Wednesday, January 28, 2015

A Letter from Ansel Adams - October 23, 1978

A Letter from Ansel Adams 

by Melinda Pillsbury-Foster 

Ansel Adams responded to Rell Francis, a photo historian from Springville, Utah, on October 23, 1978 with this:

Thank you very much indeed for your interesting letter of October 19th. I knew Mr. Pillsbury very well indeed when he had his studio and shop in Yosemite where he had developed his time-lapse photography of flowers.

Mr. Pillsbury was an extraordinary man and I think his contributions to photography have been overlooked.”

Ansel learned about wildflowers, and the need to preserve the natural world first from the motion pictures shown on the porch of the Pillsbury Studio. Help us ensure the films which moved Ansel Adams, produced by Arthur C. Pillsbury, survive.

Ansel Adams in Yosemite

Ansel Adams, sitting, with family in Yosemite.
Ansel was fourteen, about to turn fifteen years old. Ansel's parents had given him his first camera for their trip to Yosemite, a Kodak Box Brownie.

While taking his first roll of film Ansel fell off a rock and accidentally snapped a photo. He took the roll of film to the Pillsbury Studio in Old Village, to be developed. Ansel recounts the incident in his book, Ansel Adams, An Autobiography, with this explanation. “I remember that it was Pillsbury himself, who presented me with my developed film. He had not cut it apart, as he wanted to inquire how this picture had come to be upside down in reference to the others on the roll.”

Pillsbury was then giving workshops in photography at the Pillsbury Studio. The area inside the Studio was limited and related activities also took place outside, between the Studio and the Yosemite Chapel, immediately adjacent. Ansel sat, fascinated, as he listened to those lectures.

The Pillsbury Studio was a Nature Center. Tourists were stirred and inspired by Pillsbury's nature movies from the time he started showing them in 1909. Pillsbury injected facts on the miracles of nature while entertaining tourists and instilling in them a desire to preserve these wonders. Photographs and film allowed Pillsbury to take the wilderness to people, instead of people trekking into areas which could be dangerous for them – and for nature.

Yosemite Valley was the perfect meeting place for these two goals. It was Pillsbury's work which inspired generations of film makers to do the same.

1916 was the year Grandfather produced a film for David Curry, the founder of Camp Curry. You can see part of the film, Seeing Yosemite with David A. Curry, which has been restored by the National Film Preservation Foundation. These films are part of our history as a people who love nature.

The same year, 1916, Pillsbury produced a movie titled, Legend of the Lost Arrow, featuring Don Tresidder as the Miwok hero. The film was made to restore the dignity of Yosemite's native people and awareness of their culture. Leroy Radonovich, for many years the photographer for Yosemite, now retired, says finding, and preserving that film has been a long time goal for many.

In 1917 Ansel returned to Yosemite with his family, again spending time at the Pillsbury Studio. The next year, 1918, he returned alone, photographing the wildflowers he had learned about at the Pillsbury Studio. His own photographs that year were heavily weighed toward flowers.

Pillsbury brought awareness of the natural world to tourists in ways which moved them. Free nature films and the flower identification cards sold at the Studio were part of the campaign Pillsbury carried out. No matter how tight the tourist's budget Pillsbury made sure there were items they could afford to buy so they would remember their connection to the natural world, and Yosemite.

Pillsbury had built the first lapse-time camera in 1912 so people could see with their own eyes the life struggles of the wildflowers, which had been disappearing from the meadows of Yosemite.

When Pillsbury had first bicycled into Yosemite Valley in 1895, still a student at Stanford University, the meadows had stood waist-deep in species of wildflowers. By 1912 the varieties still present were shrinking. The U.S. Cavalry, which managed the Park, was mowing the meadows to provide fodder for their horses.

Pillsbury was determined to persuade those in authority to preserve what was left. After a showing of one of his wildflower films at a National Conference for Park Superintendents in October of 1912, the move for preservation began.

These were films Pillsbury also used later, when he lectured to people up and down California and across the United States, Canada, England, and the South Seas.

And on March 15, 1926 Pillsbury lectured at a dinner arranged by Secretary of the Interior, Dr. Hubert A. Work in honor of President and Mrs. Calvin Coolidge at the Willard Hotel in Washington D. C.

The Washington Star wrote, “Nothing has stood out more distinctly than the dinner given by Dr. Work a week ago at the Willard. The guests numbered about 70, and the dinner being followed by colored pictures showing the life of a flower from its first seeding until it bloomed into full-grown beauty and then dropped its petals.”   Grace Coolidge was quoted as saying, “she was profoundly impressed with the Pictures.”

Pillsbury lectured to the National Geographic Society and at every major Town Hall Forum. He spoke regularly on every major campus in the United States about the natural world. Pillsbury was the first, others were lead by his example.

Ansel Adams was touched, moved, changed, by the images of Arthur C. Pillsbury, as his letter says. From 1923 on Ansel frequently accompanied Pillsbury as an assistant while Grandfather photographed the spring, summer, autumn and winter changes in Yosemite National Park.

In 1926 Pillsbury again used film to take the human eye into the living world of the microscopic. Scientists and professors at the University of California, Berkeley, were stunned to see his footage of a cell dividing. These were images which changed our understanding of processes which, until then, had been beyond human vision. 

Help us ensure these films survive.  Please Donate now.   

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