Podcast Episode: Ansel Adams’ Correspondence with a Buyer About a Photograph

Podcast Episode: Ansel Adams’ Correspondence with a Buyer About a Photograph

Up for auction, ‘The Golden Gate (Before the Bridge)’ includes a provenance with letters between Ansel Adams and the Buyer, Dick Erath

Hey everybody, welcome back to another episode of The Fine Art Photography Podcast. I’m your host, Keith Dotson, a professional fine art photographer. In this episode, we will gain insight into Ansel Adam’s photograph, “The Golden Gate (Before the Bridge)” through his correspondence with the man who bought it in 1965. The documents came to light as part of an auction of the print.

UPDATE: “The Golden Gate (Before the Bridge)” sold for a final price at auction of $355,600, more than double the estimated high of $150,000.

Full episode transcript

In this episode, we’ll discuss an Ansel Adams photograph up for auction, and the fascinating correspondence with the original buyer

(Intro music)

Welcome back to another episode of the Fine Art Photography Podcast. In this episode, I’ll discuss a 1960s era print of “The Golden Gate (Before the Bridge),” being auctioned by Sotheby’s, and Ansel’s correspondence with the original buyer that’s included with the sale.

As I’ve mentioned on this podcast several times i the past, I often troll through Auction house websites to gain insight into great photographs and the photographers who made them.

I recently discovered some fascinating details surrounding Ansel Adam’s print of “The Golden Gate (Before the Bridge),” which is currently listed by Sotheby’s as part of a big Photographs auction managed by their New York location.

The buyer, a pioneer of wine production in Oregon’s Wilhamette Valley named Dick Erath, had apparently attended a photography workshop with Ansel and subsequently bought the photograph after sending some typewritten letters to Ansel and mailing a check to him. The price was $140.40 — which was a modern equivalent of about $1400 in today’s dollars.

At the time I’m writing this for recording, the same print stands valued at between 150 and 200 thousand dollars, with a current bid of $90,000. It is being sold by the descendants of Mr. Erath.

As part of the provenance, Sotheby’s includes a charming Polaroid snapshot of the Erath family sitting on a sofa with the Ansel Adams print in a somewhat tacky ornamental white picture frame. Sitting on the sofa below the photograph is a middle-aged woman wearing cat-eye glasses holding a young boy, who would have been about my same age at Christmas time in 1968 — the date marked on the Polaroid in blue ballpoint — and next to her another boy somewhat older wearing a striped shirt and white socks with his mouth wide-open and tongue sticking out.

Several typewritten letters between Mr. Adams and Mr. Erath are also indcluded as part of the provenance.

On one of those, dated June 21, 1963, we see Ansel Adams letterhead in black ink, his Carmel California address and phone number below his name. The letter is addressed to Richard C. Erath of Oakland California. It’s single spaced.

It begins with Ansel saying — quote —

“It was a pleasure to have you with us in Yosemite and I trust the Workshop was a worth-while adventure for you, I regret the weather, but Yosemite was exceptionally beautiful never-the-less – and photographers must learn to cope with the various moods and conditions of nature!

I shall be happy to hear from you — to have your comments and suggestions, and to see the results of your efforts. While the Workshop was conducted by Best’s Studio, Inc., in Yosemite National Park, it will be more efficient for you to communicate with me at my Carmel address (above).

It is important that you achieve a clear understanding of the various technical factors of the Zone System. Ten days is a fairly short period in which to master applied sensitometry! However, my books should assist you in clarifying many questions. My latest book, Polaroid Land Photography Handbook, (Morgan and Morgan), brings many aspects of the Zone System up to date and clarifies definitions of terms, etc.

The Polaroid Corporation kindly contributed a considerable amount of material. I would like to have them see the results. If they have special interest in any of the pictures, they might wish to purchase them. Would you kindly send me, WELL-PACKED, by First Class Registered mail, prints and/or negatives you feel are adequate examples of your work with the Polaroid land process. I shall study them, then forward them to the Polaroid Corporation. They will return them to me with their comment and I shall then return them separately to you and will include stamps to cover your original cost of mailing and registering to me. Please be certain to adequately identify each print and negative — be sure NOT to write anything on the backs of prints (over the picture area). Use margins only. I shall mount all prints in special cut-out mounts before I send them on to Polaroid; the prints can easily be removed if you wish after receiving them from me. Also be certain to identify all other prints and/or negatives you may send me — it is easy to get mixed up with a number of prints and negatives from a number of people!

I shall keep you advised as to future plans for Workshops and special sessions here in Carmel and elsewhere. I cannot undertake any formal sessions, etc. until completion of my large October exhibit, but I shall be in position to correspond with you and comment on your work — within a reasonable amount of time and effort.

Mr. Kaminski, Miss Sharpe, Miss Lightner, my wife, and all the others join me in sending you greetings and best wishes.


Ansel Adams.”

— End quote —

Then there’s a second letter to Mr. Erath, dated August 5, 1965. This time double-spaced, with several typos overwritten or typed over with rows of Xs. We can sense Adams urgency — must have been a busy time for him.

He said..

“Dear Dick Erath,

I have been so busy with a
new exhibit and various trips afield that I do not recall if I did acknowledge your good letter of the 24th of July.

I am asking my assistant, Marcel Barel to send you information on the Workshop in Yosemite.

I am not planning any print sessions in Carmel at the present time! Just too much to do!

The print of THE GOLDEN GATE, 1932 is obtainable in various sizes up to about 20 x 30 and 30 x 40, The cost therefore would be $150.00 and $200.00. I have to mount them — for protection and spotting and surfacing. But they can be trimmed flush for framing,

I would never want them attached directly to the wall- bad for print, etc. A simple frame gives flexibility, and always looks better.

Pardon this hasty note and typing!! But, I have to leave for S.F, immediately and want to catch the outgoing mail.

Cordially– Ansel Adams.

— End Quote —

Mr. Erath responded with a brief letter on November 8, 1965:

Dear Ansel Adams,

Please excuse the delay in responding to your letter of August 5th. Over the past month the first priority budget allotments was for the procurement of grapes for wine production.

Now things have quieted down, and enclosed you will find a $150.00 for a 20×30 print of The Golden Gate, 1932. I would like to pick up the print when it is ready, as this would afford me an opportunity to show you some of the work I have done since the 1963 Workshop.

Sincerely, Dick Erath

— End Quote —

Then Ansel wrote back with a final letter from this set — this time to an address in Walnut Creek, California — dated November 15, 1965:


Thank you for your order and the checks.

‘The Golden Gate, 1932,’ is an old negative and very difficult to print in large size. It does not stand the glossy paper well, so I have made it on “G” surface.

However, there is a lot of spotting needed and it is necessary to spray the surface, for good final effect. This will be helpful in that the surface can be gently wiped off with slightly damp cloth when necessary.

I am, therefore, sending the print on to The Atelier, 5860 Geary Boulevard, San Francisco, Calif, 94121, for spraying and over-matting (which I think is needed for a picture of this type). Should you want a frame, The Atelier is excellent, and you can make arrangements directly with them. Their telephone number is” (redacted).

Ansel goes on to say . . .

“This does not mean I would not very much enjoy seeing you here!!

Now, you over-paid me! You send (sic) $150.00. The cost are, really: Print $125.00
Extras 10.00 (sending to The Atelier, spraying, etc.)
For a total of $135.00
4% sales tax equals 5.40
Total $140.40.

I am enclosing my check for $9.60 as the proper refund due.

Thanks and best wishes. Hope to see you soon!”

And then it’s signed by Ansel Adams with a particularly florid penmanship compared to his other signatures.

Erath Vineyards still cultivate grapes and make wines in the Dundee Hills of Oregon to this day. The

Erath website says this about him, again quoting…

“As one of Oregon’s wine pioneers, Dick Erath had always been as tenacious in his approach to Pinot as the Pinot grape is stubborn. The engineer-turned-viticulturist was first inspired to pursue winemaking in 1965 after an early garage experiment. After completing coursework at UC-Davis in 1968, Erath relocated his family from California to the untamed hills of the Chehalem Mountains. An unheated logger’s cabin on 49 acres would serve as home – and ad hoc winery – for several years.”

A memorial for Erath from the Oregon Wine Press said he died at age 87 in his home at Vancouver Washington, in March of 2023.

The memorial expounds at length about Erath’s impact on wine culture in Oregon, and describes some of his interests in life — with no mention of his friendship with Ansel Adams or his interest in photography.

About the photograph Erath purchased, Sotheby’s website includes this quote by Adams:

“One beautiful storm-clearing morning, I looked out the window of our San Francisco home and saw magnificent clouds rolling from the north over the Golden Gate. I grabbed the 8 x 10 equipment and drove to the end of 32nd Avenue at the edge of Seacliff. I dashed along the old Cliff House railroad bed for a short distance, then down to the crest of a promontory. From there a grand view of the Golden Gate commanded me to set up the heavy tripod, attach the camera and lens, and focus on the wonder evolving landscape of clouds.”

— End quote —

I’ll include links to all of these sources in the podcast write-up and as always the full transcript will be published on my blog at I Catch Shadows dot com.

That’s all I’ve got for this episode.

Thanks for listening.

I’ll talk to you again real soon.

Sources and Links “The Story of Erath.” (⁠Link⁠)

Oregon Wine Press. “In Memoriam: Dick Erath: Remembering the founder of Erath Winery.” (⁠Link⁠)

Sotheby’s Lot Detail: Ansel Adams, “The Golden Gate (Before the Bridge)” (⁠⁠Link⁠⁠)

The Ansel Adams Gallery. “The golden gate before and after the bridge.” (⁠Link⁠)

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