Bolinas stumped Ansel Adams

© 2013 Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust
Eucalyptus stump and barn near Olema, California. Circa 1932. Photograph by Ansel Adams.
01/16/2014

A local photographer has discovered an Ansel Adams photograph once thought to be taken in Olema was actually shot on Horseshoe Hill in Bolinas. 

Uri Korn, a collector of vintage photography, found an online auction of Adams memorabilia being sold by the family of Vincent Gleason, the former chief of publications for the National Park Service. Among old letters and famous photographs of Yosemite, Mr. Korn stumbled upon an obscure 8-inch by 10-inch print of a eucalyptus stump in front of a white barn. 

Under a clear sky, the remnants of the tree stand in the day’s first light. The branches have been slashed down to the trunk, and its bark stripped, leaving only a memory of the once-living tree. A wooden fence extends from the tree’s base leading down the road to a white barn, as if these wooden structures are the elongation of former limbs. Or maybe the need for wood had been the tree’s undoing. 

For Mr. Korn, who had moved to the area from Berkeley just that month, the picture was intriguing. He bought it, planning to learn more about the famous photographer’s methods and work in the area. In his search for this particular barn near Olema, Mr. Korn traveled to each of West Marin’s libraries in hopes of finding a match in picture books of West Marin barns. 

He couldn’t find any books, but at the Stinson Beach branch, he was lucky enough to run into Kerry Livingston, who pointed Mr. Korn to her husband, historian Dewey Livingston. 

Mr. Korn emailed a picture, and Mr. Livingston identified the barn almost immediately. 

As he drove to the ranch the next morning, Mr. Korn held up the picture on his iPad, hoping for a match. When he reached the barn owned by the Mann family, Mr. Korn says his head “kind of exploded.” The picture lined up perfectly with the sight outside his windows. The tree was gone, and the barn’s brilliant white paint had changed, but it was definitely the same barn. And there was the driveway leading up to it, now somewhat overgrown. 

Mr. Korn knocked on the front door and met Amanda Mann. She was shocked by the discovery, mentioning that just the night before she and her husband had discussed how they hoped to find historical pictures of the property. 

They invited him back next week for a party in the barn; he said he felt like some magic had brought the picture to life and allowed him “to pass through the picture.” 

The barn and surrounding ranch are some of the oldest in the area, dating back to the original settlers. The Mattos family first settled the area in the early 1900’s and it was run as the Balzan Dairy Farm until Warren Hellman, the founder of the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass music festival in San Francisco, bought it in 1991. When he passed away, Mr. Hellman left the ranch to the Mann family, who had been tending the land, “in true Bolinas fashion,” Mr. Korn noted. 

Mr. Korn has since contacted the Adams Publishing Rights Trust and they updated the location. (They would not remove Mr. Adams’ original placement of his picture in Olema, only adding that it was also near Bolinas.) 

Mr. Adams likely took the picture as he was driving through the area sometime in the 1930’s, likely in 1932. He developed other plates from his large-view camera of overturned logs in Drakes Bay, fences and desolated roads north of Point Reyes and barns near Tomales Points. 

In his book The Print, Adams mentions he developed the picture with chemicals that would bring out greater contrast than the human eye could see to “achieve a richness of value in the shaded area while holding all the textures, and at the same time, keep the desired brilliance and texture in the white barn.” 

The picture was exhibited at a show on Treasure Island in 1941, and in the late 1950’s, Adams gave a print to the park service for its own reproductions. 

Adams works were essential in persuading the American public of the beauty of its untouched spaces, giving a visual description of what was previously unseen, and helped lead to their protection as national parks. 

Mr. Korn said it was rare to find a picture like this that lacked the documentation of most of Adams’ pictures. “I’m kind of glad it was unknown,” he said. “It was like being able to put together two parts of something that were lost.”