I apologize for the long post; today is Ansel Adams’ birthday. I can’t think of a better way to pay tribute than to share my story about driving his Cadillac through Yosemite with my good buddy, Terry Deglau. I was honored to be asked by Sara Frances to write this for her new book, Unplugged Voices. It’s a stunning book with 125 Tales of Art and Life from Northern New Mexico, the Four Corners, and the West.
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I used to joke about my brush with the celebrity world as boiling down to getting into a cab in NYC as Vincent Price was getting out. Over my fifty-two-year history in the photography industry, I consider myself having one of the most amazing careers in the business! “Amazing” is a lofty, even arrogant word, but I don’t use it lightly. My definition of success has repeatedly changed over the years and morphed into being defined by the smile on my face each morning. So, when I say “amazing,” I mean that it’s been about the people I’ve worked with, the projects, and the passion I’m fortunate to have for this industry that I love dearly. It’s the relationships and the friendships; so many of these people have become like family.
I’m turning back the clock to the nineties. I was president of Hasselblad USA from 1987 through 1999. In 1991, I was invited to join the Board of the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson. Ansel was one of its founders. At my very first Board meeting, Richard Avedon turned over his archives. Attending a very upscale reception that first night, and capping the celebration in a little Mexican bar with Avedon, I felt like a rookie ballplayer drafted in the ninth inning to the team that won the World Series. I had done nothing to contribute to the event, but there I was, sharing in the accolades…. But that’s another story!
At a meeting a few months later, it was announced that Virginia Adams, Ansel’s widow, had donated his 1977 Cadillac to the Center to raise money for its visiting scholar fund. The president of the Board, decided to buy it, but the following day came in asking somebody to take it off his hands—his wife wasn’t a big fan of his intended purchase. Well, there I was—president of Hasselblad. Victor Hasselblad and Ansel had been good friends, and I had an idea. So, I bought the car with Hasselblad’s money, and decided we’d show it at two upcoming major shows: Photo West at Mosconi in San Francisco and then at Photo East in NYC.
But I didn’t want just to sell it—I wanted to make some noise. I remember being frustrated with so many foreign companies in the industry. At the time, I felt there wasn’t enough focus on giving back to the American market. Of course, Hasselblad was Swedish, but it was time for the company to be more active and give back to programs in the U.S.
We put the car up for sale, and it became a publicist’s dream. We didn’t just sell the car, but created a package that included a Hasselblad camera and lens, a case of Kodak film, and a Bogen tripod. The proceeds would go back to Photographers + Friends United Against AIDS. And that’s another story. This incredible group raised over a million dollars with a photography auction pulling in collectors worldwide. Best of all, Kalmar Ad Marketing, then Hasselblad’s advertising agency, put together a great ad featuring the Cadillac, the gear, and the short backstory. It ran in virtually every photo magazine at no charge! Remember, this is back when
everything was in print, no internet. There was even a cost difference for a color ad versus black and white. Well, we had “cover” advertising positions all over the place.
But here’s the best part of the story…
The best thing about photography has nothing to do with imaging directly but with the friendships that come out of everyone’s love for the craft. One of my very dearest friends, Terry Deglau, who was then with Kodak, joined me after Photo West. We’d had the car on display with our booth, and Rod Dresser, Ansel’s last assistant before he passed away, joined us with some of his personal collection of Ansel’s prints. My friendship with Rod, led to selling Ansel’s camera gear to shock-jock, Don Imus, for $100,000, for charity a few years later—but you guessed it…. That’s yet another story.
The minute Photo West was over, we hit the road to go to Yosemite, in the Cadillac, of course.
There’s something mystical about driving Ansel’s car in Yosemite, down roads he knew like the back of his hand. The car seemed to sense it was “home.” And all along the way, breaking through the serenity of Yosemite, we’d be playing Ansel’s car horn. If I remember right, Ansel had programmed in 85 different songs. I’m told that each was a tribute to somebody he knew or someplace he’d been. Just a few bars, but enough to recognize songs like “Dixie” and “On Wisconsin.” Every time we hit the horn we’d break out laughing, determined to discover ALL of them. It was so magical! I’m convinced that after driving the car for three days in the park, I wrapped up the trip completely understanding Ansel’s detailed, esoteric Zone V photo exposure system and development—just because my tush was where his had been for so many years.
The car was sold at Photo East to Helmut Horn, then president of Coastal Hotels. The Carmel Highlands Inn was one of its managed properties, and he wanted to bring the Caddie back to its roots, just down the street where Virginia had handed me the keys a year earlier. On the wall in my office is a framed print of Ansel’s car with Virginia and me the day I picked it up. There’s even a story with that one—notice the vignette? Jeff Nixon was visiting Virginia and grabbed the shot for us, but I had the wrong lens shade on the camera!
I’ve lost track of the car. Last I heard it was back in Yosemite. However, in my desk drawer are Ansel’s original car keys, and the license plate is in a plaque on my wall. And while the industry lost Terry Deglau several years ago, there isn’t a day that I don’t look at that photograph and cherish my friendship and the adventures Terry and I shared.
My Ansel story is just one in a fifty-two-year run. Each story has a common denominator, namely that everybody involved has an unquenchable passion for imaging. Their hearts are all in the game, and it’s contagious. People who have touched my heart, watched my back, and supported so many different ideas. I’ve learned from them, been blessed to be able to help with their projects, and they’ve helped me in mine. In a recent blog I wrote, ”You can’t create images that tug at people’s heartstrings if your own heart isn’t in it!”
Somewhere deep down inside, whether we each recognize it or not, we’re all hoping to change the world—no, not the entire globe—just our little piece of it. We all want to leave this world having made a difference in somebody’s life, which makes life special for me. There are so many people who have made a difference in mine.
This story is mine, but think about your own life and your significance to your friends, associates, and family. Never slow down in your search for excellence. But don’t look for perfection.
“I’m careful not to confuse excellence with perfection.
Excellence I can reach for, perfection is God’s business.”
–Michael J Fox