By Daria Labinsky, Archivist at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library & Museum
Together, Mr. President, I am certain we can indeed do this one right the first time! – Ansel Adams to Jimmy Carter, November 6, 1979.
While legendary photographer Ansel Adams is best known for his dramatic landscapes, he made images in many genres, including portraiture. On November 5-6, 1979, President Jimmy Carter, First Lady Rosalynn Carter, and Vice President Walter Mondale had portraits made by Adams for the National Portrait Gallery, and today they are part of that collection.
It’s unclear whose idea it was to have official portraits made that were photographs, but most likely it was Second Lady Joan Mondale’s. Joan, whose passionate advocacy for the arts resulted in the nickname “Joan of Art,” was on the board of the National Portrait Gallery and planned to include them in an exhibit. Yet a Washington Post article indicates that President Carter wanted to do it “to cut costs and symbolize frugality.” And a letter from Andrea Turnage, Ansel Adams’ assistant, indicates Mary Ann Tighe, deputy chair of the National Endowment for the Arts and Vice President Mondale’s arts adviser, may also have been involved in the decision.
Photographer John Sexton, who was one of Adams’ assistants during the portrait sessions, recently recalled Ansel’s ideas for the shoot in a newsletter article:
“Ansel wanted to approach the making of the portraits in a bigger than life fashion. He contacted John McCann at Polaroid Corporation and asked if he could use the massive Polaroid 20×24 Land camera for the project. John McCann thought this was a splendid idea and agreed to provide not only camera and film, but also a team of skilled individuals to assist with the operation of the camera. In addition to the large Polaroid camera, we packed up Ansel’s 4×5 Horseman view camera along with the necessary lenses and other equipment he would need.”
The camera was not the only thing that was massive; the amount of equipment was quite extensive.
Mondale’s portrait was shot on November 5, and Washington Post reporter Tom Zito captured the scene in an article. Upon encountering the huge camera, Mondale quipped, “Well, I guess this is a big enough camera to capture the egos in this town.”
In Adams’ account of the Mondale session in his autobiography, he wrote,
“He was most cordial and patient; I could not have asked for better cooperation. We had a little difficulty adjusting the 30-inch lens, and the Vice President utilized the delay by working on papers on the dining room table. … I developed great respect and a sense of friendship with the Mondales.”
Judging from photos taken by White House Staff Photographer Bill Fitz-Patrick and subsequent letters, Carter and Adams enjoyed each other’s company during the session. Adams recalled a humorous occurrence:
“At one point I was not succeeding verbally in correctly (placing) the President, so I walked up to him and gently pressed his shoulders into a more agreeable angle to the camera. Suddenly, a firm, stern hand rested on my shoulder; I did not realize that it is taboo to touch the President, and the Secret Service man was very alert … it was cause for genial laughter from all.”
John Sexton remembered they had to use a “special black lacquered box that was built by White House staff overnight for President Carter to stand on to avoid an ‘awkward’ alignment of the President’s shoulder with the fireplace mantle.”
On November 8, 1979, Adams wrote, “My Dear Mr. President, I wish to express my appreciation for the cheerful cooperation I received from you and your staff in the rather complex assignment of making your portrait on Tuesday. … It was a delightful personal experience … I was amazed at the impression of relaxation, warmth and self-possession you gave at all times and which was so gratifyingly revealed in the portraits.”
To which Carter replied, “I really enjoyed being with you and look forward to seeing the result of your work … It’s good to have you as a friend and partner.” President Carter also thanked Adams for the two gifts he had given Rosalynn and him, a copy of his just-released book, Yosemite and the Range of Light, and a framed copy of his photograph, “Mount McKinley and Wonder Lake.”
Adams also photographed Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter together, shooting black-and-white and color images on the Truman Balcony and in the East Room. A January 3, 1980, memo reported that the black-and-white photos were not quite ready, but that in the color portrait of Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter together, “they both look like a million dollars. They are perfect, the room is perfect, the composition is perfect.” He later referred to it as “my favorite photograph from the sitting.”
Adams gave variations on the portraits to the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library’s just-emerging Museum Collection in 1980 and 1981, including this one:
A Golden Opportunity
As John Sexton pointed out in an email to the author, “It was not an accident that the print Ansel gave to the President that day was from Alaska! He had his environmental concerns in mind when we selected and prepared the print before heading to Washington, D.C.”
Adams’ passion for environmental issues is well documented. A lifelong environmentalist who joined the Sierra Club in 1919, he made repeated trips to Washington, D.C., including to testify before Congress to get California’s Kings Canyon made a national park in 1940, and to lobby President Gerald Ford for the protection of Alaska land. His astonishing photography of the American wilderness served as visual evidence in the fight to protect America’s natural treasures.
Realizing the photo sessions provided a golden opportunity, he presented President Carter with two memos, one urging preservation of California’s Big Sur Coast, and another supporting the preservation of land in Alaska.
“I am indeed proud to have the opportunity to present these memoranda to a truly great conservation President,” Adams wrote in the introductory letter.
Six months later, on June 9, 1980, President Carter presented Ansel Adams with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, proclaiming, “He is regarded by environmentalists as a monument himself, and by photographers as a national institution. It is through his foresight and fortitude that so much of America has been saved for future Americans.”
Adams recalled, “It was a gala ceremony, conducted with superior taste and quality throughout. … Each recipient was escorted to the platform by a member of the armed forces, glistening in full dress splendor. Seated on the platform, we awaited the President, who arrived, full of charm and vigor, made a few remarks, and then proceeded to bestow each medal. … It was all very exciting and euphoric.”
Again, Adams took advantage of his proximity to the president to give him a memo—this one complaining that the administration wasn’t moving forward on Big Sur preservation, “apparently because of resistance from your Office of Management and Budget.”
The bill to establish the Big Sur National Scenic Area was opposed by some local residents and developers, as well as legislators such as California Senator Samuel Ichiye “S.I.” Hayakawa, and it died in committee.
The Alaska lands initiative proved successful, however. Congress passed the Alaska National Interest Conservation Lands Act on November 12, 1980, and Carter signed it on December 2. Protecting more than 100 million acres of federal land, it remains to this day the largest expansion of protected land in the world.
President Carter considers it one of his greatest successes, writing in 2005, “The passage of this act is one of the proudest achievements of my presidency and one that will endure through the centuries.”
The author would like to thank Erin Beasley, National Portrait Gallery; Alexis Barr Peregoy and Leigh Grissom, Center for Creative Photography; Claudia Rice, Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust; and John Sexton, photographer; for their contributions to this article
 Ansel Adams to Jimmy Carter, November 6, 1979, Records of the Office of the Staff Secretary, 1977-1981. Presidential Files, Container 139, https://www.jimmycarterlibrary.gov/digital_library/sso/148878/139/SSO_148878_139_03.pdf, p. 13 (also 11/10/79, NAID 2912183).
 Records of the Office of the Staff Secretary, 1977-1981. Presidential Files, Container 145, Folder 6, https://www.jimmycarterlibrary.gov/digital_library/sso/148878/145/SSO_148878_145_06.pdf p. 12 (also 1/08/80, NAID 3054059).
 John Sexton, Ansel’s Portraits of President Jimmy Carter and Vice President Walter Mondale Forty Years Later — Behind The Scenes, November 2019, retrieved 17 April 2020.
 Ansel Adams and Mary Street Alinder (1985). Ansel Adams, An Autobiography [Kindle ebook edition, p. 4558].
 Ibid, ebook p. 4550.
 Sexton, John. “Ansel Adams Portraits of Pres Carter + VP Mondale.” Received by Daria Labinsky, 12 April 2020.
 Adams and Alinder, ebook p. 4550.
 Sexton, John. “Ansel Adams Portraits of Pres Carter + VP Mondale.” Received by Daria Labinsky, 15 April 2020.
 According to William A. Turnage, Adams was recommended for the medal by President Gerald Ford. See “Ansel Adams: Environmentalist,” in Ansel Adams and the National Parks, Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust, 2010, 333-334. Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library records show that Adams had been considered for the medal in 1976; see NAID 7773889.
 Adams and Alinder, [Kindle ebook edition, pp. 5153, 5161].
 Carter, Jimmy, “In Celebration of ANILCA,” National Park Service, retrieved 16 April 2020. President Carter’s remarks on signing the bill can be found here: https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/alaska-national-interest-lands-conservation-act-remarks-signing-hr-39-into-law.