Together they represent 133 years of shutter-snapping. So when Ansel Adams, 73, the dean of nature photographers, got together recently with 91-year-old photographic doyenne Imogen Cunningham, the conversation was professional—and predictable. “Now, Ansel,” declared the no-nonsense nonagenarian as she arrived at Adams’s Carmel, Calif. home, “I’m going to take your picture, and then you’re going to take my picture, and then one of your assistants will take pictures of both of us, and then we’ll develop the film in your lab.” Later Cunningham assessed the results: “I think we were both pretty perfect.”
Camera buffs have been saying that about the two of them for half a century. Adams got his first camera, a box Brownie, in 1916, and began taking his world-famous photographs of Yosemite. Landing a job as a Sierra Club custodian in 1920, he trekked throughout the mountains with his cameras and tripod strapped to the back of a mule. Not surprisingly, it was at Yosemite that he met and courted Virginia Best, daughter of a painter. They were married in 1929.
A few years later he teamed up with Cunningham and other realists to form the “f/64 Group” (for the lens opening that gives unusually great depth of field). The group’s exhibition at San Francisco’s de Young Museum of straight rather than “artsy” pictures is considered a milestone. Shrugs Cunningham, “We weren’t so hot.” Maybe not, but recently a fan of Adams asked the photographer if he could have a print of Clearing Winter Storm in the Yosemite Valley to hang opposite the desk in his private office. Adams told former Yellowstone park ranger Gerald Ford that he would be happy to oblige and, at the suggestion of White House photographer David Kennedy, Adams was invited to put up the print himself. Says Adams: “The President and Mrs. Ford had seen my book [Ansel Adams: Images 1923-1974] and had gone bananas over that picture.”
From their high-ceilinged aerie overlooking Carmel’s rugged coastline, Ansel and Virginia Adams these days can watch spouting whales cruise by on their annual migration to Baja. But there is also plenty of activity in the workshop-studio, where Adams and his assistants are turning out prints of his most famous works at $500 each.
Though nearly a generation older than Adams, a fact she announces triumphantly, Cunningham is no less industrious. She made her first photograph in 1901 and is still hard at the job—leaping into and out of cars and through heavy doors without assistance, gleefully flashing the peace sign to hitchhikers on the road. Famous for her portraits, she has been honored for her pictures of such friends as Martha Graham and Georgia O’Keeffe. In 1915 she caused a minor scandal by photographing her husband, a printmaker named Roi Partridge, in the nude atop Mt. Rainier. “You couldn’t chase a naked man around Rainier those days,” says Cunningham, who shelved the series for 50 years.
As for her pictures of Adams (which she took at the request of PEOPLE), she said ecstatically: “Oh, look, I actually got him to frown. Ansel is such a smiley person. In fact, he’s too damn nice.” And Imogen? “I have a terrible reputation,” she smiles. “And I intend to keep it.” For what each saw in the other, turn the page.