Photo Memories (With a Tech Slant)

Snapshot of Haanel Cassidy taken by yours truly in pre-Zone System days.

I was introduced to the Ansel Adams Zone System of photographic exposure and development by a rental lab guy in San Rafael, Calif. who used to say about my best prints, “What is that s…t?”

I was initially turned off by the oh-so-precious photographers who had turned the Zone System into a cult. I remember one guy in particular. I was working as a staff photographer for a sports publishing company, and he invited me to his house after I gave a talk on diet for athletes. I remember how he proudly showed me the one, single photo he’d printed and hung on his wall. I got a sense that he wanted to show me what photography was truly all about – his demeanor was imperious, as if he had mastered something of which I couldn’t possibly be the slightest bit aware – I was a sports slob, taking thousands of photos of – ugh – people moving around. (A defining feature of Zone System photos was that nothing moved.) I don’t remember the subject of his photo, probably it was an aging white door in a textured wall – those were popular among the Zone kids. Well, we were all very young once.

When I learned more about Ansel and studied The Negative, I realized that he was a visually very gifted guy with a wonderful heart and a sense of humor who did whatever it took to make prints with a pleasing range of tones.

My next encounter was with Haanel Cassidy who was 73 at the time and was the head gardener at Ananda Village, a yoga community in northern California. Haanel had been chief photographer for the Conde Nast publishing empire in NYC in the 1940s and early 1950s.

He urged me to apply the Zone System to my work as a generalist utility photographer, and when I tried it, I was delighted. Tri-X 35mm exposed at ISO 200 and souped in Rodinal 1:50 for 6 min at 68F, agitated 5/30 yielded a soft neg that printed beautifully on grade 4 paper. (Grain increases with development times for film, but doesn’t increase significantly when using contrasty paper.) Haanel had independently discovered how film behaves: to get a beautifully printable negative, you must “Expose for the shadows, develop for the highlights.” Parenthetically, “Haanel” was a professional name that he adopted and kept after he left photography — it suited him perfectly, much more so than Eugene. He told us how he had practiced his signature until he felt that it was sufficiently refined to inscribe his prints.

About once a year Haanel would invite people over and show his prints, projecting them onto a screen. They were amazing. He had a series he called “Plant Forms in Snow.” He said, “I think I took it about as far as it could be taken.” And he was right — there was something absolute about his art — he got right down to the essence. A thunderously wonderful example:

 

Haanel Cassidy, Plant Forms. Art Gallery of Ontario (https://ago.ca/exhibitions/eugene-haanel-cassidy-plant-forms).
I was delighted to find a posthumously published volume of photos by Haanel for sale on Amazon. His Plant Forms in Snow photos are not available to view online, but a Google search turned up a smattering of his photos, including his commercial work.

 

House & Garden cover by Haanel Cassidy, Summer 1948.

I’m 81 now and shoot with a Canon R6 and still find that the Zone System serves me well, by shooting in RAW and exposing most things 2/3 to 1 stop to the right. It’s been a fun journey. I particularly loved Ansel’s photos of the generators at Boulder Dam (if I remember correctly). Those prints were so lusciously alive, wow.

Karuna McDivitt, Ananda Village, early 1990s.

A Zone System portrait, shot in our small log cabin yurt at Ananda Village. There was little room for the lights and reflectors; I clambered around on the couch in bare feet to get the angle. Karuna ran a successful surveying business. I learned the lighting technique from a book by professional beauty and lifestyle photographer Nancy Brown, Photographing People for Advertising. Like many very good craftspeople, Nancy was wonderfully generous with her advice, revealing her trade secrets freely. When her book went out of print and I lost mine, I ordered a copy from Nancy, who signed it and enclosed a sweet thank you note.

Nancy Brown

A former fashion model, she made creative use of the materials at hand – scouring the thrift shops for props to use in her beauty photos for Revlon and other top companies, and enlisting friends and neighbors as models for her lifestyle stock photos.

A brief aside. When I began reading her book, I was a teeny bit uneasy, wondering if there was really anything I could (or should) learn from the rough-and-tumble advertising world for my photography in a Paramhansa Yogananda spiritual community. About the time I had those thoughts, Swami Kriyananda gave a Sunday service during which he said, “We can take the methods that others use to sell products, and apply them to sell our spiritual ‘product’ as well.” I’ve paraphrased his words, but that was the gist.

Tech details. Agfapan APX 25, exposed for skin at Zone 6 (measured with Gossen flash meter) and developed in Rodinal 1:50 for 5 min with 5/30 agitation at 68F, printed on #4 paper. I don’t remember if I exposed at ISO 25 or if I lowered the ISO. Lights: 3 Paul C. Buff monolights (2x600W, 1x1200W), main light 1200W into silvered umbrella, hair light 600W. The subject sat in a chair behind a small white graphic designer’s table with two 4×8-foot sheets of white Fomcore leaning against the sides and a third Fomcore sheet leaning against the wall behind and lit with a 600W light.

Haanel at Ananda Village:

 

Haanel, Ananta McSweeney, Swami Kriyananda, Govinda Frutos, Shivani, James Robinson, Maria McSweeney, Ananda Village, 1976. The log cabin yurt where we lived, and where I took the photo of Karuna, is visible at the top of the picture. The green-roofed building at left is the dairy.

 

Haanel gives a class in the outdoor Temple of Leaves at the Ananda Seclusion Retreat, 1976.

 

Haanel and Maitri Jones do garden chores at Ananda.

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