal.

One of the first things he did when we went out shooting was to give us all a 4″ x 5″ cardboard viewing frame. He told us that you don’t just go out in the field and start looking through your camera for your shot. You had to get an idea of where you were both physically and emotionally. He taught the concept of pre-visualization which is so important as a photographer. He showed us how to use the viewing frame to “see” the image before we even set up our camera gear. It was a great exercise which I still teach to this day.

Ansel himself seemed to be way more of a “left brain” person than “right brain” person. Although a brilliant artist, he was extremely precise with his techniques and taught them the same way. His technical knowledge and experience was truly who he was. In the darkroom, he really impressed me with how to be organized, efficient, careful and precise. Up until that point, I had been pretty sloppy in the darkroom, but not after that. I changed my habits immediately because I saw firsthand the results he could produce.

One example is that he would use a sample negative from a student and demonstrate printing technique. He’d show us the difference of how to print it without much work being done to it…and then how it could be turned into a masterpiece with what he does to his own work in the darkroom. The difference was literally night and day and it was a very graphic way to learn. It was amazing!

I also learned a very hard lesson once when I presented my work to him using gray colored matte board. He used mine as an example of how NOT to present work…the only thing a viewer should be focused on is the image and not be distracted by the matte board or fancy framing. In the fine art print world, work should ALWAYS be in white mattes only. Boy, I was pretty embarrassed so I learned the hard way. I listened to that advice and never use mattes other than white.

Ansel was a great character and person. He was always cracking jokes and telling stories. Very personable and I enjoyed being around him a lot.

What kind of stories did he tell? Do you remember any?
Oh, things like the story of one of his more famous works, “Moonrise Over Hernandez, New Mexico.” What he told us was that image was so popular that up to that time he had already printed 923 versions of it. He would go on to produce over a thousand copies in his lifetime and each one of them is different. He would print the sky darker and darker each time because it made it look more and more dramatic. He knew a good thing when he had one.

Was it your first time in Yosemite National Park?
Yes, it was the first time I visited Yosemite…maybe the first time I went out to the West in general. It was pretty amazing!

Anything else you’d like to say about your experience with Ansel?
Well, while we there, Ansel happened to be hosting a 65th birthday party for his friend,  Beaumont Newhall, the number one photography historian at the time. Since our class happened to be taking place at the time, he invited all us to his home to join the party. There were many famous photographers there such Jerry Uelsmann and Ralph Gibson. It was so cool to be around all of these great people and I think I was the only one there with a camera. One of them was another friend of Ansel’s, the famous Hungarian photographer, Brasaii.  It came time to cut the birthday cake and Beaumont asked Brasaii if he had a knife on him. Brasaii gave his pocket knife to him and he then started to cut the cake with it. Brasaii stopped him and took his knife back. It was kind of funny, actually. Overall, it was a great experience.

What will you be talking about in your lecture at MAM, “Ansel Adams: The Making of a Photograph”on October 26?
I’ll be talking about my experience in his class, a little about the Zone System, and showing examples of Ansel’s work and what he did to them to make them look SO good. It should be fun and I can’t wait!

If in town, catch Neil’s lecture, “Ansel Adams – The Making of a Photograph” on Wednesday, October 26th at 7 p.m. MST at the Missoula Art Museum in conjunction with the exhibition, “Ansel Adams: A Legacy.”



3 thoughts on “Neil and Ansel

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Christopher Cable

Thanks Bob for this interview. I am VERY excited to be local and able to attend a huge event like this.

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Bob McGowan

Great, Christopher! It’s already a hit at the MAM. Biggest crowds they’ve ever had, I understand.

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