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Conversations with Ansel Adams : oral history transcript / 1972-1975 online

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you just talk. The aesthetics are a by-product. They'll talk about
their experiences, they'll talk about their style. They'll see
something in your photograph that they like. You don't think about
it in terms of aesthetics as such, you see. And it's interesting,
when photographers get together they talk about papers, lenses,
chemicals, cameras very seldom about the pictures. When painters
get together, they talk about painting and very seldom about paints
or paint brushes. When musicians get together, they talk about
other musicians. [Laughter] They'll say, "Oh my, Rosenthal, you
know, he did that Beethoven all right. But Horowitz somebody else
Backhaus " and before you know it, they're talking about "when I
was concertmaster at such and such."

You know the famous story about Mischa Elman, who was talking
to this young girl at a dinner, a beautiful young lady, and he was
describing all of his career coming to this country, and his tours.
He could see she was getting a little bit restless, so he said, "Oh,
my dear, I'm so sorry, I'm boring you. I'm talking about nothing
but myself, and that is too much. Now let us talk about you. How
did you like my last concert?" [Laughter]

[End Tape 4, Side 1]
[Begin Tape 4, Side 2]

Adams: Through Cedric I knew Richard Buhlig. He was quite a pianist, but
he had the most colossal conceit I've ever seen. He said, "After
all, you can count the great pi-ah-nists of the world on one finguh."

I met him one time in San Francisco, and it was a very gray,
foggy day, and he was exhausted, and I was going to take him on the
streetcar out to my house for supper. He sat there in the streetcar
in a very dejected way, so I kept talking. I figured I just can't
sit there like a dummy too. So I talked and talked about the
symphony and other things.

So we came home to the house, and he sat down in this chair
and took off his necktie and said, "Let us have silence, blessed
silence. You talk a very great deal and say ab-so-lutely nothing."
[Laughter] So that was a helpful influence. I've been thinking


Adams: about that; always have, you know. I just pattered along, trying
to keep him going a gesture.

Ernst Bacon came on the scene early. And Ernst was a very
fine pianist very well trained; great ladies' man, marvelous
person. (I hope he can hear me.) And he would play well, he was
typical of a certain type, a kind of spectacular, ruthless playing,
you see, which overshadowed anybody else around. I couldn't play
when he was around because I played a totally different way. We
had a period there, a kind of first jealousy, I think. I was more
jealous of him, because whenever Ernst appeared, he was the magnet,
you see. Well, the thing that saved that situation was that he was
such an extremely fine musician. And he can still play a Bach-
Busoni chaconne like you never heard. So after the first couple of
years and adjustment, why, we became extremely close friends.
Mutual admiration society, but at the same time it was the first
time I'd come across this very gentlemanly but very aggressive
personality. That was another kind of competition.

My competition was always if I felt it, well, I do the best
I can and that's that. But sometimes wow! it's like having a
show in a museum and in the next gallery there's somebody who has
nothing but three by four-foot prints. They might be lousy, but
they still would be impressive. [Laughter] Perhaps superficial.

But Ernst is one of the best we've got, and a great composer.
He's never been recognized. He never makes any real bid for fame,
but I think his set of songs to Emily Dickinson poems is probably
one of the greatest American works just incredibly beautiful. He
still belongs to a generation that had "something to say." The
contemporary music to me seems to be almost mathematical efforts to
experiment with new symbols and sequences and combinations. You
get through with it and you think, "Clever, isn't it?"

I remember hearing one I think it was in Boston. I was at a
friend's house, listening to the radio, and they couldn't wait to
hear this thing, and there was percussion and strings and two
trumpets and jew's-harp some combination. And you know in the
cartoon "Peanuts" the bird that's talking to the dog? It's just a
genius flight of imagination to get this conversation of the little
bird; it's nothing but a series of little dots, you know. That's
what that music sounded like rumble, rumble, rumble, squeak. Then
a pause. Then somebody taps seven times with a bow. Then there's
a tremendous, cacophonous, dissonant chord with more rumbles, then
more squeaks. They then showed me the score of this, which wasn't
written like any music I'd seen before. There were no bars, and
all these strange symbols. We got all through it, and I said, "Well,
what happens to you when you hear that?" "Perfectly wonderful."
"Well," I said, "what happens? It is clever, but I didn't" Well,


Adams: they really couldn't describe an emotional experience; it was an

intellectual experience, and therefore it was aesthetic. But you've
got to make definitions between intellectual, aesthetic, and
emotional. And great art has all of it together, and a lot of the
contemporary stuff....

Cults, Controls and Creativity

Adams: And in painting, huge paintings may be just intellectual exercises,
and I think people respond because such response is indicated in
the social structure. To be in (quote) "i-n" you create certain
things, like certain things. It's a multi-cult.

That same thing happens in business methods. The thing in
business now, and in industry well, Dr. Land worked very hard to
establish what he called "peer consciousness." Everybody in the
[Polaroid] company that would be, say, at the level of the
engineers, there wouldn't be a top engineer or a bottom engineer;
there would be sort of a group of peers, which means you're equals
in that field. He didn't like the idea of them electing a chairman.
They'd have a secretary who'd just call the meetings, and they'd
appoint a chairman for the evening. They'd discuss it. And they
got by like that for a while. But it worked better with the
custodians and machine operators than it did with the intellectuals.
After about a year they had a chairman and a vice-chairman all
that rigamarole. Became a society.

Teiser: We sometimes think of societies as something that people who have
little create for themselves.

Adams: Well, I went to this big conference the other day the Society of

Photographic Scientists and Engineers. There's about three thousand
members, and they're all the top people in the optical and physical
and chemical laboratories. And there were about six hundred at
conference. They were a little disappointed in the turnout, but
they're expensive. And they said they never had better papers, but
the papers were, to me, incomprehensible. But I felt very much "in",
you see, that's the interesting thing. I had a lot of friends. That
was pleasant. I was just in contact with a world which I know is
important and which is really back of my profession and the materials
1 use. But I don't really understand that world at all.

Teiser: Did you speak to them?

Adams: No, not this time. I did before once.


Teiser: When you speak to them, what do you speak about?

Adams: Well, I was asked to inject the creative point of view, refer it to

the materials, how research has helped or hindered certain materials.
My talk was on the obvious development of the films and the papers
and chemicals; their consistency is perfectly wonderful. And then
the tendency toward automatism in the cameras, which has just the
opposite effect. I mean it discourages creativity, you see.

That trouble is coming up in films now; they're making things
that are foolproof. In other words, they say they're foolproof and
a person can't make a mistake, but it means that you can't control.
Control is the whole essence of art. They are control-proof! So
it's conceivable to think that you can have I know there are films
made that have an exposure range of one to fifteen, and the film
will automatically carry it. It'll almost always come out in one
limited scale. And that would be disastrous. It's just like if a
paint company said, "I'll put out twelve colors, period." [Laughter]

O'Keeffe feels that. She grinds her own pigment. A lot of the
paintings in New Mexico are done from the stones she's just picked
up in the desert. She gets the kind of thing she wants directly
and perceptively I

Teiser: You can't do that with photographic materials.

Adams: No. No, you can't. But you still can control. I can under-expose,
use less exposure and more developer, and increase my scale and
texture. But the modern films only allow one-zone expansion. I
keep thinking in my mind I'll go on to another paper. There are
only two films made by Kodak that have the old thick emulsion, and
that will "expand" in prolonged development two or three times.
Now some printing papers are given new synthetic emulsions, and
they "dry down" distressingly. In other words, the print will look
perfectly beautiful in the wash water, but you can't use it when
it's dry. So there's always this problem of having to print light,
to print unpleasantly light, and then it'll dry down. Then finally
you learn just about how deep to print. But in the old days, you
could put the print up on a white thing, and it would look that way
when it was dry.

Now there's one paper called Varilour, that is just impossible.
It isn't just a matter of tone. A white surface goes gray. The
first time I had that happen to me was with a print in a portfolio,
of the little Hornitos church. It's got very subtle clapboards
showing. It's a white church but you barely see the little
clapboards. And I made the print so you just saw them, and I
thought, "Gee, that's beautiful!" I knew it was going to dry down
hopefully just a little so I went ahead and made the whole hundred


Adams: prints. Had to throw them all away. The white went down gray, you
see. So then I had to start the next day and make a whole series of
exposures and develop them and put the exposure time, etc., control
on the back. And the one that I chose, which showed the clapboard
beautifully in the dried print, absolutely did not show it in the
wet print.

The point is, as the emulsion swells, the silver grains
separate like an expanding universe. And then the light penetrates
does not have opposition. And then as the emulsion dries, it brings
the silver together and you see it.

Teiser: European papers have stayed pretty much the same, have they?

Adams: No. They're changing too. Agfa Brovira is probably the most

brilliant, Ilford is fine I don't always like the surfaces. None
of them are as consistent as Kodak.

Prints; Tangible and Intangible Aspects

Adams: It's an interesting thing the thing we have to think about is: what
do you experience when you see a print? That is, what is a print?
There's a whole series of grays, from black to white and grays in
between. Well, if you strip the emulsion off a print, which you could
do, it's a very soft image (if you look at it as a transparency).
And you wonder, "Well, how in the world could I get a good print out
of that? Isn't there some silver left on the paper?" No. The idea
is that the paper reflects 90 percent of the light falling upon it,
and you may have a 50 percent layer of silver in one part of the
image. Now, say a hundred units of light strikes the surface of the
print. Fifty percent gets through the silver and reaches the paper
(the background), and 50 percent is reflected by the paper (which
only reflects 90 percent). So 45 percent of that light is reflected
back through the 50 percent silver, which reduces it to 22 1/2
percent. So then you have that value which would be known as a
22 1/2 percent reflection density, 0.75. And that is why, you see,
printing is a very subtle thing, because the heavier the silver
deposit, the deeper and deeper the tone. And finally, with toning
I can get with selenium down to the reflection density of 2.3, which
is 1 to 200, speaking roughly. But visually it would be awfully
hard to tell the difference between a density of 2.0 or 2.2 or 2.3;
you'd have to have a bright light and put them right together.

The Polaroid is a different process and has what is called the
"linear scale." Your ordinary paper scales have the sine-curve
shape, the "S-curve," the positive curve. Now the part of that
scale which is most accurate or at least in proportion, is what they


Adams: call the straight-line section. But the whites and the blacks belong
in the toe and the shoulder, and they are disproportionate. They can
cause you all kinds of aesthetic upsets, even though you can't
describe it; you can't be fully aware of it, but it's there. The
Polaroid has a long straight-line scale, so the mind unconsciously
sees in the Polaroid print a progression of values which seems much
more agreeable.

Look at that picture over there, the marble head and the leaf
see it on the wall? I can't make a print like that with a conven
tional paper. I've got a good negative of it, as well as a Polaroid
print. I can't make as good a print. I can't get that luminosity,
because in the areas that are most subtle I can't get the
proportionate scale. In that and the auto-masking process, which
is equivalent to the old printing in sunlight, you do have a
continuous line. It's not an obvious sine-curve shape.

There's an article out now trying to rationalize and put it
almost on a computer basis. What is the character of Mozart, or
Beethoven, or Schubert? What do you get looking at certain painters?
And they've made these tests certain responses on a pressure basis.
Very complicated thing, and it just draws a curve. They give me a
test, perhaps, and I would respond to certain things, and they'd put
that curve on file, and take your test. And the strange thing is
that they've found that it doesn't make any difference who you are;
your curve in response to Mozart is typical, and it's quite different
from your curve in response to Beethoven. The response is not
basically individual; there's something in the aesthetics, something
in the music pattern that controls it. And the same with the
photograph. Why do you look at one print by a sensitive printer and
the same subject printed by a good but unimaginative darkroom man,
a technician, and respond differently? The difference might be such
you'd think it was not the same picture. And yet if you put it in
the reflection densitometer, you might get almost the same scale.
It's a very subtle thing. So that's part of my approach in teaching,
and it is going to be more so in writing now. It's a kind of a
summation of experience. But to make it highly valid, I really
should work through a scientist. If I'm going to talk about values
in any way, I ought to double check, you see, so I'm just not
transcribing my own symbols. It would have to be something that's

Teiser: Well, you mean you have to translate subjective judgments into

Adams: Have to do it some way, because if I talk about a print like this
print of Half Dome ["Moon and Half Dome"], this big one I must say
that I can make it in varying ways. If I go light to a certain
point, it becomes weak, so I tear it up. If I go dark to a certain


Adams: point, it becomes hard and heavy, so I tear it up. But in between
is quite a range of difference, and some levels are acceptable.
Now, what is that range? It's the intangible thing that makes it
art instead of record.

Teiser: When we were speaking with Mr. and Mrs. Spencer* last week, 1 asked,
"Do you think Mr. Adams's work has changed over the years you've
known him?" Mr. Spencer said, yes, he thought a little, in that the
line had become sharper. And he was showing us a print of Half Dome
with the moon that same photograph as an example of what he
thought your work had come to. He admired it greatly. And he
seemed to think that you would not have made that photograph in that
way earlier.

Adams: He's right. He's an extremely perceptive man both of them can

really talk intelligently about aesthetics. It's a very rare thing
and they are rare people. They can -talk and analyze things in the
most extraordinary way, rather impersonal and very delicate. Of
course, she's a great expert in stained glass antique glass one of
the top people. And to have her talk about these significant slight
differences. And it isn't just a matter of different glass, it's
just that intangible multiple quality of color and value. They're
always amazed that I like Rouault, because most of Rouault's work is
related to the stained glass appearance, you know, with the black
separating lines. I never thought of it that way, you see. I just
liked these beautiful blocks of color. And, Mrs. Spencer said,
"Well, do you know that Rouault's paintings superficially look like
stained glass." And it suddenly occurred to me, "My gosh, they do,
don't they?" They do and they don't, but they do enough so you can
think of it.

And then, what is the function of glass? Why all these little
shapes? Then you take a flow of glass, of shape, and you see that
each one of these shapes has a dynamic relationship to the next one,
and that will lift your eyes move your eyes. It's a very subtle
thing. You just don't put about random globs of glass. The shapes
are all felt like mosaics. Gerry Sharpe, who was quite a fine
photographer she unfortunately died early she worked for us for
quite a while and she did that mosaic table, which is an extremely
sensitive thing. I forget who she worked with Louisa Jenkins or
somebody. That's the first and only one she did. But there are
very subtle juxtapositions of shapes and values therein. They flow.
It's very hard to describe.

In photography, if I can say it, I think my work has that flow,
and I think that's what makes it have a certain appeal. It's what
all creative photographers must have, because people do respond to
more than fact. And I guess I really sell more prints than anyone,
and sell them to a quite varied audience. So I know there's a
response somewhere. Weston didn't sell too much while alive; he

*Eldridge T. and Jeanette Dyer Spencer.


Adams: surely sells now. People are paying fantastic prices for remaining
prints that appear every once in a while. But he sold to a rather
limited audience, and didn't sell very many. Some people with means
would buy a hundred prints for a collection of an art gallery or a
museum. And that was fine; it would keep him going. But the
individual prints were not acquired as they should have been.

Now, of course, I think all the time, probably a lot of my
pictures are sold because of the subject. But it's the subject plus.
A literal picture of the moon and Half Dome would almost have to be
very unpleasant. "Gee, there's the moon, Bud, look!" [Laughs] That's
about the end of it.

Teiser: Do you know we've kept you talking for two hours?

Adams: Yes. I've got to go to a party, then out to dinner. I am a little
bit thought out.

[End Tape 4, Side 2]


[Interview IV 19 May 1972]
[Begin Tape 5, Side 1]

The Group f/64 Exhibit

Adams: This time you wanted more f/64.

Teiser: Well, yes. We'll probably keep coming back to things you've mentioned
and ask you more about them. The f/64 group I'm sure you're sick to
death of being asked about it.

Adams: No, no.

Teiser: We ran down two articles; one of them is just a notice. Shall I
read them to you?

Adams : Yes .

Teiser: From the San Francisco Chronicle, an unsigned article of November 27,
1932 the end of a review of an exhibit of paintings.

"Another new exhibit at the de Young Museum
comprises photographs by members and guests of the
Group f/64. There is a beautiful work on view"
(that is a typo, I guess) "although the promise
of novelty suggested in the name of the organiza
tion that sponsors the exhibition is not carried

Adams: I don't understand what they mean by that.

Teiser: [Continuing] "These photographers, like other talented
brethren of the lens, are admirable portrait
artists, imaginative creators of abstract patterns,
romanticists who look for charm in boats, in
scenery, in grand landscape, and in every small
growing thing that is nourished at the bottom of
Mother Earth.

"Exhibitors include - "

Adams: Well, that's more favorable than a lot we had. [Laughter] It's
funny. I don't remember that at all.

They didn't know how to write about photography then, you know.
Just didn't know what to say. They thought some photography was


Adams: imitating abstract art. I don't call it "abstract;" I call it

"extract." A photograph is an extract, unless you go to a photogram.
But using a lens, you can't really abstract you can fuse and
duplicate and double print, but you really can't abstract like a
painter can, you see. So I think the word "extract" makes a little
more sense. It's very personal; I think it'll never get in the
dictionary. [Laughter] But an extract is to get the essence of
something it is of something. And the image of the lens is of
something. It's not just production up here [in the head],

Teiser: I suppose the distinction that most people make is that if they
look at it and can't immediately tell what it is, it's abstract.
Is that it?

Adams: Well, then you have abstract expressionism
Teiser: No, I mean in a photographic sense only.

Adams: Photographs. Well, in a lot of things that Weston did, he had a
great sense of form. But people kept reading into this, you see,
the constructivist idea of the painter. When they see the photograph,
they think of it as something the photographer really did in produc
ing these curves and shapes. But all a photographer could do would
be to select and enhance what he was selecting by the photographic
technique, by his own approach. It's pretty tricky. It gets into

Teiser: We were looking at a photograph of yours I can't remember in what
volume now and on the opposite page was a photograph of Edward
Weston' s. The subject was the same rocks, close up. Your photograph
was, to me at least, immediately recognizable and his if I hadn't
seen others, I would have had to puzzle over it, and maybe I would
never have discovered it. Would one really know that it was rocks
along the sea?

Adams: Well, it's awfully hard to qualify those things because the emphasis
in Edward Weston 's mind was not as much on nature as mine was. I
mean, Weston was a universal person. He'd take an egg beater of
course I did too but he'd take a portrait or he'd take anything that
he saw that would comprise a statement through which he could say
something. Now, these words "say something" are very tricky, because
you're not really saying, you're observing and transmitting and
clarifying. I don't know; the words are almost hopeless. We use the
word "visualization" when we see the print in our mind's eye. Well,
we really don't. We see the image. We think of the edges, we think
of the textures, we think of all that is appropriate. And then we
have to look in the ground glass and see if we've really arranged the
thing as we wish, and if we're watching our edges and if we're
watching our confusions and mergers and all the little things.


Adams: It's awfully hard to say. In other words, I'm looking at
you here I see a picture. If I were a painter, I wouldn't
have any problem at all because I could synthesize everything I
see around here. But through the lens from this point of view,
the sofa's cutting your neck right off under the ear, and the
scene outside [through the window behind] is hopelessly confusing.
You know, there are so many things, it would not make a good photo
graph. Now, I could go "click," you see, and I could get what a
lot of people call just a spontaneous image. But that's not a
communicative image. Not necessarily. Cartier-Bresson might be
able to do it, but he wouldn't just sit here. He would move to a
place where he would get you at the optimum advantage. The difference
between a man like Cartier-Bresson and a snap shooter or a person
who's, well, it's about the same family as the cinema verite just
walk right into a group and you're part of it. People forget that
there's nothing duller than a sequence in motion. It's the editing
that makes the movies the great thing. Well, it has to be there to
begin with.

Teiser: Have you seen a Warhol movie?

Adams: I haven't. [Laughter] I hear it's pretty wild.

Teiser: It must seem to go on for several days at a time.

Online LibraryAnsel AdamsConversations with Ansel Adams : oral history transcript / 1972-1975 → online text (page 10 of 76)