Photographer Ansel Adams was known for the skill and painstaking preparation that went into his most famous shots. From setting up a camera, focusing it, and framing the subject just so, to patiently waiting, sometimes for hours, for the lighting to be perfect.
But along with sophisticated higher-end cameras, Adams, during his storied career, used a variety of Kodak and Polaroid models of the time.
Camera collector Kevin Murray has a pop-up display of the same camera models and equipment that Adams used in his storied photography career that he takes to events such as the Earth Day celebration held April 20 at the John Muir National Historic Site in Martinez. Visitors could see the equipment used by the man behind the lens, how cameras and photography evolved, and consider how the technology has grown in the years since Adams died in 1984.
They could also learn the connection between pioneer environmentalist Muir, who was essential in the creation of Yosemite National Park, and photographer Adams, who captured timeless images of Yosemite on film.
Adams was practical and realized worthy shots also come in the moment, when the big cameras and heavy wooden tripods weren’t practical to lug into the backwoods of Yosemite or other remote locales.
“He kind of flipped around a bit, sometimes he was looking for the message, sometimes he was looking for precision,” said Murray, a real estate agent and photography fanatic. “The vest pocket camera (made by Kodak), he could fold up, put in his pocket and go climbing.”
Adams’ first camera was a 1904 Kodak box model that his father gave him in 1916 and taught young Ansel, then 14, to take apart and reassemble, learning all the parts and mechanisms. Murray has that model, along with some 25 cameras in his Adams exhibit, ranging from such once-prestigious manufacturers as Gundlach, Miroflex, Graflex and Contax, to more mainstream makers as Leica, Nikon, Kodak and Polaroid.
“Ansel was really big into Polaroid,” Murray said. “In fact, he worked for them as a consultant.”
The exhibit also includes the same model light meters and other special equipment Adams would have used.
They are a subset of more than 600 cameras Murray has collected as a hobby and uses to share his passion for photography with others.
He has also done exhibits on camera models used by Dorothea Lange, an equally famed contemporary of Adams, author Jack London, and photographers of Life magazine, as well as one on “Cameras of the Depression.”
“I try to make it historically interesting and visually interesting,” Murray said.
That includes letting visitors experience what it is like to be the person behind the lens,
“I have a camera on a tripod so kids can get under the hood and see what it’s like,” he said, noting that many are surprised to look in the viewfinder and find “the image is upside down and backwards.”
Murray, 63, was born in San Francisco, raised in Lafayette, and lives in central Contra Costa County, where he has been a real estate broker for 25 years.
He first got the photography bug when he took a class in the eighth grade in Lafayette and convinced the school administration to turn an used janitor’s closet into a darkroom. “The real estate business ties in nicely because I use photography to sell houses,” Murray said. “It’s kept my vocation and my avocation going well. It’s a good synergistic hobby.”
The idea for the Adams exhibit came when he was asked to shoot photos at a past Earth Day celebration at the Muir house — he does a lot of volunteer photography — and asked if he could have a booth.
He has also set up a display at the annual Martinez Home Tour and may do it again this year. Murray is active with the Martinez Historical Society, which holds the tour as a fundraiser.
Interest in the exhibit covers those familiar with traditional photography and those who have only experienced its digital age. “I think a lot of younger people are intrigued. Older people remember cameras they or their parents had.”
While it seems like everyone has gone digital, traditional photography is still very alive, Murray said.
“It really has changed a lot, but there are people who are purists who want to shoot film,” he said. Others, he said, “are looking for something new, something to break away from digital.”
At the same time, Murray, like Adams, is practical about things and has adapters that allow him to put the interchangeable lenses from older film cameras on mirrorless ¾ digital models, with outstanding images resulting.
Learn more about Murray’s cameras of Ansel Adams collection at https://web4homes.net/anseladams/.