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

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resulting pictures right on a sheet with type, and re-photograph it
for "offset" purposes. You can also do all kinds of fancy, really
very interesting aesthetic experiments, because this has only a one
to two-and-a-half step range. You can exaggerate textures. (You
can do a texture image of that drab cloth, greatly exceeding its
original contrast.) Type 52 is the standard high-speed film, 500 at
least; they say 400, but my exposure trials usually give 500-plus.
It has a limited exposure scale as does color, but it gives a
beautiful print.

Then there's Type 57, which they call their 3000 film, which is
for me 4000 ASA daylight, the fastest film that was ever made. It's
extraordinary. Sitting in here, at dusk, the light would be almost
too bright for it. But you can work at night with available light
and get the feeling of environmental lighting. I've used some film
up to 20,000 ASA, experimental film fantastic stuff.

Then there's the Type 55 PN, which gives you both the negative
print and the negative. It's quite remarkable; not fast. It's
quite slow about 50-64 ASA. Then there's the Type 58, which is
Polacolor, four by five, and the pack film, Type 108. Then there's
a new camera, the Aladdin (which is a temporary name I guess they'll
use it), which is totally different and absolutely remarkable.

Then they have a very high-speed film that they use for
oscilloscope photography around 10,000 ASA. And they have also a
marvelous material, which people don't take advantage of as they
should, called Type 47, which is one of the sharpest transparencies
for slides. And you have ways of controlling contrast with this

Teiser: It's used in laboratories and industry.


Adams: I have a whole collection of slides in which photographs are

projected on a screen with the standard lantern-style projector.
It is remarkable. They tried it one time with a 2 1/4 by 2 1/4
projector, but it didn't get over, and it was too bad because the
images were so sharp and so beautiful such a great range to them.

Then they also have another material known as PolaLine 146-L
which gives a very high contrast transparency. If you want to do a
graph or a page of type, it would be perfect. Because of the
particular chemistry and the physical system involved, this is the
sharpest image available to date. The diffusion is within a very,
very short angle.

I've always considered the Polaroid process as an intensely
creative one, not only because of the inherent beauty of the
material, which has, if you want to speak photo-scientif ically, a
linear scale and cannot be duplicated by any ordinary print. But it
also has the element of immediacy. You see exactly what you're
getting. When you're making a picture under static conditions, you
can make an immediate correction. Or if you're working in fast
situations, once you have one picture you know what the others are
going to be.

There is a new aesthetics involved in this immediacy, and
that's what I think is so important.

I'm talked out!

Harroun: Your photographs on the backs of Aperture those are marvelous.
They must have had

Adams: Well, I'm responsible for a lot of those. Not my own, but other
people trying to get good images with the process.

Teiser: Yours must have had a tremendous impact.

Adams: I was one of the first ones that used it. Yes, I guess I was the
almost first one outside the company. Paul Caponigro and a few
others used it, but I'm the one that totally believed in it.

And a typical instance in a day or so I'm getting a new pack
of film, something experimental the Type 55, in which we think
we've made a breakthrough. Well, it's so complex technically I
couldn't begin to understand it, but I go out and make some pictures,
and the breakthrough is valid if I get a good picture and a good
negative. And does it have the scale, etc., required?

Teiser: It will have a negative?


Adams: This is the 55. It has the negative.*
[End Tape 5, Side 2]

[Interview V 20 May 1972]
[Begin Tape 6, Side 1]

Mortens en

Teiser: Let me ask you one more question that has to do, indirectly, with
Group f/64. Why was William Mortensen considered so dreadful by
you and the others?

Adams: Mortensen represented about the lowest ebb of pictorialism, a very

literary approach through his titles, his mannerisms and techniques
"abrasion tones" and matrix masks oh, I can't think of the word
it's things you print through that give the appearance of canvas
it's texture screens! He was imitating some of the worst of the
Romantic painting, and using Roman letters for inscriptions, and all
kinds of manipulation. It just seemed to be as far from photography
as possible. He still is very popular in some circles, but for us
he was the anti-Christ. We stood for exactly the opposite of
everything he represented.

The interesting thing is that he had a man named Paul I don't
know whether that's the first name or the last name who helped him
write or actually wrote the book Mortensen on the Negative, which
has many very fine ideas in it. I was quite embarrassed later to
find that he had anticipated some of my pet ideas of technique;
controlled exposure and development of the negative, etc. (But not
the Zone System developed around 1940.) The book is very good; it's
just that the illustrations are such rather sad examples. A very
interesting thing is that in all of the history of flagrant
pictorialism, you don't find it has important museum recognition.
The pictorialists call their exhibitions "salons." When I went to
St. Louis about 1938, some of the museums might have such shows, but
now I don't think they elect to touch it because the motive is
"hobbyist." It's awfully hard to put your finger on it. You say
it's bad taste and the answer is, "Who are you to say it's bad
taste?" What is taste? What's good taste?

*Did not work out! [A. A.]


Adams: I don't have Mortensen's book here. I had it once; somebody stole

it. But the illustrations were just over-retouched, over-modulated.
He'd take these young nude models and grease them so they'd shine,
you know. [Laughter] And they'd be in poses

Teiser: Didn't he write a book on the print, too?

Adams: Yes. And Monsters and Madonnas was one book he wrote. [Laughter]
Well, they were like a bad dream. They're still publishing
portfolios of Mortensen's, printing from his negatives. I guess
the P.S.A. Journal has been advertising them. I remember writing
a letter in which I suggested he negotiate oblivion. My father
persuaded me it wouldn't have the desired effect. The controversy
was kind of silly.

But anyway, his work was the exact opposite of what f/64
stood for. He would have classes down at Laguna Beach, and wealthy
capitalists from the East would come out and spend a thousand
dollars, I was told, for a weekend. And after they'd returned home,
all their work would look like his. I remember how these men would
get together, say in Chicago, and they'd hire a model for the
weekend. The model would be a platinum blond, usually wearing
nothing but high-heeled shoes. You know, that kind of thing!
[Laughter] All very decent, but all done with such conventional
poses of holding a jar on their shoulder, etc., and they'd have
names like "Dessa" or "The Girl with the Flaxen Hair." It was so
obviously phony! All made-up and greased up. It was a way of
getting highlights on nudes. In fact, some of the early photograph
ers did this sometimes in portraits to accentuate the highlights on
the face. And in the early days, they had to chalk the face,
because the film wasn't sensitive to anything but blue light, so
the face would come out over-dark. Anybody with a dark complexion
or with freckles usually had to be well powdered. Any hand would
show all kinds of spots. Anything that went to the pink, yellow or
red and would go down in value. So a lot of the daguerrotypes were
taken in rather strong, soft daylight, and probably powdered up a
bit like in television now. On television they have to powder my
head so it won't shine and blow the tube. (That's what happened on
the moon.)

Vision and Photography

Teiser: To take you back still further into the past, let me ask you if

your motives, for your earliest photographs, were in effect the same
as your motives for taking photographs now?


Adams: A motive is a subconscious thing; I wouldn't know how to answer that
question. I think that in the earlier days, I was technically and
aesthetically naive, so many of my early photographs have a much
simpler and more direct statement, and all the ones that are the best
are the ones that are motivated by "instant recognition." and then
just doing them and having the technique to back it up. Which I
didn't have in the earlier days, so I'd have many an exciting vision
but zero results because I wouldn't know what to do. Now we know
much more, but at the cost of a certain spontaneity, if that's the
term you want to use. It's very hard to say this, but as you get
experienced and you see a lot of work, in any art form, you can't
help being influenced, and you automatically judge and check your
reactions to your experience.

Today I went out trying to get this picture of this very
marvelous old dead tree. It's looked the same for ten years, as if
it's going to blow over. But the sky is usually blah it's just
nothing. Today there were some rather interesting clouds. I was
setting up the camera (and there are only a few places you can do it
for this subject) and I had to wait until those clouds behaved. See
now, in the past I would have just seen a cloud and thought, "There's
a cloud or a tree'" I wouldn't have seen the cloud-tree relationship
so precisely. And when I met Strand, I found that was one of his
basic themes the marvelous, precise relationship of "this to that."
Trying to get a moment when all the branches in this tree were in the
cloud. If they were against blue sky they might be "lost." And you
wait until things would be right. And a couple of times it was right.

In the 1920s I wouldn't have been in the least bit aware of such
relationships. I can look back and see many photographic situations
when I really missed the moment. The idea was there, but I didn't
visualize that perfection of arrangement. Some photographers never
have that facility; others have it to an extreme degree.

There's one wonderful photograph by Stieglitz at Lake George,
the porch where the white turned post is seen adjacent to the window
and window edge. There's a thirty-second of an inch hairline
separating them. And it's this hairline that really suggests space
and organization. You see, the spectator is convinced, or feels, or
is aware of the fact that the photographer was aware of the relation
ship. And I have one, that I show in my slides, of a picture that
was done with a Polaroid at the Rochester Institute of Technology of
a building of the "Greek revival" period. Here these marvelous
columns are seen in the near/far mode in exaggerated scale. In the
first one I did, the curve of the near column broke into the
rectangular pedestal of the column in the back, and I realized when
I saw this in the Polaroid-Land print; I'd missed it in the ground
glass. All I had to do was to move the lens a little bit to the
right (two inches), which allowed it to see around the column. It


Adams: created a little "hairline" of separation which succeeded in

maintaining the integrity of the curved shape. The foreground
pillar wasn't lost in juxtaposition with the back shape; a "merger"
was avoided.

Those things are hard to describe verbally. And of course when
you do overlook one, then you try to justify it. You put a lot of
what they call "phrases" into the equation <o make it come out to
zero. [Laughter] Then in about a year you may look at it, and you
wonder, "Well how in the world did I ever get by with that?"

I'll see somebody's work for the first time, and that's the first
thing you see the disturbing mergers and distractions. You look at
a print, and then you find your eyes going around to the spots and
bad edges and all the funny things a photograph can contain. You can
put your finger over one of them and say, "Well that's an interruption."
They see the problem for the first time. I can go back and get some
of my early work and do exactly the same thing because I didn't see
the defects to begin with.

More and more as you work, you try to visualize the image ahead
of exposure. It's more difficult with the little cameras, but of
course the "saving instrument" is the single-lens reflex, because
there you really see the image just what the lens is seeing.

Teiser: With the rangefinder camera, you partly guess at it?

Adams: The rangefinder or the viewfinder is not on lens axis. Now, if I'm
a long ways off, the parallax effect doesn't make any difference.
But if I'm sitting here with you and my eye is the lens, your hair
line, for example, is just touching the fossil. If this "eye" would
be the finder it's usually off to the left I'll compose you as the
finder sees it. But my lens sees you cutting in one inch on that
fossil behind you. So that the composition is not as anticipated.
The old Rolleiflex has this kind of vertical offset you have to raise
the camera about two and a half inches to be sure the lens sees what
the finder sees.

Teiser: Doesn't the Rolleiflex have a compensating mechanism?

Adams: Oh, the new one ^the single-lens one but not the double, the twin-
lens design. What the twin-lens does is to tilt the viewer mechanism
so that the plane focused on comes to the center of the field. But
because the lens is taking the picture at a lower level, it can't
take care of the parallax. You're only tilting the viewing lens. The
distance of the lens from the subject determines the perspective. So
with the Hasselblad single-lens (Buperwide) I must raise the tripod
three inches to get just what I see in the finder. I compose very
accurately with the finder but must make this adjustment when working
with near/far subjects. After composing, I just crank the camera up


exactly the difference in distance between the camera lens and the
finder lens. Then the camera lens is seeing what the finder lens was
seeing. I can show you a picture of that in my book, Camera and Lens,
where there's quite a profound difference evident.

Flash Mishaps

Back to your earliest photographs, you were speaking the other day
of the fact that you've been able to maintain photography as a
commercial project and practice it as an art at the same time. Do
you remember the first photographs for which you were paid?

There's one very funny one that really is not of much consequence.
My next-door neighbor taught at the Chinese school in Chinatown, and
wanted a picture of her class. So, I had an old four by five camera
(my first one) and a flash gun. You used to use flash powder
magnesium very dangerous. You'd put a dynamite cap in this tray,
and you'd pull down the tension cord, and you'd jet the safety catch.
Many people have been blinded with this stuff firing in their faces.
I figured out how much magnesium was needed and I looked at the table
and it said, use four number three capsules. Well, I thought number
three capsules were the small capsules. They happened to be the big
capsules (each were four times the strength of the small ones). So I
loaded this pan up with magnesium powder, held it over my head, pulled
the slide from the camera, and checked if everything was ready to go.
Then you open the shutter, fire the flash, then close the shutter.
There wasn't any modern synchronization. So here were all these kids,
and the teacher said, "Now look right at Mr. Adams and smile. Now I
think it's all right, Mr. Adams." So I opened-bang-shut, and of course
there was a large explosion. I used about fifteen times the amount of
flash powder needed. Vast clouds of smoke rolled through the room,
and the kids fell under their desks. We opened the windows, and the
smoke poured out, and somebody put in a fire alarm. [Laughter] And
of course it blackened the wall and ceiling where I was standing, and
I was persona non grata. But it was understood, and forgiven in time.

The developed negative was as dense as a stove lid, it was so
damned over-exposed; about fifteen, sixteen times, I guess. But I
took it to a friend who reduced it, and I got a pretty good print out
of it. When I tried to take another picture of them, they'd
disappeared. They were just terrified!

Then I did a wedding. By that time I'd mastered the flash
technique pretty well. I was standing in a house with a nice white
colonial room, and the bride and groom were standing by the fireplace.
So I set the flash off, and as it was right under the lintel, it
blistered the paint for about four feet! [Laughter]


Adams: Those were the first two things I was paid for, and they were both
disasters. The clients were very kind I offered to pay for the
lintel, but they said, "Oh no, we were going to do the room over
anyway." Which was a lie the room was beautiful. But it was very

And then another one later. I was doing the I think it was
called the San Francisco "round table" a gtoup of the real bosses
of San Francisco, big lawyers and financiers. They would meet at the
Palace Hotel, and have this big "round table" lunch. Fortune magazine
wanted me to photograph them. So I arranged with Mr. Lurie Louis
Lurie was in that group and he was very helpful.

One person was very nasty, but I called another and he said, "Oh
sure, you can do it." I said, "Well, you know, it's quite a little
job. To get you all, I'll have to be set up. When the lunch is
through, you're going to have to spend maybe fifteen minutes with it."
"Well, we'll do that," said my friend.

Ron Partridge was helping me. (He is Imogen Cunningham's son.)
I got the camera all set and everything looked fine. We were using
large flash lamps. I had five lights. But at that time the only
synchronization you could get was a switch that was built in the cable
shutter release. You pressed in, opening the shutter, and also made
electrical contact. Well, it usually works all right. The contact
operates the flash.

But this was one of the last buildings in San Francisco that
still had direct current, instead of alternating current. And it
appears that when you make such a contact with direct current, you
get a flaming arc that is quite surprising when unexpected I

So here I am. I got one picture, I thought. But I said, "Well,
I'll have to get another one." So Ron tore around town almost
arrested for speeding to find a contact device. In the meantime,
I had a Rolleiflex, and I went up to every man with a flash gun and a
globe (I had no film in the Rolleiflex, but I thought, "I'm going to
have to keep this going") so I go "click, click, click." One of them
said, "I've got a date." I said, "Listen, Ron will be back in a
minute. And after all, this is a Fortune magazine job I"

So back comes Ron with this new flash contact, and we got
another picture. But he handled it separately. I counted; I'd say,
"One, two, three." On "two" I opened the shutter and on "three" he
operated the flash.

Teiser: You were holding the lens open while he shot the flash globes?

Adams: I was holding the lens open. So I'd say, "One, two, bang!" Close.
Then, "Gentlemen, you can go home."


Adams :


Then they said, "Well, I want to see those little pictures you made;
I'll bet they're the best of the bunch."

I got letters later [laughter]. And I couldn't tell them. I
said, "Well, I had a disaster with that too. That was a very bad
day, gentlemen." [Laughter] That's the only way I could have held
them fifteen, twenty minutes sitting there. Such things happen to

Did you get a good picture in the end?

Oh, yes. Fine. I still have a print somewhere,
valuable historical image.

It's a rather

Now it'd be so simple! You'd take it with available light, or
just bounce a couple of lights around the room. (It's called "bounce
light," where you direct strong lights against the wall.) You get an
effect that looks like available light. If I want to duplicate the
light in this room, the only way would be to reflect it, or "bounce"
it. And once you put a light directly on the subject you get harsh
shadows and you're in trouble. But then you were working with slow
film at 32-64 ASA at the highest. And now we work with 400, 500 and

Photographic Printing Papers

Adams: The first serious job was Parmelian Prints of the Sierras, a

portfolio of original prints. And I did a frontispiece for the Book
Club* edition of [Robinson] Jeffers's poems, which (I'm very embarrassed)
has faded. That was done in 1928 or 1929. We didn't know about fixing
and washing. The effect was probably accelerated a bit by the
character of the paper they used in the book probably a lot of sulfur
in it.

Teiser: That brings up how did it happen that Dassonville put the emulsion on
the Taos Pueblo book paper? Wasn't there any that was adequate?

Adams: Nothing like that. The idea was to have the paper the same throughout.
The special rag paper had to be ordered anyway, because you did not
then just go and buy such papers in book quantity.

We ordered an ample amount in rolls, and Dassonville coated a
certain number of them with his bromide emulsion.

Teiser: Could that be done now in a very expensive book?

*Book Club of California.


Adams: Oh yes, but you would have troubles. With rag paper and the papers
used for platinum prints, the emulsion sank into the paper fiber
rather than lying on a baryta coating. The emulsion was pretty
thick, and that gave quite a quality of "depth" quite different from
anything you see today. The papers today are baryta-coated. Baryta
is a clay, and the paper fibers are filled with this clay, making it
of course very smooth. Then the emulsion 4s deposited on top of the
clay. Then, to get different textures, such as "pebble," "silk," and
"tapestry" surfaces, the papers are put through calendars, a calendar
meaning a roll with a pattern. It could be a perfectly smooth
surface to begin with and then ruined by this treatment! Practically
all of these "pictorial" papers you see are calendared into surface
patterns. The best papers today are chemically very pure, given a
neutral baryta coating, then the various emulsions. In the emulsion,
the degree of gloss may have something to do with the starch grains
that are incorporated. If you put more starch in the emulsion, you
reduce the gloss. Now, I'm quite sure that today they have more
complex chemicals, but that's what Dassonville did he could make a
very, very flat surface quite "dead:" no gloss at all. Or he could
leave all of the starch out, and get quite a nice brilliant finish.

He hated to leave the starch out, because he didn't like it too
brilliant. I wanted it as brilliant as I could get it.

Now what we can do today, we can take papers of that type and
get all the advantage of the natural paper color, and then we can
spray them with a neutral lacquer like Krylon or Goodman lacquer.
As far as we know, that's permanent, but putting a varnish on them
can be fatal. They used varnish in printing in earlier days, and it

We put a blancophor into the paper to increase the whiteness,
and that works well for daylight. Any light that has a preponderance
of blue rays in it excites these blancophors and creates a fluorescent
effect. Some of the papers have that, and there is a difference in
the whites when you look at them. But it drives the engravers crazy
because it fools them in their exposures. These emulsions are
sensitive to fluorescence and ultraviolet. And that increases
contrast. Giving the engravers a sepia-toned print is also bad,
because their films aren't sensitive to such colors.

See, when an engraver makes a color reproduction he has to make
color-separation negatives first with three color-sensitive films
red, green, and blue or the complementaries. And they have to be
made, of course, on panchromatic film. In the old days, when they
had ordinary or orthochromatic emulsion, it was terribly difficult to
get the red. They had to fake the red sometimes, and color
reproductions could be very bad. When they get their three black and
white separation negatives, representing the three colors, then they
can transfer the images to their "plates."


Writing the Basic Photography Books

Adams: Going into reproductions, I did an article for the London magazine,
Studio. They liked the article and asked me if I would do the book

Online LibraryAnsel AdamsConversations with Ansel Adams : oral history transcript / 1972-1975 → online text (page 14 of 76)