By Jim Hughes
I met Ralph Steiner when he was already in his 80s. He arrived in my office at the original Camera Arts lugging a big cardboard box filled to the brim not with prints, as I'd expected from a legendary photographer, but with reams of typewritten pages—long, complex stories written in an inimitably impish yet amiably wise style about all aspects of photography's art and craft. It was from one of those stories, for example, based upon years-long correspondence between Ralph and Ansel Adams, that I first learned how much Ansel disdained the word "pre-visualization," calling it redundant (which of course it is). It was in fact Minor White, Ralph noted, who had applied the "pre" to Ansel's own theories of visualization when talking about how the Zone System could help photographers imagine, in advance, at the time of film exposure, what the final expressive print should look like in black and white.
Thereafter, whenever he was in town, we would try to have lunch at a small, inexpensive restaurant I liked. It was located around the corner from our offices at One Park. Ralph was a wonderful conversationalist, a veritable font of knowledge, and not just about photography. One day, as we were about to enter the restaurant, Ralph pointed to an exterior wall decorated with elaborate tilework, an eclectic collection of various designs, styles and architectural eras that were never meant to go together but did manage to add some much needed color to an otherwise drab stucco exterior. I had wondered about the building's history. "A long time ago, I used to live in this neighborhood," Ralph told me that day. "This place was our local grocery. The building's owner once had a tile business, which at some point failed, probably during the Depression. Rather than selling or trashing his leftover stock, the man had decided to use it to decorate his building before renting it out. As you can see, he was a pretty good craftsman, but no artist."
Ralph's writings were so interesting, and to my mind so important, that I promised him a regular feature in the magazine. After which, he proceeded to inundate me with postcards with scribbled ideas for articles, etc. He addressed the postcards to "Jim Choose," since as editor, he felt, I was the one whose job it was to select what went into every issue. He signed each pithy message "St. Einer," complete with a little stick drawing depicting his head as a view camera, its bellows drooping toward the ground.
Ralph lived in Vermont, but spent his summers on Monhegan Island, something of an artists' retreat, off the coast of Maine. When he learned I was working on a summer "camp" of my own in Maine, he asked if my wife and I would like to spend a weekend with him and his wife on the island. "I’ll make reservations for you both on the ferry, which is usually booked solid weeks in advance," he said. On the appointed day, we drove down from Camden to Port Clyde, parked in an all day lot, arrived at the dock, I think at 6 a.m. for a 7 a.m. departure, and checked in. Our name wasn't on the list. Looked again, for every conceivable spelling, including "Jim Choose." No luck. There were, in fact, 90 people ahead of us on the waiting list. The nice lady in the booth called up to the captain in his wheelhouse who stuck his head out a window and said something like, "Everyone knows Ralph, I would have remembered, and he never said a word." She suggested that we might be able to charter a private boat, or maybe a seaplane, for the trip. All were booked solid. We considered calling, except there was no individual phone service on the island back then. So we thought, what the hell, it's a beautiful day and a picturesque harbor, let's just wait. At 7 a.m. the nice lady found us on a nearby bench. "Well," she said, "the first 88 must have gone off to enjoy the sun, so you're next!"
When we arrived at the dock on Monhegan, we saw the strangest sight. There was this apparition in a bright red shirt at the bottom of the gangplank, waving a big red flag at the end of a long pole and yelling "Welcome, welcome." It was Ralph. He hadn't forgotten we were coming. He just hadn't remembered to make the boat reservations. "What's with the flag?" I asked when we finally disembarked. "Well," Ralph explained, "When Zero Mostel used to come here in the summer, he would shamble down to the dock wearing all black and wave a big black flag at all the people on the boat. 'Go back,' he'd scream. 'Go baaack.' Now that he's gone, I thought I'd carry on the tradition, just change it a little to make it a bit a more affirmative. I'm a photographer, you know, not a goddamned famous actor."
(Image credit: Haggerty Museum of Art, gift of Therese and Murray Weiss)
Jim Hughes is the major biographer of W. Eugene Smith and the founding editor of the original Camera Arts magazine. He writes occasionally for TOP.
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Featured Comments from:
Kirk Decker: "The article that Ralph wrote for Camera Arts comparing Edward Weston and Paul Strand is one of my favorite photography articles ever. I was in high school, and Edward was my photo hero. At that time I had just enough money to buy volume I of the Daybooks and a CA subscription. Best youthful money I ever spent. I still have the entire Camera Arts run. It was a great photography magazine, and I was crushed when it was over."
Mike replies: Re your last sentence: Amen, and ditto.