What Ansel Adams Would Do

Back in 1988 I was living in Los Angeles and studying photography. I bought a camera and started taking courses at the Los Angeles Photography Center.

One of the courses I took was on the Zone System, a system of film exposure and printing developed by the legendary photographer, Ansel Adams. My teacher, whose name was David, learned this directly from Ansel Adams himself at a workshop at Yosemite National Park in the early 1980s.

When my Zone System course wrapped up I asked David if I could study printing with him privately in his studio. He said yes and we agreed upon a rate of $15 per hour. A few nights later I met him at his studio. With some assistance from David, I made a number of beautiful prints on his enlarger. It had taken about three hours. When I was done, I handed him $45.

He said “Keep it. I was working on some of my stuff too.”

I said, “Are you sure?”

He said, “Yep, that’s what Ansel would have done.” He then went on to tell me the following story: One day he was driving up the coast of California and his route took him through Carmel. He decided he wanted to see Ansel Adams so he asked around town and finally he was able to find out where Ansel lived.

He got the address and shyly knocked on Ansel’s door. Ansel answered the door. David told Ansel that he had taken a workshop with him a few years earlier at Yosemite and he just wanted to come by and say hello.

Ansel, who was in the last year of his life, was busy with his autobiography and doing a lot of archival work, but invited David in to take a look at his famous studio, and asked him to stay for lunch, giving David a great deal of his time to talk about their passion of photography.

David said he was so touched by the generosity of Ansel Adams on that one afternoon, that he decided that he would model his life on that same kind of generosity. Thus, no charge that evening for me.

So the generosity of Ansel Adams went beyond that one afternoon when it was extended to David, it was passed onto me and I’m sure countless others. And now you get to hear about it.

“It is one of the most beautiful compensations of this life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself…Serve and thou shall be served.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

It’s reminiscent of the movie, Pay it Forward, a movie that if you haven’t already seen, then put it on your list to do so. Matter of fact, go buy it. It’s a movie, not about paying someone back for a good deed they did you, but paying it forward–to other people. It illustrates how love is contagious.

Life is a state of constant flow. And giving allows us to be in harmony with that flow. When somebody gives to us, we are happy. When we give to others, though, we are joyous.

As was the case with Bill Murray in the movie, Groundhog’s Day, nothing ever really changes until we learn how give up resistance and start participating in life with love and generosity of spirit. The Bill Murray character in the movie went from being a cynical self-absorbed jerk to the most popular man in town, in the course of one day, a day that would be repeated thousands of times in a never ending vortex of time.

But after learning how to give of himself, almost a non-stop creative giving of himself, he gets liberated out of this never ending day and into a happy romance. He was lifted up to a new existence, aligned with the creative power of the universe-love.

Giving from the heart is the soul’s most fundamental need of expression. It’s also one of the fundamental laws of compensation: give and you shall receive.

I remember my first stay in Japan. After a good nights sleep, my wife Maggie and went out to lunch the next day. We ate, paid the bill, and I left a tip on the table. We walked out of the restaurant and went about a block down the street when the waitress came running after us with the money I left on the table, yelling, “No tipping in Japan! No tipping in Japan!” I’ve had a soft spot in my heart for Japan ever since.

That goes to support what a customer of mine shared with me when I worked for United Airlines. He told me that Singapore Airlines was the best airline in the world. I asked him what made them so special. His response is something I will never forget. “In the East, people know that it’s an honor to serve someone.” I hope that someday the whole world understands that.

Ansel understood that. Here are some of the final words of his autobiography, written just before he died in 1984: “I believe the ultimate objective of life lies in creative and productive work; devotion to business and money, as ends in themselves, are but phases of a developing civilization.”

Perhaps it’s time to get on with the next phase.

Greg Butler