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January of 1936 brought everything to a head of froth. Following his successful first meeting with Stieglitz and the subsequent one-man show at the latter’s gallery, Ansel had come to the sobering realisation that despite his earlier feelings, his photographic career, money-wise, wasn’t getting very far but in terms of work, he had plenty to deal with. His only consolation was a 22-year old one-time model, Patsy English, who was also his assistant. With piles of printing to do, Patsy’s presence was hardly unnecessary.
English’s involvement in Ansel’s life, as it turned out, was a bit more than just a relationship between an employer and his assistant. In and amongst the blitz of work that had thundered its way into Ansel’s career, Patsy became indispensable in more ways than one. Ansel would even ask her for her thoughts on some prints that he had made in the darkroom and she would offer her opinion. This seemingly innocent working relationship began to blossom right beneath his nose to the point where she would prove indispensable to him.
(L-R) Ansel Adams and Patsy English; Virginia Best with their newborn child; Charles Adams with his grandson, Michael Adams (San Francisco, 1934)
(left and centre) Courtesy Colby Memorial Library, Sierra Club and Anne Adams Helms respectively
(right) © Corbis-Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust
However, there were also complications developing. At that time Ansel had very little idea as to who in fact was more influential or inspiring to him. Exactly how much Stieglitz or Patsy--or for that matter, both--held impact, he only knew that in his mind, this was a time in his life that he had created some of his best and most memorable prints. The intensity of his relationship with Patsy had now grown into one of deepening affection; something he had never encountered in his life. Ansel fell in love and an affair of sorts ensued between the both of them. And although there is every reason to think that it wasn’t sexual, Patsy became a great love of his life.
Truly the prints he had made that summer were remarkably inspiring and were in fact some of the most luminous in his working career as a photographer. Continuously as he laboured in and out of the darkroom, Patsy’s influence had begun to be very telling and not surprisingly the physical and emotional conflicts in Ansel’s mind had put enormous strain on his ability to think straight.
By now he had two women to think about--Patsy and Virginia--one an assistant very dear to him and the other his wife and mother of his two children whom he too loved. The toll on Ansel was not just evident but proved unbearable. Clearly he had to do something to bring this to some amicable end if possible. However, there was a show to get ready in New York at that time and by the time that had become a success, sheer physical exhaustion prevented Ansel from doing anything about it. He plainly fell apart at the seams. Lingering at the corner of his mind was indisputably the psychological and emotional demons that persisted to play havoc on his consciousness.