Even Ansel Adams Himself Once Had to Advertise to Make Money

Even Ansel Adams Himself Once Had to Advertise to Make Money

If you're a photographer or really any kind of creative, you've probably at some point experienced the existential crisis along the lines of "does my work mean anything? Does anyone care?" This reminder that even the greatest among us had humble beginnings should put a smile on your face.

If you ask the layperson to name a famous photographer, odds are they'll say Ansel Adams. However, in 1929, he was a 27-year-old working as the trip photographer for the Sierra Club and still transitioning from a life as a pianist to that as a photographer. He was certainly not yet the household name we know him as now, and as such, he had to promote his work:

"Parmelian Prints" is short for "Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras," Adams' first portfolio offered for sale. Arts Patron Albert Bender, who helped fund the publication, made up the word "parmelian" because he felt "photographic" would not command the respect (and buyers) fine art normally would. So, not only did Adams had to advertise, he had to resort to fake words just to make the right impression. By the way, a copy of the portfolio was offered for sale at $110,000 in 2011, and I don't think they had to advertise the Adams name much at that point. 

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Alex Cooke is a Cleveland-based portrait, events, and landscape photographer. He holds an M.S. in Applied Mathematics and a doctorate in Music Composition. He is also an avid equestrian.

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From Wikipedia -Adams himself printed each of the images for the portfolios on Kodak Vitava Athena Grade T Parchment paper, which was both cream-colored and translucent due to the thinness of the paper. The prints measure 5 3/4" x 7 3/4" (14.6 x 19.7 cm) on sheets of 10" x 12" (25.4 cm x 30.5 cm).

I first encountered these prints when looking through a collection of Adams prints that my Uncle had in a file cabinet. My Great Grandmother had been a babysitter for Adams and had kept up a lifelong relationship with the family.

My uncle had a collection of photo Christmas cards from them in addition to a large number of 8x10 prints.
Among the prints I found these "Parmelian" prints which I took to be poorly fixed proofs on cheap paper.
A few days later I was in the Weston Gallery in Carmel where I noted they were asking $6500 each for these same prints. I asked them about it and they explained the significance of the prints.

I told my Uncle who was delighted to know this and he promptly placed them into a safe deposit box. I estimate that his collection comprised about 40-50 prints with 6 or 7 being of the "Parmelian" variety.

"This reminder that even the greatest among us had humble beginnings should put a smile on your face." While I appreciate the spirit of this, I think it's a bit disingenuous to suggest that Adams faced the same hurdles as today's aspiring photographers. It took work to acquire the skill and knowledge required to make salable photographs with a large format camera, and that kept the competition fairly limited to truly dedicated photographers. Aspiring photographers today have to compete with millions of instant gratification junkies producing images with ez buttons and computer code and handing out dvds full of insta-filtered and and auto-shopped images for less than the cost of depreciation on their camera. Being reminded that Ansel Adams had to advertise once is kind of like telling aspiring singers in the world of autotune not to feel bad because Andrea Bocelli actually had to practice a few times to learn how to sing.