Ansel Adams.

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

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V. Adams: She had gone to stay with a friend of hers some woman whose name
I don't remember, some woman who'd been hurt in an accident and
blamed the railroad blamed somebody. She was suing like mad, and
she was really very ill. She was living in one of the little old
houses that were railroad houses you know, in New Mexico the
typical ones red brick and sooty yards.

Ella Young had told us that she would like to go and see
Mabel Luhan, and she said, "I understand that if you get invited
to Mabel's, you can stay."

Adams: You're in.

V. Adams: That's right. So we had been there a very short time. We were

staying at Mary Austin's little house, and there was a party next
door, and Mabel came. And I guess Ella Young was the one, wasn't


V. Adams: it, that the party was for maybe she'd lectured or something do
you remember about that? Well anyway, it was through Ella Young,
really, that we got the idea that if you were "in" with Mabel that
you got to go to Taos. [To Ansel Adams] Go on, go on.

Adams: Well, Mabel was one thing, and Ella Young was another. Ella Young
absolutely believed that New Mexico had little people, like
Ireland. So she kept talking about the little people she'd seen.
And Bynner was very skeptical of these things. I had a fairly
open mind; all the Indians I knew are quite real, but I'd never
heard of little Indian people. Bynner said, "Now would you
describe to me just how they look?" And she did, and she had a
most minute description. They had Hopi shoes, and Navajo pants and
skirts, and Sioux headdresses. [Laughter] War bonnets; all of them
had little war bonnets on.

Ella would talk, and Bynner was absolutely fascinated, because
he felt that she had a great poetic quality.

Now, she was sponsored and protected, during the remaining
years of her life, by Noel Sullivan. And you can tie in a lot of
things of Ella Young through the Noel Sullivan history.

V. Adams: She was a great person, really; a very lovely person.

Adams: So one day we were up at Mabel's place, and O'Keeffe was there
Georgia O'Keeffe. And let's see, I was sitting at breakfast with
Mabel, and in came Ella with a blue scarf. And then a little
later, in came O'Keeffe.

So Ella said, "Well, good morning. How did you enjoy your
walk?" O'Keeffe says, "What walk?"

V. Adams: Aren't you getting it the other way around? Didn't O'Keeffe say
that to Ella?

Adams: Yes I stand corrected! O'Keeffe came in and said to Ella Young,
"How did you enjoy your walk?" And Ella said, "What walk?"
Georgia said, "I was up in my room and I saw you walking out
towards the morada." And Ella said, "No, I didn't."

"Well," she said, "I saw you. You opened the gate. You
closed it carefully, and you walked on towards the morada, which is
about half a mile." Ella says, "I never did any such thing," and
is looking a little bit dismal. And O'Keeffe says, "But I saw you."

"Well, you didn't see me. You must have seen something, but
you didn't see me." And Mabel was getting quite distressed; this
whole thing was quite argumentative. But O'Keeffe was quite sure.


Adams: And Ella said, "Well, it must have been my astral body." And then
O'Keeffe came back and said, "Well, I don't know what it was, but
it was something!" [Laughter]

But this is the kind of thing that was going on all the time.
It was all crazy as the devil, but it's funny.

Santa Fe People

Adams: So there was Marin and O'Keeffe and Paul Strand at Mabel's.
That's where I met Marin.

V. Adams: That was later on.

Adams: I can't get the sequence right; these things are all telescoped
over a few years.

Well, then Mary Austin fixed it up with the Taos governor
through Tony

V. Adams: Mabel Luhan's husband, Tony Luhan.

Adams: fixed it up for me to come and photograph Taos to do a book
with her.

Teiser: They were very careful about who they'd let in at Taos?

Adams: Yes, they had an all-night council meeting and finally decided I
could do it.

V. Adams: We did a book about Taos Pueblo. Have you seen that book? We'll
have to show you, if you haven't seen it. It's a big book.

Teiser: This is the 1930 book, Taos Pueblo?

Adams: Yes. Mary Austin wrote the text. The crazy thing was, you see,

that Mary Austin had it a bit on Mabel. Because Mabel had Tony as
a chauffeur when she first came, and then she fell heavy for Tony.
And it was no matter that Tony had an Indian wife. So there was
some legal or illegal divorcement. Then Mary Austin suddenly moved
in; she had to protect the Indian wife because of her avowed interest
in the Indians. She arranged that Mabel pay alimony to the Indian
wife as long as she lived. Of course, Mabel was a tremendously
wealthy woman, so it couldn't possibly have affected her. [Laughter]


Adams: There's a marvelous story about Mabel. Let's see, it's "Mabel
Dodge Sterne Evans Luhan."*

Well, Edwin Dodge was sitting in his club in New York. And
somebody came in and said, "Guess what your ex-wife has done."
And he said, "I haven't got the slightest idea. She can do
anything." Well, she's going to marry a full-blooded Taos Indian."
Edwin looked around and raised his head and said, "Lo, the poor
Indian!" [Laughter]

When she married Maurice Sterne everybody's dead now she
met him in Europe at a salon in Florence or Venice or somewhere,
and they got married. And Mabel went to New Mexico on the
honeymoon, and he went to Florida. [Laughter] So you get some
idea of the whole situation involved in this thing.

Then Evans came before that.
V. Adams: She'd had one son, John Evans.

Adams: John Evans was quite a nice guy. Saw his house in Santa Fe. Of
all the crazy things to build in the Santa Fe country, it's an
English manor house, but that's what he did.

V. Adams: They came from New York.

Adams: Well, let's see. The Santa Fe experience was a very complex inter
mingling of work with Frank Applegate and Mary Austin.

Teiser: What was the original concept of that project?

Adams: It was to be a book on Spanish-American art and decoration.

Teiser: As a whole?

Adams: As a whole. It was very vague. There' d never been a real

scholar involved. It was the first time I realized, I think, what
the difference between the interest of a dilettante and a real
scholar is. Because nobody was analyzing this. They'd say, "Well,
there's a chest," and you'd go and photograph that and nobody was
really getting this project organized. That's what E. Boyd, who
was an art history person with the museum, a really highly trained
person, could do.

V. Adams: And quite a characterl

*Born Mabel Ganson, she married successively Carl Evans, Edwin
Dodge, Maurice Sterne, and Antonio Luhan.


Adams: Oh, she's marvelous, yes. There was Marie Garland
V. Adams: Hamlin Garland's ex-wife.

Adams: She married Henwar Rodakiewicz Polish; he's one of my oldest
friends, and he's still living in New York. He's a creative
cinema man.

And we had many parties out there at their ranch north of
Santa Fe.

V. Adams: It's a marvelous place

Adams: It's still there.

Teiser: How did all these people happen to be living around Santa Fe?

V. Adams: Because they liked to live in that country. It's just like people
like to live in Carmel. It just does something to you makes you
happy to be there. But they have to have enough money to be able
to live there, because you don't live on the country.

Adams: There are a great many wealthy easterners. It's an impossible

place for a gringo to make a living, except a few bankers who can
sure milk the native populace. But you had some very wealthy
families the White sisters from Boston, and the McCormicks, and
any number of people came who had the means just to live. Witter
Bynner was financially independent; Arthur Davidson Ficke made a
fortune in Japanese prints. Mary Austin was probably one of the
few really hard-working people who lived there writing.

V. Adams: But some of the artists live there now by the skin of their teeth.

Adams: Yes. Of course, a lot of the good artists, they'd sell a few

things there, but they'd send most of their work east. Like all
the good artists here rarely show in Carmel. The Carmel Art
Association has an occasional show for many of the few very fine
artists around here, but some of them I've never seen.

Teiser: Was Frieda Lawrence still around?

V. Adams: She wasn't around when we were there.

Adams: I never met [D.H.] Lawrence; Lawrence was before my time.

V. Adams: Did you meet her? I never met her.

Adams: Oh, I met Frieda once. And then I met Toby Toby's the name of
the ear trumpet.


V. Adams: Oh, Brett! The Honorable Dorothy Brett, who had a trumpet named

Adams: She was deaf. [Laughter] But when she really became impassioned

in discussion, she'd put the trumpet down in her lap and just talk
to you perfectly normally. But if she was bored or something,
she'd put this up and say, "What?" [Laughter]

V. Adams: She's still in existence, isn't she?
Adams: Oh yes, I think so.

The most wonderful group of nuts you can possibly imagine!
Teiser: You mentioned 'someone named Long?

Adams: Haniel. He was a writer and poet. I think he was a friend of
MacLeish Archibald MacLeish, but I don't really know.

V. Adams: He was a writer and he published things in the Santa Fe area.

Adams: And he also published in the East. But again, most of these

people had income from outside. Of course, now Santa Fe is a big
place, and lots of people can make money there, in real estate and
stores and so on, but it still is not a real money-producing place.
Albuquerque depends largely on science NASA, you know, the Sandia
base. And the farming, and the cattle and all that is really small
family stuff still, isn't it?

V. Adams: Well, I don't know.

Adams: I don't think there are any great corporate farms, like there are
in California.

Teiser: You mentioned Will Shuster

V. Adams: Yes, he was an artist painter.

Adams: Oh, there were so many I can't think of all of them.

Taos Pueblo

Teiser: Whose idea was the Taos book yours, or Mary Austin's?

Adams: I think, frankly, it was mine. I mentioned it to Albert Bender,

and he thought it was a good idea, and said to see if Mary would do
the text. And Mary would do the text. And then, Albert got Grabhorn


Adams: to do the typography. And Dassonville, who was a photographer and
manufactured, at that time, the finest photographic paper, which
was pure silver bromide on rag paper, he was going to coat the
paper. So we ordered a quantity from a New England mill, which
was divided between Grabhorn and Dassonville the same paper stock.
And the only thing that we missed on was that the paper should have
been soaked before it was printed by Grabhorn, because the paper
was fairly smooth when it came, but when it was coated with the
photographic emulsion and then developed, fixed, and washed, it
took on a certain texture a little different from the printed
sheets in the book. Apparently, the sheets differ in look and
feel although they're both exactly the same basic paper. And that
was before the time of toning, before the time we knew about two
hypo baths. And some of these prints are not permanent, which
bothers me very much a few are "turning" a little.

V. Adams: The Book Club [of California] is kind of interested in the idea of
republishing it.

Adams: Yes, it could be published

V. Adams: Nobody has ever read this text except the hundred people who
bought the book. It's a charming essay.

Adams: You'd have to just use a printing process that would simulate the
qualities of the prints probably right from the page.

V. Adams: The linen for the binding, the rust-colored linen, was dyed

by Hazel Dreiss, and she made the binding and the end-papers.

Adams: The end leather, they call it.

V. Adams: It came from England.

Adams: No, from Algeria.

V. Adams: Anyway, it's very special.

Adams: Everybody was broke, and Hazel Dreiss called up and said, "The

leather for the book's here, but there's a four-hundred-dollar bill,
and I don't have it. Do you have it?" And I said, "No."

"Well, who's got that money? It will be returned if I don't
pay it. So who do I call?" I said, "Albert Bender." He said,
"All right" and sent the check (as usual.'.').*

*See also other references to Taos Pueblo as indexed.


V. Adams: He was a wonderful person.

Adams: He always came through, and he was not a rich man he was well-to-do
but nothing much above average.

V. Adams: He'd earned it in his insurance business; he'd worked hard.
Adams: He lived alone. But he was the most generous person.

Teiser: In Mrs. Newhall's book, it says he had a housekeeper who was a
terrible cook.

Adams: Oh, perfectly awful.

V. Adams: Mrs. Ayres.

Teiser: Do you recall Anne Bremer?

V. Adams: That was a cousin of his, a very sweet person, I guess. I never
met her. Did you meet her?

Adams: An artist I met her once very hazy recollection of it.

V. Adams: And then she died; he was very fond of her.

Adams: That was his great personal tragedy.

Teiser: Over how long a period did you photograph Taos?

Adams: I did it all in one year, I think.

V. Adams: That spring of 1929.

Teiser: All in one season?

Adams: I think I came back later and did one photograph. And of course
there is in the book the great church of the Ranches de Taos,
which has nothing to do with Taos Pueblo and really should not be
in the book. But it was so closely identified with the area!

V. Adams: And was so beautiful.

Adams: It is the greatest building of its kind in America. It's just an
incredible thing. And we put that in, called the Ranches church,
and Mary Austin thought it was all right to do it. But we had the
old church ruins, the new church, and then the Ranches church. And
seeing that these were the intrusions of the Catholics, it didn't
make much difference; but strictly, it's not Taos Pueblo.

V. Adams: Well, they're old and new


Adams: I made a picture of a kiva in a dust storm. The camera was

shaking in the gale. I really got into Taos ; to do it today,
you'd do it totally differently.

V. Adams: You couldn't do it today, Ansel. Because it's different. I mean,
there were still the people there who really felt for it. Now,
you're just a tourist and you pay your money and you get to take
some pictures

Adams: Yes, but I still think if you went there, and wanted to do a

definitive book not on a tourist basis that you could do it.
You'd have to pay for it, which you should.

Teiser: Did you then?

Adams: I gave them a book. I think I paid a hundred dollars too.

V. Adams: Mary Austin said they wrapped the book in deerskin and put it in
their archives.

Adams: It's in the kiva.

Teiser: Oh, it is!

V. Adams: It's very precious.

Teiser: Did they help you? Were they interested in what you were doing?

Adams: Oh yes. They were very good. The word went out to help. And I
didn't have any trouble at all, except one time a big fat Indian
jumps on the running board of the car: "Pay me one dollar." And
I said no, it was already paid for. We paid a hundred dollars for
the right to do the book. He said, "Pay me one dollar." And I
speeded up the car and he almost fell off, and I felt bad about it.

I told Tony [Luhan] about it. "Oh, he damn fool. Pay no
attention." [Laughter]

Teiser: Was Tony Luhan a Taos Indian?

Adams: Full-blooded Taos Indian, yes. Slightly ostracized
V. Adams: Well, he'd sloughed off his wife-
Adams: Of course, Mabel did a lot for the Taos Indians.

V. Adams: One time I went with Tony to the Indian school, and he talked to

some little boys who must have been his children. He said, "They're
my nephews . "


Teiser: The picture of Tony in the Taos book was done in San Francisco?
Adams: The picture of Tony was done in my studio in San Francisco.

V. Adams: It was so thrilling. He would take just a little drum that we had
and he would sit in the yard and sing, and all the neighborhood
kids would come around. Oh, it was such fun. He was sweet.

Adams: It was really an experience.

Teiser: There's such a big literature on all this, and often Tony Luhan is
made fun of.

Adams: Well, the point is that an awful lot of sophisticates try to get
on this bandwagon, and they really don't know anything about it,
you see. Hearsay, and second hearsay, and all kinds of very
strange misinterpretations. But I think he was much more naive
than anybody could imagine. But Mabel was a hunter, and she
hunted all the prominent people to bring there; she literally
captured them!

V. Adams: She took us up to that cave, I don't know where it was.
Adams: Wasn't it near the Blue Lakes?

V. Adams: No. Arroyo something I don't know. We went up the valley, as if
we were going to Colorado, and then we went up a canyon.

Adams: Oh yes, I know.

V. Adams: And it was something that was supposed to be very serious, and

the light came down at a certain angle at a certain time. And she
said maybe the Aztecs had been there. I mean, it was very super-
super. And some girl she'd taken there just felt that she saw
them all there, and she crawled out of the cave

Adams: She was slightly fey.

V. Adams: She had a feel for all those things. [Laughter]

[End Tape 7, Side 2]

[Begin Tape 8, Side 1]

Adams: Well, I think an analysis of this whole Mabel Luhan business would
be exciting, because she, of course, had, as I said, a tremendous
amount of money and influence.

V. Adams: You've read some of her books, haven't you?


Teiser: Yes.

Adams: She had a salon in Italy, and she was always gathering people unto
her. And the biggest feather in her cap it was quite a struggle
was to get Lawrence to New Mexico. Now, as far as I can make out,
from reading the things and knowing her, that poor old Lawrence
was dragged there by his beard, and was very unhappy, because he
became sort of a curiosity. She could afford anything, and she
just kept these people; she would collect these celebrities.

V. Adams: She probably fought with Frieda, didn't she?

Adams: She fought with everybody, in the end. We got along all right; but

she was mad at me one time furious.

Teiser: Why?

Adams: I don't know; I guess I wasn't sympathetic enough. If you ever

raised your voice in the slightest bit of criticism, you were out.
But I never really got out, I just got put in the dog house.

V. Adams: You didn't fall for her, Ansel; you know, that's one of the things.

Adams: You see, I didn't have any concept at all of being a celebrity, of
being important to anything.

V. Adams: Well, you were just a young man

Adams: I was just trying to do photographs. Of course, now you have this
feeling people tell you you're celebrated or well known, and so
on. It didn't make any impression on me because this is the kind
of thing that only historians can define, and I know I've made
certain contributions, but certainly at that time I was a nonentity
and was coming on the coattails (if you'll pardon the metaphor) of
Mary Austin and a few others.

But Frank Applegate and she had a falling out
V. Adams: Mabel?
Adams: Yes. They had a falling out.

V. Adams: Well, she'd had a falling out with anybody who wasn't under her
thumb, I think.

Adams: I think she was hypersexed

V. Adams: And you and Frank Applegate didn't fall for it.

Adams: No, thank God.' I must hasten to say that my hyper was very different
from her hyper. [Loud laughter] Hypo too!


Adams: Well, anyway, the whole New Mexican picture, of course, is very
mixed. I think we got through a lot of it.

V. Adams: Well, we did go out to Taos. We did stay at Mabel's, and Ella
Young stayed at Mabel's.

Paul Strand and a New Approach

Adams: And that's where I met Paul Strand and saw his negatives, which
changed my whole direction in photography. This was after I had
done the Taos book pictures. Then I saw Paul Strand's negatives,
and the approach was something so tremendous to me that I literally
changed my approach. And I can say that when I came back to
California the seed of the Group f/64 movement was sown.

While other people had been working with the "straight" idea,
I don't think other people had ever stretched it as much. We made
it a bit of a cult, in a sense that isn't the right word what
would you say?

V. Adams: I don't know, but you all got together and said, "Now this is the
way we feel photography should be," and they talked about how to
do it, and what kind of a name to give the approach.

Adams: I'm trying to get the bridge between my experience with Strand and
my change of style. My change was very definite after that. I
think I was with the exception of Weston the first one to make
the change, and then many others followed.

I'll never forget one photographer (I can't remember his name),
when I did my Golden Gate picture before the bridge 1933, I
guess*, and Albert had it published a little printed thing to give
all his friends; he called it a keepsake. This man was perfectly
furious, because he said, "This isn't the Golden Gate." And it was
nothing but jealousy, probably because he'd tried to take it, but
I was lucky and had a good day and beautiful clouds. We've never
been able to find out what he meant by saying, "This isn't the
Golden Gate." Was it because it wasn't his concept, or was he
peeved over the clouds?

V. Adams: Did he want to see it looking the other way?

*It is titled "Golden Gate, 1932" in The Eloquent Light.


Adams: No, because the Golden Gate is as you come in it's the gate to

the harbor, not the gate to the ocean. So for quite a time there
was a little conjecture on this statement, "This isn't the Golden
Gate." And it was a very cryptic statement. It probably was that
the Golden Gate was really mostly fogbound, and that we had a
glorious pile-up of cumulus clouds, which is unusual, and it was
a damned good photograph, and he hadn't made any one as good as
that, so he was probably jealous. And I never have seen a
photograph that carried quite those qualities, and I think that's
entirely a matter of luck, because I lived near there and I saw
these clouds, and so on!

V. Adams: How big a picture could you make of that now?

Adams: Oh, I have 30 by 40 40 by 60 inch enlargements. It's a little
soft. I used an old Kodak film, but I made the best prints I've
ever made of it just the other day,

V. Adams: Just looking at all these big things today and the ones that were
good and the ones that weren't good enough is quite an experience.

Adams: That's it. Yes. Now, I don't know why that isn't the Golden Gate.

V. Adams: I don't know why it isn't either.

Adams: Except that probably the man didn't like clouds.

V. Adams: Well, Ansel, did you use any of that in the American Trust book?
[The Pageant of History in Northern California]

Adams: No, I don't think that's in it.

V. Adams: He did a lot of pictures for the new Bank of California.

Teiser: When?

Adams: Within the past decade. I have three rooms in the new building [the
headquarters building in San Francisco]: the Washington room, the
Oregon room, and the California room. You go and ask, "Can they be
seen today?" It would be a very good idea to see it; it might be
interesting to see how pictures are used in decor in a room.
They're all stainless steel frames.

For the book I did for Wells Fargo Bank that was the American
Trust Company then we wanted "The Triumph of Enterprise" as its
title. And the one powerful man on the board of directors was the
stupidest man I've ever seen. He said, "I don't want any of that
crap. That's one of those goddamned phony titles. I want to call
it a 'Pageant of History in Northern California'." I had to give in
to it. But imagine: "Triumph of Enterprise" tells the whole story
so beautifullv.


V. Adams: Beautifully.

Adams: Maybe I should suggest they do a new book called "The Triumph of

Enterprise." But it was the triumph of enterprise. It's California
that was nothing at first, begins in gold, but that's only part of
the development. In fact, there was a very interesting discussion
in Yosemite that most of the gold was taken out of California by
the Spaniards long before they left.

V. Adams: Not most, but lots.

Adams: Well, there was all the surface gold. Much more gold than we ever
got out of it in our mining. They cleaned out stream after stream.
This is something which somebody's got to do a lot of research in.
And it was a hundred and something years before the Anglos came
over. But the gold was lying right there in the stream and was
perfectly obvious. And they left some until Sutter's man [James
Marshall] found it.

V. Adams: In Southern California they certainly were mining earlier.