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Ansel Adams associate brings photo tips to town

Rick Chandler

Many people claim to have a passion for their work, but Alan Ross has proof in black and white.

Picture this: You’re an aspiring photographer, and one of the most famous men in the field lands right in your own back yard. That was the happy circumstance experienced by about 30 students this past weekend, as Ross – possibly the pre-eminent black and white landscape photographer in the nation today – taught a series of workshops and seminars at Lake Tahoe Community College.

It was all part of the Mountain Photo Tahoe exhibit and workshop series, presented by the Institute of Mountain Photography and featuring several of the most accomplished photographers in the nation – among them Claude Fiddler, Galen Rowell and Robert Glenn Ketchum.

“I’m having a great time; it’s good to be in Tahoe again,” said Ross, who grew up in Sausalito and now lives in Santa Fe, N.M.

A former assistant to the legendary Ansel Adams, Ross now cuts his own swath in the world of photography – being hailed by some as “The Ansel Adams of the desert” for his landscape portraits of natural life in New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah.

“I was first drawn to photography when I picked up a book and saw two of Ansel Adams’ photographs,” Ross said. “After I had been doing it a while, I had the audacity to write to (Adams), asking to be his assistant.

“Ansel phoned a couple of friends of his in San Francisco who knew me, and eventually invited me to come to Carmel and help him teach.”

That was the beginning of their long association, which ended with Adams’ death in 1984 at the age of 82.

“He was over 70 when I started working for him, but even then he could work me into the daylight,” Ross said. “He had an energy and a passion for his work that is very rare.”

Adams also had a love for the land, and labored tirelessly to help preserve the environment.

“I would get to the office at 9 a.m., and he would have already made two calls to Washington and written three letters,” Ross said. “He cared deeply for the natural environment, and I think that is what made him a great artist. You see that passion in his work.”

Adams’ visionary photos of western landscapes were first inspired by a boyhood trip to Yosemite – an area he helped to make internationally famous with his breathtaking black and white photography, which has been collected into several books and exhibits.

“He was a fabulous person; remotely humble and very accessible,” Ross said of his mentor. “He was always listed in the phone book. Anyone could call him up just to chat about photography, and if he wasn’t too busy he would even invite them over to the house.”

Adams met with every president from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan in his efforts to push his environmental causes.

“He didn’t care much for Reagan, but one day he received sort of a presidential summons, so he decided to go (to the White House),” Ross said. “I think he wanted to try and change his mind on some things.

“When he got back home, I asked him what he thought of Reagan. ‘Well, he’s quite a nice man,’ he said. ‘He’d make a great neighbor.’ They definitely didn’t see eye to eye on environmental points.”

Ross has continued in the Ansel tradition, moving expertly in the often misunderstood world of black and white.

“There’s an immediate abstraction when you look at a black and white photograph,” he said. “I’ve always found color to be too comfortable a substitute for reality. Black and white is like reading a book; you get to decide what the character will look like. You bring yourself into the work.”

Erin McBride is a San Diego resident who made the long journey to South Lake Tahoe to meet Ross and take his classes.

“He makes you want to go out and take pictures,” she said. “He has this passion for it that you really pick up on. I consider him the Ansel Adams of today.”

Tahoe Daily Tribune E-mail: tribune@tahoe.com

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