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  • Arthur Bacon

Ansel Adams and Ernst Bacon and the Pinched Clearing Winter Storm

Updated: Mar 22, 2021

The recent hoopla over the glass plates purporting to belong to Ansel Adams has reminded me of a not-so-amusing photographic moment of my own related to Ansel. A few weeks after my father’s eighty-fifth birthday (1983) I stopped by and noticed a large package with a distinctive red and black “Ansel Adams” mailing label, leaned up against the wall under my father’s Steinway. “Hey Pop, what’s this,” I asked rhetorically, knowing it was a print (as one of the cohort of second rate landscape photographers hanging around the West Coast in the latter part of the century I knew full well what a photograph looks like all wrapped up to survive the assaults of the USPS). Pop said it was a birthday present from Ansel.

If you are wondering why Ansel Adams would send my father a print, the fact is these two old guys were like oldest, closest friends. Ansel of course grew up in San Francisco but my father moved there in the early twenties and got a studio in what was then called “the Latin Quarter.” My father was a musician and Ansel was an aspiring pianist. When Ansel heard my father play the Bach Chacon he decided that he would probably do better expressing himself through his other passion, photography (that is the endearing way Ansel used to tell the story to us, neglecting to mention that arthritis was already crippling his fingers and a career of virtuosic piano playing was out of the question). Anyway, they, and Cedric Wright, became fast friends making mischief, music and climbing in the Sierras. My father played at Ansel’s wedding in Yosemite in 1928.

The print beneath the piano, Clearing Winter Storm, signed, “To Ernst on his eighty-fifth. Love Ansel,” was not framed and I suggested that we get it framed so we took it down to Walnut Creek to one of those discount frame shops. They wanted twenty- five bucks to stick it in a Nielsen frame. My father nixed the plan as too expensive so I took it home and cut an over-mat and framed it (behind glass!) myself and hung it above his piano..

In 1984, I made a documentary film about my father for KTEH in which this print shows prominently behind my father when he is playing the piano. A few months after the film aired on Public Television in 1985, I went over to my father’s and noticed the AA print was gone. Needless to say, my father had told me that when he died he wanted me to have this print, and since I had spent a good deal of time with Ansel myself in Yosemite and Carmel I cherished the thought of owning such a magnificent image. I said, “Where’s Ansel’s print?” At the time my father was eighty-seven, legally blind, living impecuniously on Social Security and a few meager royalties from his music. He had just begun one of his last major works, Elegy for Ansel Adams. He said, “Oh, two very nice young men came over this morning and gave me three thousand dollars for that and the Peter Hurd print and the little Piazoni.”

All I can say is that there are two very lucky con artists in the Bay Area who should thank their lucky stars every day that in 1985, I had just sold my 38 Spl. to help defray the cost of the film that led them to my father’s house to rob. While reading sundry news stories and blogs related to the newfound garage-sale glass plates this week, mention was made that a Clearing Winter Storm recently sold for 700 grand. Damn!… Damn!

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