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Seema Weatherwax
Photograph by George Sakkestad

Seema Weatherwax

Late-Blooming Photographer

By Sarah Phelan

THE BLACK AND WHITE PRINTS HANGING ON THE WALLS OF SEEMA Weatherwax's apartment were taken by Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange and Edward Weston. Hanging alongside them are prints by a fourth and some would argue equally fine photographer--Weatherwax herself.

But Weatherwax, who ran Ansel Adams' darkroom in Yosemite between 1938 and 1941, did not show her own photography until last fall, when she turned 95. Ironically, by the time the public saw her work at the Mulberry Gallery in Aptos, Weatherwax could barely see her prints herself. But Weatherwax isn't complaining.

"People don't believe what I can do without central vision, but I still have periphery vision."

Born in 1905, Weatherwax grew up from age 7 in England, where her family had moved after fleeing an anti-Jewish czarist regime in the Ukraine. It was in England that Weatherwax earned a scholarship to study her first passion: chemistry.

"I had to convince five solemn gentlemen that I wasn't interested in Home Economics, but eventually they gave in and awarded me a scholarship to Leeds Technical College--which at the time was an all-male institution."

Her life was turned upside down again when her family emigrated to the United States. Looking for work in Boston, she saw a help-wanted advertisement for a photographic lab.

"I thought that since photography involves chemicals, the job might be interesting."

By the time she came west and met Chad Weston, Edward's son, she was an experienced darkroom technician. Weston soon introduced Weatherwax to Ansel and Virginia Adams, who needed an associate to take care of the darkroom in Yosemite.

"The day Ansel hired me as his assistant, he said the darkroom was mine." But though she doubtless learned from going out on shots with the fabled cameraman, she was never his student.

"Every picture tells a story," says Weatherwax, who knows the subject matter of all the photographs on her walls by memory.

A man in a hat leaning against a white wall?

"That's an old-time gambler and Gold Rush prospector, who started a 20-room hotel in Las Vegas. I took that picture when I went to Vegas to get divorced from my first husband."

A man with a hood over his head, holding a camera in the middle of a snowy field?

"That's a picture I took of Ansel Adams."

And a toddler--?

"--with a beautiful little bottom? That's Lakshmi, the daughter of Lal Singh, who was involved in the movement to free India from British Rule."

Only now are her pictures coming to light, with the help of her archivist Charles Hanson, and her photographic man Friday, Jason Weston, great-grandson of Edward.

"Over the years I've given prints to the Smithsonian, Stanford University, and friends who I thought might find them interesting. Most of the remaining work will go to UCSC."

As for life at age 95?

"So many people are sitting it out. But I think it's exciting to be involved in things. Participation is very important in things that will involve and evolve you. People say they don't want to get involved in politics. I say, to heck with that! Even the food we eat is political."

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Readers' Choice Awards

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Sarah Gerhardt: Woman Who Rides Mountains
Stephanie Smith: Student of the Sciences
Theo Paige: The Not.So.Mad Fiddler

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From the March 21-28, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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