Blogger or novelist, columnist or poet, anyone who writes consistently knows the experience. After hours or days of steadily increasing pressure, a dam breaks. Encouraged by the warmth of reflection, a jam of frozen thought gives way and words begin to flow, irrepressible syllables that splash and tumble over one another as they swirl away to unexpected conclusions. Images rise into consciousness, yeasty and pliant as freshly homemade bread. Sentences take on the burnished glow of parking lot pennies. Impatient phrases nudge against the resistant mind, begging for attention.
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass”, says Chekhov. And now and then, we do. Often we’re unable to explain how or why it happens ~ some lines do seem to “write themselves” ~ but however strange or inexplicable the experience, there’s no question that it’s real.
Recently, one of my own readers graciously confirmed that reality in a comment, here:
There’s a thrill in reading good stuff, in finding a word, a line, a phrase that resonates. And there’s magic when a writer pulls a certain something together, maybe even only subconsciously. Here’s where you got me: “…when a fault line tightened and Port au Prince tripped, flying off into the chaos of history.” Oh, that’s a diamond line amidst many other precious jewels in this piece.
In response, I suggested a possible truth:
…that those “diamond lines” are mined as much as created, dug out from the subconscious and suddenly spotted, just lying there. Sometimes they don’t even need to be washed up or faceted ~ they simply shine. Finding one is a terrific experience, and probably part of the reason that myths and muse-ish legends about the writing process have emerged. There’s a good bit of mystery at play…
Of course not all lines are diamonds. Sometimes they’re only rhinestones, or tumbled granite, or even bits of gravel. We may sense a flicker of brilliance, catch a glint of Chekov’s light, but most of us spend the bulk of our time sifting the alluvial sands, hoping the right combination of luck and persistance will bring us another gem.
When it comes to artists, particularly those held up as masters of their craft, we tend to see only the diamonds. While I’ve never been to Yosemite, if anyone says “Half Dome” or “El Capitan” I see those places as clearly as if I were standing in their midst, and I see them because of Ansel Adams. What I “see”, of course, are his photographs: perfect, iconic images that distill the essence of place and re-present it to us as an unspeakable gift.
Even when I’ve traveled in places that Adams chose to record with his camera – Glacier Bay, the Sonoma Hills, Marin and the Golden Gate headlands - his photographs tear at my heart, making me regret I saw so little of the world I explored.
What I hadn’t understood until quite recently is that Adams’ work wasn’t limited to Half Dome and snowscapes. Browsing Gerard Van der Leun’s fine American Digest, I noticed Adams’ name in the archives and decided to have a look. I was astonished by what I found. Mr. Van der Leun’s words could have been my own:
I don’t normally associate Ansel Adams with ironic snapshots of parking lots or small format urban photography at all. Like you, a photograph by Adams means the classic evocation of the great American wilderness. It never crossed my mind that he had photographed any of the cities of men, much less Los Angeles. But there it was. Maybe, I thought, there were more.
Indeed there were. As detailed in Van der Leun’s essay, Ansel Adams’ Lost Los Angeles Found, Adams had been on assignment to Fortune Magazine, providing images for a March, 1941 story on air power entitled City of the Angels: The U.S. breeds its air power in the fabulous empire of oomph.
Some photographs and negatives from that time found their way to the Los Angeles Public Library, where they can be accessed through a search of the photo collection. What’s striking about the photographs is how very ordinary they are in subject matter. Billboards, hot dog stands, newshawkers, bowling tournaments ~ Adams was photographing a city that seems to have as much in common with Indianapolis or Wichita as with the Los Angeles of today.
That the photographs included in the Fortune spread weren’t particularly compelling is no surprise. As for the photos discovered in the Los Angeles library by Van der Leun, some were utterly pedestrian. Nevertheless, because of Adams’ work, Ralph’s grocery in Westwood remains a part of the historical record, as does the slightly ironic, knowing gaze of the news guy at the corner.
Seen in the context of Adams’ completed life, the Los Angeles portfolio suggests certain realities. No one comes to artistic maturity in a day. However significant an individual’s achievements, the needs of life and the compulsions of art live in continual tension. Most remarkably, under the right circumstances even the photographs of Ansel Adams could be mistaken for our own collections of family snapshots, still piled in shoeboxes in the back of a bedroom closet, waiting to be sorted.
Of all the treasures contained in Adams’ Los Angeles photos, my personal favorite is this double exposure, part of a bowling alley series. If I were a photographer, too much gazing at Moon and Half Dome or El Capitan in Winter could freeze me in my tracks. On the other hand, this little gem is comforting, almost encouraging. “Look,” it seems to say. “Even the best fall prey to bad judgement, poor vision, wrong decisions or errors born of inattention. Do you consider yourself better than the masters? Who are you to refuse the risk of creation?” The questions are worth considering, not only for photographers but for anyone tempted toward creativity but fearful of public failure.
Looking at the photograph, I confess to curiosity. Why is it still available? Why didn’t it disappear from the catalogues, the archives? Van der Leun notes he was told during his call to the Reference Desk at the Los Angeles Public Library’s photo collection that their images were from negatives given to the Library in the early 1960s by Adams himself. Did he overlook the double exposure? Was its inclusion with the negatives pure accident? Might Adams have seen the image as a photographic analogy to the imperfections of nature ~ the knot in the wood, so to speak - and just thrown it in with a grin? There’s no way to know.
Lacking a definitive explanation, I prefer to believe Adams tucked his flawed image into the group of donated negatives as a gift for photographers not yet born. Seen in isolation, it could be any snapshot taken by any casual observer. Seen in the context of Adams’ oeuvre it stands as a reminder that even the greatest photographer picked up a camera for a first time, even when art permeates the soul techniques must be learned, and above all even the greatest among us can have the dreaded “off day”.
With Half Dome and El Capitan before us, we rarely consider how many double exposures there must have been. Even for Ansel Adams, there were poorly exposed, ineptly developed, out-of-focus and badly framed images. In the end, it makes no difference. It’s the genius that endures.
From time to time I’ve wished I could have accompanied Adams on one of his photo shoots. It would have been fascinating to watch him work, less for the sake of the final images than for the opportunity to witness the decision-making process leading to their capture. In the past, if I could have had my choice I would have traveled with him to El Capitan, to one of the stands of trees he rendered so beautifully or perhaps to the church at Taos, which I’ve photographed myself.
But today, my perspective has changed. While I admire and respond even more deeply to his representations of nature, I’ve come to appreciate his Los Angeles work in a way I never thought possible, and the double exposure from the bowling alley is especially dear.
Others may dismiss it out of hand as trivial or insignificant. I see it as an inspiring if unintentional reminder from a consummate artist that it’s worth sluicing the sands in pursuit of the diamond, worth daring the double exposure on behalf of the perfect shot and certainly worth accepting interminable, ordinary days as the price of one extraordinary hour.
Some day I may return to Half Dome and El Capitan, Taos and Sonoma for inspiration. But for now? For these ordinary days filled with extraordinary challenges? There’s no question where I prefer to be. You can find me hanging out with Ansel, down at the bowling alley.