Back in the late ’90s—long before websites and other digital portals became the showcase for photographers—I made regular visits to New York City to share my portfolio with magazine clients.
On one of those visits, while walking out of the building that houses Rolling Stone and Men’s Journal, I noticed a young man heading my way. He also had a camera around his shoulders and a large portfolio case under his arm. Like me, he seemed a bit lost in the vast metropolis.
As we got closer, he noticed my Leica camera and complimented me on it. After a few minutes of talking, I learned he was from a small town and had just graduated from art school. He was thinking of settling in the city to try his luck as a magazine photographer. In those days, the photography world was very small, and somehow he knew my name and my work.
I had some time to kill before my meeting, so we found a bench and kept chatting. I took a look at his photo book and gave him some ideas. We probably spent 30 minutes together before splitting up. Before I walked away, he asked me, “Pag, why would a busy guy like you take an interest in talking to me? Why do you care about looking at my photography?” The answer was easy: when I was his age, another photographer did the same for me—and so much more.
All my life, in one way or another, I was surrounded by science and formulas. I was sure that becoming a doctor was my calling. In fact, I often dreamed of becoming a missionary doctor in some far-away jungle.
Then, during my last year of college, I lost my path. Out of nowhere, I gave up on my medical career.
Lacking direction, I decided to take up a hobby to fill my time: photography. As the days progressed, I became more interested in photography than finishing my last semester of school. In my free time, I would drive to the closest bookstore and sit on the floor, studying the pages of every photo magazine. Slowly I discovered a new world.
During one visit in particular, I picked up a magazine called Darkroom. On the cover was the face of a man much older than my college professors: his name was Ansel Adams.
I flipped directly to the article about him and was immediately taken by his powerful black and white images. I couldn’t understand how anyone could create such stunning imagery today—much less in 1940.
Then I read the text and learned more about Adams as a person. I discovered that he was trained as a classical pianist and that his first love had been music. In his early twenties, his parents pressured him to pursue music instead of photography. Immediately, I felt a connection with this man I had never met. Like he had once been, I was at a crossroads, and here was someone who might be able to point me in the right direction. According to the article, he lived in a town called Carmel by the Sea in California.
I stumbled home, picked up the pay phone and dialed information. Amazingly, his number was listed. I sat in my dorm, listening intently to the phone as it rang.
It was early spring—green buds had just begun to poke through the rough ground. As the phone rang and rang, I nearly gave up. Before I could, a deep, warm, fatherly voice greeted me. I froze. He said “Hello?” again, and I figured that he would hang up the phone before I could regain my voice, but he didn’t. I finally found the strength to reply.
I told him that I was looking for Mr. Ansel Adams. He replied that he was Ansel Adams. Impossible, I thought. It couldn’t be him. The man on the cover of a famous photography magazine would never answer his own phone. I stammered that I must have dialed the wrong number. Gently, he repeated his own name.
Despite my initial doubts, we conversed for close to an hour that first day, and he gave me invaluable advice about where to go next. In sum, he told me to put all of my energy into my passion and to keep going, just as he had in the face of his parents’ pressure many years earlier.
Before we said goodbye, he was kind enough to say, “Feel free to call me any time.” To me, this sounded like a real invitation—I started calling him every week.
Over time, these calls nurtured a mentorship and even friendship. From across the country, he became my photography teacher. After a while, he told me I could call collect, since we were conversing at least twice a week. If he didn’t pick up the phone, his wife Virginia would greet me and then shout, “Ansel, your foreign student…the Italian boy is on the phone!”
He knew that I wanted to learn photography, and so he recommended that I get a Beseler enlarger, darkroom trays and chemicals for producing black and white imagery. Adams started giving me lessons and assignments. In those days, I sent him contact sheets (by mail!). He would mark the best images and send them back to me for printing. After I created the prints, I’d send them back again; he’d return them with notes about where to crop, burn and dodge. He also sent me articles from photography magazines and taught me about composition and new darkroom techniques.
It didn’t take him long to see that my shooting style was more suited for documentary and photojournalism. He even tried to teach me his famed Zone System—a technique that took me many years to understand.
Two years after our first phone conversation, Adams passed away. For all he passed on to me, I didn’t learn much from him about the business of photography. But he did teach me an even more important lesson: the value of my images. He insisted that I protect my work and always keep my copyrights.
Right around the time Adams passed away, I landed a job—without any experience—as a reportage photographer at the Chattanooga Times. Adams’ words stuck with me as I struggled through those first weeks and months at the paper. I grew and improved with each passing day. That newspaper job turned into another important training ground for me—it fine-tuned the way I see things and trained me how to approach strangers around the world, regardless of language and cultural barriers.
My two years at the Chattanooga Times were not without challenges. One particular Sunday, I took a photo that I was quite proud of. The next morning it landed on page one. I was beyond excited for my first cover and immediately I ran to show it to our chief photographer. He was an older man with an uneasy, nervous smile. “Your photo is adequate,” he said, dispassionately. “There is nothing special about it. A complete amateur off the street could take the same one. There’s nothing exemplary about this image or any of your work so far.”
His biting words could easily have sent me packing, but I was determined to succeed. I’ve had many opportunities to give up throughout my career, but the advice and inspiration I received from Adams and others fueled my efforts. I try to turn criticism to my advantage: I think of it like a jump on a trampoline. It might briefly push me down, but it can just as easily propel me forward.
I’ve found that there is so much to lose by giving up, for you never know if you’re just one step short of the open door.
Adams truly enjoyed teaching photo workshops and sharing his knowledge with others. I was lucky to be one of the recipients of his generosity. As a result, twenty years ago, I began to do the same. When I was young, I didn’t fully understand the impact that Adams had on my life—both as a photographer and also as a source of inspiration. I teach workshops to honor his memory and kindness.
Looking back at the brief but significant relationship I enjoyed with Ansel Adams, I can see how important it is to have a warm and caring person leading you by the hand. It’s very difficult to make it in any field without someone who can inspire you and push you in the right direction: someone to offer their blessing and also warn you when you are veering off-course; someone who relights the match of motivation when it seems the fire is fading.
Thanks to Ansel, I learned that the right mentorship is capable of cementing our passions and giving us each an invaluable well to draw from until we click our final frame.
Manuello Paganelli’s latest book, ”Cuba: A Personal Journey 1989-2015” will be published this fall by Daylight Books. He also offers regular photography workshops in Cuba. Learn more in his photographer’s profile below.