The Story of Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham and a Pot Plant

imogen-cunninghamImogen Cunningham

In 1975 I was in California and stopped to visit Ansel Adams in Carmel, but I was way too intimidated to get out a camera and ask him to take his picture. This was Big Dome himself, and I was only a rank beginner. Me and my friend David Dearden shared some Minor White stories with Ansel, and we were soon on our way.

A few days later, I traveled up to San Francisco to photograph Imogen Cunningham. I stayed with some friends, and in the morning we went out for a walk in Sausalito: I had a meeting to make pictures of Imogen later in the day. I had brought her a print as a present but was so nervous about the upcoming meeting with her that I left the camera in the car.

After I got on the boat to San Francisco, and just as the boat was pulling out, I realized what I had done. I felt like an idiot. One side of me said, “Just call her and tell her you’re sick and make up a story.” but having learned from Minor, I thought, “Well, this is just the way it’s supposed to be.” And I decided to go and at least meet her. Whatever happens, happens. If I’m not supposed to make this portrait, then it’s not to be.

So I went up the little hill to 1331 Green Street and knocked on the door. An assistant opened it, and I told him that I was there to see Imogen. “She’s out shopping,” he said. “Just come in and relax.” I proceeded to tell him about what an idiot I was, and he said, “Don’t worry; it will probably all work out.”

Twenty minutes later Imogen walked in the door, and the first thing she said was: “Okay, let’s get it over with. Take my picture and let’s be done.” And I said, “Imogen. You’re not going to believe this. I brought you a present, but I forgot my camera.” She cracked up. And then she said: “You know, sometimes I forget the camera, or the tripod, or even where I’m supposed to be going to make a portrait. I’ve even forgotten my film—so don’t worry about it.”

We started to have a talk about Minor and Ansel, and she began to tell stories about these younger friends of hers, who in her opinion couldn’t properly take care of their health—she was 91 at the time. Then she began to gossip about Ansel and what a prude and tight-ass he was. “He’s always showing off,” she said.

Ansel had done an advertising campaign for Yuban coffee, and they used on of his Yosemite pictures on the outside of the can. Ansel send a five-pound can to Imogen, and the coffee was excellent, and she figured, “Well, I now have to pay him back.” So she put a bunch of earth in the can and some seeds and sent it down to Carmel with the directions, “Just add water, Ansel. Here are some beautiful plants for you.” He did as she directed, and the plant came up strong and healthy. And then one day his buddy the sheriff came to visit in his home and looked at it and said, “Ansel, what are you doing growing dope? You know I can arrest you for this.” Needless to say, Ansel then got on the phone to cuss her out. She just thought it was hilarious.

In any case, she invited my back the next day for lunch and to do the pictures. She was very playful. When I arrived she was in her front-yard garden with her shears, and she was clearly making fun of me with my little Leica, because she used a medium format Rollei camera for her work. What could I do with this little toy? She was just teasing me.

By coincidence, Imogen died on the same day as Minor White: June 24,1976. They had obituaries across from each other in the New York Times a few days later. —Abe Frajndlich

Over a span of 30+ years, Abe Frajndlich has been able to photograph many influential photographers such as Ansel Adams, Richard Avedon, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Chuck Close, William Eggleston and Inge Morath. Portraits of these photographers and many more are included in the book, Penelope’s Hungry Eyes, along with lively commentary describing his experiences photographing these masters of the medium.

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