Tom Meredith never envisioned himself as the steward of the most important collection of photographs by the most well-known photographer in American history.
He just wanted to be a good husband.
Back in 2002, the former Dell Computer chief financial officer was trying to think of an appropriate 30th wedding anniversary gift for his wife, Lynn. Jewelry seemed too common a concept, even for the traditional pearl anniversary. Perhaps, he thought, he could find a themed set of gifts to fill out the four big gifting dates of the year - the big anniversary, Valentine's Day, Lynn's birthday, and Christmas.
Lynn loved photography. Tom, meantime, loved the natural environment, a passion he had channeled through his work on the worldwide board of directors of the Nature Conservancy.
Tom realized that those two passions had a common intersection: the photographic work of the late Ansel Adams, whose iconic photographs of Yosemite National Park, Grand Teton National Park and other natural environs are credited not only with stoking Americans' appreciation of the beauty of wild nature, but also with transforming the way many people understood photography as an artistic medium.
"For many of us, (Adams) is kind of an environmental folk hero," Meredith said in a telephone interview with the Missoulian last month. "He viewed himself as a steward of nature by how he depicted nature. He was an environmentalist before people commonly used that word, but he was also an extraordinary artist."
Meredith lit on the idea of buying his wife a quartet of photographs by Adams. He called a friend with connections to the art world, asking him to keep an eye out.
The friend called back with good news and bad news - "and the bad news is the good news."
"I can definitely help you out," the friend said. "But it's not four. It's 138 prints."
Turned out, Meredith's inquiry came just on the heels of the dissolution of Friends of Photography, an influential San Francisco organization formed in 1967 by Adams and several other prominent photographers. The holdings of Friends of Photography included Adams' favorite prints, handpicked from his lifetime of images.
The collection included prints of all of Adams' most famous photographs, including "Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park," "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico," "The Tetons and the Snake River," "Aspens," and "Monolith, The Face of Half Dome."
It also highlighted Adams' talents as a portrait artist, with candid images of Alfred Stieglitz, Dorothea Lange, Georgia O'Keeffe and others.
It was, in other words, the authoritative collection of Adams' work.
"There was a big concern that if someone didn't purchase the entire collection, it would be split up and auctioned off and never would be in one place again," said Meredith. "So I took my wife to San Francisco and, as a surprise, we went to the warehouse where the photographs were stored. After looking at them, we decided to make the purchase and become stewards of the collection."
Few art collections in America are at once as singular and yet also familiar as the Merediths' collection of Adams' photographs.
Born in 1902, Adams was raised on the coast of Northern California, where he developed an early fascination with nature and astronomy. During his teen years - after being ejected from private school for his inattentiveness and hyperactive tendencies - Adams immersed himself in studying the piano, and for quite some time aimed toward a career as a musician.
During the summer of 1916, he and his family visited Yosemite National Park for the first time. Adams took along a small camera, given to him by his father. Soon, he became obsessed with photography, acquiring better equipment and going on backcountry excursions to photograph pristine landscapes that were, at the time, unfamiliar to most Americans.
That focus eventually earned him his first major exhibition, a showing of photographs of the High Sierra at the Smithsonian Institution in 1931.
It was a time when photography as a whole was taking on a new prominence in American culture. In 1935, the U.S. Farm Security Administration hired several prominent photographers, including Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, to document the harsh realities faced by poor farmers during the Great Depression. Those photographs helped demonstrate to a broad public both the power of photography as a tool of social change and the potential it held as a medium of art.
Adams viewed himself as an activist of a different stripe, championing the cause of wilderness preservation. To those ends, he focused his lens primarily on scenes of nature - albeit with a decidedly individual perspective and technique that typically involved long exposures through tiny apertures.
During his 60-year career, Adams became almost a household name in America, thanks in no small part to his willingness to publish his works in all manner of media, from framed prints to postcards and pamphlets. He personally produced more than 1,300 prints of his most famous photograph, "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico" (a single one of which sold at auction five years ago for $609,600).
Some art historians argue that other photographers had greater influence in the development of the art form. But no American photographer can claim broader public popularity.
That fact makes the upcoming exhibit of the Merediths' collection at the Missoula Art Museum both a must-see local attraction, and also a trip into familiar territory for many.
"Exhibits like this simply don't present themselves to us every day or even often," said Laura Millin, the MAM's executive director. "This is kind of a once-in-a-lifetime type opportunity for Missoula."
It is an opportunity afforded by the fact that the Merediths own a ranch in the Ovando area, and thus hold a special affinity for Missoula and the surrounding area. Since purchasing the prints a decade ago, the couple has toured the collection around the country, setting attendance records practically everywhere it has stopped.
While the Missoula Art Museum has mostly focused on presenting exhibitions of work by current artists from around the Northwest, Millin said that the opportunity to exhibit the collection of photographs by Adams was a no-brainer for the MAM.
"We view it as an essential part of what we do to present artists who are foundational or are extremely influential in a particular genre of art, and Ansel Adams certainly is all of that," said Millin. "I think what makes this a particularly good fit is that Adams has had a lasting influence not only in art but also in conservation. In those ways it feels like such a good fit for Missoula and a show that should really be of interest to people here."
Certainly most art-lovers have seen at least some of the photographs in the exhibit in reproductions elsewhere. But there is nothing like seeing Adams' handpicked images in person, said Tom Meredith.
"There's this metaphor that every photograph is akin to a musical score and each print is an orchestra's interpretation of that score," he said. "(Adams') printing technique changed over time as he was perfecting his sense of balance and what he wanted to do in terms of the mood he was trying to create. So the works, the 138 he picked, are the prints - the performances, you could say - that he felt most strongly depicted his finest work."
Ironically for Meredith, the acquisition of the collection didn't end up serving its intended purpose.
"My wife told me that I couldn't count it as a gift on any of those four days," he said with a chuckle.
But, he said, the acquisition has given the couple a deeper sense of satisfaction as they have seen the collection tour across the country over the years.
"It's been a gift that we receive every time this goes into a new city - seeing the impact on the local communities," he said. "You can't experience these photographs without being moved, and that's a very gratifying thing to facilitate for people."