Rare Ansel Adams photograph hides in plain sight
By Jeremia Schrock
Sun Star Reporter
Ansel Adams came to photograph Alaska in the summer of 1947. One of those photographs later became known as “Mount McKinley and Wonder Lake.” Through the efforts of a university student consumed with a fierce passion for photography, a print of that picture found its way into the Wood Center. It also found its way into the hearts of those who knew of its existence. For the past 36 years, only a handful of individuals were aware of its authenticity and value. Even fewer knew the story behind it.
The story of “Mount McKinley” begins more than 60 years ago. A middle-aged Ansel Adams had come to Alaska on a photography expedition. At one point, he encamped at a cabin 30 miles from Denali, near Wonder Lake. One evening, he set up his camera equipment to photograph the mountain. As dawn began to break after 1 a.m., the top of the mountain took on a pinkish hue. “Gradually, the entire sky became golden and the mountain received more sunlight,” he wrote. He snapped the shutter once, twice and finally a third time. “Within 30 minutes, clouds had gathered and obscured the summit, and they soon enveloped the entire mountain.”
Adams had photographed extensively in the Rocky Mountains, the Sierra Nevada’s and the Southwest, but he had never encountered anything on the scale of Alaska. “The experience moved him profoundly and inspired him,” according to “Ansel Adams: 400 Photographs,” a collection of some of Adams’ more well-known works.
That first photograph became known as “Mount McKinley and Wonder Lake.” While it now resides among the office space of the Wood Centers administrative wing, its arrival in Alaska was something of an accident.
The boys who took pictures
Howard Ringley loved black and white photography. “I started taking pictures when I was 11,” he said in the May 1974 issue of Alumnus, the University of Alaska – Fairbanks’ graduate gazette. “At first it was just a means of expressing myself…photography, for me, is more then just an occupation – it is a way of life.”
This same passion led him to write Ansel Adams in November 1971. At first, Ringley wasn’t interested in “Mount McKinley and Wonder Lake,” but another print entitled “Moon and Mount McKinley.” In his letter to Adams, Ringley wrote that “Moon” showed “an aspect of the state with so much meaning for Alaskans” and that having such a print on hand for students to see “would perhaps aid in the appreciation of the natural beauty that we are fortunate in having so close.”
In early December, Ringley received a response from Bill Turnage, Adams’ assistant: Adams would be thrilled to see one of his prints displayed at the newly completed William Random Wood Center. “Your idea of using Ansel’s ‘Moon and Mt. McKinley’ in a prominent spot in the University’s new campus activities center is most exciting,” wrote Turnage.
There was, however, a problem. The original exposure of “Moon” had been irreparably damaged, something Adams and Turnage had overlooked in their original response to Ringley. “Wow! We goofed!” Turnage wrote to Ringley in February 1972. Adams had thought Ringley had wanted “Wonder Lake,” not “Moon.”
Throughout his summer expedition, Adams had been traveling across Alaska via floatplane. One particular landing in Glacier Bay resulted in a photographic nightmare. “The box in which many exposed but undeveloped films were stored fell out of the plane, into the bay,” wrote Turnage. While the box was recovered, the negatives had sustained heavy water damage.
“We are all extremely embarrassed about this,” Turnage continud. “Ansel suggests that you consider the print…’Mount McKinley and Wonder Lake.’”
By April 1972, Ringley and the Associated Students of the University of Alaska (now called ASUAF) decided to continue with “Wonder Lake.” A note attached to the photograph’s bill of sale, located in the archives of the University of Arizona’s Center for Creative Photography, stated “Alaska called today. It is ok to proceed with ‘Mount McKinley and Wonder Lake.’” The bill of sale was $500, which ASUA paid for.
Between April and August of 1972, Adams donated $250 to the cost of framing and crating the print. A letter from Adams to Paul Frederick, a framer at The Atelier (a framing studio in San Francisco) stated that no one but he (Adams) should be billed for the framing and crating. “I don’t know if they will stand the shipping, but they must not pay for framing and crating (or the mounting),” he wrote.
Near the end of August, Ringley wrote a note to Carol Brown, Assistant Director of the Wood Center, with Adams’ letter attached. “The picture will probably be delivered to [the] Wood Center addressed to me. I would like to [be] notified when it arrives so I can be here to open it,” he wrote.
By late September, the print had arrived. A photograph from the Sept. 29, 1972 issue of the Polar Star (the Sun Star’s predecessor) shows an unnamed physical plant employee hanging the print in the Wood Center’s multi-level lounge. The print remained in the lounge, almost entirely forgotten, until 2001.
Until recently, only a handful of university staff knew that the photograph was an original. Most of those staff, however, were either retired or deceased. One individual who knew was Lydia Anderson. Anderson, currently the Director of the Wood Center, has worked at the university since 1976. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that she began to realize just what the university had.
“I always knew that it was a nice print of McKinley, but I didn’t really make the association that it was an Ansel Adams print until later,” Anderson said. The motivation to research the print came when the university decided to make way for the Alumni Wall. “We were moving [the print] and it was pretty dusty and had been there for years, as far back as I could remember,” she said. Anderson noted the print needed to be reframed and thought having it appraised at the same time would be a good idea. “That’s when we realized what it was,” she added.
Anderson started putting together a file on the print. During her research, she discovered that the photograph was a rare find. Rare enough, in fact, that one of its sister prints currently resides in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. It is one of only four prints of its size (48 x 40) in existence.
“When we found out what we had, and the value of it, that’s when we decided that it…needed to be in a secure spot. And I started putting together a file because we needed to have [it] for history.” Since 2001, the print has resided in the administrative wing of the Wood Center. From that secure location, the public could still view the print during office hours. Anderson refrained from stating exactly what the print was appraised at, but implied that it is now worth far more then its original $500 purchase price.
Howard Ringley was stabbed to death outside his home in Victor, N.Y. in January of 1982. His obituary in an issue of Alumnus, from the same year, makes no mention of the role he played in securing the Adams print for the university. Ansel Adams himself died of a heart attack in Monterey, Calif. two years later.
Ron Keyes, a former Wood Center Director, knew Ringley personally. “He and I had a mutual relationship through photography,” Keyes said. “He was just a delightful person.” Keyes struggled to remember Ringley in the early ‘70s, his voice full of emotion as he spoke. “The last time we spoke was in 1975…” he trailed off. “He was certainly a joy to know.”
Keyes worked for the university when the print was first placed in the lounge. “It came to us in a very special way,” he said. “I had a great admiration for [Ringley]…It’s a pretty special photograph,” he added. “I hope we have it forever.”