Ansel Adams.

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

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chloride or iodide in different proportions. And then, light strikes
that crystal and changes it to the "latent image." It's a matter of
the quantum theory, if you want to really describe it, which I can't.
It relates to the production of "electron holes" in this crystal, and
when this condition is established by the action of light, the
crystal is then developable, and these holes then attract developing
agents, and the silver crystal is reduced to metallic silver. That's
a very crude description. A scientist would probably be aghast but
I mean, that's about what happens.

So then when you develop your image, your image is metallic
silver, but there's all kinds of silver halide still left in the
emulsion. Then you put the negative or print into the hypo bath (the
sodium thiosulphate solution) which removes unexposed and undeveloped
silver halides remaining. So you have left the pure silver image,
which in the electron microscope appears as filaments looks like
seaweed. The negative in principle is about the same as the print.
But with the Polaroid print, instead of having a comparatively coarse
grained image like a conventional print, it's ionic silver that's
deposited. It's attracted across the developer to the receiving
sheet, and the positive image appears. These of course are too small



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Adams: to be seen, even in the electron microscope. But the ionic silver

depositions (and there is a kind of a structure), when that gets too
compact you have something like silver plating, and the surface of
the print will show what they call "gilding," a metallic sheen.

So if you take a four by five print conventional print and
you could consider the surface area of all those crystals, it would
probably be as big as this room. If you took a Polaroid print and
could lay out the surface of all the particles, it would probably
total an acre. And that is why it's extremely susceptible to any
chemical contamination, because of this large surface, which picks
up sulphur and other chemicals. Silver loves sulphur! Sulphur does
not "degenerate" silver, it's just silver going to its most stable
compound form. That's why an ordinary photomural is usually toned
to an "egg yolk brown," sepia tone. It is really silver sulphide,
and that's permanent. The problem is to keep plain silver from turn
ing to silver sulphide. When a picture fades, like mine (and many
others') did in the earlier days, it was because the print was in a
condition to combine with sulphur.

Teiser: Why in the world did people make sepia prints?

Adams: I think largely for that reason they were relatively permanent.

Besides they weren't just that ugly old black-and-white; they had a
romantic [laughter] a romantic color to them. There are all stages
of tone. You can get a blue-black and a neutral black and a brown-
green black and a selenium purple-brown black. My prints are toned
to get away primarily from this peculiar green-brownish tone (there's
more green in it than anything else) of the commercial paper. That
seems to be the natural tone of the silver image.

Teiser: I think of these big brown Southern Pacific photographs.

Adams: They had to be that color because there was no way they could process,
at that time, without toning, with any permanence. Sepia toning was
done by bleaching and redevelopment. There are "matrices" in the
gelatin. The gelatin is a very strange, stable substance and keeps
its form even in submicroscopic pattern. And there are sulphur and
silver nuclei left therein. They're invisible, so the print after
bleaching has practically no image at all. And then you redevelop,
and the image that was silver before has now become silver sulphide.
And silver sulphide is inert. I suppose some things would affect it
stains, and all that but it's basically permanent. Very seldom you
see a brown sepia print that's really turning or fading.

Teiser: I was wondering, when you were speaking yesterday about the develop
ment of the Land process: I remember, oh I suppose in the thirties,
at Fisherman's Wharf, there used to be a man with a camera, and you
would wait for a couple of minutes, and he would give you kind of a
funny little picture on metal



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Adams: Tintype.
Teiser: instantly.

Adams: Well, the machine was pretty clever. I don't really know the
process. It's not very permanent.

Teiser: No. The one I have has faded.

Adams: It could be but, well, you have several methods reversal processes,
for instance. I just can't tell you what they used.

Teiser: I think it had been used for many years before that

Adams: Oh, many years. It's an old, old process. But it isn't a very

attractive process. It's very dull, whereas the daguerreotype is
very beautiful. I think the name for a daguerreotype, "mirror with
a memory," is one of the great verbal descriptions.

But you see, one of the problems we have in portraiture is
satisfying the subject, and the daguerreotype was extremely success
ful in portraiture because it gave a mirror image. When you looked
at the daguerreotype, you saw yourself as you look to yourself in
the mirror. And sometimes we look very different to others than we
do in the mirror. I can't see myself at all except in the mirror.
Now, when I see a picture of myself, I sometimes say, "Well, that's
not what I see every morning when I'm putting Vitalis on what's left
of my hair." [Laughs]

I must say, there have been a multitude of processes developed
in the history of photography. And now it's boiled down to the
processes as you see them, plus the fact that we're getting into
some forms of dye or electrostatic photography like Xerox. And
every laboratory is just working twenty-nine hours a day trying to
get a nonsilver process, but for some strange reason, way back in the
1830s, silver halides were found to be the only practical light-
sensitive material. And when you speak of platinum or palladium
processes, those salts are not sensitive in themselves, but they
ride on a ferric process. This process is very slow, but it can
produce beautiful image qualities.

The Polaroid is a total miracle and is not just one thing; it
is a system of very many, very complex processes which are
constantly advancing, changing and adapting.

I wish you could see the patent for the new camera in process.
You can buy one. I don't recall how many pages it is, but there's
about sixteen pages listing the organic compounds that can be used.
An interesting thing is that there were two hundred copies ordered



141



Adams: by Eastman Kodak Company! [Laughter] Perhaps they're trying to
find some loophole in these patents, you see, where they can get
through. Polaroid has a large staff of patent experts.

Polaroid started out with a silver sulphide image, a brown
image, and then advanced that to black and white. And they
achieved two hundred speed. I don't really know the details, and
I'm not authorized to say if I did know, but I know that the process
is constantly being refined year by year. Then they achieved four
thousand speed! Land was out in San Francisco before we moved down
here, and he had an experimental twenty- thousand-speed film! We
were taking pictures by starlight, out the window, at a fifth of a
second. They weren't very good quality prints, but they were
informative images. Now they have a film that's on the market that
is used with the oscilloscope ten thousand ASA speed, and that
enables the recording of very faint, really very faint, images.

For some reason, the quantum theory limits the "speed" of
emulsions (ASA rating) to about forty thousand. Without electronic
image amplification you couldn't go possibly beyond forty thousand.

But a whole new world opens up with the vidicom tube; modern
X-ray technique is a fine example of that application. Now they're
using it in astronomy and seeing things that are totally beyond
visual and ordinary photographic recording. So maybe one of the
next developments will be a light amplification system, where your
image will be produced in numbers, like in the Mars pictures. They
don't come back in pictures, they come back in a continuous series
of numbers. And there's an image put together, and it's about one
or two centimeters square, I think.

The Mars system is so marvelous! The image is made photo
graphically; then a scanner moves across. It has 128 levels of
intensity, which are translated as numbers. They're given a code
number on the tape. Now, when the scanner reverses direction it's
sending in the response of a lot of other instruments on board. The
next cross-scan is of the image. So what they get here is equivalent
to an endless tape with numbers. Every so often, those are put
together, and they become a stack of strips. Then they're translated
into density values, and you have your picture.

From the moon we had actual pictures, but from Mars we have
nothing but numbers which make pictures so sharp and remarkable that
it is almost unbelievable.



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Sensitometry as a Creative Tool



Adams: Well, anyway, this whole idea is of scientific interest I think I
should clarify that statement. In no way could I be labeled a
scientist or, in the classic sense, a technician. I don't know
enough and don't have the capacity to use the technical facts of
this world in any other way but applying them to creative work. So
the emphasis should be, I think, in the fact that in codifying the
Zone System, I made sensitometry available as a tool for creative
people who wish to express themselves or depart from reality; but it
is at a very simple level. In other words, there are several words
that are different: "approximate" and "precise" and "exact." Most
people approximate; I think I approach the precise, but I can't
presume to be exact there's too many decimal points involved!
[Laughter] And if I use the square root of 2 it is 1.41422, and
that's far beyond the precision I need. Well, 1.4 would be enough
for all practical purposes, like developing. Take 8 and multiply it
by 1.4 it's closer to 11.3 in reality, because when you multiply by
1.414 you get 11.312. So how precise do you have to be?

So I mean I mustn't be represented as a scientist or a real
technician. I'd like to be known as an artist and teacher but, you
know, never go beyond the logical bounds. But I don't know whether
I've violated the original theme that you presented.

Teiser: It's all pertinent.

Adams: Most of the creative photographers in the world never knew anything
about the Zone System or ever used anything like it. They're
entirely empirical in approach. And you learned by trial and error
that under certain conditions you exposed a certain way. Sometimes
you modified development, if you knew what you'd done and could
rectify some of the errors in the darkroom which can be done to an
amazing degree. So we can't say Edward Weston or Stieglitz or Strand
were questionable photographers because they didn't understand sensi
tometry! But from the point of view of efficiency, getting a
negative that I want, I can run rings around them, and I do not
"bracket" my exposures.

This awful word, "bracket;" in color pictures you bracket one
or two stops, just to be sure. Well, my ego won't let me do that.
I know what the values are; I know where they fit on the scale. If
I have to take pictures of an important subject a photograph that I
know is valuable I'll take several duplicate pictures, but they'll
all be the same exposure.

In the time of Group f/64, I would say practically everyone was
working very empirically. I don't think anybody was really control
ling anything. Weston went to Mexico, and he learned the lighting



143



Adams: situations, and he probably had many failures in the beginning. He
probably had failures in the field, or at least he had darkroom
struggles. I did; everybody did.

It was around '36, '38 that [Beaumont] Newhall sent me a
clipping about the S.E.I, meter. I was laid up with the flu. He
sent me an article, a clipping on it, and I immediately ordered one
by telephone, and I thought, "This is it!" At that time we were
working on the Zone System, and the S.E.I, meter was the thing that
really pinpointed it.

I'd like to say that any intelligent person, in an hour's time
of serious discussion, can learn the whole basis of the Zone System.
It's that simple. We had kids students in the California School of
Fine Arts in San Francisco in six weeks time they could photograph
anything I could think up. I don't say they'd make a great picture,
but they could photograph could expose correctly. They went into
reciprocity failure tests. That's another domain. It's pretty
complicated. And they tried many different developers for special
effects. And at the end of six weeks they had a very fine mechanical
mastery. Now what they did beyond that, that's something else.

Teiser: When you were developing the Zone System in the mid-thirties, was
it - ?

Adams: Well, no, it was when I started teaching in the Art Center School,
Los Angeles.

Teiser: Early forties?

Adams: Well, late thirties and forties. I don't know the dates.

Fred Archer and I worked out the Zone System, and we got the
Weston meter representative very excited, and he said, "I'll
mimeograph you a lot of your charts. I think they're very important."
We had several charts exposure charts, which are standard; they
haven't changed any. And then we had density charts curve reading
charts where you have coordinates on which to plot values and relate
them to zones.

One time I remember the students, everybody working along hard
and everything coming out wrong. We had forgotten to include Zone V
on the chart, which meant a factor of 2 was omitted! Well, [laughter]
those things can happen.

I found out that serious people want to know how to control, and
many people tie themselves in a knot wanting to know how to begin.
The ones that always give me a real pain in the neck are the ones
who say, "I can judge the light." I said, "Well, anywhere?" "Oh yes,
anywhere. I never need the meter. I don't need a meter."



144



Adams: Well, it's physiologically and psychologically impossible. It's

just like saying I can judge your weight by looking at you. I can
make an empirical guess by looking at a lot of other people like you.
But it's a pompous thing to say. If I didn't have a meter, I would
have to bracket exposures. I would have to make a guess and then go
above and below it just to be sure. I don't really know light values.
I know in Yosemite, from ten in the morning until four in the
afternoon, the shadows in the trees on a clear day are so much, and
I know where granite is on the scale, and so on. But in New England
I fell flat on my face missed all the light there. At Santa Fe I
again fell flat on my face misjudged the light. Had to make tests
and find out what it was in general. Hawaii was the same, although
by that time I knew how to use meters. When I went to Hawaii I
wouldn't trust them. I mean, I'd say, "Well, this can't be." And
then I'd give in and say, "Oh, I must trust the meter. It was a
good meter, and I was just applying experience as well, which was
all right.

Teiser: The quality of light is so curious, isn't it? We were just discussing
it as we drove along.

Adams: Well, the quality of light in the early days when 0' Sullivan and

others worked in the Southwest (in fact, anybody at that time) the
films accepted only blue light. You don't get the optimum amount of
blue until about nine-thirty or ten o'clock in the morning, and it
begins to go at four o'clock and the light becomes redder and redder.
With blue-sensitive plates this posed a real problem.

But, I don't think that these early people could work except
between ten o'clock and two or three o'clock with any assurance.
Then when the orthochromatic film came in, which accepted green,
you had more leeway working with longer wavelengths. With ortho-
chromatic film, you could still get into trouble with late or early
light.

The light now (6:15 p.m. Pacific daylight savings time)
it's deficient in blue. It's all right; I can still get by with
panchromatic (red-sensitive film) without much difficulty. But you
wait until seven o'clock. In the old days, even with orthochromatic
film you'd have to multiply the exposure four or five times. But you
never really knew how red it was. We now have color temperature (K)
meters to inform us of this quality of light. The eye-mind complex,
being an absolute miracle of construction, adapts to differences of
color temperature. You're not aware of the light now being very
much of red quality.

You take a white piece of paper and put it under a tungsten
light it appears white; you take it outside in the sun or shade and
it also appears white. The difference would be apparent when you
could have both together. The best example I ever had of that was



145



Adams: Mills College Art Gallery. I went over there with Albert Bender to
see some big show, and this whole gallery was illuminated with
tungsten light. We were in there, and everything was perfectly
normal white labels, white shirts. But I looked out the door,
looking out into the woods, and they were absolutely turquoise. We
call it cyan now. I mean, here was a bluish-green gorgeous thing,
and I thought, "What's happening?" And I went out, and as soon as
I'm out, it's perfectly normal they're green. And I looked back
into the room, and it's gold. The eye has adaptability which the
film does not. In this case there was opportunity for direct
comparison.

Now, I'd be conscious of a direct physical reflection of blue
light from the sky, or red light, or orange in your dress, or
similar things. I can see a little orange light on your face from
your dress. But a color film would just accentuate that the shadow
might be distractingly orange.

So all this matter of visualization relates to seeing the image
you want, but you have to also take into consideration all the
idiosyncracies of the light itself, and the meter and film sensitivity.
That's why photometers are important. You take any Weston cell or a
CdS [cadmium sulphide] cell, and over an hour or so from now its
response to changing daylight differs. Whereas a comparison photometer
is something else, because if the spot looks bluish, you just put in
a light filter that can control its response (as well as that of the
film). In fact, my S.E.I, photometer is a practical color temperature
meter if I have somebody to hold a compensating filter in front of it
while I am using it. (Takes two hands to operate it!)

Suppose I wanted to copy a painting in a gallery, and I know
the light is tricky, and I know what's going to happen, and I have
to do it in color photography. If I have a fifty-dollar color meter,
which will give me readings in mirads, etc., I can figure out what
filters to use, etc. But I can take this S.E.I, meter and look at
the gray card, and if the spot looks yellow I may use a variety of
number eighty series filters or other filters held in front of the
meter. And I may find a filter which makes the spot neutral and
that's the filter that may correct the film for color. Because I
match the color with the fixed brightness which is already filtered,
for both tungsten or daylight, by selecting one of two built-in
filters in the meter. If I'm using tungsten balanced film, I set in
the tungsten filter.

So there's a strange dichotomy the principles are rather
complex, but the devices we have to control them are fairly simple,
and the photographers who use them are, 90 percent of the time,
extremely dumb, because they don't take advantage of the devices
we've got. [Laughter] And then when they make a mistake of exposure



146



Adams: or development, they immediately justify it by making some further

mistake in the printing, or maybe trying to pull something out of the
hat by processing experimentally. And sometimes, of course, miracles
happen. You know, you could really get a bad negative and neverthe
less get a print that might have exciting qualities.

But I'm just not built to accept what is called the accidental.



Contemporary Images



Teiser: I was looking at photographs in the latest U.S. Camera magazine this
morning by "coming" young photographers. And one of them was a
picture of a whole bunch of people standing lined up in a field and
all their heads were blurred their bodies weren't, their heads were.
I didn't take time to read what was so good about it.

Adams: Well, the tragedy there is sociological. I mean, our whole society

or government, or whatever we have, hasn't given anybody any challenge
to think. Everything is mechanistic, technical. Thinking is all done
in Route 128 outside Cambridge, or up here in Sunnyvale, at those big
research centers. Everything is carefully thought out, but the
social situation is very unclear. And most people have nothing to
say. So they're inventing symbols. And they'll make a photograph,
and then say, "Well, this means something to me." Now, perhaps we
can say of this lineup (I haven't seen the picture), "This would be
an unusual approach to the certainty of the body and the uncertainty
of the mind." You'd be surprised what is read into these things,
into picture after picture! Or a picture done in Rochester of George
Eastman's house porch. It's just a square picture of a dark column
frantically bad.

Jerry Uelsmann has really made a great advance because he's
combined negatives and created true fantasies. Personally, I find
they wear thin after awhile, because the whole thing is a bit limited.
And then you begin to think of what Dorothea Lange did in interpreting
a human situation. And of course what all the great painters of the
Renaissance did in the religious area you have to remember that
there were no other themes in Western art at that time but the
Christian religion, and the portraits of a few potentates and princes.
The art that was done outside that field is miniscule. If you're an
art historian, you may correct me there may be some done, but as you
move on later, then you get into the genre of the Dutch and landscapes
and the Barbizon school. But art always fails if there isn't a theme.

That's the trouble now with abstract expressionism. It did its
job, and it was wonderful when it did it. It was part of a protest,
and I think art now is at the very lowest level it's been. And that's



147



Adams: why they're painting paintings as big as this room. They're trying
to regain some grandeur by just going to big paintings. But how
many great painters can you think of today? Well, I can think of
[Georgia] O'Keeffe, who's still a great living painter. John Marin,
[Edward] Hopper they are dead. (I'm trying to think of modern
painters.) [Andrew] Wyeth I think is a glorified Norman Rockwell;
I simply can't I think he's one of the greatest fakes going. Some
of his paintings are absolute copies of snapshots I The reason I feel
it is this: In his large book there is a graveyard scene in the back
of a church; a good photographer with any sensibility would see the
formal relationships of these gravestones with the church. I mean,
he'd make some effort to compose. This picture shows no effort to
compose. This is just a "click," and there it is, and he painted it.
And that bothers me.

But think of [Charles E.] Burchfield's picture, the "Hot
September Wind" or even some of Wyet-h's, like that "Wind in the
Curtain;" there is magic in them.

But who's really doing anything among photographers? Well,
Bruce Davidson did a book on New York [East 100th Street] which is
very important. But so many of them withdraw from any human project
and just sit back and ruminate smoke pot, and get an idea that the
chair is important, "I'll take a picture of it. Now, you undress,
you be a nude and you sit in the chair, and I'll do a double
exposure, and maybe I'll put something else in the picture. Now I've
done something!" [Laughter] And this means just something, little
thought of human communication. But you'll see many of these double
and triple exposures most of which are terrible. Some of them can
be beautiful, but most of them are so trite!

There's a whole mode now of a living room scene with the
members of the family sitting around nude. They're mostly extremely
unattractive people, and the photograph has absolutely no distinction.
[Laughter] It's completely commonplace. It used to be a little
daring. Now you say, "Oh, I've seen that before!"

And the human body, in 90 percent of the instances, is far more
aesthetic with clothes than without. [Laughter]



The Nude



Adams: I haven't done nudes for the simple reason that the human body can