This week Rfotofolio is pleased to share the work and words of photographer Alan Ross.
Would you please tell us a little about yourself?
I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, in Sausalito. I’ve always been a tinkerer. I’ve always loved taking things apart and building things. In the 1960s when aptitude tests were popular, my mother had me do one and the pronouncement was that I ought to be an Artist. I thought that was hysterical! So I started college at the University of California at Davis as a Mechanical Engineering student. But that turned out to be dry and dull, so I transferred the next year to Berkeley. I like “nature” but there was no such thing in 1967 as Environmental Studies, so I started in the School of Forestry. Well, that was actually the lumber business where they described the size of a forest in terms of board feet! Happily, Berkeley’s Design Department had a photo class that could be repeated for credit, so I changed majors one more time, and over the next two and half years got totally hooked and established an independent major in Design/Photography.
How did you get started in photography?
Well, I was always sort of intrigued by photography. My father (who died when I was 5) was the son of a talented photographer in northern Michigan. I remember as a child looking at a photo of my uncle in his white shirt, along with the negative of the same image. In the negative, his white shirt was black, and everything else was backwards. Well this was pretty easy to figure out: there clearly was some special ink that one poured on the negative, and where the negative was clear, the ink went through and turned the print black. The big problem was how did that ink come from the actual shirt, go through the lens and turn the film black…
When I was in the 8th grade a new kid at school got on the bus one morning with a 35mm contact sheet. I’d never seen anything like that and I asked him about it. He said he had made it that morning and that his dad was a photographer and had a darkroom at home. When I got home I dug out my father’s old Rolleicord and within a week had developed my first roll of film! In high school I met some new friends who were very interested in the Sierra Club and photography. They had Nikons and I had a plastic 35mm Kodak. It wasn’t long before I had discovered Ansel Adams and saved up enough to get a shiny new Nikkormat and 50mm f:2 lens. By my Senior year I had got a spot on the Yearbook staff and had access to a small private darkroom at the school.
Did you have a mentor?
I had three amazing mentors.
My first was at UC Berkeley. I think in 1968, the Design Department got a new Chairman in the person of William (Bill) Garnett. Bill was not only one of the kindest people I have ever met, but an amazing photographer – with three Guggenheim Grants to his credit for his aerial photography. Not content to just be Department Chairman, he also taught one of the repeat-for-credit photo classes. An understanding instructor, and also a stickler for quality he became a prime component in my growth and future career. On a field trip in one of his classes, he took us to the studio of San Francisco advertising photographer Milton (Hal) Halberstadt where we were treated to an incredible array of creative work and I was stunned by seeing 8×10 transparencies for the first time. In earlier days, Hal had been darkroom assistant to the Chicago School of Design’s Moholy Nagy of Bauhaus fame. We saw multiple-exposure images, Tone-Lines and Solarizations Hal had done. By the time I had finished at Berkeley, Bill had helped me get my first professional job, illustrating a series of elementary-school science texts being written by UC professors. My Nikkormat was fine for the in-class photos I needed to make, but for the “studio” shots I had to go out and buy a 4×5 – wow!
The day I turned in the last of the science-text work I was done with school and had nothing but a big blank in my future. On my way home I stopped by the pro photo store in San Francisco – even though I didn’t need anything. I walked in the door and overheard a clerk telling someone that there was a photographer named Halberstadt who was looking for an assistant. I stopped in my tracks, got in my VW bus and drove down to Hal’s studio. We talked for a bit and he seemed interested and asked met come back the next day and show him some prints. I did that and after we chatted some more and he looked through my work he rose, commenting that the Sinar needed putting away and the floor needed mopping, and that he was going out and would see me later. So, for the next three years I was Assistant in one of the top advertising studios in the country. Loading 8×10 film, pushing lights around, learning to use an SEI spotmeter and working with all sorts of complicated and creative image making. On top of all this, one of Hal’s good friends happened to be Ansel Adams. Ansel had moved to Carmel by this time, but in the 1960’s they had a now-and-then assistant in common, Gerry Sharpe. In June of 1972, I took it upon myself to drive up to Yosemite to meet Ansel and introduce myself. He was just starting his famed Yosemite Workshop, and hearing that I was Hal’s assistant he welcomed me, saying I could hang out as long as I wanted. Another wow!
The next year, Hal decided to close the studio and retire, and I was out of a job. I had made a few good contacts in my years with Hal, but I had no interest in opening a studio, so survived on unemployment and an occasional assignment. I wrote Ansel asking if he needed an assistant but he replied that he had a fine assistant in Ted Orland. He added, though, that he would be delighted to have me assist in some of the wide range of workshops then being sponsored by the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite. So I started going to Yosemite now and then and in July of 1974 I was running the darkroom for the Making of a Photographic Book workshop. A few days into the session Ansel’s new business manager, Bill Turnage, pulled me aside, saying that Ansel was looking for a second assistant and would I be interested in moving to Carmel. I thought about that for a microsecond, and two weeks later found me driving down the coast with a van-load full of gear to look for a place to live. Ted was still working his usual Monday-Friday shift, but Ansel wanted someone on hand all the time, so I started out working Friday-Monday. Mentor number three!
Is there a photographer (present day or past) you would like to spend the day with?
I think it would be a blast to spend day on assignment with photojournalist David Kennerly. David and I have been friends since 1975, when he was President Ford’s photographer, and I had the priceless opportunity to photograph David photographing Ansel for the cover of Time Magazine, published September 3, 1979. David is still doing amazing work.
What affect does your work have on the way you see the world?
I think my work lets me see the world! It took me to China in 1981 and 1982 with stops in Hong Kong and Japan, and I just got back from my sixth China adventure, teaching a workshop in Hangzhou. I’m due back there again in the Fall. I’ve done two workshops in Italy in the last two years, a show in Croatia, a lecture in Athens, Greece. Consulting in Munich, Belgium, France and England. Contemplating workshops in Dublin and Scotland. Not to mention all my roamings in the US and Canada.
Please tell us about one image (not your own) that has stayed with you over time.
That’s a bit like saying if you could only have one thing to eat, what would it be? I can’t single out just one.
If no one saw your work, would you still create it?
Absolutely. I have a lot of images I probably will never get around to printing. Aside from commercial work I have done and may do I always make my photographs for myself. It’s great when I do have a chance to share the work and even better when people are moved by it.
What is the perfect photographic day?
Probably a day when I don’t have anything else on my mind, and much of the time that is when I am traveling, exploring. I’ve certainly made some of my favorite photographs at, or close to, home – but it’s so easy to get bogged down with the affairs of daily life. I even wrote a blog I called “Too Close to Home”.
What challenges do you face as an artist?
Getting pigeon-holed. I like photographing all sorts of things, abstracts, architecture, landscape – and I’ve even done some portrait work I like a lot. When I was at Ansel’s, my three most popular images were a Yosemite landscape, a still life of an onion, and a nude. Alas, in the years since, the onion and nude get shown very little in galleries and I’m mostly thought of as a landscape photographer.
Is there one thing that you wish people would stop doing when it comes to the creative process or in the art world?
Well, in this digital age, I wish people would slow down! I was a co-instructor at a high-end workshop a year or so ago and after a morning field-session one of the students stated with pride that he/she had made over three hundred images that morning! And all three hundred are probably still on the memory card! Delete! Aside from an impressive dynamic range, one of the real beauties of large-format work is having to slow down. The need to make every sheet of film count.
I view myself as a classicist, but not a purist. I have a great respect for what digital can do and I enjoy it – but I also haul out the 4×5 or 8×10 when appropriate. I tried a Holga, but it didn’t suit. It is hard to define what is creative photography now when everyone with a smart-phone is a “photographer”. And there are some real photographers doing wonderful things with iPhones and the like.
How do you over come a creative block ?
The best way is to just get out and DO something! It’s like priming the pump. I was with friends in Death Valley once at Ubehebe Crater and I just didn’t feel like doing anything. My friends kept after me until I finally got the 8×10 out. I made a so-so image then walked a bit down the trail and made an image that is among my favorites.
What do you hope the viewer takes from your images ?
I hope they see something they have never “seen” before – maybe seeing something in a way they had never thought of before.
Would you like to share a story about one of your images?
Golden Gate Bridge, North Tower and Rocks, 1989. This kind of falls under the category of creative block – or being too close to home, since I grew up in Sausalito, California – the first town on the north end of the Bridge. I was living there again since the last of my family died in the early ‘80s, and the last thing I would ever have thought of doing was to make a serious creative stab at photographing the Bridge. As it happened, though, a large San Francisco ad agency was planning a major international campaign for the Bank of America, which in an earlier incarnation had been closely involved with financing the bridges’ construction. After leaving Ansel in 1979 to start my own advertising studio in the City, I had established some stature in the pro community for my black-and-white abilities. I interviewed for the assignment and got it – along with complete carte-blanche as to just what I would do. I could photograph in 35mm from a whaleboat or balloon if I had wanted. But knowing the subject and terrain as well as I did I had this exact image in my mind before I walked out of the Art Director’s office. It wasn’t more than a day or so later that I hauled my 8×10 Toyo Field and Kodak 10” Wide-Field Ektar out to Lime Point at the base of the North Tower. The set up was easy, but even with the enormous image circle of the Ektar I still ran out of coverage, so I kept the North Tower perfectly vertical and let the South tower converge a bit, an effect that I like a lot. But it still took me about 45 minutes to get the image since the herring were running and the sky was full of bloated seagulls.
Is there a process or subject matter that you would like to take on in the future?
I’m still learning digital finesse, but I figure that will be never-ending since the technology advances every day. I used to do a lot of color – for personal as well as commercial work, but gave up on the personal side because my “art” preference was color neg and c-print. But the prints always faded and Ciba or Dye Transfer didn’t appeal. I’m now very excited about what I can do with pigment prints and their comparative stability.
Thank you Alan for sharing your work with us.
To learn more about Alan Ross please visit his site at, Alan Ross Photography.
To learn more about photographer David Kennerly please visit, David Kennerly Photography.