In 1943, a young student encounters one of the legends of photography in the place that made him famous.
By Eugene Sims
As a pretty green kid going on 17 years, I was probably overly enthusiastic and a little nervous about my first real big job. The year was 1943. World War II had been under way for a couple of years, and older boys at our high school were being encouraged to take summer jobs with the National Park and Forestry Service program due to the acute shortage of labor. High school seniors and young college men were being employed to clear trails, fight forest fires, or do blister rust control in our nation’s forests and national parks. Luckily my high school chum, Dick, and I drew Yosemite National Park in California as our place of work. It was a summer I shall never forget.
We could hardly wait to begin the job. Because of a mix-up in our reporting dates, we arrived in Yosemite in mid-May, driving Dick’s old Model A Ford down the long road from Oakland. We soon found out that we were about two weeks ahead of the other workers. The chief ranger was a little exasperated as we both reported to his office and stood nervously before him.
“The government has rules about this sort of thing,” he said. “We can’t put you on the payroll for another 15 days, but we can’t really send you back home either. For now, we’ll just make you both honorary cooks over at the mess hall so you can earn your keep, and we’ll find you a bunk for the time being. Just stay out of trouble ’til we can put you on the payroll and ship you up to the forest camp at Crane Flat in a couple of weeks.”
We were expected to wash dishes and wait tables at the main mess to pay for our meals and the tent cabin we occupied with two other men. Dick moaned about the lack of pay and the dishwashing, but I didn’t care—the Yosemite Valley was beautiful. I would have time to photograph the scenery before moving up to the remote outpost at Crane Flat some 15 miles away, near the outskirts of the park.
During the war, black-and-white film was hard to find. Color print and slide film was generally for professionals; amateur photographers like me only read about it in photo magazines. My father had given me an old second-hand Ansco bellows-type folding camera that had an uncanny appetite for 120-size roll film. The camera was a gift I received after completing a basic course in photography at the YMCA back home the previous year.
Photography quickly became my whole purpose in life. I wanted nothing more than to record and print my own pictures, and the Yosemite Valley offered unparalleled grandeur for an amateur photo bug like myself. I decided my leisure time would soon be totally given over to making as many photographs as my meager supply of film would allow. I didn’t see Dick after he started dating a cute waitress who worked at the nearby Yosemite Lodge.
Yosemite in 1943 was quite a bit different from the Yosemite of today. To get around the valley, I rented a bicycle from the shop at the lodge for $4 a week. Because of the war, there were few tourists and even fewer automobiles. Many of the tent cabins at Camp Curry and the Yosemite Lodge stood empty throughout the summer, something unimaginable today. There were rumors that the government might even close some of the national parks for the duration of the war.
Even though each photo I shot was carefully planned and composed, I soon ran out of film before I’d captured every location on my list. I wasn’t sure where I’d be able to buy film in a place like Yosemite, but I soon found out about Best’s Studio, a photo and gift shop near the park post office.
I can still remember the racks and tables filled with postcards and other souvenirs, each item emblazoned with a Yosemite inscription of some sort. The walls held countless colored paintings and black-and-white photos mounted in frames or on cardboard. I entered the shop early one Saturday morning and found it nearly empty. A woman behind the counter asked if she could help me. I was delighted to find that she’d received a small shipment of film the previous day. She disappeared into a storage room and returned with a single roll of 120 film. My face must have reflected my disappointment.
As I launched into an explanation of my short time in the valley and my enormous list of locales in an attempt to persuade her to find one or two more rolls, I heard a man’s voice from the other end of the counter ask, “What kind of camera do you have there, young fella?”
I pulled my old Ansco from inside my coat and laid it on the counter. The man picked up the camera to closely examine its exterior, then opened the cover and extended the bellows while scrutinizing the camera’s every detail.
“I can see you’ve got a pretty good camera with a fine Wolensak lens, a German camera made before the war,” he said, pointing out the manufacture date on the back plate: 1936. Sweat broke out on my forehead—we were at war with Germany. Had I committed some sort of crime by purchasing a German camera? I imagined myself in jail for my crime, shot by a firing squad, or fired from my first real job for carrying a camera manufactured by the enemy, or at the very least sent home for the summer. But the man told me he had several German cameras himself, and they were among the best in the industry. What followed was a discourse on the pictures I had been shooting around the Yosemite Valley. Even though my efforts were strictly those of an amateur, the man listened very carefully.
He started talking about available subjects, best lighting periods, shadows, depth of field, and a host of other suggestions that were beyond my limited expertise. Some of the terms were new to me, and the man must have known this, because he stopped occasionally to explain in more detail.
At the end of the conversation, the man turned to the woman at the counter and said, “Honey, I think we can spare a couple more rolls of film for a fellow photography enthusiast, don’t you?” She handed me two more rolls of film; the total was less than $2.
The man had plans to take some photos at Half Dome the next morning, from the meadow between Camp Curry and Mirror Lake. He asked me to come along. My heart jumped, and I tripped over myself accepting the invitation. “Meet me in front of the post office at 6 a.m. sharp,” he said. “My name is Ansel Adams, what’s yours?” he asked. (The name meant nothing to me until years later.)
I was awake most of the night, worrying I might not wake up on time. It was still very cold and dark when I rolled out of my sleeping bag, picked up my camera, and hurried off to the post office. Mr. Adams was waiting for me in his station wagon with the motor running. I still remember welcoming the warmth of the car’s heater in the chilly morning air. But by the time we reached the meadow, the cold was beginning to reach in under my wool jacket. Mr. Adams started unpacking camera paraphernalia: First came a wooden tripod at least 5 feet long. Next he unloaded two rather large bags, each very heavy, and each handled with great care. He told me I could carry one of the bags, but cautioned that the contents were fragile and very expensive, so I was to be extremely careful.
Mr. Adams took off down the trail at something less than a sprint while I stumbled along behind. It was still fairly dark. We stopped several times while he surveyed the East Valley up to Half Dome. After 20 minutes or so, the sunlight began to edge over the tall peaks in the distance.
When we arrived at a spot that he found satisfactory, he asked me to bring the bag while he set up his tripod. I watched with focused attention as he unpacked every item from the heavy bags. First was a square wooden box that he fastened to the tripod—a camera case of some sort. He exercised absolute precision in setting up the entire assembly, adjusting here, leveling there, and gazing over the top of the box in the direction of Half Dome. Out of the next bag came a brass tube, which I later learned was a lens; it was bigger than my entire camera. All of this was interspersed with a lecture aimed in my general direction. Details about the differences between the lens and the human eye, and the challenge of getting the camera to see what the eye sees, or in some cases, what the eye cannot see. I nodded my head as if I understood.
He went on. “The camera can be made to pick up great details and fine resolution of a subject,” he said, “but attention to light and shadow is absolutely essential if a photographer wants to control the final product.”
By this time, I was completely confused. My picture taking had been limited to pointing the camera at the subject and snapping the picture. What was all this business of shadows, light, depth of field, composition, and now something Mr. Adams called “creative photography”? I watched as he continued setting up his 8 x 10 camera, which, he explained, could use either glass plates or sheet-film negatives. I stood there shivering, feeling so out of place with my little folding camera, Wolensak lens or not.
Mr. Adams muttered to himself, and seemed quite perturbed. “I’ve been trying to get this shot for years,” he said. “Yesterday the clouds were perfect but the light was rotten. Today the light is excellent, but there are no clouds. All the parts must be there. If a part of the picture is missing, it’s like trying to hear a full symphony with only half the instruments playing.”
This explanation made sense to me, and I began to understand what he was trying to do with the picture. We waited a few more minutes while the sun continued to rise over the dome. But he made no more exposures that morning. The camera, lens, and tripod were quickly disassembled and packed in the bags. We tramped down the trail to the car and were back at the office by 8 a.m. It was then that I realized I hadn’t taken a single photo.
I met or talked with Mr. Adams several times over the next week. We made one more hike together, to Vernal and Nevada Falls. When the summer work period was over, Dick and I again returned to Yosemite Valley, and I called at Best’s store only to find that Mr. Adams was on a photo assignment in Hollywood. I never saw him again.
I returned home in the late summer and finished high school before enlisting in the Navy and had little time to think about Ansel Adams and our brief encounter in Yosemite. It wasn’t until years later that I realized those few sessions had left such a profound impact on me. I continued to pursue photography in my professional work as a space and missile engineer at sites like Holloman Air Force Base, Cape Canaveral, and Vandenberg Air Force Base and visited national parks and historic sites in the United States and other countries. Years later, I still try to spend a part of every summer taking photos in national parks like Crater Lake, Glacier, the Grand Canyon, and Yosemite. And I find the fundamentals of producing an excellent photograph, as taught during those brief meetings, come to mind every time I pick up a camera to compose yet another image.