In November, California-based attorney and epidemiologist Ann Slaby, who was on O‘ahu for a high school reunion, visited the museum, as she usually does when in town. She was looking forward to seeing Georgia O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams: The Hawai‘i Pictures—for a very personal reason. In 1958, Ansel Adams photographed her mother, Della Fisher Reid, for the book Islands of Hawai‘i. (The final published image is pictured above.)
“When I saw the copy of the book in the glass case in the exhibition, I was fully expecting to run into my mother’s photograph, and I was surprised when I didn’t,” Slaby said in a phone conversation last week. She then wrote a kind letter to Theresa Papanikolas, curator of the exhibition and the museum’s curator of European and American art, to share “details of a photo that was not chosen.”
Slaby revealed that the photograph of her mother in the book “was among the many photos Ansel Adams took on Coconut Island, where my mother worked for the Marine Laboratory in the 1950s. The photo is her portrait of her dissecting a radioactive fish. Some of the studies she, along with her co-workers, did found out how fish metabolize radioactive materials. This knowledge is useful when fish are in a environment polluted with radioactive waste and pick up a radioactive isotope directly from the sea water, by way of the skin, gills, or by swallowing the sea water. The sea outside the Fukushima power plants comes immediately to mind.”
“A woman scientist was very unusual in the 1950s. My mother was a student at UC Berkeley in Chemistry during the late 1930s and 40s. (There was one other woman student at that time, Vicky Lynch, who eventually did the laboratory work for Nobel Laureate Melvin Calvin.) My mother got her big break during WWII when all the men left for the war. She worked with Dr. Samuel Lepkovsky at UC Berkeley, isolating and studying vitamins. When my father’s job moved to Hawai‘i in 1954, she had to leave that work she dearly loved.
“She first found laboratory research work in poultry husbandry, then in marine science on Coconut Island. Her work included figuring out how fish that live in both salt and fresh water can make the transition between the different concentrations of salt in the water and thrive. Her work included doing surgery on fish, and she designed and built a fish tank in order to study fish physiology.
“Ansel Adams’s photo of my mother is far from the most flattering of her, but it was her brilliance, not her beauty, that was of greatest importance.”
Papanikolas replied to Slaby that she loved the photograph of her mother and wanted to include all of Adams’s Hawai‘i photographs, however limited exhibition space meant that was not possible. “We had to limit ourselves largely to Adams’s fine art prints from the Hawai‘i pictures, which meant that we regretfully had to pass on many, many important images.” She went on to write, “Even though your mother’s photograph is not in the show, her contributions to the fields of chemistry and marine biology at a time when there were even fewer women scientists than there are today is fascinating! And Adams clearly recognized this.” She also asked Slaby if she would be willing to share her story with the public.
Last week I called Slaby to talk about her mother and the Adams photograph.
“My mother commuted to Coconut Island every day, and I sometimes was with her when she did experiments all night,” said Slaby. “My brother and I used to hang out there on weekends.”
She remembers the “tiny island” as “a wonderful place. They would throw the Christmas party in Pauley’s resort area—it had a swimming pool with a slide and an old ship. When I was there, there were small pools and someone doing research on sharks had sharks in the pools. I spent time snorkeling.”
Slaby revealed that her mother was also a photographer—she attended the California School of Arts and Crafts in Oakland in 1934 after graduating from Berkeley High School in 1930—and admired Ansel Adams’s work. “Ansel Adams grew up in San Francisco, and my mother grew up in Berkeley. My mother certainly knew Ansel Adams’s photographs of Yosemite. I can’t remember anything in particular that she said about [meeting Ansel Adams] but I’m sure they had a lot to talk about.”
“I always stop by the museum when I visit Oahu,” said Slaby, who took art lessons here when she was in the fourth grade. “I was thrilled that the exhibition was there when I was there in November. I was familiar with many of the photographs. The photograph of the bankers around the table was one of the last photos I saw in the show. I was taken aback by that photograph because you can see how much things have changed.”
Ansel Adams (American, 1902-1984)
Dr. Della Fisher Reid, c. 1956
Gelatin silver print
Collection Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona
©2013 First Hawaiian Bank