In Yosemite With Ansel Adams’ Worthy Successor

17 07 2017

 By Timothy D. Naegele[1]

My mother had a love of photography, and took endless photos with her Kodak Brownie camera. Years later, I picked up her love of the art form and began my life-long pursuit of photography. As a lawyer based in Washington, D.C., I called information for Carmel, California on a whim one day, seeking a listing for Ansel Adams, and wondering whether the master taught students or offered classes that I might attend. Lo and behold, his wife Virginia answered the phone, and was very nice, and directed me to one of his workshops.

The first one that I attended was in Yosemite, based at the Ansel Adams Gallery. I was one of about 30 students who had come from everywhere, to study with the master. Having grown up in Los Angeles (or Hollywood) and having worked in the U.S. Senate, I was not surprised that the great photographer was surrounded by sycophants, who basked in his shadow and glory, like those who follow movie stars, politicians and other celebrities worldwide. However, one assistant in particular stood out and his name was William Neill.[2]  He was humble and almost shy, but his photography was brilliant, and I bought a small photo from him that was a jewel, which he had taken at Canyon de Chelly in Arizona.

Ansel gave freely and generously of his time, and could not have been nicer to all of the students. In the back country one day, we were all taking photos, and I had my camera set up on a tripod and was seeking just the right shot, when the master came over and looked through my lens and said it was all wrong. He picked up my tripod and moved it, and selected a shot that was far better than mine. His brilliant eyes and brain knew intuitively what was best. He took us into his darkroom at the Gallery, which had been the Best’s Studio and owned by his wife’s family before they married. The whole weeklong workshop was everything that I could have hoped for, and I returned to Washington more excited about photography and Ansel than ever before.

I attended another workshop in Carmel; however, he was not in good health then. He hosted a reception at his home in the Carmel Highlands; and as always, he could not have been nicer and more gracious. After he died, I had lunch with Robert Baker who co-authored Ansel’s technical books, and learned that the two of them had been working on a book about color photography at the end of his life. Ansel had mastered black-and-white photography, but apparently he felt that he could not control the colors in the other medium. Thus, his book might have represented a milestone for photographers globally if it had been finished.

Fast forward to today, and I have a 13-year-old grandson who is an excellent photographer. His parents have encouraged him; and I decided that he too needed to learn at the feet of a master, Bill Neill. Thus, I contacted him, and we arranged for a private session at Yosemite. Anyone who has viewed Bill’s photos at his Web site, or seen them in galleries or published in books or magazines, realizes that they are exquisite and he is truly brilliant. My daughter, grandson and I traveled to Yosemite in early November 2016 for time with Bill, which could not have been more rewarding. Although we had not seen each other in years, he was just as nice and humble and generous with his time as I had remembered him. My daughter and I stood some distance from the two of them in fields and next to streams[3], while Bill imparted his photographic wisdom to the young lad.

Almost instantly, he was producing wonderful photos, which might compete with the best produced by many professional photographers worldwide. Bill has traveled the globe taking award-winning photos—in India, Antarctica, the Himalayas—however, like Ansel before him, he is probably best known for his photos that capture the very essence and beauty of Yosemite and nature. We had stopped at a meadow in the Yosemite Valley and cars pulled up shortly afterward, and out jumped a group of budding photographers who were attending a photographic workshop, and wanted to say hello to Bill and have a group photo taken with him. Of course he obliged, but still being shy and humble, he was a bit taken back at the idea of having become a celebrity himself.

While I have always loved Ansel’s photos and those of Mathew Brady taken during the American Civil War, I am more interested in color photography than black-and-white. Indeed, I concluded near the end of our time with Bill—and viewing photos at his Web site—that he had actually surpassed the great Ansel, and was his logical successor and photographic heir. He had mastered color photography. Also, he was using an Apple iPhone as a teaching device, and showing the young boy images as an instructional tool. Put succinctly, we were in the presence of a master, much like I felt many years before when I was with Ansel for the very first time.

There is something rare about such an experience. I have spent time with Academy Award-winning movie stars, lots of CEOs, famous politicians and billionaires, but our time with Bill was very special. I came away from the trip with a sense of awe, realizing how those who were in the presence of Leonardo da Vinci and other masters must have felt centuries ago. Bill was finishing a new book[4], which hopefully would embellish on and burnish his already-wonderful reputation, and gain new fans of his timeless photographic talents.

Sean and Bill-16-11-5

© 2016-2017, Timothy D. Naegele

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[1] Timothy D. Naegele was counsel to the United States Senate’s Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, and chief of staff to Presidential Medal of Freedom and Congressional Gold Medal recipient and former U.S. Senator Edward W. Brooke (R-Mass). He and his firm, Timothy D. Naegele & Associates, specialize in Banking and Financial Institutions Law, Internet Law, Litigation and other matters (see www.naegele.com and http://www.naegele.com/documents/TimothyD.NaegeleResume.pdf). He has an undergraduate degree in economics from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), as well as two law degrees from the School of Law (Boalt Hall), University of California, Berkeley, and from Georgetown University. He served as a Captain in the U.S. Army, assigned to the Defense Intelligence Agency at the Pentagon, where he received the Joint Service Commendation Medal (see, e.g., https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commendation_Medal#Joint_Service). Mr. Naegele is an Independent politically; and he is listed in Who’s Who in America, Who’s Who in American Law, and Who’s Who in Finance and Business. He has written extensively over the years (see, e.g., http://www.naegele.com/whats_new.html#articles), and can be contacted directly at tdnaegele.associates@gmail.com

[2]  See, e.g., williamneill.com; see also https://naegeleblog.wordpress.com/2010/02/12/ansel-adams-has-an-heir/ (“Ansel Adams Has An Heir”)

[3]  My daughter, who is a fine photographer too, took the photo of the two of them that accompanies this article.

[4]  See http://www.triplekite.co.uk/book-shop/william-neill-photographer-a-retrospective/





Ansel Adams Has An Heir

12 02 2010

By Timothy D. Naegele[1]

When I was a kid growing up in West Los Angeles, my mother had a Kodak “Brownie” box camera[2], and it seemed as though she took photos of everyone.  Her love of photography was passed on to me; and later in life, I discovered that what I loved most about the art form was encapsulated in the photography of Ansel Adams[3] and no one else.  Let me correct that.  Between my mother’s photography and that of Ansel[4], there was the breathtaking photography of the great Mathew Brady during the U.S. Civil War, which was a precursor of today’s photojournalism.[5]

Ansel was from San Francisco where I had lived when I attended law school at Berkeley; and he was a concert pianist before arthritis affected his ability to perform at the levels to which he aspired.  He chose to pursue a life in photography; and that changed lots of other lives, including my own.  On a whim, I picked up the phone one day at my condominium in Northern Virginia; and I called information for Carmel, California, and asked for a listing in his name.  I was connected; and to my great surprise, his wife Virginia answered the phone at their home in the Carmel Highlands.

I asked how I might study with him; and she gave me information about whom to contact at his workshops.  The next thing I knew, I had applied for his workshop in the Yosemite Valley, I was accepted, and I went.[6] I knew very little about the man personally, although I soon learned that his base of operations at Yosemite was the Ansel Adams Galley, which had been the Best’s Studio[7].  His wife was Virginia Best Adams; and her family owned the gallery before she and Ansel met.

When I arrived, there were sycophants aplenty surrounding the “master,” like I assume must have happened with Leonardo di Vinci, Pablo Picasso, and the other great artists.  In a sense, we “students” were sycophants too, although I did not realize it fully until much later.  Having grown up in the shadows of Hollywood, and then having worked on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., I had been around lots of them.  When our group of students traveled to the “high country” of Yosemite with Ansel, and had other photographic experiences with him, I did not delude myself and knew that I would be lucky if my knowledge of photography was ever a fraction of his.

Indeed, in the high country one day, I had my tripod set up with a Minolta 35mm camera on it; and I framed a scene that I believed was picture perfect.  Ansel came over and looked through the lens, and said it was all wrong, and moved the tripod about a foot or so, and took the “perfect” photo of what I had been trying to capture.  He included a nearby tree branch, instead of merely photographing interesting rock formations in the distance; and of course, he was right.

In his darkroom at Yosemite, he kept a metronome from his days with music, which he used to time the placement of negatives in trays of various liquid solutions as he was developing them into photographs.  He apparently liked his drinks at the end of each day too; and I was told that he did not make any “big money” until he limited his output to museum collections only, which drove up the values of his photography and allowed him to live comfortably for the rest of his life.

He told many stories, but the one I will always remember is how he took his most famous photograph, “Moonrise Hernandez.”[8] He was driving in the countryside on a lonely highway near the small town of Hernandez, New Mexico; and all of a sudden, he saw the moon over a little cemetery, and he stopped his car.  Pulling out his equipment, he could not find his trusty light meter; and hence, using his “zone system,” he guessed at the proper settings for the photograph and took it.  As with so many things in life, it was a miracle; and he created the one photograph by which he may be remembered forever.

When I saw him later at Carmel, his health had declined, and he was a “figurehead” at the workshop that I attended.[9] However, he was as jovial as ever, albeit “protected” by those who were part of his inner circle.  After his death, one of his instructors and I met with Robert Baker, who had co-authored or been the “Collaborator” of several of Ansel’s books[10].  Bob was very talented, low-key and nice, and not ego-driven or a “hero worshipping” sycophant like so many of those who surrounded Ansel.

We talked over lunch about a book that he and Ansel had been working on when the master died.  My interests were always in color photography, not black and white; and Ansel had avoided it because he could not control the colors like he wanted.  His book with Bob might have been the definitive book in the world on the subject, but it was not to be, because of Ansel’s death.  After that, it seemed that the focus of attention was on preserving the master’s image for posterity, instead of advancing the science of photography, as Ansel and Bob Baker had done.

Of all the photographers whom I had met at the Yosemite workshop, one stood out and his photography stands out today, and that is William Neill.[11] Bill was then, and he remains today the finest color photographer in the United States, if not the world.  Of all the photographers who surrounded Ansel at Yosemite, Bill was special.  He was head and shoulders above the rest.  I will always remember a small color photo of his, which he took at the Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Arizona.[12] It was exquisite.

What makes a great photographer, in terms of Brady, Adams and Neill?  I believe it is “photo-realism,” which takes the viewer to the spot where the photograph was taken, and puts him or her in the eyes of the photographer.  It is so true that once a photo is taken, that image will never appear again in history, nor did it ever appear before.  The photographer captures a moment in time, as if time literally stood still.  Take a look at Brady’s photos of the Civil War, or Louis Daguerre’s magnificent photographs of France[13], or Ansel’s photos, or Bill Neill’s.  You will see true masterpieces.

© 2010, Timothy D. Naegele


[1] Timothy D. Naegele was counsel to the U.S. Senate Banking Committee, and chief of staff to Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient and former U.S. Senator Edward W. Brooke (R-Mass), the first black senator since Reconstruction after the U.S. Civil War.  He practices law in Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles with his firm, Timothy D. Naegele & Associates (www.naegele.com).  He has an undergraduate degree in economics from UCLA, as well as two law degrees from the School of Law (Boalt Hall), University of California, Berkeley, and from Georgetown University.  He is a member of the District of Columbia and California bars.  He served as a Captain in the U.S. Army, assigned to the Defense Intelligence Agency at the Pentagon, where he received the Joint Service Commendation Medal.  Mr. Naegele is an Independent politically; and he is listed in Who’s Who in America, Who’s Who in American Law, and Who’s Who in Finance and Business. He has written extensively over the years.  See, e.g.www.naegele.com/whats_new.html#articles

[2] See, e.g., http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brownie_(camera)

[3] See http://www.anseladams.com/content/ansel_info/anseladams_biography2.htmlsee also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ansel_Adams

[4] “Ansel” was the way everyone referred to him, even in his presence.  He seemed to encourage it, and was a bit folksy in such ways, which was disarming and endearing.  Lots of books have been written about him, by insiders such as Bob Baker and others.  I was never an insider, nor do I profess to be.  I got close enough to learn what I wished to know about photography from a master—perhaps “the” master in the history of photography worldwide—and that was enough for me.

[5] See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mathew_Brady

[6] See, e.g., http://www.anseladams.com/photography_education.html

[7] See http://www.anseladams.com/ and http://www.anseladams.com/content/customer_service/history.html

[8] See, e.g.http://www.anseladams.com/content/ansel_info/ansel_ancedotes.html

[9] I dated a lovely instructor whom I met there, and we gave thought to marrying; and I will always love her and wish her well.

[10] See, e.g., (1) http://www.amazon.com/Polaroid-Land-Photography-Ansel-Adams/dp/0821207296 and (2) http://www.amazon.com/Camera-Ansel-Adams-Photography-Book/dp/0821221841/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1265948749&sr=1-1 and (3) http://www.amazon.com/Print-Ansel-Adams-Photography-Book/dp/0821221876/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1265948838&sr=1-2 and (4) http://www.amazon.com/Negative-Ansel-Adams-Photography-Book/dp/0821221868/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1265948931&sr=1-3; see also http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=Robert+Baker%2C+Ansel+Adams&x=0&y=0

[11] See http://www.williamneill.com

I was so taken by Bill’s photography and talents that I commissioned him to build a darkroom at my home in Malibu, California, which was under construction after we met.  It was never finished in the way that I envisioned; and hence, Bill was never able to work his “magic” on the darkroom.

[12] See http://www.nps.gov/cach/index.htm and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canyon_de_Chelly_National_Monument

[13] See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louis_Daguerre; see also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_photography