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

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be extremely beautiful, but I've seen very few photographic nudes
that can do what painting does. I've always had that in the back of
my mind "Why should I photograph a nude?" Now, Stieglitz and
Weston of course did some beautiful ones. [Interruption]

[End Tape 6, Side 2]


[Begin Tape 7, Side 1]

Adams: Now, the question of the nude has always been very important in

photography. And some of the early nudes I think were very ghastly
because they were usually done in settings of drapes and formal
Victorian rooms. We're talking now about serious nude photography.

I can't tell you about English photography. I think Julia
Margaret Cameron did some I just don't know. There were some
painters: [Thomas] Eakins, I think, did some nudes, but I've always
had the feeling they were studies for paintings.

Then there was Ann Brigman who did nudes creatively related to
other forms tree forms, for example in the early 1900s.

Then there was Stieglitz who did a magnificent series of nudes
of O'Keeffe and others. Most are platinum prints. But there again,
you have this high quality of taste. These were beautiful things.
The platinum print color and the approach always gave you the
feeling of living flesh; a very important thing in photography. The
painterly nude or drawing is always just what it is. And you always
from your Goya to your Rubens , and on to Picasso have a nude quality
which is something apart from the ordinary.

In photography, there's very, very few that have ever done a
nude that have had that equivalent of the painterly quality. I
think Steichen did a couple (I don't know for sure). And Weston's
nudes of Tina Modotti, who had an absolutely beautiful body as
people say, one of the most beautiful bodies extant were really

And then he attempted nudes of various subjects; they're
rather scrawny. They became very strangely stylized. As I said the
other day, they were morguesque. They look like corpses on a slab;
they have no life in them.

Then Charis Weston had a very fine body very smooth and tall.
Weston did some beautiful things of her in sand dunes and in various
poses. I think some of those were quite remarkable, but all in all,
I can't remember too many. I remember one nude that's simply
marvelous. It's by Ruth Bernhard. And it's a seated figure, and
all you see is the leg and the knee. And it's an absolutely monu
mental photograph one of the great photographs.

Teiser: I was about to ask you about her, because she's one who's doing
mostly nudes now, isn't she?

Adams: I guess so she's doing a lot of them. She is a marvelous woman.
But I haven't kept up with her work. But this one nude picture I
just think is one of the most beautiful things in photography. And
I wish there were more like it I


Adams: I've never had any interest in nudes because I never liked what I
saw. I mean, I felt that there are few bodies that really lend
themselves to the photographic aesthetic something more than
members of a nudist camp. Mortensen got young girls of seventeen,
eighteen; but he ruined their quality by, as we say, "oiling" them

Contrivance, Arrangement, and Simulation

Teiser: You were mentioning Wynn Bullock. And he's used nude figures but
not for themselves, as I remember.

Adams: Well, there's some kind of a complex situation with Wynn. Mind you,
Wynn is one of the great people, one of the finest men I know. He's
just a marvelous human being. Lots of his pictures have bothered me
because they are mannered. And I'd like to clarify that. Perhaps
the word is "contrived." Now "contrived" has got a bigger meaning,
in the sense that if I'm going to do an advertisement, I have to
contrive the situation.

Say I have a model and a dress. I'm thinking of Anton Bruehl's
studio I visited years ago in New York. He was doing a picture for,
I think it was, Lipton's Tea. And the model was a quite beautiful
woman in a taffeta dress in a very elaborate setup with a silver tea
service. And she was just sipping this tea. And of course the
lighting and everything was just beyond belief. It was entirely
contrived, and yet absolutely sincere.

Now, contrivance in another meaning is when you "monkey" with
things. Such contrivance would be when a nature photographer takes
along a bunch of azalea branches and puts it in a place for
decorative effect where they couldn't exist.

Teiser: Suppose he put it in a place where they could exist?

Adams: Well, then you say all right. Yes, yes it's a moral, ethical

problem, and that's very flexible. You brought up a good point. If
the final result looked completely plausible and was real all right.
But it's a very delicate thing; very hard to put your finger on.

The arrangement is one thing, but the contrivance I know, I'll
just say one of Bullock's has an old building and back of a window
screen is a nude. Well, for me, nothing happens. I mean, he's
trying to tell you something in a literary sense, or he's probably
having echoes of an "art" experience (art in quotes). It's very hard
to discuss I can't quite put my finger on it. He has a picture of
a forest in Florida, and there's a little baby lying down in the ivy.


Adams: Why? You see, I ask myself why. It's a beautiful photograph.

There's one that he has of a little child sitting by a stream in an
enormous forest, and that's a very extraordinary thing. In addition,
it is something that could happen. He may have contrived it or
arranged it by getting her there, but it is something that could
occur. But the little baby lying down in the ivy is a questionable
thing for me. And the woman behind the screen is also questionable.
The woman lying on the bed in the room is not. That's something
that's completely plausible.

You have no idea how many thousands of photographs are made of
nudes lying on beds with babies, without babies. [Laughter]

Imogen [Cunningham] has one of the great images just the unmade
bed. There's nothing on it or in it, but it's a very exciting photo

So there's a very delicate definition here between the real and
oh, the word that I'd like to use there is the "simulated." Now, to
simulate something is, I think, perfectly all right, because you
begin with reality and you're simulating it. You're trying to get a
re-creation, a simulation of this thing. And therefore it has neither
good nor bad connected with it. Arrangement is arbitrary.
Contrivance has either good or evil connected with it contrivance
is probably a 75c word for "posing." When I show my picture of
Clarence Kennedy, who is in profile, it looks like the most obvious
pose in the world. But I say: I did not pose him. This is the
stance he takes when he's listening to somebody. In this case, he
was listening to his wife telling him what to get when he took me
downtown, because she wanted some groceries. He was just listening,
but he always put his long finger behind his ear.

Now, superficially, it looks as if I've said, "Come on, Clarence,
let's do a little pose you know, something funny," but it wasn't that
way. That's the way he was when I made the picture.

But the separation between the real and the contrived, you see,
is very delicate.

Once Edward and Charis [Weston] and I were on a trip. Edward
was madly photographing we were near Death Valley. And Charis saw
an old boot. So she closes her eyes and she kicks it. Then she
goes over and looks at the boot again. Then she gives it another
kick. My god, it then looked pretty good. She said, "Edward, there's
something here." He looked at it, and he made a beautiful photograph.
Now, it was no more accidental for the boot to be there than where it
was originally, except that it had been displaced and then had been
selected as reality and called attention to as a "found object."
And I don't think Edward ever knew that Charis kicked that boot. But


Adams: it just landed right in some sagebrush and some rocks and looked

perfectly normal. Before, it was sort of cluttered; it was difficult
to make a composition of it.

Now, is that right or wrong? If he_ had kicked the boot, then
you'd have a half-way point. If he'd taken the boot up and put it
very carefully down, and sand around it, and carefully arranged it,
then you would have contrivance. So you see, you have an ethical
point to ponder on.

On the other hand, suppose I have a perfectly beautiful
composition of rocks and there's a beer can in it. I think I'm
privileged to remove the beer can. But some purists say, no, I
shouldn't even do that. In other words, I'm manipulating; it's no
longer a true found object.

Teiser: Those are people who were born before Kleenex.

Adams: Yes. Perhaps you have been down in the desert, like Barstow, Red
Lake, some place, you know where the garbage dump is just an open
dump, and the desert wind had taken everything on the ground and
blown it over miles of desert and every bush had Kleenex and papers .
and things hanging on it! This in itself is an extraordinary
phenomenon, and if somebody from another planet had landed there, he
would have found it of the most extraordinary significance. What is
this substance that's on the bushes? I regret that I didn't record
that as part of the desert phenomena.

I do have a [photograph of a] garbage dump at Manzanar, though,
that I never thought of using, but I could now.

Meaning, Shape, and Form

Adams: My picture of the statue at the Long Beach cemetery, with the oil
derricks in the distance, was done as a quasi-surrealistic thing.
I just saw the improbability of this weeping angel and the oil
derricks. It had no definite meaning; this is just a juxtaposition
of opposites. Now, with the present pollution situation, it takes
on another meaning! I People read into that all kinds of things. I'm
even thinking of putting it in my Portfolio Seven just for that
example. It was done for one reason but is "read" today for another.
I'm proud of the photograph. But the meaning of it to me when I did
it was just the sudden shock of the juxtaposition of the statue
against the oil derricks, without any thought at all of pollution or
anything else. And now when you see it, you may entertain a totally
different meaning. Now if you saw the Angel of Death in front of oil


Adams: wells, you'd immediately think of environmental disasters, and so on.
And I'd like to make that point clear; it shows how expressions and
meanings can be manipulated over time.

I'm a heathen, and I look at many of the old master paintings
and I get dismally tired of the Annunciations and the Resurrections
and such things. But then you look at them abstractly what do they
do? Of course, they're all doing about the same thing, but a few of
them always stood apart. A few of them were, I think, very inconse
quential, but have become famous because of their period and
associations. But to me, with my admittedly meager experience, the
most magnificent religious expression of the theme is at the little
santuario of Chimayo, New Mexico. The primitive Penitente paintings
there are so absolutely beautiful that I'd much rather look at them
than any Raphael or any conventional painting. Now, there are
probably all kinds of things like that all over Europe, by the
million, but these really hit me.

The Birth of Venus struck me as being absolutely tremendous,
and the El Greco paintings. I get very mad when people tell me
El Greco painted that way because he had an astigmatism. I think he
was a stylist; I think he just did this thing of certain elongations
for emotional reasons.

We're getting very far from photography, and I'm getting into a
domain that I'm really no authority in.

Teiser: Well, as it relates to your photography, which of course it does

Adams : Getting back to the idea of the difference between shape and form,
the external world is nothing but a chaotic infinity of shapes, and
the photographer's problem is to isolate the shapes, both for
meaning and for their inherent potentials to produce form within the
format of the image. And I've had terrific semantic arguments;
people talk about natural forms, and I'd say, "Form is a product of
man's mind and concepts, and shape is a phenomenon of nature." And
the function of the artist is to develop configurations out of chaos,
and especially so the photographer. You see, a painter can have
myriad experiences and draw all these things beautifully together,
without regard for their real time or place, but the photographer's
got that camera and lens and that one film, and the maximum has to
happen when that shutter clicks.


Time and Reevaluation

Adams: I think maybe what happened after f/64 is interesting and deserves
a little more study. We all kept on. Imogen [Cunningham], as you
know, is something in her own. She's always been, I guess, one of
the most diverse people. The others somewhat faded from the scene.
Willard [Van Dyke] went into movies. Of course, Edward Weston kept
on, there's no question of that, and Brett is doing extremely well.
Henry Swift and John Paul Edwards faded out of the picture.

Perhaps, for maybe a decade, the f/64 wasn't too important.
It had done its job; it settled, and now it's coming back. It's
like what happens with any great artist. You take Edward Weston.
He died and there's a slump; now he's coming back ferociously on
the preciousness of his remaining work. And I can guarantee that
there will probably be quite a long period wherein he becomes a
legendary figure, and then people will begin to discover him as
dementi and Mendelssohn did Bach, and there will be a powerful
revival. I think that will probably happen with every fine
photographer and artist. After their death you'll have a kind of
surge of evaluation get what you can and get what's left. And
then there'll be quite a long period, maybe a whole generation,
where his work may not have much meaning. And then stylistically,
it will reassert itself: just look at the history of Bach.

You remember that Beethoven had a piano that didn't permit bass
octaves. I know; I played on one of the pianos an 1812 instrument,
an instrument that he used, or a close serial number to it. It was
owned by the people that were formerly very important in Williams-
burg, and she was a fine pianist and musicologist. And this piano
was in mint condition; you'd play on it and you'd hear it was
beautiful. But, compared to what I've got over there a 1924 Mason
and Hamlin grand piano there was little comparison. This was a
time when I could still play, so I remember. There wasn't space for
many of the octaves placed in later editions of his piano music.

So there was a development with the big piano and its modern
keyboard. And then Beethoven was reedited to include the octaves.


Teiser: It's almost as if a new dimension was found in photography which
could put a negative onto a different plane than it is now.

Adams: Well, don't think that you're just making conjectural remarks; the
thing is possibly quite true. Now we have holography. And this is
a very complicated thing, and I don't think I can describe it.
Holography gives three-dimensional effects. Using it, you might
achieve another interpretation entirely from any negative that I
have now.


Teiser: That's a fascinating possibility.

Adams: That is a reality. It is expensive and complex. The first color
images were made many, many years before we ever had a color print
or transparency, but they were seen by iridescence. And the silver
grain responded at different wavelengths and therefore would respond
to a different columnated light coming upon it, and you would get a
sense of color. So you see, miracles have always been with us.

Now, holography is something totally different. Some day that
may be very important; it creates the illusion of the three-
dimensional image. But still it's kind of crude and extremely
complicated and extremely cumbersome, using laser beams. But there
is always this possibility of making an integrated analysis of the
rotation of the silver grains. It would be a random thing, and
concern billions of grains practically in every place, but you might
get a feeling of a dimensional quality. You might even get a feeling
of color. But you wouldn't do it with one grain; you'd do it with a
million, a billion, a trillion grains, you see. That's where the
computer would come in.

Teiser: Sounds like a time machine.

Adams: Yes. In fact, I just read an article in Science today of the

reversible time. A theory has been proven in the domain of sub
atomic particles; they move forward and backward in time. This is
mathematical and extremely complex. Nothing to do with ordinary

The Photo League and Politics

Adams: I think we discussed the Photo League, didn't we?
Teiser: Not at any length.*

Adams: Well, that's important. I think we could end with that tonight.

It was primarily a film [motion picture] group before the war, and

it was quite important. It was always avant-garde, socially and

Shortly after the war, it became very active with still
photography. It was dedicated to the contemporary scene. There
were some very fine photographers in it Barbara Morgan, Beaumont

*See p. 49 and other references as indexed.


Adams: and Nancy Newhall, myself, Strand. Strand was one of the leaders.
There were some shows in the East, and I had one show at the San
Francisco Fair [Golden Gate International Exposition] in 1940.

At any event , in the late 1940s I received a call from Barbara
Morgan who said, "I think you ought to know what's happened. The
Commies have taken over the Photo League's board of directors." She
said, "I don't like it, because I joined it as a photographer, not
as a politician." You know, so many organizations had gone that way.
You'd join a photographic society and find out it's something in
support of the Communist party. In this case, then, they got a
photographer in as prime director of education who was a well-known
member of the party. And Barbara said, "I'm getting out, and I don't
want anything to do with this; I'm liberal, but I don't want to be
identified with the Communist party." And I said, "Neither do I."

So I called up my lawyer and asked, "What do we do? I have had
no direct experience, but I'm warned that there's a political take
over in action." He said, "Well, write them a letter requesting
information on the trend. Are they to continue as a photographic
institution or grow into a political institution?" And, with the
temper of the times, he advised me to send a copy to the FBI, which
I did.

I got no response at all, in fact, more adverse reports, so I
resigned. I sent a letter saying, "Not having had a satisfactory
answer to my question, I feel that I really shouldn't continue as a
member. So I respectfully submit my resignation." I sent a copy
also to the FBI. And it was the most fortunate thing I ever did,
because I was cleared later from being associated with a definitely
Red-oriented group.

Now, I'd like to make it clear: if it were a Republican-
oriented or a Democratic-oriented or Red-oriented organization, it
would have the same effect. I mean, I think the Communist party has
an equal right to exist along with the Nixon party. But I don't want
to be associated with those political aspects. And when I came in
for a final clearance, which was through the navy and Polaroid to do
some secret stuff, the FBI told me that the copies of these letters
they held are what made clearance possible. They said, "You clearly
stated your point of view."

Several very fine photographers a couple of them got jobs with
the Department of Education and went over to Europe to photograph
and were turned back at the docks because they were members of the
Photo League. Of course, this was part of the McCarthy catastrophe,
and we had to fight that. They were the most innocent people in the
world; they didn't know what was going on politically. They just
wanted to practice and help the arts.


Teiser: This was a New York based organization, was it?

Adams: Yes.

Teiser: Who started it?

Adams: Walter Rosenblum, Paul Strand - ! don't know whether Walker Evans
was in it or not; I doubt it. It was a considerable group of New
York photographers, which was a special breed. They're mostly in
journalism. I don't want to be quoted in the sense of accusing
people by association. But, it was quite a sizable group. Berenice
Abbott I think was in it. I got in it, and Willard Van Dyke people
who were interested in joining organizations that would do good, like
the Group f/64.

Harroun: It didn't start out political?

Adams: Oh, no, it started out as a well, it was more or less dedicated to
the American scene, because you don't have much else in New York.
The American situation, the social scene, I should say. And you
realize people who are living in New York and places don't know much
else. If they see a tree, it's a Central Park phenomenon. I mean,
they live in the ghetto, they live in the center of the city; their
whole life is people. Helen Leavitt was another one did marvelous
photographs of people, but the orientation is totally different
from out here.

It was an organization that commanded considerable respect and
was the only one of its kind in the country. But of course we
cannot forget that hideous McCarthy period, when everybody was
accused of everything. George Marshall was in the Civil Liberties
Congress, which was very definitely a Commie organization, and he was
too naive to realize that. He was a man of very considerable means,
and they got him in. This group was brought up before the Senate,
and it was pretty grim, because most of the leading communists in the
country were in it, and George was the treasurer. (George was the
brother of Robert Marshall who founded the Wilderness Society very
fine and wealthy people.) And the Senators demanded that he turn
over the books. And he said, "I cannot do this without the approval
of my board of directors as a matter of principle."

"You refuse to do that?"

Well, he was convicted of contempt of the Senate and was
sentenced to prison. Went to the Philadelphia Farm I think it was
for six months. He really went through hell. An extraordinarily
fine man. He was a man of great principle. The Senate had really


Adams: no jurisdiction. This is a matter which I do not believe has been
cleared yet in law. But they had no right to demand that he_ submit
the books. He said, "If my board orders me to do so. You order the
board, and they'll order me; otherwise I stand in contempt, gentle
men." It was really quite a moving situation, and it was absolutely
undemocratic and absolutely wrong.

And the photographers we've had a lot of troubles! Strand
had to move to France or he would have been in jail, because he was
definitely a communist. Having money, you know, he could do what he
wanted. He was much luckier than others.

You're always confronted with sacrificing yourself on the alter
of political belief or being rational and doing what you have to do
as an artist, irrespective of Nixon, or McCarthy, or Roosevelt or


I'm very unhappy about the contemporary situation, because I
think if something goes haywire, which it very well could, we'll
come under a very strict surveillance.

Jack Anderson's comment on the FBI when this new man, [Patrick]
Gray (who apparently is a real dumb jerk), took over: "We have no
personal files." And Anderson had photostatic copies of the
personal files. Now, take the young photographer what is he going
to do in the world? Is he going to go out and photograph rocks and
trees, or is he going to really pitch in and do something for
society? I would admire the one who would pitch in and do something
in the sociological sense, providing he makes moving photographs.

I tell you, a typical thing was that [Ralph] Crane, I think he
was, of Life a whole lot of pictures were made of troups departing
for the war. This was back in the early days. And oh, they had
fanfares and they had soldiers and all this stuff. And Crane made
a picture of a wife and daughter in the back of the car they had
just taken their husband and father to the embarcation center.

That was one of the most incredible photographs I've ever seen
I mean, just the expressions on these people. And it was a beautiful
photograph. It was beautiful tonally and compositionally. And I've
been trying to find that, and no one knows anything about it; Life
can't find it, and so on.

But there was the whole creative tragedy of the war, just in
this particular photograph of these two women, you see. And all the

Online LibraryAnsel AdamsConversations with Ansel Adams : oral history transcript / 1972-1975 → online text (page 17 of 76)