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

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other patriotic bombast was if you read into it with a literary
sense, you thought, "Well yes, they're going over to be shot up; too
bad." That was bad. But the whole thing was summed up in this
extremely perceptive photograph. And in that way the perceptive and


Adams: beautifully controlled and aesthetically managed image has the

greatest power. And that's where Dorothea Lange stands head and
shoulders above all the rest of her colleagues, because she injected
that quality of art and sensitivity.

Working with Dorothea Lange

Teiser : I remember her photograph of shipyard people had that same something.

Adams: It's not known who did many of those photographs she and I worked on
that together. The one of the people coming down, the whole crowd
that was mine ["Shipyard Construction Workers, Richmond, California,"

Teiser: Oh, it was.'

Adams: And the picture of the Negress sitting in front of the trailer camp
housing in the mud that was mine. And the trailer camp children
also were mine.

And then, helped by her son, she got some pictures in a bar,
which I wish I'd done. But that doesn't mean much difference. We'
did it as a joint thing, like we did the story on the Mormons. What
was Dorothea's idea, what was my idea, whether she or I did the
photograph what difference does it make? Those really were joint
projects, and I imagine it was a fifty-fifty result.* It was a
privilege to work with her, but it was difficult. Even at that time
she wasn't well, and she'd overdo and she'd have medical problems.

I don't regret my life at all. It's been spectacular in many
ways. And you know, working with people is rewarding. Some day I'll
give you a story of my invasion of the South with telephone advertising
people. That would be another story.

Teiser: Well, I'll write it down to bring up later.
Adams: Some of it, if I told the truth, you couldn't even print.
[Interruption visitor enters]

Adams: Ah, this is Dick Julian, one of my prize students, a very fine

photographer, a very fine electronics engineer. He's made me two

*See also other references to Dorothea Lange as indexed.


Adams: gadgets, timers, which put me in this enviable world of

technological superiority! And he's a fine photographer, which is
the most important thing. I'd like to show you his portfolio.

[End Tape 7, Side 1]

Early Visits to New Mexico

[Interview VI 26 May 1972]
[Begin Tape 7, Side 2]

[Virginia Adams participated in this interview]

Teiser: I can start today by reading you some dates that I have here that

maybe will recall to you your early trips to New Mexico. These are
mostly from Mrs. Newhall's book.

Adams : Yes .

Teiser: Some time in 1927

Adams: That's the date I went.

Teiser: you went first to Santa Fe with Albert Bender.

Then in 1928 you went twice, and then in 1929 in the spring
you and Mrs. Adams went, and then I don't know

Adams: Well, she [Mrs. Newhall] didn't get all those details in those days,
because it was pretty complex. But I can start it off by saying
that Bertha Damon, who was then Bertha Pope, was quite a literary
figure. You remember, she's written really delightfully. I think
her first book was A Sense of Humus, which was on gardening. It was
just marvelous. And the other one was Grandma Called It Carnal.
That was marvelous too. She's a great stylist. And she was a
great friend of Witter Bynner's.

So Albert Bender said, "Let's us go down in the old bus and see
Bynner and the other people down there." Bertha and Albert and I
drove down in his Buick, which I think was a 1926 coach terribly
good automobile, probably still running. And in those days the
roads were simply ghastly. The highway over to Tehachapi, that
wasn't so bad, but when you got over to Mojave from Mojave on east
it was all "washboard" just dreadful road. Dust. You know what a
washboard road is?

V. Adams: That was the time we took Ella Young?


Adams: No, I'm speaking of going there first with Bertha. April 1927
that was the first trip.

V. Adams: I don't remember.

Adams: [To Mrs. Adams] She got that out of Nancy's book.

So we arrived in Santa Fe and went to the De Vargas Hotel.
This is very poignant I met Bynner for the first time in the men's

V. Adams: You mean that's where you were to meet? [Laughter]

Adams: We arrived in a state. It was snowing and a dust storm, so the

snow was literally gray. I've never seen anything like it since.

V. Adams: What time of year?

Adams: April. So then Witter said, "Well, you're all coming to dinner,"
and he gave us the address but he didn't give us directions.

Bertha was sure it was the north side of the Santa Fe River.
I didn't know. So we went up there and got lost and kept calling
on people, and these people only spoke Spanish, you know it was
a terrible time. Finally we got back to the hotel, and Bynner
said on the phone, "I didn't tell you. We're first meeting at a
party on Canyon Road. So you go there."

So we went there and there was a real wild drinking party,
and a lot of young people had passed out

V. Adams: That was quite a beginning. [Laughter]

Adams: In those days Santa Fe was really something very exotic.

And then we got to Bynner's place about nine o'clock, and
there was more partying, and then about ten o'clock he had this
dinner. Well, poor Albert wasn't used to that kind of stuff at
all. Bertha was, but she was furious. The only reason I took it,
I guess, was that I was young.

So we had several riotous days, and we met people Mary
Austin, Haniel Long, Arthur Davidson Ficke, Shuster

V. Adams: Will.

Adams: Will Shuster, and the Cassidys, Gerald and Ina Sizer Cassidy, and
quite a few others that were writers and artists and friends of
Bynner and Bertha.

And we toured around a bit. We went to Taos , but we didn't
meet Mabel [Dodge Luhan] .


Teiser :
Adams :

V. Adams;
Adams :

V . Ad ams ;
Adams :
V . Adams :
Adams :
V. Adams;

Adams :

Adams :
Adams :

You did not?

No, not that time,
came home.

She was in Europe or something. And then we

Didn't you have a trip across the desert, sort of just across the
country somewhere, in Albert's car?

Oh yes, that's interesting. We went to Grand Canyon on the way.
And we left Flagstaff, and the road was terrible. So we stopped
some shepherd by the road, and I said, "Can I cut across here?"
He says, "Oh, go right across." How we ever did it I don't know,
but we got that car across about eight, ten miles of Arizona
desert without any mishaps. It was a foolhardy thing to do just
absolutely ridiculous. But I didn't see that it was much worse
than the road. We cleared everything. Had a little trouble
getting on the road on the South Rim, though. We had to navigate
for a mile or two to find a place where we could get down the bank,
see. And I had to get out and move some logs, but we made it.
[Laughter] Then we went to Grand Canyon.

Who else was there with you?

Friend of Bertha's.

I can't even think who it is.

I can't even remember the name. I think Albert was very jealous

He thought that he should have the center of attention, which he
should have.

It was very funny one morning I left very early to get a picture,
and I looked down from (I forget which point it was near the big
hotel, I guess), and I saw this little figure walking around in
circles out on this sort of an esplanade, quite a way down. It
was Albert. He was pacing in a circle. He was depressed because
he thought that this guy wasn't worthy of Bertha. I don't know
how confidential to be about this, but it was very funny.

Anyway, we got home safely,
that happened.

How long a trip was it?
Two weeks .

Did you do all the driving?
Yes. Albert didn't drive.

I can't think of anything else


V. Adams: The bounding Buick. It bounded that time, for sure.

Adams: Bertha didn't like driving. I could take it hour after hour, but
those washboard roads were unbelievable.

Teiser: Do you remember what your first impression of Mary Austin was?

Adams: I met her at a party. She was rather grim, very nice, to me at
least didn't like Bertha.

V. Adams: She didn't really like most women, especially here was Bertha,
who had done some writing. She wanted to be at the center.

Adams: At any event, she saw some of my pictures, which I'd taken down

Then the next trip is when we- met the Applegates, Frank Apple-
gate and his wife [Alta], and Mary Austin again.

V. Adams: Was that the time we went together, or were you there another time
after that? You went to New York on the train and stopped off.

Adams: That's right. Several trips there, we went by train.

V. Adams: Yes, because once was just before Christmas, and you took some
pictures of the snow on the adobe house.

Adams: Bynner's home.

Teiser: That must have been 1928. According to Mrs. Newhall's book, you
were there in April and then in November 1928.

V. Adams: Well, that could be. Because, you know, we got married in January
1928, but I had invited people to Yosemite. I had a household
there to work on. And you were going east. And we didn't go
until the spring of '29, when we went with

Adams: Yes, Ella Young.

Well, there were several trips, and at that time we arranged
to do the Taos book, and a lot of pictures for the Spanish-Colonial
Art Society.

V. Adams: Which Mary Austin was very active in.

Adams: And, of course, I was staying with Bynner in that beautiful house.
But Bynner would party until one in the morning, and then he'd
work with his secretary.

V. Adams: He was stimulated, I guess.


Adams: The party would go until four or five, and he wouldn't get up

until two the next day, but I'd have to get up around dawn to get

V. Adams: He [Bynner] would go out and work in the early morning in his
garden, then retire. He often did it after work with his
secretary, at seven and eight. Then he'd go to bed.

V. Adams: Yes. His day was over I mean, night was over.

Adams: He'd get up at two or three to attend the affairs of the day. Cut
his coupons and order the meals. [Laughter]

V. Adams: He had a wonderful cook, Rita. She was with him for many years.

Teiser: Who was his secretary?

Adams: He had several. I forget just who it was.

V. Adams: Was his name Gorman the one that we knew first?

Adams: There was Gorman; then there was McCarthy a wild Irishman,

V. Adams: Then there was the last one. He died before Hal [Witter Bynner]
did, and Hal felt very badly about that, because they'd shared so
much. He'd built a whole addition to his house that was for this
young man, and then he was gone before Hal. I don't remember now.

Teiser: Did you know Witter Bynner when he was in Berkeley?
Adams: No, I never knew him at that time.

V. Adams: Not until he came back and we were at Cedric's [Cedric Wright's],
That must have been '28, because we were living at Cedric's house
on Etna Street, Berkeley.

Adams: I didn't know him before I went to Santa Fe.
V. Adams: Yes, we met him there.

Teiser: Frank Applegate there's an awfully good picture you made of him
that's in The Eloquent Light.

Adams: Oh yes, with a cigarette ash.
V. Adams: Oh, he was great.


Adams: He was an artist. Of course, he was ill I think he had TB or

some such disease. He was from New Jersey, and he came out to New
Mexico. He was a pretty shrewd man. He built adobe houses to sell
them. Then he would study the santos he had a great working
knowledge of the bultos and santos. He would acquire them and
restore them, and that has driven the museum people absolutely
wild, because the restorations are confusingly good in many
instances. He had no idea of the "museology" of what he was doing.

V. Adams: You know he was a painter. If he could put a little more paint on
something pick it up a little bit

Adams: He'd retouch it and fix it up put in a little new gesso, etc.

V. Adams: But he first came out from New Jersey and was sent to the Hopi

country. They were having trouble with their pottery. It was too
fragile. And he apparently knew something about clay. And they
lived in one of the Hopi pueblos for, I imagine, a year or so.
And I said to his wife, Alta, "What did you do for the bathroom?"
She said, "Fortunately, it was an old house that had another room
that nobody used, with a dirt floor," so they did just what the
cats and dogs do. They had one daughter who was just a little bit
of a girl.

Then they went on to Santa Fe.

Adams: But he was quite successful. He had one of the most beautiful
new houses that is, in the real pueblo style. He added to a
beautiful old adobe; everything was absolutely authentic.

V. Adams: We'll have to show you some of the pictures.
Adams: He really knew what he was doing.

V. Adams: And Ansel took a lot of pictures of furniture chests and things
for a hoped-for book that Mary Austin and Applegate were going to

Adams: I'll have to remind Ted Organ [Ansel Adams's assistant] that one of
my priority projects is finishing the early New Mexico pictures for
E. Boyd of the Museum.* And why they don't send me a bomb in a
package, because of my delay, I don't know.

*Added by Ansel Adams in July 1977: "I was doing a series of
pictures of Spanish-American art and furniture, etc. for Mary Austin
and Frank Applegate. That folded, and E. Boyd asked for the pictures
I made. She died a couple of years ago [30 September 1974]. I
suppose the negatives still have value."


Teiser: Have you promised her a show?

Adams: It isn't that. It's all these things that aren't fine photographs,
but they're invaluable records.

V. Adams: They're records, because this was 1927-8-9.

Adams: [To Ted Organ] Ted, we ought to wash them and refix them and reduce
them many of them, and really make

V. Adams: When's he going to have time to do this?
Adams: Oh, he'll have time.

V. Adams: Remember, you promised that he could photograph some of my Indian
baskets for records, but he's never going to have time to.

Adams: That's another story.

V. Adams: I know.

Adams: You're on tape now. [Laughter]

Indian Art and Architecture

Teiser: Let's at least note that you have a fine Indian basket collection.
Back to New Mexico

Adams: Well, New Mexico's a very complex mystique, and I reacted strongly
to it. One very interesting thing is that I'm really a heathen.
My family I suppose were Episcopalian originally, but half of them
became converted Catholics. Neither my mother or my father or my
immediate family on that side had any direct interest in religion
at all. I never went to church, and Papa was a constructive
heathen, and I hope I am too. But the dichotomy of the situation
is that always the primitive Indians' Catholic life, their works
of art and their moradas, were profound in their emotional effect
on me, and a lot of my photographs relate to cemeteries and some
of those beautiful frescoes and objects. I look at it as a kind of
folk art a transcription of intense feeling of people. (And I
would probably do the same thing in Hawaii with the Buddhists.) As
far as doing it from the point of view of a Catholic, people don't
understand why I should be interested. And of course the people
down there didn't like you to photograph their old, used-up
cemeteries because they're not taken care of. Now some are taken
care of, which is ruining the "mood."


Adams :

V. Adams:

Teiser :
V. Adams:


V. Adams:
Adams :

V. Adams:

Adams :

The Mormons, for instance, deeply resented our photographing old
barns and old things, because they were trying to raise everything
up to the new qualities and standards. But the people down there
in New Mexico have really deteriorated now tremendously, and
these cemeteries are a kind of desolation. The women can't mud
the adobes any more. You used to see them out there putting it on
by hand. Every year they used to go over the buildings. They
can't do it any more, so they have to stucco these buildings.
They put tin roofs on them. (That beautiful church in Hernandez
in my "Moonrise" picture now has a tin roof.) But there's nothing
else they can do, because there is no way to take care of it.

With adobe structures, it takes a constant putting on of mud.
That's what gives it its peculiar texture and shape. The people
who fake it, they do it with a brush, you see. When they use the
mud, they just go over it and over it filling in the little cracks.

When Georgia O'Keeffe redid her house, she was able to get knowledg-
able people, and the women really did do it the old way.

It was always woman's work, wasn't it?

Yes, that was. The men, I guess, made the adobes, dried them and
stacked them up, but when it came to the plastering, men and women
worked at it. And the Mexicans did the same thing.

But there's an interesting thing, that some of the people were
doing that with cement. They'd get a very careful cement stucco
and give it the right color and then put it on by hand. It isn't
exactly the same but it lasts longer

Yes, of course it lasts.

Adobe is built with straw to hold it together,
kind of adobe soil is available.

It depends on what

One of the things that was so interesting to me was that they
could analyze something about the flowers and things that were
growing at the time an adobe brick was made, because they used
this straw for the stuff that made it stay together. And they
could work out the flora 'way in the early days.

But now they use, of course, the modern adobe, and many houses are
being built with that. But that is usually sized with a binder and
it makes it very strong.

You see, some of these places have serious trouble because of
what they call the "main vigas" the cross beams. Most of the
adobe buildings were really small except the churches, and there


Adams :

V. Adams
V. Adams:
Adams :
V. Adams ;
Adams :

V . Adams :

Adams :
V. Adams;

Adams :

they had trouble. But they had enough sense to make a wood lintel
or a brick coping across, I guess you'd call the top of the walls,
because the heavy beam would gradually compress the adobe. And so
they founded what they called the "Spanish colonial" style. They
were built of adobe, but built very trimly very accurately with
a brick coping, and then the beams rested on that.

And we saw Senator Cutting's house,
colonial house.

It is a great classic

You see, the real adobe is what they call the primitive,
natural adobe. Then you have the colonial type, which is for more
sophisticated people, who really did design the architecture. But
they're walled-in adobe, and very trim, and the windows have the
colonial cut. And they're still beautiful; the walls are about
five feet thick.

Have you been inside the Carmel Mission?

Yes, but not recently.

There's the same feeling there.

Yes, but that's been very carefully restored.

They have restored that, yes, but

It went to pieces fast before Harry Downie took charge of the

I learned a lot about adobe I Frank and I would tour all over
the region. We went to moradas. I have a beautiful interior of a
morada. A morada was a penitente chapel. The penitentes were
were they actually excommunicated?

They were at one time, yes. Yes. What happened was that the
Catholics went away from there, and these little village people
kept on with their religion

In their own way.

In their own way. And this penitente thing that gets talked about,
where they whip themselves and all the Fathers when they came back
strongly disapproved of that.

The Fathers were German Jesuits. Let's see, in the first days they
were Franciscans and very sympathetic to the natives. But when
the German priests came (I think they were Jesuits) , they ordered
the old relics thrown out; said they were heathen relics! And
they imported those hideous plaster things from Rome. So we would


Adams: go into strange places and find beautiful old things, most of

which have now been sold or put into a museum. Once in a while
there are some remaining, like the altars at santuarios. Many
were the most beautiful things I've ever seen. And all too often
there is an Italianate picture of the Virgin or statue with
pink cheeks and all otherwise terrible. But they'd dress them up
and put all kinds of geegaws around them.

V. Adams: It remains very close to their hearts, as I think is true with all
peasant groups now.

Ella Young

V. Adams: I want you to talk about the time when Ella Young went down with
us to Santa Fe.

Adams: Well, that's really a story I

V. Adams: There's an interim there, of course. But while we're talking about
that, and before I go and do other things, let's talk about

Adams: You can cut in on this.
V. Adams: Yes.

Adams: Well, Ella Young was an Irish poet, also an Irish revolutionary.
She was a doctor of jurisprudence; she really was a lawyer. She
was also a very mythical-minded Irish lady who was always seeing
little people wonderful stories about that]

V. Adams: Her father I think was a minister not Catholic, but a minister, of
whatever the faith was. And she got away from that, and she lived
in Dublin with Maude Gonne, who was a very fine actress and a great
friend of the Irish writer William Butler Yeats. I think she was
his lady friend.

Anyway, she lived there with them and they actually were
active in that 1916 uprising. Now I don't know that the public
has ever known much about it. But she told me one time that they
did have guns in their home. I think she was kind of a helper to
this Maude Gonne.

Adams: She barely escaped; she got out of Ireland.

V. Adams: And I think whoever was her boyfriend was killed, but I never knew
who it was.


V. Adams: But one time she took us with her when we went to lunch, with the
Monsignor at St. Patrick's in San Francisco.

Adams: Marvelous man.

V. Adams: Yes, a charming person, and she'd known him in Ireland. And we
all had lunch together. I felt so sorry for him, because the
old lady that kept the house for him really didn't keep it clean.

Adams: Dusty, you know.

V. Adams: It really was. But it was wonderful for Ella Young to visit him
again, and they talked a little bit about it [the 1916 uprising].
But if you ever have a chance to look up something about Maude
Gonne apparently she was very beautiful and quite active in that
revolutionary movement.

Adams: She wasn't one of the women in my_ life. [Laughter]

V. Adams: No, no.

Adams: our lives. I must make this very precise.

V. Adams: But anyway, this Ella Young was a marvelous person.

Adams: She wrote Gaelic fairy tales.

V. Adams: I'll show you some of her books.

Adams: She always wore purple veils or scarfs. And we always used to

meet at Colonel [C.E.S.] Wood's place. At Colonel Wood's eightieth

V. Adams: which was your fiftieth.

Adams: everybody got cockeyed on the Colonel's wonderful red wine, and
she read the benediction in Gaelic wearing a purple scarf, hanging
on, as I remember, to the top of an Italianate chair. She could,
of course, speak beautiful Gaelic. She would declare that she saw
all the little people. And she practiced all kinds of little
rituals .

Now, we decided that we would go to New Mexico. And I have
pictures of you and Ella and others taken in New Mexico.

V. Adams: We had to wait until after Albert Bender's St. Patrick's Day party.
We left the next day and picked her up at Halcyon, which is down
the coast, below Pismo Beach.


Adams: Where the elder Varians lived. It was a theosophy colony.

We drove to New Mexico and had a couple of close calls. They
were rebuilding the road near Taos and it caved in.

V. Adams: Well, wasn't that coming south from Taos?

Adams: Yes. Ella when she got to the Arizona border (she always wanted
to know when she entered a new state) she left the car and poured
a little wine on the ground.

V. Adams: And at every lunch on the trip we offered a libation to the gods.
We'd have wine and cheese and other things in our lunches. She
was lovely I

Adams: For a practical man like me, it was a little screwy, but it had a
great charm.

V. Adams: Well, it was fun. We were young and this was funl

Adams: So we got along fine down there. But she was very proper. Of
course, Bynner immediately kisses every woman who shows up.

V. Adams: She didn't want to be kissed?
Adams: She refused to be kissed by Bynner.
V. Adams: Well, I don't blame her.

Adams: "Oh, come on Ella, you're just a friend." "No! My resolution.'"
[Laughter] So Ella was the only one that was not "smacked."
Everybody got "smacked," from six up to sixty-nine.

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