Ansel Adams.

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

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And what do you do with the little stuff you trim off? Like I made
eight prints the other day in the so-called 20 by 24 category. (It
was actually fifteen there were some in the ashcan, and two more
went today, so I have six left.) Well, the cost of the paper's so
minor compared to the workl

I suppose it's a very small amount per square inch, you know,
so it looks good, and nobody's going to sit down and figure it all
out. If it were one cent a square inch, it would be $1.44 a square
foot, you see. And if it was three by five feet it would be about
$22.50! But the price might be seven hundred dollars! I've had a
man who was so captious about it that I sent him a check for $1.18,
which was the differential cost of the paper. [Laughter] As close
as I could figure.


Adams: Anyway, let's get back to f/64. I don't know too much about

Noskowiak. I don't know where she is. I'd like to follow through;
I was very fond of her. She was the subject of many of Edward's
nudes, in what they call (it's not delicate to say it, but) the
"scrawny" period. I mean, she was rather lean and posed in very
vigorous attitudes. And I called those pictures "morguesque,"
because they were printed rather gray, and they didn't have that
wonderful luminance of what he did with Tina Modotti and others in

There's something about the photographic print, the pure black
image, that can be very cold, and I'm trying to break away from
that with subtle selenium tones. It makes quite an emotional
difference. Maybe a little four by five print that is just blue-
black; it's a little frigid and when it relates to a nude.... It
might be all right for a rock, but it's all a matter of complex

Teiser: Henry Swift.

Adams: Henry Swift was a businessman and founded Henry F. Swift & Company,
a big bond house stocks and bonds. It's still going. And
Florence Swift was a painter. They were very charming people. And
he was full of vim and vigor, and did a lot of experimental work,
but the thing that got him into the Group f/64 was the series of
pictures he did of mathematical models at the University. They had
made models of equations three-dimensional equations in plaster,
sometimes outlined with string and glass. And he photographed these,
and they're extremely beautiful extremely beautiful.

Teiser: Perhaps that was what one of the exhibition reviewers mentioned as

Adams: Yes. Now, here's an interesting thing: there's nothing more

abstract than a three-dimensional mathematical model, but he makes
a photograph of it, it's still a photograph of the model. So you
see it would give a superficial impression of being a photographic

Well, I don't know what else Swift did. I think he tried some
things like mud cracks a few things. But he was really quite a
nice person. I think he left photography rather early. He also had
some money and helped us out with some of our material expenses,
although we got by with this whole thing at a very low cost an
amazingly low outlay. Everybody did their own work, and we chipped
in on the announcements. It's an ideal system but scary at times!


Adams: What's the next thing you have?

Teiser: Well, there were the four people who exhibited with you. Preston

Adams: I've not seen Preston Holder, and I don't know what he's doing, but
he was pretty good. I don't remember his being outstanding, but he
was terribly sincere. I think we really got these people on the
basis of their sincerity. They all were really tied up with the
work, and loved it.

Teiser: He didn't go on to become a professional photographer?
Adams: Not that I know of, no.
Teiser: Consuelo Kanaga.

Adams: They all called her "Connie." She was very good. She was very
imaginative, very romantic, did some beautiful portraits, was a
little overshadowed by Dorothea Lange. Dorothea Lange never quite
forgave us for not getting her in the group. She at that time was
so pictorial and so fuzzy-wuzzy that it never occurred to us. And
I really regretted it later after seeing more of her work. At that
time it certainly should have been considered, but....

Harroun: Was she doing mostly portraits at that time?

Adams: She did portraits and worked with some Navajo Indians. Maynard
Dixon, her husband, was deeply involved with the Indians and the
Southwest. I think she and Consuelo were in competition, frankly.
I think it was kind of a stylistic competition, as well as in the
portrait business.

Teiser: They were both in the same immediate field?

Adams : Yes .

Teiser: Alma Lavenson.

Adams: Well, she lived in Piedmont, and she was, I think you would say,

kind of the Julia Margaret Cameron of Berkeley. I mean, she tried
very hard [laughter]. That's a cruel statement.

Teiser: It gives the idea.

Adams: I assumed that she had means and she could do what she wanted. And
then she married a nice man named Wahrhaftig but that was quite
late, and I think he's dead now. But she did pictures of the Mother
Lode country which were really quite superior. As I say, I don't


Adams: know about her business status or whether she just lived on what she
had or whether she did any professional work.

Brett Weston and Edward Weston



Then Brett Weston was the last one.
he making then?

What sort of photographs was



He was relatively young, and he was very much under the domination
of his father. So he was influenced technically and visually by
his father's work. Not imitating him, you understand what I mean,
because Brett was always a strong individual. And Brett steadily
progressed to become one of the very best of the "younger"
photographers, but he's sixty-something now. And his latest work
with the 2 1/4 by 2 1/4 format is simply superb. He is now secure
in his own expressive domain. But the domination of the old man
was not intentional and Edward didn't like it, but there it was. I,
in fact, was probably one of the very few that were not dominated by
Edward. I mean I used much of the same equipment and materials, but
I always saw things very differently.

Mrs. Newhall writes in her book that the first time you met Eward
Weston you didn't like his work particularly. Is this true?

Yes, it's true. I didn't react. It was well, you have to get a
little perspective on Edward. Edward was a portrait photographer
in Glendale who really went for the trade, as they say. I mean he
did soft-focus pictures of ladies and shadows against the wall, and
a peculiar quality of pictorialism that was sometimes quite goofy.
And it bothered me because it seemed very mannered and very much
"Hollywood," as I knew it. (You know, "Hollywood" is a term that
covers a million different places at once.)

He was a very nice man, and I met him and the boys I think two
of them at Albert Bender's. But he was just making the transition.
And the prints, to me, were kind of chemically green what they call
commercial paper color. You still get that color; I have to use
selenium to overcome it. And I felt there was a kind of a sterility
about it, and I fought it for several years. And then after I saw
Strand's negatives and realized what straight photography could be,
I gradually came to realize more and more what Edward was trying to
do. Edward had made vast steps forward in those several years. He
was more generous to me than I was to him in the beginning, by far.
I finally realized that some of this work was really what we're all
after in our own way. So about 1931 or '30 we became very close
friends, and at the time of his death we were very close, I think


Adams: really close in understanding and sympathy. He never depended on
anybody he wasn't that kind of a man. I guess I would be one of
the few people he was glad to have around when he needed them. It's
a feeling. He was very individualistic, and absolutely honest, and
he flagellated himself in his living. He wouldn't compromise one
bit. He used to say that doing a photograph on a commission is
kind of prostitution. And I said, "What about the portraits?"
"Well," he said, "that's just dating," and he used to laugh. [Laughs]

But in the depths of the Depression, Albert Bender was keeping
all his friends going; he got a job for Edward from the MJB coffee
people, the Branstens. They were really very wonderful and generous
people one of these really great San Francisco Jewish families, you
know. I doubt if there's ever been anything like the families.
There were a dozen of them, and they were the most generous and out
going and intelligent people I have ever known. And they said, "Well,
of course we'll give him a job. We have wanted quality pictures.
Just have advertisements of a beautiful white china cup of coffee
(and set), and just say, 'Photograph by Edward Weston for MJB'."
This is called an institutional ad, you see. And they had this
beautiful set of English china pure white. So they got that to the
studio and all the coffee he could make. All he had to do was to
create compositions. It was entirely up to him. There was no re
striction and no "copy" with it.

He worked on that thing for two or three weeks and finally he
called them up and said, "I can't do it. It doesn't mean anything
to me." It's a very interesting thing, because the professional
photographer, you see, lives like an architect, on his clients. I
mean, you want to build a house, well, I build the house for you.
I try to keep my standards, but still I try to figure out what you
need. But Edward just couldn't do that. To him, putting a beautiful
piece of porcelain and arranging it any way he wanted, and putting
coffee in it black you know, typical, wonderful for his work he
couldn't do it.

And they all understood! They understood perfectly. He'd
done six or seven for them, and they said, "Well, we'll buy these
whether we use them or not, and we understand perfectly. You've
been perfectly honest." That was quite an event, and a credit to
the Branstens.

He did a series of pictures for the publication of Leaves of
Grass Random House. And he also did some pictures of the West for
the Automobile Club of Southern California. But that was still his
work. They were buying his creative work. They weren't giving him
an external assignment.


Adams: Brett has always more or less carried that theory out. It's fine if
it's what he wants to do as an easel painter, without any strictures-
if they can use it.

I think that's a great idea, too. You have to make a living,
though. You can adjust. In fact, I told Brett, "Well, after all,
Michelangelo painted the popes." "Well," Brett said, "that's not
the way I would do it."

You come across all kinds of confusions and strange personal
quirks in this photographic world. Stieglitz never did any commis
sions; Strand never did, except for some social movements. [Eliot]
Porter has never done anything for professional commercial
assignment, to my knowledge; he writes his own assignments. He can
afford to.

Applied Photography

Adams: I've done everything from morgue photography and surgical

photography [laughs] to commercial advertisements and architecture.

Teiser: You've done surgical photography?

Adams: Yes, I've done quite a lot of surgical photography. Very interesting.

Teiser: I should think so.

Adams: Not creative. It's a sheer absolute it has to be good, you know

clear. And I did some movies once; it was quite an experience. Very
poor stuff.

[End Tape 5, Side 1]
[Begin Tape 5, Side 2]

Adams: Well, I'm a peculiar mixture, and one of the few I know of that

combined the professional life with the creative life. That would be
a very important thing, I think, in the future, to find out how many
people would do that. The only reason I got by with it was that I
had some wonderful breaks and great clients.

I did many catalogues for the [San Francisco] museums, pictures
of paintings and sculptures, and I did, oh, a lot of architectural
work. I think one of my biggest projects was the series of
photographs of Maurice Sterne's murals in the Department of Justice,
which were produced as original prints. We made quite a few port
folios of these. Then Albert Bender had acquired a very handsome set


Adams: of Chinese carvings marbles and we did limited editions of that.

And, as I say, I'd have an advertising job and an architectural job,
and I'd have a surgery job, and a portrait now and then.

I think the worst surgical job I had I was on the platform, very
high. And operating rooms get very hot, and I was not bothered at all
by the operation; this was one of these breast resections with an
electric knife. Well, the combination of the anesthetic [laughter]
and the heat, and the peculiar smoky effluvia of burning epidermis!
And here I was up there it must have been ninety- some thing degrees,
hanging over this tripod. And that's the only time I really had
trouble, because I just needed oxygen, you know. [Laughs]

Then, during the War, my last days in Los Angeles at Art Center
School, we had a small group who went and worked with the Civil
Defense group, and one of the problems was the hypothetical
identification of corpses, should there be an attack. How do you
identify them? So I worked out a system using a mirror. And we'd
make a photograph of the victim, but he'd be in a mirror so you would
get the full face as well as the profile. Now the full face, then,
had to be and could be easily reversed in the enlargement. We would
go over to the Los Angeles morgue and make these photographs.

Oh, they got into all kinds of situations. I remember one time
they wheeled this old character out he was a drunk, he may have
passed out for good. They lifted him off the table, threw him on
the floor and gave him a kick with the foot and said, "Now this is
probably the way it looks after a bomb attack." So after you got
over that, you figure out, "Well, here he is. The figure's lying
there, and how do you get the camera in and what focal length lens,
and what adjustments to get his profile, and what lighting?" That
information could be very valuable, even if very morbid I

My last session there was through at ten-thirty p.m. and I had
my car all loaded up and I drove right up to Edward Weston's in
Carmel, and got there in the late morning and was absolutely
exhausted. And, oh boy, I still smelled of formaldehyde.' Edward
says, "Whew, where you been, Lazarus?" [Laughter] Funny. So he
made a photograph of me. (I now have a beard.) I was looking very
weird, very tired, but then I was through with Los Angeles, thank
goodness and then I went on to Manzanar.

Giving Photography Museum Status

Adams: Well, now, how about the any other names to consider there?

Teiser: Those were all the names I had in connection with f/64. Were there
other people who also exhibited with you in later periods?


Adams: No. But what I wanted to say I think I may have mentioned it
before was the fact that we existed only for a short time.

Teiser: You mentioned that you made a manifesto. Was it published anywhere?

Adams: I think it was published in a magazine somewhere, or on the museum
wall. That's where it really was. But Weston had decided that we
could very easily create a cult or be typed, you see, by continuing
this this f/64 into a continuing thing. So we voted to disband,
and in one sense it's one of the most healthy things you can imagine
in not perpetuating a cult or an idea or an association, because all
of us could have been very easily tied in then with a "school" you
know what I mean. Edward Weston school, West Coast school.

Now we still are in that mess, but it's not intentional. So
many of us are criticized as being just a continuation of this old
"West Coast" school. Well, of course, nothing could be further from
the truth, see. Our Friends of Photography has covered many, many
facets of photography the most contemporary back to historic. It's
surprising anyone should get labeled these days, but they do.

Teiser: Well, this was one of the other things I was interested in about
Group f/64, that it has had such a very long-lasting effect.

Adams: It had a tremendous impact. There was no plan to have an impact.
Well, I guess we thought we would help, but I mean, we had no idea
at all what would happen. And within that year it influenced the
whole course of American photography.

Teiser: Do you think it was in any way what they call an idea whose time had

Adams: Yes, I think absolutely it was that. It was a group of young people,
and they weren't radical activists as you have today. They didn't
spend their time figuring out ways of doing things. They figured
out more the doing of them. And it was this problem of being
dedicated to the idea.

The idea of closing f/64 off, very short duration, was the
healthiest thing we could do, because we weren't any kind of a formal
organization. We had no offices, we had no board, we weren't
"founded." We were just a very informal group. And Willard
[Van Dyke] and I, I guess, were the ones who did most of the
activating and planning of things. There were others who did much
too. But there's always a few that take, you know, more credit than

Harroun: What part did Edward Weston play?

Was he really interested in it


Adams: He contributed. He didn't do much to the concept he just agreed
and contributed. Most of us did that. But there was always some
body who had to do the telephoning and sending out the cards.

Teiser: Who actually chose the prints for the exhibit?

Adams: That was the group. We sent out cards to all the members. I think
Willard did it or I did it or we both did it, I forget. Willard did
more than I did. We said we have an opportunity for a show, and now
we'll all meet when we can, and gave some dates. And they all met
over at Brockhurst or at my place. I think we met twice. And we
picked out a set of pictures for the show and then the director his
name was [Lloyd] Rollins a very sympathetic, wonderful guy he
helped us design the show. And he threw out the baddies and kept in
the goodies. You know it's always very important to have an objective
analysis from the outside. In other words, if I'm going to have a
show I never would put it up myself. I might pick out a hundred
pictures that I like and that I wanted up and then say, "Well now,
we've got to get sixty out of these." Nancy Newhall did that big
show in 1963. I was terribly upset because there were a few of my
favorites that were not in it. And when the show was up I realized
why they weren't in there repetitive. She was absolutely right I

And the same with selecting portfolios. For Portfolio Five,
which is ten prints, we had twenty potentials. And we'd just show
them to people and talk and say, "Now what's your reaction?" And
I would see their points of view, and I got it down to ten prints.
And it was very good because of that, better than if I had just made
the selection myself. Many photographers don't do that. They feel
that they're the only ones that can judge their own work. But a lot
of things are done on the emotion of the moment, and it's awfully
hard for the artist to have an objective point of view.

In fact I'm thinking now of putting in Portfolio Six two
pictures that were done in the twenties. They really have an impact.
It took this long to find it out. [Laughs]

Teiser: Was Group f/64's a big show?

Adams: No, no. I think there were oh my seventy or eighty prints, in
that area maybe less.

Teiser: Rollins was interested in photography, was he?

Adams: He was. He was simply marvelous. If it hadn't been for Rollins,

I don't think we could have ever gotten the show, ever got recognition.
Because he was young and he was very much ahead of his time and very


Teiser: It seems to me that as late as the fifties, the photographic

magazines were complaining that museums didn't recognize photography.
But we've been doing it in San Francisco for quite a long time.

Adams: Yes, I think we were one of the very first. Well, I won't say that
the Buffalo Institute of Art [the Albright Art Gallery] gave the
Photo-Secession show [in 1910]. But there were very, very few shows.
The Metropolitan had some prints. They still have some interest. I
just got a letter the other day (relative to my forthcoming exhibit
in April 1974) saying they'd like me to conform to their mount sizes
because they have the frames for them. My god, they're spending
$25,000 on a show, and they're worried about a few lousy frames and
mats, 14 1/4 by 19 1/2, or something. Throws the whole thing out of
kilter. [Laughter] God] But I think I can get over that all right.

But things are institutionalized. And out here they were hung
under glass and people had their own size mats, and we all had
different size mats in mind. Your mat is part of your vision, I
mean. But you go to the Metropolitan and other museums and you'll
see little things this big, you know, in a 14 by 19 mat, I mean,
because that goes into the frame. [Laughter]

One of the important things is that museums were scared. It's
the art groups painting and sculpture groups that scalped photography.
They didn't want to confront these "new" people. Now you had that
same thing in San Francisco, my beloved home city. The artists
there have been very negative to photography. In fact to the point
of almost sometimes just wishing they could cancel things out. Due
to Mr. Eldridge T. Spencer, when he became president of the Art
Association, *after the War [World War II], he was able to promote
a department of photography. There was great opposition from the
"art" people, Art Association people, I should say. But he put it
through, and I went out and got ten thousand dollars from the
Columbia Foundation and we started. We had a wonderful department.
He was happy and I was happy.** But whenever we tried to get a gallery
to do something with our work, the painters were there first. Maybe
the artists weren't really afraid of us. They were just jealous of
time, space, and money.

And the majority of painters today, I think, look on photography
as an intruder. Very few painters I know have any interest in it or
any sympathy for it. We have more sympathy for them by a hundred
times. I was asked to put on a show at the San Francisco Museum of
Art in October 1973. It was supposed to be a very important show.
And they put on a big song and dance about it. It was to be
coincidental with the reopening of the museum the whole museum is
being redecorated, reorganized. I said, "Well now, I want a
description of the gallery space so I can start thinking." They
said, "Well, it's going to be in the corridor. The corridor's going
to be improved." And I said, "Nuts to that," in not exactly the same

*The San Francisco Art Association.

**See also pp. 374-375 and other references to the California School

of Fine Arts as indexed.


Adams :

Adams :

Teiser :

Adams :

words. I said, "If I'm having an exhibit, I'm having a gallery or
else." I was thinking about myself and photography. I mean, if this
was, as they said, an important show, then it deserved a gallery. I
wouldn't mind in the least having my pictures in a group thing in the
corridor if they're going to bring out part of their collection and
put it in the corridor. Well, that's all right. But when you have a
show, an exhibit, and it's an important one, and it's an artist
somebody who's achieved a certain level of distinction, and that's
what they tell you, and they want that, I don't want it in the
corridor. I mean, it's just a matter of I guess you'd call it

That's where they hang most of the photographs at the museum

Yes. It-'s terrible awful light. Well, they're fixing it up a
little better, but they still don't know anything about light. They
won't listen. I can give them a mathematical formula so many foot
candles, so many candles per square foot, environmental percentage,
all of that has been worked out. It's baby talk. And yet I know the
last diagram I saw of the gallery, the lights were no higher than here
at home. There won't be enough light on it. "Well, double the
lighting." "Well, we can't. The circuits won't stand it." "Well,
double the circuits." "We haven't got the money." [Laughter] God!

So this whole proposition of struggling to get recognition for
photography ... .I'll gladly put myself down for photography as a
whole, and if all they had was a corridor and there wasn't anything
else, well, that would be all right. I mean, you're often shown in
terrible situations. But part of the f/64 objective was to give

Online LibraryAnsel AdamsConversations with Ansel Adams : oral history transcript / 1972-1975 → online text (page 12 of 76)