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'Never seen' but well-documented Ansel Adams photographs on display in Palos Verdes

January 17, 2011 |  3:25 pm

 
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After last year's controversy over Rick Norsigian's hotly disputed claim that he had unearthed a trove of “lost” 1920s negatives of Yosemite and coastal California by Ansel Adams, the photography world might be expected to greet any further surfacing of “never-seen” pictures by the great nature photographer with appropriate skepticism.

But for its current exhibition of 29 virtually unknown pictures by Adams and his dear friend and mentor, Cedric Wright, the Chadwick School on the Palos Verdes Peninsula seems to have a great deal of the ironclad documentation Norsigian lacked.

The 13 pictures by Adams — on display through Friday at the Palos Verdes Library's Peninsula Center building — come from 1941, when Chadwick, now a private day school but then a boarding school, hired him to produce its fifth-anniversary promotional catalog, and 1942, when Adams returned to shoot a tennis exhibition at the hilltop campus featuring the great Jack Kramer. 

Negatives for some of the prints reside in the official Adams archive at the University of Arizona's Center for Creative Photography; others bear his identifying “photograph by Ansel Adams” stamp on the back. Chadwick's official meeting minutes from the time document the episode, from his hiring to a discussion of how the catalog had turned out, including a motion by the board of directors to “convey to Mr. Adams [its] appreciation and gratification...upon [his] splendid work.”

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The exhibition, which celebrates Chadwick School's 75th anniversary, has its roots in the 1986 reunion of Chadwick's class of '66. Margaret Chadwick, the school's revered founder, had died in 1984 — the same year as Adams — and Chadwick's archives had become overwhelmed with material from her personal collection. Lance Bowling, a 1966 Chadwick graduate who went on to become a record producer specializing in live recordings of classical concerts, came to cull items for his class' reunion from the archives but also took on the project of ordering everything in them. One pleasant surprise was finding Ansel Adams' connection to Chadwick School — not just the pictures and catalog but photographic Christmas cards that Adams and his wife, Virginia, subsequently sent to Margaret Chadwick and her husband, Joseph, known as the Commander because he was a former naval officer.

Adams shot the 1942 portrait of the couple — the Commander is in uniform, having been called back to duty during the war — that decorates the small archives office in the school's library. Also in the records is a glowing letter, quoted in one of the exhibition's display cases, that Adams sent to Mrs. Chadwick in 1974, remembering his visit to the school. The Chadwicks, he wrote, “infused the entire organization with a kind of creative drive (and evoked a marvelous human quality) ... it was an unforgettable experience, and I only wish I had done more and better work for the school.”

The Chadwick connection with Adams is believed to have begun on one of the annual ski trips to Yosemite on which the Commander would shepherd the then small student body. By 1941, Adams was teaching at Art Center College of Design, then in downtown Los Angeles, making him a logical candidate for the project. The shoot lasted perhaps three days, with Adams probably lodging on campus overnight and dining at the head lunch table each day.

Norsigian's claim for the 1920s glass-plate negatives he found years ago at a Fresno garage sale also hinges on Adams' Southern California connection. Norsigian says that he learned from the seller that the negatives previously had been in a storage warehouse in Los Angeles; that led to speculation by Patrick Alt, a photography expert Norsigian hired, that Adams, a Northern Californian, had brought the negatives with him as instructional aids for his classes at Art Center, then somehow lost track of them.

Evidence that Adams was impressed with Chadwick's educational approach — its credo, imprinted on wooden plaques at the gate that he photographed, is to “[strive] earnestly to discover and develop the special gifts which each individual possesses” — is the influx, within a few years, of students from Yosemite and the Bay Area, the photographer's home turf. Among them were two children of Cedric Wright, who lived in Berkeley, but in 1947, after they had enrolled, became the occupant of a small house at the school's disposal that overlooked Abalone Cove.

While Adams saw Wright's photographic potential as unfulfilled, a year after his friend's death in 1959 he pushed for the Sierra Club to publish “Words of the Earth,” a compilation of poetry and pictures that Wright had circulated privately. Adams wrote the forward.

Unlike Norsigian, who has tried to exploit his find by selling expensive prints of the images, Chadwick official Mary Baldovin said the school, which has 860 students from kindergarten through high school, won't try to capitalize on its holdings. “We have no intent of publishing this. We just wanted to share the history with the immediate community.” After the show, she said, the photographs will simply go back into the archive.

For more on Adams' photos of Chadwick School and his friendship with Cedrick Wright, click here.

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— Mike Boehm

Photos: Image from Chadwick School's 1941 catalog shows students walking the beach at Abalone Cove, near the private school on the Palos Verdes Peninsula; basketball players on Chadwick School's outdoor court, 1947. Credits: Ansel Adams/Chadwick School and The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust, 2011 (top); Cedric Wright/Chadwick School (bottom).

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