Sam Johnston studied with Ansel Adams. It was only for a week, with dozens of other students at the legend’s annual workshop in Yosemite, in 1979. And Adams, who would pass away five years later, was a less-than-spry 77-year-old and only up for a single field trip. But he was still the master of black-and-white photography, whose images adorn everything dorm rooms to museums, and who co-invented the zone system of film exposure, and who … oh, hell, it’s Ansel Adams. And Sam Johnston studied with him.
“He had us on an outing,” the Tampa-based Johnston recalls, “and had his 4×5 camera set up, and he described the scene we’d be photographing — this great big rock shaded by the mountain that’s in the view in the background. Above the mountain is the sun hitting a white cloud.” As Johnston describes Adams’ process, “On the rock we have 30 foot-candles of light, and the sunlight that’s hitting the cloud is 500 foot-candles of light. The film is Plus X, the ASA is 125, the square root of 125 is roughly 11. He says his shutter speed is going to be 1/30th at f11. He takes the picture. After he takes the picture he pulls out this brand-new spot meter that Pentax gave him that can read two zones and retain them. And you see him read the rock and read the cloud. And then he shakes his head a little and says, ‘Yeah, it still works'” – meaning the zone system that let him do in his head then it took a fancy light meter to do now.
Johnston, at 50, is one of the last generation of Adams students. Moreover, he says, “I was asked to come back out and teach by the man himself. On the last day he came up to me and asked if I wouldn’t mind coming and help teach the workshops. He and one other instructor walked up to me and asked if I wouldn’t mind doing that.” But with youthful naiveté, he kept putting off the opportunity, and Adams died in 1984.
“We students did get to go to his house and he played piano for us,” Johnston says. “His dad had actually been disappointed that Ansel was going to become a photographer, since [Ansel] was studying to be a concert pianist. He put as much into his photography as he’d put into his piano study.” Johnston took just one picture of Adams, but unfortunately, “he happened to blink! He had his eyes closed!” It gets worse: Adams was selling 11×14 prints of his work, hand signed, for $75, which even in 1979 wasn’t all that much. Johnston, a typically broke student, couldn’t buy it.
In hindsight, he might have called his father – a photographer himself who would have understood the value of an Adams print. So might Johnston’s grandfather and great-grandfather, as it happens: Johnston is actually Johnston IV and comes from a line of photographers stretching back to his namesake great-granddad – that rare guy in Roaring Twenties Chicago who was shooting at functions without a gun. His forebear’s photos, says Johnston admiringly, “were just tack-sharp incredible, the few that we got to see.”
That picture-taking gene wasn’t even just on his father’s side. “When I was growing up in Gainesville, Fla., my mom and dad were both photographers,” Johnston relates. “When I was 5, my mom would have me stand on a box and help her in the darkroom.”
Dad had tried to fight off the family trait by becoming an Air Force pilot and then putting himself through med school at the University of Florida. To make a living during that time, Sam III and wife Carolyn opened a photo studio next door to their home. The business thrived, Carolyn made portraits a specialty, and Sam III left medicine behind — though “to this day,” Johnston says, “he still photographs the med-school students.” Carolyn, who’d begun adding paint to her portraits for a mixed-media effect, gradually began making them more and more painterly, and after 18 years segued from photography to doing oil portraits on canvas; she’s since become the de facto official portrait artist of the University of Florida administration. “Just about every hall in the University of Florida has some painting of hers,” her son says proudly.
At Gainesville High School, across the street from his house, Johnston shoot yearbook photos to earn his English grade – this, at the insightful urging of his teacher, who didn’t know why Sam had trouble reading but knew it wasn’t because he was slow or wasn’t trying. “I’m dyslexic,” Johnston later discovered. But, under this arrangement, he passed his class with flying colors – or black-and-whites, actually.
In 10th grade, Johnston began apprenticing under his father. “He had me doing 4×5 transparency work, both black-and-white and color, mostly of the commercial work he was shooting. I had to print and process, and it was funny: He said, ‘I’ll show you one time. After that you go get a book.’ So I listened! I hated to read, because of the dyslexia.”
Johnston attended the well-regarded photography program at Daytona Beach Community College, entering directly into second-semester classes on the strength of his portfolio and the technical knowledge he’d acquired at home. The Adams workshop came during this time. But for all that, after graduation, he couldn’t find work because he was good in too many areas. Or, well, that wasn’t the problem per se – it was not knowing how to sell his specialties.
“When I got out of college, I went to Tampa tried to get accounts. I went to all the big ad agencies, and all of them asked what I specialized in. And I’d look at ’em dumbfounded and said, ‘Photography!'” He laughs. “What’s the difference between photographing a person or a building of a product? I was freaking out and not getting any jobs or making money for the first three months. Now, years later, I get ad work from big agencies because now when they ask that question I tell ’em what they want to hear!”
Johnston, whose pianist wife Deanna works for the Florida Orchestra, in administration, started Studio 4 Design in 1983, originally in Claremont, Fla., outside Orlando. He relocated to Tampa after a year, and remains one of the state’s top photographers. As a sideline, he taught himself the difficult craft of Macromedia Flash production and now builds Web sites as slick and glossy as any of his advertising work, for variety of clients that even include other photographers.
The Panasonic Lumix digital camera fits right in with both Johnston’s technical interests and his long-honed experience with film cameras. “The dials for getting your exposure — both f-stops and shutter speed — are like a manual film camera as opposed to this digital world,” he says. “And it seems to have a pretty decent wide angle.”
Johnston goes into the workshop the way he goes into he assignment. “It’s an ongoing, never-ending learning experience,” he says. What does he hope to impart? “A sense of enthusiasm for something that’s been very dear to me, because it’s a way to express myself.” Ansel couldn’t have said it better.
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