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

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Adams: Well, it's like pop art. For the lack of anything else to occupy
their spirits, they get a can of Campbell's soup. Then they do a
very bad picture, which some ordinary signboard artist would be
ashamed of. And that gets six thousand dollars for a museum wall.
[Laughter] I saw a pop art show in the East and I was aghast. It
was the crudest, most ridiculous thing I've ever seen. I tried to
figure it out. Really a can of Campbell's soup and not very well
rendered I And huge, you know. Of course now they're painting
pictures so big that galleries are being taxed to show them, let
alone get them in the museum. Like five bands of varying shades of
black. The other kind is when they start at the top with wet paint
and let it dribble down, and let it come down out of the frame and
out on the floor. I saw one painting that was done right in the
museum, and that floor was part of the composition. As the paint
dripped on the floor, it was all part of it. They call it the
"mustique." [Laughter]

Teiser: Back to Group f/64 this one is a real review, I guess, as reviews

went. This is by a man named Julius Craven, writing in The Argonaut,
December 2, 1932. Did you know him?

Adams: Oh yes, yes. He was pretty good.

Teiser: [Reading] "For the benefit of those who may be as
ignorant of cameras and camera craft as we are,
if there are any such, we may as well begin by
explaining that 'Group f.64,' [sic] a group of


Teiser: photographers which is now exhibiting. . .takes its name
from the smallest stop on a camera lens. When the f.64
stop is used in making an exposure, it's called 'stopping
down' or 'sharp focusing.' And sharp focusing happens
to be the vogue just now in 'artistic' photography...."

Adams: I think this is a point, if I may say it: The lens is sharp, if it's
wide open, on the focal plane, but "stopping down" gives depth so you
have "sharpness" on many planes. And the f/64 is the smallest stop
on the conventional big twelve- inch lens. F/16 might be the smallest
on a miniature lens and a process lens may be over f/200. So f/64 is
a symbol it means depth more than sharpness. (Pardon me for inter
jecting this, but these are relevant ideas.)

Teiser: But by 1932 was it a "vogue" in artistic photography, as he says?

Adams : No , I think what he was saying there was that we were daring to enter
the domain of the arts.

Teiser: [Reading] "The membership of the group is comprised of..." (and lists
them all). "You might say that these are the master-
photographers of California. However, their current
exhibition includes prints by an additional (invited)
group of four, namely, Preston Holder, Consuela [Consuelo]
Kanaga, Alma Lavenson, and Brett Weston. And this group
might also be called master-photographers. Anyway, be
that as it may, together they are offering an excellent
exhibition of photographs.

"Photography is one of the few crafts that has
advanced during the machine age. This may be partly
due to some of the inventions pertaining to it. But
it is probably largely because photography has come
to be recognized as being closely akin to, if not
actually to overlap conventional creative art. The
pictorial photographer of today must be a capable
artist (culturally, instinctively, mentally), as well
as a highly trained technician. He is not only the man
behind the camera, but the brains inside it, as well."

Adams: "Pictorial" equals amateur, weak P.S.A. stuff!

Teiser: [Reading] "There are many outstandingly beautiful prints in the show."
Shall I read you some of the ones he mentions?

Adams: Yes, fine. I think that's pretty good what he said, for the times.
With no knowledge of photography, no exposure to photography, that's
very good comment.

Teiser: [Reading] "There are many outstandingly beautiful prints in the show.


Teiser: Imogen Cunningham's studies of plant forms; Ansel Adams's
fine studies of Piazzoni at work on his murals for the
Public Library; Cunsuelo Kanaga's four exceptionally
fine portrait studies of negros [sic] ; one of which we
think we recognize as being Kenneth Spencer;..." Was it?

Adams: Could have been, could have been. Yes, I think it was.

Teiser: [Reading] "...Willard Van Dyke's 'Plant Form'; Sonia Noskowiak's
'Palm Blossom'; Edward and Brett Weston's many fine
studies of form and design. Such a collection of prints
makes us feel that, had we time or money, or both, we would
add photography to our list of favorite hobbies. But we
also know enough about it to realize that photography is hard
labor in one of its most drastic forms, and not a mere
pastime to play at." [Laughter]

Adams: Yes. Being a hobbyist. Unfortunately, there are many people who can
afford to be. That's why so many bad things are done.

Teiser: By the wealthy hobbyists?

Adams: The wealthy hobbyists. They might as well play golf or have a polo
horse or a motorboat. But there's something entrancing about the
whole photographic setup, the cameras, the lenses, the equipment.
It's just unbelievable now, and the precision and quality's unbeliev
able. It's one thing that's gone up. Cars might go down, but I
don't think there's ever been a reason for Ralph Nader to investigate
photographic equipment performance. [Laughs] And sometimes it's
miraculous what they do in the price range, although prices are up.

Meters, Lenses and Film Speeds

Adams :

Adams :

We have exposure meters we make demands. Well, a really dependable
meter would cost a thousand dollars, and they cost a little over a
hundred, because they make them in quantity. They're still not really
accurate. I have an English photometer that costs a little over two
hundred dollars now, and it's still the most accurate photometer that
the average person can get. I can think of other photometers that
run up into thousands of dollars; they're really accurate through the
full scale, consistent calibration.

Are they portable?

No. They would be in a suitcase. [Laughs]
be in a small suitcase.

The Leukeish meter would


Adams: You always have that problem with the cameras. Now these precision
cameras are really made to tolerances that are unbelievable one
hundredth of a millimeter, thousandth of a millimeter. I mean they've
really done beautifully, and I don't imagine we ever can significantly
improve on the lenses which we now have.

Teiser: Did the first lenses you used have qualities however that, say,
coated lenses now don't have?

Adams: Well, there were very fine lenses made then, but they weren't

consistent; they weren't very spectacular in their performance and
their coverage. For instance, I doubt if you could get something
like a Super-Angulon wide-angle lens today without benefit of a
computer. I mean, the design is so complex. The perfect flat
field; a five-inch lens that will cover an eight by ten plate, on
axis they call it. And it's beautiful. To figure that just by
arithmetic would be highly improbable. We used lenses like the
Dagor and the Cooke and the Zeiss Protar, which were very fine
lenses. Some were convertible; you could use different elements
separately or together. They gave beautiful images and why nobody
exactly knows. There was some aberration, but it didn't destroy the
visual resolution, which was quite high.

The theory of the coated lens is very intricate, and people
don't understand what happens. But every air-glass surface that is,
surface of glass to air reflects about 4 percent of the light
falling on it. If you have a four air-glass element lens, like a
Dagor, you get about 80-plus percent transmission of light; the rest
of it's scattered. But some of that scatter produces a flare over
the image a very low- impact flare of light. The bad lenses are the
ones that give you a flare in the middle, which is a real flare. But
the average uncoated lens like a Protar would just give you a soft
shadow. It would add a couple of units of exposure, and that would
give you a very smooth image, and the Cooke lenses, which were eight
air-glass, would give you a very soft image for that reason. You
would get almost what we would call today pre-exposure. In black and
white, that's an advantage. Every black and white photographer should
have at least one uncoated lens, a six or eight air-glass, because it
would solve a lot of contrast problems.

When you get into color, you have a different thing, because
flare then takes on the dominant color of the subject, so that if
you're photographing a landscape with much blue sky, you would get
a blue cast. If you're photographing trees, you would get a green
cast. The flare would convey the dominant hue or color of the scene.
So that's why coated lenses are very important now with color.

And then, if you look at a lens which is coated, you'll see a
purple or yellowish cast. If you see a yellow coating, that means


Adams: it's transmitting more blue; if you see a purplish-blue cast, that
means it's transmitting more yellow. You used to get lenses that
would be coated different ways; so a 35 mm. camera might not give
you the same color balance with different lenses. All the lenses
of one make are all coated the same so much blue, so much yellow, or
purple. They have new systems called "super coats ," and they're
getting down to an absolute minimum of flare. So your color purity
is superior now to what it's ever been better than you ever could
get it before. I know in the old days people always said, "We'll
have to use a lens composed of as few elements as possible."
[Interruption for phone call]

As for the f/64 group, I don't think any of us had a coated lens
at that time. I think I tried one a few years later. And it's
interesting for a photographer to study the quality of his earlier
work. Because in earlier black and white, there's always a longer,
richer scale than there is in many contemporary pictures. Because
we've lost two to four exposing units at the bottom of our curve,
because we have done away with "flare." We get the true luminous
range, and that makes for deep shadow values. You see many pictures,
especially with miniature cameras, where the shadows look very empty
lifeless, dead, no density. But part of that is due to the fact that
there's absolutely no support of the shadows, which you would get if
you had some flare.

Whereas in color without flare you'd be unhappy. I took a color
picture of Edward Weston sitting by his brick chimney, and everything
went red because the brick was in sun, and this caused a red flare.
In the modern lens you might get only a whisper of red, but you
wouldn't get that all-over reddish cast.

But I don't think any of the f/64 people had anything like that.
The Leitz people, and Zeiss, I think, put out an f/1.5 lens with lens
coating, but it was greenish and it was terrible for color. Then the
Polarizer came in. Before Land invented Polaroid there were several
very crude ways of making polarizing filters. And one was a deposition
of sheep urine crystals on glass or plastic. Now, of all the animals
in the world, the sheep urine condenses into long crystals like a
picket fence, and these could be aligned. So the light that is
vibrating this way (vertical) goes through the fence; the light that
goes that way (horizontal) doesn't!

It also had a color effect. And then Land invented a way to
manufacture a plastic film with polarizing crystals, which is color
less, or practically so. It is one of the great technical achieve
ments of our time. When you look at what that man has accomplished
in various fields, it almost scares you.

We take Polaroid glasses now for granted. You buy 3-D viewers
for five cents and all such stuff. It's all a matter of making a


Adams: plastic hundreds of miles of it, in big sheets in which the Polaroid
crystals are all aligned. Theoretically, it's extremely complex. Now
you just push a button and this machine does it. [Laughs] So, at any
rate, we didn't have that aid until quite a bit later.

Then the polarizers came in, and were gratefully received. I
can't remember the dates of introduction of these things, but I would
say that most of the f/64 people were using pretty basic equipment
uncoated lenses, films of the type of Isopan, or Kodak Superanchro-
matic. The speeds were around ASA 64, plus or minus. Many went down
to 24 and lower than that.

Teiser: Were you using ASA speeds then?

Adams: No, we used Weston speeds, and there were the Scheiner and DIN speeds,
all of which are logical arithmetical systems.

The first Weston light meter was designed to help out the
photographer and avoid his making under-exposures, so they added what
they called a "K" factor and they used first the number 50, which
should have been 64. It mathematically worked out as ASA 64. But
they took one more number just for safety. Finally they found that
people were over-exposing, so they used ASA 64. Fifty is the first
step below. You see, all these numbers you go from 32 to 40 to 50
to 64, etc. Everything goes up on the log to base 10 number, which
is 0, .1, .2, .3, (which is two times), .4, .5, .6 (which is four
times), .7, .8, .9 (which is eight times), and so on. So all the
lens stops and ASA numbers progress "three." Every time they double,
like 64 to 125, you have two log 10 steps. It's up to the manufac
turer to decide the calibration he wants. Most of the built-in
meters in the cameras are not accurate, very strangely calibrated
the ones I've come across. But they may be beautiful pieces of
electronic gadgetry. You have to make personal adjustments to a
complex world'.

Brigman, Van Dyke, Edwards, and Cunningham

Adams: But that's getting off the f/64. You want more of that.

Teiser: All of the people in that group really are of interest. Let me read
down a list of those who exhibited.

The first one was not a member of the group, but I think she

was a photographer, and I think Imogen Cunningham said that the

group first met in her studio although she herself Ann Brigman
wasn't there.


Adams: Ann Brigman, yes. She was the only photographer from the West that
Stieglitz liked. He felt that she had a perception that was very
unusual. Her work was primarily soft focus, and a great deal of it
was entwining nudes with Sierra junipers. Some very effective,
almost art nouveau feeling. But it was very thoughtful and very well
done. I don't remember many more things than her fantasies of the
juniper the tree shapes, and then the nudes relating thereto, in

Teiser: Was she a professional photographer?

Adams :


Adams :

Yes. I think she did portraits. I don't know too much about her. I
only met her once. But she was quite a considerable person and went
right along with the Stieglitz tradition of trying to see things
photographically , although the definition was goofy most of the time.

You see, they were still afraid of sharp things, and our f/64,
really a visual manifesto, was to come back to the sharpness the
microscopic revelation of the lens and as it's perfectly gorgeous,
why hide it?

You've spoken of Willard Van Dyke,

Can you discuss him a little

Well, he was a very vital young man; he had a great imagination and
was a great friend of Edward Weston. He did some very fine stills.
(In fact, he had a fine show of his still photography a little while
ago very unexpected!) After the f/64 experiences he decided he had
reached the limit of what he could do in still black and white, and
he thought, "It's the movies for me now. I'm going to go into
cinema productions," and he went to New York and became a very
successful and important documentary photographer in the film world.

He went east, and I'm not sure of this, but I think at first he
made a small living by doing stills. He had a remarkable darkroom in
a closet. You know New York and the limit of space. He put shelves
in it, so he'd stand on a stepladder and have developer on the top
shelf, the short stop on the second shelf and the fixing bath on the
third shelf, and then down to the water tub and then he'd take the
negative or print out to the bathtub and wash them. [Laughs] That's
more or less official. Anyway, he did make a big success in the docu
mentary world. I think he was very close to [Robert J.] Flaherty and
Pare Lorenz and others of that group. There's probably many
associates I don't know of.

And then, after a rewarding career, he had the opportunity to
take over the department of moving pictures of film at the Museum
of Modern Art, which is a tribute to his qualities.


Adams :

Adams :


Adams :

Adams :

Adams :

His career just went right along?

It went along very famously and very favorably. He's a fine person.

He started making a living by running a gas station was that it?

Yes, he was running a gas station over in Piedmont, and a museum
director saw him one day, and he said, "Well, so this is what you do
when you're not in the darkroom. I call it a matter of pump and
circumstance," which is a great pun! [Laughter]

I haven't seen him very much. We're very fond of each other.
He says I'm the only "square" he loves. [Laughter] Well, you can
call me an oddball for some things. [Laughter] Anyway, I know he 's
doing fine.

Then, on my list, there's you and Edward Weston and John Paul Edwards.

John Paul Edwards I think he was a businessman. As far as I can
remember, he was not a professional photographer. He was an ardent
amateur. And his daughter, Mary Jeanette Edwards, was a great flame
of Van Dyke's before he left for the East. They ran the little studio
together on Brockhurst Street in Oakland. And then something happened-

But John Paul Edwards was an accomplished photographer enough for you
to admit him to your group?

There's some question, actually, if you wanted to be very cold-blooded
about it, whether he was good enough, but we had no established
standards. I think today a couple of members would have been
eliminated on the basis of standards or accomplishment for no other
reasons. I don't think he did enough really good work, but he was so
sympathetic! And every organization has valuable enthusiasts that may
not be up to the top level of some of the other people, but still are
very important because they get things done. It's very easy to be
very snobbish in this. But we all accepted him. Which one do you
have 1 next on the list?

Imogen Cunningham.

Oh well, she's a great figure. She's very important.

What sort of photographs was she making at that time? She's done a
variety of work.

It has always been mult i -diverse, if you want to use the term. She's
always covered a tremendous field. At that time she was doing
portraits and flowers details. She made platinum prints. I have
quite a beautiful detail of a magnolia flower. But at that time, you


Adams: see, people's techniques weren't what they are today and chemical

knowledge wasn't much either, and unfortunately many of the works of
that period are fading, including mine. We didn't know about two
hypo baths, for example, and we didn't know lots of important
technical things.

Parmelian Prints

Adams :
Teiser ;
Adams :

Adams :


Adams :

Many of my works before 1930 could very easily fade, and have!
Oh, is that right?

The portfolio show they had at the Stanford Museum,* the Parmelian
Prints fortunately it was a very good set. Only one or two had
begun to turn slightly.

What does the word "Parmelian" mean?

Nothing. The publisher didn't want to use the word "photograph,"
so she concocted this little kind of a bastard combination of Greek
terms from black "melios." I don't even think that is an accurate
use of the term, but she liked it, so it was used.

Of course, it's a trick, because not meaning anything, people
remember it. [Laughter] But as she wouldn't use the word "photograph"
there had to be some other name. People were so scared of photography.

She was Jean Chambers Moore .
brought into it?

Who was she? How did she happen to be


She was a lady in the book world, a friend of Albert Bender's. He
told her that he was going to subsidize this; would she publish it?
We didn't realize then that we could have done it ourselves a thing
as small as that. But she did handle it. She received the checks
and deposited them and took a percentage that's about all she did.
[Laughter] She was all right, but timid, you see; wouldn't say
"photographs." And 1^ was very severely criticized for that. I
should have stood by my guns, but I said, "Well, my guns would have
been spiked immediately because if I'd insisted on 'photographs' she
wouldn't have done it." You see, that's forty-five years ago.

Do you remember Joseph Le Conte's review of that in the Sierra Club

*The exhibit of this 1927 portfolio of photographs by Ansel Adams
opened on February 20, 1972.


Adams: No, I don't.

Teiser: Eighteen prints [reading] "of exquisite composition, each as
technically perfect as it is possible to be produced."

Adams : Oh .

Teiser: [Reading] "The fact that they are the handiwork of Ansel Adams is
sufficient to guarantee their artistic perfection to members of our

He thought the most remarkable was Mount Brewer. It was over
six miles away, he wrote, and it was taken with a "telephotographic
lens." [Reading] "The artist has attempted, and with great success,
to suggest the scenery of the Sierra Nevada in a more pictorial sense
than by a literal representation. By keeping to a simple and rather
austere style, the prints assume a dignity and beauty which is not
generally conveyed by photography."

Adams: Well, that's nice. [Laughs]

He was a very broad man. It's important to realize that a man
of that degree of culture and understanding was interested in the
mountains. He did thousands of pictures, and I printed many of them,
as records of his travels in the Sierra. They were completely
uninspired but perfectly honest photographs. Other people couldn't
tell the difference between his approach and my approach, but he was
sensitive enough to realize that I was trying to add something. I
thought that was a very generous thing, because I definitely was
adding a point of view, where he was interested in the scientific
and the factual.

Teiser: By then had you been with him in the mountains?
Adams: Oh yes, I'd go out on trips with the family.
Teiser: So he'd watched you take pictures.

Adams: Oh yes. And I watched himl He was a wonderful little man and a dear
friend. In fact, there's a book coming out now his journal. I
forget the name of the publisher.

Teiser: Lewis Osborne.

Adams: Yes, Osborne. I wrote the preface for that.* He asked me questions
I couldn't remember.

*Joseph N. LeConte, A Summer of Travel in the High Sierra . Ashland,
Oregon: Lewis Osborne, 1972,


Noskowiak, Weston, Swift, Holder, Kanaga, and Lavenson

Teiser: Well, back to f/64. Sonia Noskowiak.

Adams: She was a very nice gal. A great friend of Edward Weston' s. They
lived together for quite a while. And of course, like most of the
people who worked with Edward, she was deeply influenced in seeing
and technique. I think she's still living.

I think she didn't have as much force as some of the others.
She was so dominated by Edward, she just grabbed the style without
the substance. But I have seen some very excellent pictures that
she did when she was more herself. She was a lovable person in many

You see, the instrument that was used in the classic sense was
the eight by ten camera, and the contact print the eight-ten format
religiously adhered to. Everything squeezed into eight by ten, not
seven by ten, but eight by ten, and of course nature isn't exactly
built that way. Sometimes it becomes difficult to get something
that really is a 6 2/3 by 10 proportion in the world and then try to
make it eight by ten. You know, it's like buying canvasses 20 by 34
and filling them, which of course you can do as a painter because
you can "adjust." But I have a terrible time when people say, "I
want a 20 by 24 'print' of a subject." Well, that's a category; and
I try to bring one dimension, if the photograph is a vertical, to
20 inches. I try to make one dimension as large as I can. And then
it might be 36 or 30 or 26 [in the other dimension]. So they say,
"It's not 20 by 24," and I try to explain that this is a category
and not based on square inches. I think it's Moulin in San Francisco
that charges for photo murals by the square inch, which to me is one
of the funniest things in the world, because paper comes in a roll.

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