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The Nature of Trust 

The battle intensifies over Ansel Adams' legacy

Wednesday, Jun 19 1996
The rift between Ansel Adams' biographer and the late photographer's business trust is yawning as wide as the gorge of Adams' beloved Yosemite. Mary Street Alinder, chief of staff for the San Francisco-born, Carmel-based photographer from 1979 until his death in 1984, has just published Ansel Adams: A Biography (Henry Holt). The book appears much to the chagrin of the Mill Valley-based Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust (AAPRT), which reportedly plans to issue its own, authorized biography in the near future.

Alinder -- who was manager of the AAPRT until 1987 -- believes that the trust is preoccupied with cashing in on Adams' reputation, indiscriminately selling rights to his images while standing in the way of scholarly inquiry. "They're in place to protect Ansel's legacy," Alinder says, at the home of a longtime Adams family friend she's visiting, two doors from Adams' childhood home next to the site of the sinkhole in the Seacliff neighborhood. "They have to ensure they're bringing in the bucks, because all their proceeds go to the family. In my opinion, they've gone way overboard."

She condemns the posters, calendars, and other reproductions of Adams' work that have saturated the market in recent years, calling them the "Franklin Mint" of photography. Alinder says she wrote her biography because the Adams portrayed to the public has become unrealistically iconographic. "The Ansel Adams out there today is this monolithic, superenvironmental, does-it-all, renaissance guy," she says. "He's a brilliant photographer and writer, he taught thousands of people, he talked to all the presidents. And he's not real to people."

Having assisted Adams on his autobiography, published to raves in 1985, Alinder says the photographer glossed over many aspects of his private and professional lives, a situation she sought to rectify with her biography. "As far as Ansel was concerned," she says, "he had a perfect marriage. He loved David Brower," the Sierra Clubber whose hard-line environmentalism stood at odds with Adams' congeniality. "Everything was just la-di-da."

"In his heart, he didn't think people would be interested in his personal life," she continues. "Couple that with a guy who was brought up in a Victorian household, where personal issues were not addressed. ... He didn't want to embarrass anybody. He didn't want a 'tell-all' book." Though her biography is hardly sensational, Alinder does address many aspects of Adams' life and work that he ignored in his own book: his extramarital affairs, his uneasy relations with his children, his reluctance to discuss his photos in terms of aesthetics, and the irony that his images have enticed millions to overrun the very landscape he revered.

"Ansel would not address how compromised he was," she says. "He always talked about Yosemite like an opera house: 'It has so many seats, and when it's full, you close the door.' At the same time, he's placing photos all over the world. ... So he has been as guilty as [naturalist John] Muir, who got people excited with his prose, for increasing the floods that he was trying to stave. It's quite a conundrum." In contrast with her portrait of the "real" Ansel Adams, the trust "just seem[s] to whitewash some things," Alinder says, arguing that "they should feel confident that Ansel can stand the heat." (Longtime AAPRT board members Bill Turnage, David Vena, and Dr. John Schaefer declined to comment for this story.)

Instead, Alinder claims the record of the trust is to be "totally uncooperative." In December, the University of California Press published Jonathan Spaulding's Ansel Adams and the American Landscape, which contains no photographs of Adams himself and only inferior landscape reproductions taken from negatives Adams made for the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1941. As property of the government -- not the trust -- they were the only negatives to which Spaulding had access. "I think the trust's attitude is shortsighted," Spaulding says. Mutual cooperation between the board and Adams researchers, he says, "should be a win-win situation. ... I don't think they need to carve out turf. I think that results in limiting interest in the subject, in the long term."

Alinder's book contains two sections of Adams images, which she and her publisher ensure are "very carefully researched legally," though they were obtained without the help of the trust. The author says when she requested the use of a seldom-seen photo of Adams posing with an old flame, the board members demanded 3 percent of her gross sales in return.

"I called them up and said, 'I don't think you understand. If you get 3 percent, and I have 30 pictures, that's 90 percent.' So I didn't use the photograph, which is sad." Alinder acknowledges that her extremely personal relationship with Adams provided her with privileged information. Including such material in her book, she says, caused her many restless nights.

"I love and respect Ansel. It would've been so much easier to have not said the things I was uncomfortable about." She maintains that her relationship with Adams' 92-year-old widow, Virginia, remains strong:

"I have a lot of love for her," says the bubbly author. "One thing that Ansel taught me over and over is our responsibility, being Americans, to stand up and speak out. It's important to me to know that Ansel had frailties, that he was not perfect. As great as his life was, there were holes in his soul that were never mended. Ansel believed that whatever you've learned, it was essential that you pass it on. ... What I've learned from him, I've passed on freely. It's not that I've gone out and made money on Ansel."

Indeed, it was the trust's 1985 licensing of three definitive Adams prints to Rockwell International, a defense contractor promoting nuclear tactical weaponry and the B-1 bomber, that convinced Alinder that it was time to leave. Rather than quit in protest over a deal she claims Adams would "never ever ever" have agreed to, she stayed long enough to finish editing Adams' correspondence for publication.

"I should have quit then, and I didn't," she says now. "I weighed the situation and felt it was more important to stay and finish Ansel's book of letters."

To her ongoing disgust, Alinder says she "ended up doing most of the Rockwell work. I'm the one who shipped the prints and worked with the ad agency." By the time the book of letters was completed, the board members "were happy to get rid of me, and I was happy to leave them."

In 1993 the trust released Ansel Adams in Color, the printing of which, according to Alinder, the photographer would also have vetoed. "They knew his wish," she says, asserting that Adams despised his color work. Pointing out that some in the art industry consider Adams a "pretty-postcard boy," Alinder says, "If you're talking about postcards, [the color book] is just garish."

(In April, the AAPRT sold exclusive digital rights to Adams images to Corbis, Bill Gates' electronic publishing company.)

With her husband, Jim, a photographer and longtime Adams confidant, the 50-year-old Alinder resides in Gualala, three hours north of San Francisco. In recent years, she has expanded her field of expertise to include restaurant criticism. A few weeks ago, flush with the publication of the Adams biography, she shed the alias under which she had been writing her bimonthly Coast magazine column.

"I wanted to start greasing the wheels in other directions," she says. "I am ready to move on."

Alinder says she doesn't mind that there's no love lost between her and the trust. "I take full responsibility for being an uppity woman," she smiles, "and I mean that in the best way. I let the chips fall where they may.

About The Author

James Sullivan


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