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Ansel Adams, Street Photographer: 1940s Los Angeles

We've all seen the landscapes. Maybe too many of them. But Ansel Adams as a street photographer? Who knew!

Although well-respected by the 1930s, the famous landscape photographer could not have sustained his Sierra series, for example, if it were not supplemented by commercial work. According to the Ansel Adams Gallery: "Clients ran the gamut, including the Yosemite concessionaire ... Kodak, Zeiss, IBM, AT&T, a small women's college, a dried fruit company, and Life, Fortune ... in short, everything from portraits to catalogues to Coloramas."

So street scenes are not entirely surprising. There is, however, some surprise behind this series, which sits quietly in storage at the Los Angeles Public Library. In 1939, Fortune magazine commissioned Adams to document the "aviation history" of the L.A. area, as the library site says. I'm no expert on the subject of L.A. aviation, so I can't really fill in the historical holes.

But one interesting tidbit is the young man, Cole Weston, who appears in many of the images. His father, Edward Weston, was also a famous photographer and a good friend of Adams. Cole would eventually become a photographer as well, but at the time of these photographs, he was a metalsmith at Lockheed Aircraft Company. (A somewhat strange coincidence?)

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Adams donated the photographs to the library in the 1960s. He wrote in a letter: "The weather was bad over a rather long period and none of the pictures were very good. ... I would imagine that they represent about $100.00 minimum value. ... At any event, I do not want them back."

To which the librarian responded: "Even though you say they are not your best work, they present an interesting and useful study ... We have consulted our Art Department ... and have concluded that a fair value would be one hundred and fifty dollars ($150.00)."

Ha!

Christina Rice, acting senior librarian of photos at the Los Angeles Public Library, could not give an estimate of the collection's actual value. I'd venture to say you could tack on several zeros to that initial price tag. Rice has been at the library for about five years, and to her knowledge, few historians have researched the collection. Perhaps that's because it's one of the most unassuming, barely advertised collections in Adams' photographic canon. Which makes me wonder: What else is out there off the radar?