Ansel Adams in Hawaii: Who Knew?

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Ansel Adams in Hawaii: Who Knew?

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Oahu
Sep 18, 2013

It was a rare day in Waikiki--grey and drizzly--and I'd planned an early morning stand up paddling session with my friend Pat. The weather wasn't exactly inspiring, and I was thinking of canceling. But I could also hear the voice of my outrigger canoe paddling coach in my head. "It's a water sport, Kim. You're gonna get wet."

That's not entirely true. If you're practiced enough, you could paddle a stand up board up and down the shoreline of Waikiki without getting wet--except for your feet and ankles. But it wasn't the "wet" of the ocean that bothered me. The past few weeks had been hot and humid, after all. Mid-day dunks in the drink had felt good. No, what I wasn't looking forward to was a drenching while Pat and I toted her board to the beach, and I didn't want to sit on the beach, as miserable as a dog in the rain, while Pat took her turn paddling. Besides, the photographs I'd planned to take, backed by grey skies, wouldn't be all that great for posting on Facebook. Wah!

When Pat suggested we switch our early morning paddle for an afternoon one, I agreed. Surely, it wouldn't rain all day long in Waikiki.

So, I traded grey pictures of surfers in Waikiki for the photographs of a master taken during his multiple visits to Hawaii--and not a single photograph of the iconic volcanic crater anchoring the east end of Waikiki Beach, Diamond Head, and not a one of Waikiki Beach, either.

The master I'm talking about is none other than Ansel Adams. He visited Hawaii several times in the 1950s on a commercial assignment from Bishop National Bank of Hawaii, now First Hawaiian Bank. From now through mid-January, a selection of his Hawaii photographs are on display alongside the paintings of his friend Georgia O'Keeffee. She visited Hawaii in 1939.

Actually, it was a perfect morning for a visit to a museum, and I set my GPS for the Honolulu Museum of Art in downtown Honolulu, where it being a school day, I followed a busload of schoolchildren up the stairs and into the museum.

A docent gave me a shrug, as if to apologize for the kids. "They scare me," she said.

"I take it you don't have children?" I asked.

"Oh, I do. Even grandchildren," she said and nodded her head, setting her red coral-tipped earrings bouncing. "They scare me, too."

The galleries at the Honolulu Museum of Art flank numerous courtyards, giving the museum-goer a few moments of contemplation before going from, say, Asian works of art to that of the Mediterranean. It's an inspiring architectural design, and I enjoy just going to the museum to hang out. There's a great cafe for lunch, too.

When I pointed to a poster on the museum wall, indicating the exhibition I wished to see--the one in the rotating exhibit hall--my docent tightened her red-painted lips into a knot. It was the same exhibit to which the kids were headed.

Between swarms of small people swimming around us, my docent gave me an introduction to the exhibit, titled, "Georgia O'Keeffe and Ansel Adams: The Hawaii Pictures."

Back when I lived on the mainland, I hung in my office a poster of Ansel Adams' that cost more to frame than for the poster itself. It could have been the famous one of the moon rising over Half Dome. But I seem to remember a shot of a tree in winter. It could be that I had both. What I did remember of Adams' work, though, was his mastery of black-and-white, nature scenes, and while I found the black-and-white processing for which Adams is famous at the Honolulu Museum of Art, I found much more than scenics in Adams' images from Hawaii.

According to my child-fearing docent, Adams strove to capture the nature and character of Hawaii beyond the beaches of Waikiki, beyond the palm trees, beyond, even, the waterfalls that captured Adams' imagination in a place for which his name is forever tied, Yosemite.

By now, with a wave of her hand, decorated with a chunk of some red-mineraled-ring, my docent left me to enjoy the exhibit, which is sectioned into four parts: land, history, people, commerce and technology.

You'll find loads of images of people--some the very age of the kids surrounding me. A young family outside their suburban home. A farmer packing produce. A production line of factory workers canning pineapple. As well, scions of industry sitting around a board room table.

You'll find numerous images of churches, homes, and cemeteries. Petroglyphs, lava, and leaves.  I was enjoying it all, inspired, even, my shutter finger itching.

My geeky-ness comes out when I realize I have unknowingly stood in the same steps of someone I admire. (I got similarly excited when I found a rock that Mark Twain wrote about during his 1866 visit to Hawaii.) My giddy geek emerged when I saw a shot by Adams that looked awfully familiar to me, a subject I have photographed hundreds--perhaps, thousands--of times, and I pulled out my iPhone to take a picture of the picture, which I texted to another fried, Nicki, asking, "Why isn't this image in the book?"

The book I was referring to was Keepers of the Light, Land and Life: A Look at Kilauea Point over 100 Years. I provided the words to this book and Nicki sourced all the photography. It does not include the photo taken by Ansel Adams of the Kilauea Lighthouse, peering through the legs of the radio tower standing in 1958 during Adam's visit. (I rather doubt we'd have gotten the copyright approvals for that. But it sure would have been nice.)

After further research that would take me to two libraries on Kauai, I discovered Adams not only photographed Kauai's Kilauea Lighthouse, but he captured Napali Coast, Waimea Canyon, the Waioli Mission House,  a fragment from a headstone in a Kilauea cemetery and the St. Sylvester Catholic Church in Kilauea. (Nicki attends this church, in fact. More geeky fun.)

At noon, I received a text from Pat: Looks like our plan might work. When I exited the museum, the skies were blue and the sun was shining, and it stayed that way for my afternoon stand up paddling session. Some things in life work out perfectly.

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pam Woolway | Sep 19, 2013 06:05 AM

Wow. I am planning to go to Honolulu just to see this exhibit Kimmy. Did you find the headstone in Kilauea? Funny and personal writing. Really enjoyed the read.

Kim | Sep 19, 2013 04:14 PM

Hi Pammy, yes, go to Oahu for this exhibit. It was inspiring--and included Georgia O'Keeffe's work from Hawaii, too. I did not find the headstone that Adams photographed in a Kilauea (Kauai) cemetery, and I explored two. However, further research took me to two libraries, where I found a copy of the First Hawaiian Bank book, and I found a name to go along with the headstone. So, I have another lead;-) The search continues.

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