Alan Ross is an infectious personality in the sometimes difficult to traverse world of photography. It’s easy for me to picture his smile, hear his laugh, and remember his words, for his sense of humor and positivity are second to none. There’s a pleasant manner in which he speaks to people that puts them at ease, as well as puts them in the frame of mind to learn. He’s a wealth of knowledge that is shared during his very much in demand workshops. His friendliness and generosity are legend, and he has even been known to provide the yearly pro bono workshop to those deserving of such. Would you like to learn how to make an exceptional darkroom print? Start at the top and ask Alan.
Alan is someone who taught me how not simply to be a photographer, but a problem solver - a skill necessary for working in a field with so many variables. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve hit a wall with something and thought, “What Would Alan Do?” (Hmm...I might have to get shirts made)… He may primarily be known as a landscape photographer, but the diversity in styles of work he has produced in his lifetime are undeniable. I spent three years working with Alan, back when film and darkrooms were as prevalent as air in a photographers life, and it is him that instilled in me a love of the craft.
As a former Ansel Adams assistant, Alan has information and stories that you cannot find out from any other source. He continues working in the traditional ways that Ansel taught a generation throughout his career, and has even managed to adapt them for the current digital means of image making. Quite simply, he preaches the word of Ansel as well as anyone out there, just without the preachy part. Alan shows others how to see and photograph their world in a way as unique as they are. There is immense value in wisdom such as this, and a big reason I wanted to ask him a few questions.
Alan Ross is an internationally respected master photographer and educator who worked side-by-side with Ansel Adams as his photographic assistant. He knows Adams’ approach and technique perhaps better than any other photographer today.
As an artist, Alan is best known for his tonally exquisite black-and-white photographs of the American west; his photographs hang in collections and galleries around the world.
As a photographic educator, he specializes in helping photographers at any level, and using all formats and styles, realize and express their photographic vision.
Alan lives in visually captivating Santa Fe, where he pursues his own work, teaches one-on-one workshops in the art of seeing and master printing, and writes articles and blogs sharing his vast knowledge of the art and craft of photography.
He also continues to be the exclusive printer of the Yosemite Special Edition negatives, an assignment Adams selected him for personally in 1975. Alan makes each print by hand from Adams’ original negatives using traditional darkroom techniques.
Michael Kirchoff: Thank you, Alan, for taking the time to share both your images and your words with us. Your background in photography is immense, and you’ve enjoyed a long association with Ansel Adams, but what is it that started you in photography? Was there a significant event that took you down the road to image making?
Alan Ross: My fascination with photography actually goes back to when I was about 5 or 6. I can remember looking at some drugstore contact prints from my father’s Rolleicord and wondering how my grandfather’s white shirt could be black on the negative, but white again on the print. I decided there must be some special ink that was poured over the film. The ink would go through the clear spots, making blacks, black, but the ink couldn’t get through the black shirt on the film, so it was white on the paper. I just couldn’t figure out what kind of ink went from the shirt, into the camera and then onto the film! It seemed like magic to my 6-year-old mind.
Jump forward to the 8th grade and the defining moment that set me on the path towards image making. A new kid at school got on the bus one morning with a 35mm contact sheet. I thought it was pretty cool and asked him where he got it. He told me that his father was a photographer and that he’d made the contact sheet himself. After I got home that day, I dusted off my father’s old Rolleicord and within the week had developed my first roll of film.
That week forever changed the course of my life…I just didn’t know it yet. By my mid-20’s, I would wind up as Ansel Adams’ assistant, working for him full-time in Carmel.
MK: You are known primarily as a landscape photographer, but this is clearly just something of a categorization. What other types of photographs are you wishing to make and share with the world?
AR: I have always been in love with abstracts and “designy” compositions, whether man-made or in nature. When I was working for Ansel and starting to get my work into galleries, my three most popular images were a Yosemite landscape, which I made a day or two after Ansel hired me, a still-life of an onion, and a nude.
I really liked not being pidgeon-holed into one particular style or category of photography, and I still feel that way. I don’t want to restrict myself and miss opportunities for expression just because what I’m seeing doesn’t fall into what I’m best known for.
In my finishing room where I am writing this, I have 23 prints framed or tacked up on the walls. Of these, just 11 are landscapes, and one is an Ansel print.
Lately, I have been having a lot of fun doing some BW digital work and also digital infrared. I have a Canon 5DMkii, which has taken me back to my “Nikkormat-over-the-shoulder” days and helped me loosen up, and digital infrared lets me actually SEE the infrared image before capture! I really love the concept of photographing light we humans cannot see.
MK: Do you have any other creative pursuits, or has photography become the one obsession that always takes precedence?
AR: I’ve always been a tinkerer. I love tools and inventing and making things. When I started working for Ansel, I noticed that none of his 4x5 lenses fit on his 8x10 and vice-versa – they were mounted on the camera’s specific boards. So, I made modified adapter-lens boards for each camera and mounted all the lenses on 4x4 Graphic View boards, so any lens would fit either camera.
When I left Ansel to start my advertising studio in San Francisco, I wanted to have my darkroom enlarger 8x10-capable. I tinkered around with making an adapter for my 4x5 Beseler that would let me print 8x10. I eventually wound up getting a patent on the design and started manufacturing and selling the things. Beseler was interested in what I had done, and I licensed the design to them and it became the Beseler 810.
I also like to cook. In my before-and-after Ansel advertising photography days, I did a lot of food photography, and that led me to have assignments photographing the likes of Julia Child and Alice Waters. I learned to not only view food as art, but also to love the tastes and textures that can be created with a little imagination and inventiveness.
MK: As with any creative pursuit, technology progresses and continually changes the game. Are you fully on board with the digital realm, or do you prefer to keep things “old school”?
AR: I consider myself a classicist, but not a purist. I simply think of different cameras as different tools, each designed to excel at a particular purpose. One of my favorite analogies is that you can drive a screw with a hammer, but it may not be the best or most elegant tool for the task!
That said, I still love film, and my main squeeze is my 4x5 Arca Swiss. The 8x10 gets bigger and heavier every day, sadly. I have also done a lot of work with my Mamiya RZ, and I now have a Mamiya 7ii. A few years ago, I traded a workshop for a Canon 5D MkII. It’s been a lot of fun and has helped me “loosen up.”
Bottom line, I will always be a “film first” photographer because of the dynamic range and the tactile nature of film and darkroom work (try holding a handful of pixels!), but I appreciate the freedom, flexibility and spontaneity working digitally affords.
MK: Do you have a preferred camera and film (or digital) combination, or is it that you pull from an arsenal of gear. I suppose this really begs the question, what is it that you take with you while you’re on the road making images, and is there a “creative process” you go through?
AR: As mentioned above, I view cameras as tools and try to be sure I have whatever “tools” I might need when traveling. I always take my 4x5 with me, my Canon 5D and now my Mamiya 7. A year ago, I was in Scotland and missed some lovely shots because the weather was too wet to risk getting my 4x5 out. The Canon didn’t have quite enough “horse power” for what I was wanting to do. If I’d had my Mamiya 7ii then, I would have been able to get my shots quickly and still have the dynamic range and image quality film gives me.
The bulk of my creative process usually takes place before I even have a camera in my hands: What is the essence on my subject; what is the best spot for my lens; what focal length of lens best suits my final image cropping, is a filter required to give me what I visualize vs the reality of the scene in front of me?
Only after all this, while I am putting camera on tripod or grasping for a hand-held, do I start to think about focus and plan for exposure. I use a Pentax digital spot meter, and I only need one measurement to make my exposure. If I am working with negative film, I take a reading on an important shadow and expose to make sure that shadow will have printable detail on the film. If I am working digitally and using my spot meter, I take a reading on the brightest area to make sure that it does not get over-exposed. If I am using the in-camera meter, I set the exposure as I think best and always check the histogram and make exposure adjustments so highlights are not over-exposed.
MK: Please tell us a little of how you came to meet and work for Ansel Adam’s as his assistant. Was it what you thought it to be, or did it come with some surprises?
AR: The road to Carmel was hardly direct, but the various twists and turns I took to get there gave me a variety of experiences that have made my life in photography all the richer and certainly full of anecdotes and stories.
My early career inclinations were along the lines of architect or engineer, although a high school aptitude test suggested I would be an artist! (I thought that was the funniest thing I’d ever heard!)
After trying mechanical engineering at UC Davis (too intellectually confining) and forestry at UC Berkeley (the lumber business, not the environmental studies I had imagined), I landed in Berkeley’s Design Department studying photography. Berkeley and the Design Department were to be the turning points that led me to Ansel.
A quarter or two into my studies at Berkeley, the Department got a new chairman in the person of William Garnett, a recipient of three Guggenheim grants for his work in fine-art aerial photography. He was an incredible man and instructor, and soon became my first photographic mentor.
During my senior year, Bill helped me land my first professional job illustrating a series of elementary school textbooks. He also led me to my second turning point, Milton Halberstadt.
Halberstadt, or Hal as he liked to be called, was one of the top advertising photographers in the country. I had visited his studio several times on field trips with Garnett’s classes.
The day I turned in the last prints for the textbook job, I decided to stop at my favorite San Francisco camera store. I didn’t need anything, but I stopped anyway. Two steps into the door I overheard a clerk telling someone that a San Francisco advertising photographer named Halberstadt was looking for an assistant.
I stopped in my tracks, left the store and drove to the studio. Hal and I chatted a bit about photography. He asked me to come back the next day and bring some of my work. I did, and we chatted some more. Then he got up, headed for the door and said, “The floor needs mopping, the Sinar needs to be put away, see you later…”
Over the next three years as Hal’s assistant, I went from a world of 35mm black-and-white into a world of 8x10, lighting, and color. Hal was one of the most creative minds I ever met (he invented the photographic process known as Tone-Line), and I learned so much just by watching him work. He was my second mentor, and he ultimately led me to my third.
Hal had an old friend by the name of Ansel Adams. During my tenure with Hal, I made a trip to Yosemite and dropped in on a workshop Ansel was teaching. I introduced myself as Hal’s assistant and Ansel graciously invited me to hang out at the workshop as long as I liked. That was June of 1972.
In 1973, Hal decided to close his studio and retire. I was out of a job and decided to write Ansel asking if he needed an assistant. He wrote back almost immediately that he didn’t, but because of my successful track record with Hal (who was known for chewing through assistants), he would be delighted to have me assist at his upcoming Yosemite workshop that June. Two of the best weeks I’ve ever had!
Over the next year, I assisted with a few more workshops in Yosemite with other photographers.
By July 1974, I was running the darkroom for Ansel’s “Making of a Photographic Book” workshop. A few days into the session, Ansel had his business manager pull me aside and ask if I would be interested in moving to Carmel to work full-time. I thought about that for maybe a microsecond!
Now, over 42 years later, I am still printing Ansel’s negatives, making his Special Edition Prints of Yosemite, and passing along his knowledge and techniques to the next generation of photographers.
What was it like and were there any surprises? It was better than I ever expected—Ansel was incredibly gregarious, even-tempered and generous, and he became not only my mentor, but a friend as well.
I would imagine that as someone who still prints from Ansel’s original negatives, he had very strict ways of doing so. Is this correct, or is there an ever-evolving way you print his photographs?
While Ansel was still alive, I always showed him a test print for his approval or adjustment requests. A week before he died, I was printing in his darkroom and sent a sample print to the hospital for his approval. One of his favorite lines, considering his first love was the piano, was “the negative is the score, and the print is the performance.” This alluded to being able to play a given piece of music with various “moods.” He felt no obligation to print an image exactly the same way each time. In the years since Ansel’s passing, I have printed according to a sort of “average” of how he personally had me make the prints.
MK: Is there any piece of advice that Ansel taught you that you take with you every time you shoot?
AR: No single piece of advice, but perhaps an approach to life and his art that is a permanent part of who I am and what I do.
He viewed the many “average” images he made not as failures, but as practice so that when he did come across an amazing or once-in-a-lifetime scene (like Moonrise), he wouldn’t miss the composition or exposure. He was a stickler for detail and technique. But that quality was simply a manifestation of his background in music. Testing film, for example, was nothing more than a musician “playing scales”! He didn’t want to hit a wrong note!
Ansel also had an absolute commitment to sharing his passion and his craft with anyone at any level. He kept himself listed in the phone book, even after he became famous, and welcomed into his home any number of aspiring photographers who had worked up the courage to call and request a brief portfolio review.
He was a tireless and dedicated teacher who took great joy from others’ enthusiasm for photography. Most importantly, he never took himself too seriously or let his ego get the better of him.
Ansel was, and still is, my model and my standard. I try to honor his spirit of generosity and accessibility in everything I do, from the gifting of workshops every year to answering every single email and phone call I receive. He was a one-of-a-kind.
MK: Many thanks for taking the time to share your story. Are there any final words of wisdom you wish to impart on us?
AR: Above all else, photograph because you love doing it, because it brings you joy, and/or it helps you say something you might not be able to put into words. Don’t think of it as dogma or something so precise that it becomes tedious and stressful.
You can find more of Alan's work at his website here.
This abridged interview can be seen in its entirety at Blur Magazine, Issue 56.