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

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photography museum dignity. In other words, if it's good, it's good
enough to show it in a museum. Painting, and etching, and
lithography, and drawings and photography. The Metropolitan Museum
now has a division called the Department of Prints and Photography
in the Department of Art. Well, that's a step they at least use the

The first photographic prints in American photography, did they show
in galleries early?

No. And I can't give you a detailed account, but I think the Photo-
Secession show was the very first one to have a museum show. Now,
Beaumont Newhall could tell you that; I can't. But there were
damned few and far between. Not until Newhall became interested in
photography at the Museum of Modern Art in the thirties and forties.
San Francisco and the f/64 came first, and then the Museum of Modern
Art had a series of photograph exhibits after that.

In 1933 I went to Yale and had a letter to Dean [Everett V.]
Meeks. And Dean Meeks was a very charming, rotund gentleman, and he


Adams: looked at my pictures and said, "Why, remarkable, remarkable,

remarkable!" And I had a print about this big [gesture]. He said,
"That's one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen. What's
it of?" I said, "Foliage at Mills College." He said, "You don't
understand. What's it of what tapestry?" And I said, "It's a
photograph of nature." And he looked at me and he said, "Well, now,
I don't I just haven't made myself clear. What work of art is that
a representation of? What did you do that of?" And I says, "I took
it of a bunch of weeds.'" [Laughs] I was just out of my mind! I mean
I couldn't believe this man I said, again, "These are all photographs
not of paintings or drawings or anything, but they're photographs of
nature." "Well, that's remarkable, you must show these."*

So I had a show at Yale in '34 or something. But here was the
Dean of Fine Arts at Yale University who could not get through his
head that all these photographs were not photographs of something else
somebody had done on some graphic medium. He never thought of taking
a camera and photographing a landscape or a detail of nature.

Camera Clubs, Groups, and Galleries

Teiser: This was part of the reason for all the camera club magazines perhaps.
They didn't have anybody else to show the pictures to.

Adams: No, they didn't. The camera club is a very interesting thing. It's

primarily a social get-together of people interested in a hobby. Most
camera clubs have never made a pretense of art. The Photographic
Society of America, of which I'm a Fellow (I don't know why), largely
represents this approach to photography. They're absolutely divorced
and separate from the creative stream. For instance, the admiral
awful nice man Admiral [E.G.] Forsyth makes just beautiful pictures.
He is a trustee of the Friends of Photography, and his pictures are
really something. Just one little theme: light and sunset, light
reflections on water, dark/ light. He never does anything else, but
he does it so well that I've got one of his prints that's a beautiful
gem in my collection.

Well, he said it would be fine if we could have an article on
the Friends in the journal of the Photographic Society of America.
And we had the article, and there was no comment whatsoever. It's
just the kind of photography that's it's just another world. It's
a sewing bee. They have a technical section which is ridiculous.
Anyhow, it's entirely a world apart.

Then of course, with the advent of the Depression and the photo-
documentarists, you had another world apart. We had the Photo League

*See also pp. 319-320.


Adams: and we had what is now known as the "concerned photographer." It's
a very important term, and you have to take it for what it means.
It really means photographers who are concerned with our environ
mental and social conditions. Now they're concerned with that, but
that doesn't necessarily make it creative art. I'm concerned with
something else too. I'm supposed to give a talk to them in the
fall, and that's going to be my theme that my concern is different
from theirs. But it's just as deep concern, because I think it
includes the whole thing. And of course I can go on and probably
put myself out on a limb very quickly with it.

Bruce Davidson's East 100th Street, that book he did on the
ghetto, is a very important thing, and some of the photographs he
did are extraordinarily fine. But our group of photographers are
interested, no matter what your subject is, in the photograph. I
mean does it have an emotional wallop, aesthetic wallop, and is it
"technically adequate"? It looks better if it has a theme, and I
think that's one of the things that I've had to contend with. I've
always had some kind of a theme, whether it's been conservation or
Japanese-American relocation, etc. But the person today either
works with a definitely social theme, of minority groups or the
oppressed, or else with some absolutely internal, personal kind of
experience, what we often call a "trip."

I think I mentioned the other day the photograph, 11 by 14
inches, of a lawn in which there was an out-of-focus dog in the
middle of it, and that was hanging on a museum wall. Now that was
a symbol of something to the photographer, but to the spectator,
God knows! [Laughter]

Now there are groups in New York, like the Circle of Confusion
those people are largely technical. They sit around with drinks and
dinner and yak, and they don't do much of any work. All over the
country there are workshops beginning and unfortunately ending,
because they just don't have the complete picture of the problem.
But they are important because they bring people together in the
creative sense.

The sad thing is the number of galleries that are starting up.
Having had a gallery myself, I know whereof I speak. They have
absolutely no concept of the work and the money involved in it.
They have great enthusiasm to have a gallery. And they put in a
gallery and lights and put out an announcement. But they don't
realize that running a gallery takes a terrific amount of publicity
primarily an important list of artists who may be shown. You have to
do that. You can't go out and just ask "Joe" to show, and just
extoll "Joe the photographer."


Adams: New galleries are starting. Some of them are very well funded, with
a tremendous amount of money. The Light Gallery in New York is
typical. What I saw there was certainly of no consequence whatso
ever. The Witkin Gallery is I think the best in the country,
because Lee Witkin combines the books, the old stuff, the new
stuff. It's a nonpretentious place. It's just a mixed up,
beautiful, simple setup, with no obvious money involvement that you
see. I know the rent costs him something and he has a nice deck
for entertaining. The gallery itself is small, but he has a
priceless treasure of photographs. He knows photography, knows how
to get it, and puts on these exhibits without pretension. And he's
doing very well.

But there was a gallery started in Chicago, called Limited
Image Gallery, that started out with a big fanfare and had a big
show of mine and others. And all the money they took in selling
prints, which were not prints from the wall, but prints on order,
they spent for the rent, the lights, and so forth, so they went
bust. And I'm in the hole for three thousand dollars, and several
other people I know are out. I'm the prime loser in the case
because I had more prints. But they had absolutely no sense. They
stuck labels to the back of the prints, which contracts the prints
and shows on the surface. Well, they might be used for other
exhibits, but you can't sell them. When you look at them in the
light, you see the defect.

Liliane De Cock had mounted her color pictures on beautiful
mats, and then they stuck overmats on them, and a label on the back
in addition. And then one print was just scratched right across
the only one of its kind. She couldn't possibly make another one
like it.

So here's a gallery that started up and they didn't even know
the fundamentals of care of photographs , let alone operation of the
gallery. And we have that now, all over the country new galleries,
new failures.

And quite a number of publications, which are not well,
Aperture is about the only one that survived. Friends of Photography,
they're starting a quarterly.* I think that will be pretty good,
because we have a good background. We don't have any money, but
we're out on a big fund campaign now. We're a non-profit educational
organization. We have the Ferguson Fund of twenty thousand dollars,
which gives about fifteen hundred dollars a year to a creative
photographer. It's been run not as a fly-by-night thing, but pretty
solid, well planned.

*The initial issue of the quarterly, Untitled //I, was published in
the autumn of 1972.


Adams :

Teiser ;

Adams :

Adams :


But here's photography, in which there's more millions expended per
week than all of the old masters in the whole time of the
Renaissance spent on canvas and paint or frescoes. You know, it's
just fantastic. But most of it is a diary. The Polaroid process
is in one sense directed to the diarist. Instead of saying, "We
went to Grandma's for Thanksgiving turkey," by gosh there are
pictures and pictures and pictures of Grandma and the Thanksgiving
turkey! This is very important. But they've also gone into the
potential art field with their four by five, and very much into the
"concerned photographer" field with the pictures that are made by
photographers who want to record the scene.

Well, I'm sort of getting ahead of myself.
Coming up to the present and going back to the past that's fine.

I guess you've said what in general the over-all effect of the
f/64 group was.

My only regret was that we didn't do one publication one portfolio
or one publication, because I think that might have had historic
value, but on the other hand, it might have rigidized it a bit, too,
you see.

Rollins had also an exhibit of Moholy-Nagy.
Did that have any effect?

Do you remember that?

That was the first of them. Yes, but not as photography because
most of his photographs were photograms. I think I've described
what the photogram was.

No one picked up any of that here?

Well, I won't say that. I think it's quite an illuminating thing.
His photographs as prints were simply terrible. They were spotted,
they were ugly, they were bad tones. But his concepts were very
important. Moholy-Nagy was entirely interested in design and not
substance not the subject itself. So I think he did have a
definite effect on this approach, and I think that people didn't
forget it.

The Golden Gate International Exposition Exhibit

Adams: Of course, you have to say that the biggest photographic show was at
the 1940 Fair [the Golden Gate International Exposition]. I think
I told you about that.


Teiser: You haven't. We have the catalogue, A Pageant of Photography, and
were going to ask you about it.

Adams: Yes, because that was very important in the sense that it was just

big, and I griped and I griped and I griped because at the 1939 Fair
there was no photography, and Tim [Timothy] Pfleuger he was a great,
really great man, a wonderful person he called me up one day and he
said, "Adams, we've got a little money. Would you like to run the
photography department?" Well, I didn't have any money, but I said,
"God, yes. Tell me about it." He said, "Well, in the Fine Arts
building, we'll give you some galleries and we'll give you a
secretary she's a very attractive Italian girl who spells **f with
a 'ph'." [Laughter] And he said, "We've got sixteen hundred dollars
in addition to the secretary. It's all yours."

And I went over there, and there were these big rooms, and we
painted them, and my God, they looked beautiful. The lighting was
only fair, but I didn't worry about that. And I had the equivalent
of thirty-seven large galleries of photographs. And I'm not a
museum man at all. I had Weston, both Westons, and Moholy-Nagy, and
Arnold Gen the, a big show of contemporary color photography, and the
Photo League. And early western photography which, if you look back
at, there's some extraordinary things in it. But it's gone now; you
can't find them. They printed on leather 1868, something like that.*
And I had the equivalent of the f/64, a group show.

Boy, that was an awful hard job, but it was a contribution, and
that's what brought, for the first time, photography in many of its
approaches, to the attention of the people in the West. Before that,
nobody 'd ever seen anything. I tried to get a show from Stieglitz
and, you know, the old boy nearly did it. He said, "I'm sorely
tempted," and I said, "God, Stieglitz, this is the chance to do
something. I'll paint the gallery any way you say. We have guards;
it'll be perfectly safe. And if you'd only " Well, then he
finally decided that he couldn't do it. If he did it, he'd have to
send to other museums. He trusted me to take care of them, but he
couldn't trust any of the museums to do it! He gave me all this
fantastic negative monkey business, but still I was sorry I lost
that. But I did have "The Steerage," a reproduction from Camera

It was a very good show. It did bring to San Francisco, at
least, an awareness of photography it had never had before.

*The exhibit included an 1861 photograph on leather of Brewer Camp
near Monterey, photographer unknown.


Timing in Photography

Teiser: Who was it, incidentally, who did the ten billion studies of a cup
and saucer? Edward Steichen?

Adams: That is apocryphal. [Laughter]

Teiser: I was thinking of that when you were talking about Weston taking the
MJB photographs.

Adams: Any photo-scientist, technologist, even at that time, would have been
able to figure out the reciprocity factor and would not have needed
to make ten billion pictures of the cup and saucer. These stories,
you know like the one that I waited for three days to get this
picture or that I never waitedl The only time I waited for anything
in my life was on top of Kearsarge Pass, waiting for some clouds to
go away from the Kearsarge Pinnacles, and they didn't. I waited all
afternoon, and all the clouds kept moving right along the line. But
we have to be very fair about that, because when we know what we're
going to do, especially when we have assignments, then we have to
wait. But my "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico" picture was taken
with the differential of only fifteen seconds. The Lone Pine
sunrise ["Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada, from Lone Pine"] I just
was there at the right time. The "Grand Tetons and Snake River" was
all within ten minutes.

Weston used to say, "If you wait here trying to see if
something's going to happen, you're probably losing something
wonderful over there." So he never waited. And I wouldn't unless
I really knew something was to "happen."

I mean like one night we had a green flash coming up the sun
goes down against a sharp horizon, and there's a green-emerald
momentary flash. And there was a ship coming, and I thought, "This
could be one of the craziest things." And I got out the big camera
with the very long lens, you see. The idea was that it would be
perfectly marvelous if we could photograph the ship in front of the
setting sun with the green flash. Well, it almost made it. If I'd
been living a quarter of a mile down the coast, I would have gotten
it. Then I figured out, well, so what? [Laughter] My lens wasn't
really big enough you have to have one of those huge mirror lenses.
But, it was a pretty good green flash. Might even be one tonight.
Ever seen a green flash?

Teiser: No. Mr. Spencer said you had a great interest in the green flash.

Adams: Well, the green flash is a very interesting phenomenon. It takes a
knife-edge ocean line (there can't be any clouds) and as the sun
descends, I guess you would say, the spectrum is sectored. The blue


Adams: light is completely scattered, the red rays are refracted, and

there's a beautiful emerald flash for about a tenth of a second
it's very short just pht! Like that. And it's a beautiful
emerald. We've seen it here quite often. It has to be, as I say,
a knife-edge sky, because if there's any diffusion or clouds you
don't get it. We might get it tonight, but I don't know.

Teiser: I have another story that's probably apocryphal, but I'll ask you
about it. This is about you, and someone told me tha you were in
the mountains in the summer, and you saw something that you thought
you'd like to photograph in the snow. So the next winter you packed
up all your equipment on an animal, and one glass plate, and went
up into the mountains, took the picture, and came back. [Laughter]

Adams: I never did such a damned thing in my life I You can discount that
one. [Laughter]

There is a story, however, about the Santa Fe Railroad. They
had a terrible wreck at Durango in New Mexico, and they sent out
their photographer from Chicago, who was just, you know, the
railroad photographer. And he arrived on the train the next day,
and he got out and walked up the hill and studied very carefully,
and he took one picture and went back to Chicago. [Laughter] He
said, "They told me to go out and get a picture, which I did."

No, these stories are really remarkable. They probably stem
from the fact that the picture of Half Dome ["Monolith, the Face of
Half Dome"] was taken when I only had two plates left; I had taken
many plates that day, but I only had two plates left, and I did one
exposure of Half Dome with an ordinary K-2 filter. And that was my
first insight into visualization, because I suddenly realized what
the image was going to be the shadow of the cliff and the sky
would be about the same in value; it would be dull, and it would not
have anything at all of the romantic, really super-dramatic impact.
And I had one more glass plate, and a very strong F filter,
Wrattan F, and I put that on, and I made this picture this big one
it's around the corner [on the studio wall]. I knew what was going
to happen, and that's probably my first conscious visualization.
But that was just because I'd packed this camera up through this
God-awful snow; it was really very difficult getting there. I'd
taken quite a few pictures, and how easy it would have been to have
taken all the pictures before I got there, or made a few mistakes.
See how chancey all this is.

I sat down on one of the best plates I ever made, in Yosemite.
It was of Tenaya Canyon from above. I leaned these plates against
a chair, you see, and then I moved over to fix something else, and
then I sat down, and one of these plates had fallen down. Cra-aa-ck,


Adams: crunch. And here was this picture that I'd spent three hours

climbing down a canyon I took three pictures, two of them weren't
any good, something happened. This one was a beautiful negative.
I just ruined it, you know. [Laughter] So, I mean, it's not always
apocryphal. Happens all the time.

Teiser: You know what you want, but you do take a number of exposures still,
do you?

Adams: What I do: if I come across a very exciting thing which I know is
a picture, especially if I'm taking film pack, I'll take at least
two, three, or four. But they're all the same. I don't "bracket"
my exposures. What's called "bracketing" is nothing but indecision.
[Laughter] When I read my values, I like to know what my exposure
is. Once in a while, you'll think of another interpretation and do
it a different way, and give a different development on it. But the
idea like Margaret Bourke-White had, of just setting up and going
from f/45 to f/3.2, up and down the line, knowing that one would be
a better exposure than the others....

Teiser: I have my usual list of many questions here, but would you like to
stop for today?

Adams: I can go on some more. Let's finish the tape.
Teiser: All right.

Edwin Land and the Polaroid Camera System

Teiser: Perhaps you have something in mind that continues what we were

talking about now. For instance, what about the Land camera and

Adams: This is a very important thing. I've always been interested in

anything new in the mechanical aspect of things, and before 1950
'47 or '48 I met Edwin Land.

Teiser: How did you meet him?

Adams: I heard him at an Optical Society lecture when he presented the

Polaroid camera process, which was an historic event, and then we
went to Cambridge [Massachusetts] and came over to this little
laboratory, and he took my picture with a great big eight by ten
camera. The process was in eight by ten format in the laboratories,
He sat me down under lights and things, and exposed the picture,
processed it; there it was, brown and of rather awful quality. It


Adams: was his very first experimental work. But by gosh, it was a one-
minute picture! And that excited me no end; I mean the thought
that you could really do that.

So I told him that I was interested, that I felt that he had
something absolutely unique an historic step. So he said, "Well,
I'd like you to be a consultant for the company (at one hundred
dollars a month) and just send in your ideas." *And so that's where
it all started. I'm now up to memo 2078. It's considerably more
than one hundred dollars a month, thank God. But out of all this
came the idea. They progressed from the brown tone to a clean
black and white image. That seemed necessary; it was a first step.
Of course, by 1950, 1952, he had the whole future planned right up
to now and beyond. The development of color, the new cameras; it
was all written out, and many groups in laboratories were given
assignments to develop. And nothing like this has been known before.
It's fantastic.

At first I claimed that the thing against the print was the
color, and that it should be black and white. I'm no real tech
nician, but they would send out films, and I would take the camera
out and try all kinds of experiments and then I'd send in my
comments, and in good time came the black-and-white image.

And then I urged we should have something for the professional,
meaning something he could use in the conventional view camera. If
Polaroid was not going to make a view camera, they have to use what
we've got. So we must have an individual "pack." Well, in Palo
Alto [where Edwin Land spent some time], we used to walk up and
down the street in the evenings. Land said, "Well, how many people
would use it?" I said, "Oh, gosh, I can think of fifty right now."
Slight exaggeration, but I believed it. [Laughs] I said, "I'm a
professional and I can think of nothing more wonderful than getting
a Polaroid print out of a view camera in the four by five category."

Well, today we have it, and you can see it on the wall [of the
studio area, where prints are hung]. Some of those prints, a couple
of them, at least, are very early ones, and the whole technique and
the whole idea of the adapter and how it would work the technique
is all theirs, but I was just promoting the image quality. It's a
very interesting thing: a person employed by Polaroid who works
along all the time (this would apply to any company) he's working
with a film, say Type 52, and he knows what the film can do. Then
he begins to look around for subjects that fit Type 52. Well, the
whole thing becomes static, and a lot of beautiful pictures come
in because there's nothing better for Type 52 than a foggy day in
Point Lobos. But my job was, as a professional, to take it on
certain assignments, real or contrived, and see where the film
failed. That was the important thing.


Adams: Here's the thing that I, Ansel Adams, was requested to do by their
advertising agency, and I do it, and the scale of the film isn't
adequate. So in a sense I was responsible for the present four by
five, by pleading and begging and support. And now it's approaching
a twenty-million-dollar-a-year sale, just alone on the four by five.
But the multi-million dollar thing is in the camera which is for the
public, and all the four by five, black and white, color, and the
experimental material all this stuff couldn't exist without vast
public sale of the popular products.

Teiser: What are the implications of the four by five? That you have a
permanent negative?

Adams: You have several varieties. You have Type 1, which is a very high-
contrast print which is used in the graphic arts, and is really
quite remarkable because you can make screened images of it. You
put an engraving screen in front of the negative and paste the

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