Ansel Adams.

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

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to discuss spontaneously whatever was brought up. The result is this informal,
wide-ranging, informative series of conversations.

Mr. Adams's editing of the interview transcript, which was sent to him in
sections, was done over a two-year period, in time fitted into a busy schedule.
(He read one section while confined to bed with the flu, another on a trans-
Atlantic plane.) He made brief additions, most in response to queries by the
interviewers, and some corrections, but no extensive changes.

The Regional Oral History Office is grateful to Mrs. Helen M. Land, whose
generous contribution to the Friends of The Bancroft Library made the project
possible, and to the Sierra Club for a contribution toward the part of the
interview that deals specifically with the Sierra Club. In addition, thanks
are due to Helen M. LeConte, long-time friend of Ansel and Virginia Adams and
of the interviewer, for valuable assistance in the project.

Ruth Teiser
Catherine Harroun

18 August 1978

Regional Oral History Office

486 The Bancroft Library

University of California at Berkeley

[Interview I 12 May 1972]
[Begin Tape 1, Side 1]

Education and the Creative Process

Adams: My father [Charles Hitchcock Adams] was a very broad-minded man,

and I guess he must have known that I was a bit of a nut, but he had
faith, and they sent me to various schools. I didn't do at all well,
so then I got into music and decided that was pretty good, and my
father said, "Well now, if you want to you can go to the university,
or study music, and if you do music all I'll ask you is to take some
languages and sciences because they are useful."

So I studied with several private people a little Greek, and
my father taught me a little French. Had a miserable time with
German didn't go anywhere with it. And so I was free to do pretty
much what I wanted. All that he wanted was the satisfaction that I
was getting somewhere.

It would have been extremely difficult today to have done that
because of your school regulations and the conventions of education.
This tends to worry me a little bit, because I know our own children
just had to go to the grammar school and the high school, and a lot
of things seemed to be a great waste of time. My son [Michael Adams]
-had a compelling interest in flying. It was later on that he
decided to become a doctor. But I just can't help thinking of the

Now, Russell Varian (he's dead now, but he was the head of the
Varian Associates, he and his brother) and I understood that even in
high school he couldn't read. He could read silently, and he could
write pretty well, but if you asked him to read this, he couldn't
read it out loud. So of course he was considered a prime nut, but he
was a genius in mathematics and physics, and on the basis of that he
got into Stanford.

That's impossible today, because he didn't have any of the

Adams :

Then his brother, Sigurd, was a very fine engineer. You don't
realize that they were one of the dominant powers, forces, in
the development of radar. And here's a guy who couldn't read
out loud in high school! [Laughter]

So the creative process is something that is inevitable.
You can't control it. You can't stop it. There's nothing you
can do with it. You can wreck it, I suppose, but if a person
was really creative, I don't think he would get into drugs and
things. I think the impulse is there and it's strong.

I guess I'd say that with me the impulse must have been
there, but certainly the family support had a great deal to do
with it.

Family Background and Childhood

Adams :

Teiser :
Adams :

My Adams family came from New England, and my grandmother*
spent the last decade of her life trying to relate us to the
presidential family, but it doesn't work. [Laughter] They are
very distantly related, but nothing that you'd say would be

Were there creative people in your family?

Well, Henry Adams was closer. I don't know just what the
relationship was, but that's almost to the point where any
quality that they had would be so distributed in the genes that
you couldn't count on it after so many generations of diffusion.
My grandmother's family was from Thomaston, Maine. That was the
Hills family, who, it seems, are related to the Hills coffee
people. She found that out. She could trace the ancestry back
to England, to Lord Rosse**, the astronomer. And that's all we
can tell on that side.

On the other side, the Bray family [to Mrs. Adams] there's
not much known about the Bray family, is there, other than they
came from Baltimore?

Mrs. Virginia

Best Adams: Well, they had Oliver Cromwell as a relative.

Adams :

They had?

*Cassandra Hills Adams, wife of William James Adams.
**William Parsons, Third Earl of Rosse.

V. Adams:

Adams :
Adams :
Adams :

Adams :

Yes. Auntie "Crumell" they called her; she belonged to the Cromwell
family.* I don't know whether that's an honor or not.

I didn't realize that. So that would be several generations remote.
That was your mother's family?
That was my mother's family.**
How did her parents get to Nevada?

Well, they both in '56 came across the plains and went to Sacramento
a business then moved to Carson City, and they lived in Nevada. My
mother was born in Iowa, though, on the way over. My father's
father came west one or two times started a business and then went
back again and married and came back by ship. I guess he always
came by ship. But the Brays came across in a covered wagon.

So then my grandfather [William James Adams] got in the lumber
business and several things. If all had gone well I might have been
a real playboy, but it didn't. He was at one time supposed to be the
wealthiest lumber man on the coast, and there was a series of
disasters, a couple of crashes, and he lost twenty-seven ships by
fire and shipwreck lumber ships in twelve or fifteen years. Just
disaster after disaster. Several mills burned, and in those days
the insurance cost almost as much as what was insured, so if anything
happened, that was just a dead loss. But of course, the accounting
in those days you just had money in the bank, and if a ship was
destroyed, you just took the money out and built another one. I mean
there was no such thing as cost accounting or if they took in a
great deal of money, they just took in a great deal of money, that
was all. There were no taxes. It was so simple compared to today.
And offices for these big plants had none of the present style I
remember as a kid there 'd be a great big shed, you know, and all the
steel work of a lumber mill, and the office would be about as big as
this alcove, a kind of mezzanine supported with rods from the
ceiling, and a staircase. And then there were a couple of ladies,
maybe somebody with an old-fasioned typewriter, and a couple would
be writing in books, and that was the office.

For the lumber mill?

The whole business went through just this little office,
a couple of office boys, and paymasters, you see.

Oh, maybe

*She was a great aunt of Ansel Adams.
**Ansel Adams's mother was born Olive Bray.

Adams: I know years ago my father was secretary of the Merchants Exchange
[in San Francisco], and they controlled the Merchants Exchange
Building. Every Friday it was payday for the men, and my father
would take the voucher to the treasurer to be approved, and then
go to the bank and get the money greenback money which was put in
little envelopes. And each man had his name on it and the amount
due him. There was no withholding, nothing, just the amount. Then
they'd line up, the janitor, the engineers, and I used to help my
father sometimes. You had to say the names: "Mendota," and Joe
Mendota gets his envelope. Compared to today, you know, it's
amazing that business was that way. But that's getting a little bit
away from your mission.

I remember the whole family. My uncle [William L. Adams] was a
very fine doctor, and he died when I was about ten or twelve, I
think, of diabetes. That was before insulin. And he was a very
prominent doctor, what they called a diagnostician, and a diagnostician
in those days was the equivalent of an internist, an internal medicine
man, today. But I think in the last fifteen, maybe twenty years of
his practice, he saw patients only referred to him by other doctors,
whereas now the internist refers to specialists. All the other
general men around would say, "Well, better go see Dr. Adams on that."
He was the "diagnostic expert."

Teiser: Were you friendly with him?

Adams: He was a very nice man. He was a good student of French, translated
French poetry. His first wife was a nurse whom he met studying
medicine in Paris. She converted him to Catholicism, and he
succeeded in converting half the family. So half of us are heathens,
and the other half are Catholics. [Laughter] I think we're supposed
to be Episcopalians for the record.

Teiser: Did people read to you before you, yourself, read?

Adams: Yes, my father would very patient. I read very early, though. I
could read at a very early age.

Teiser: Teach yourself?

Adams: Oh, I guess so; just read, you know. I had a phenomenal memory. At
the age of twelve I could look at a page and recite it. In fact,
even when I was first studying music I could take a thing to bed and
read it at night and play it the next morning. I could see the notes.
That facility left me at about sixteen, seventeen. I lost that. Now
I have one of the world's worst memories. But that's all right. It's
perfectly natural that you lose that kind of memory because so many
other things come into the mind. I think that the reason I have a bad
memory now is that there isn't any room. I've got so many things

Adams: going on and thinking about, that I meet somebody and I hear the name
and I forget it. I forget how to spell it. And then it's very
embarrassing, because I remember the face. I can't remember the years
the pictures* were taken in, but I can remember the situation of
taking them. I can go right back, and in most cases I can see the
camera, the lens. I can tell you the exposures. I can remember that
phase very clearly, and a great many things way back to the middle of
the 1920s. I can pretty much point to the camera, the lens. I can
remember I did this with the second Zeiss Protar I had. I remember
that this was a very wide-angle lens with the smallest stop, which was
actually f/56, and you know, I can remember these things. But as for
the dates, I can't remember those at all, and that drives my friend
Beaumont Newhall, the historian, out of his mind because some of my
pictures appear with three or four different dates on the back, so I
use the word "circa" now. So it will be "circa early twentieth
century." [Laughter]

Another very important thing was the location. When I was one
year old we moved out to the new house in San Francisco because my
father wanted to be in the country. It was right in the middle of
the sand dunes near the ocean, and an old house a block or so away
from us was the nearest house. I can remember just a little kid I'd
sit at the window and watch my father in the carriage (they had a man
at the end of the line at First Avenue) he'd come out on the street
car to First Avenue, and there were two carriages that ran up and down
Lake Street. And you'd have to wait maybe fifteen, twenty minutes,
get in the carriages, and we'd see Papa and the horse clumping out
Lake Street and he would get off at Twenty-fourth Avenue and walk
down on a board walk through the sand to the house. I've got all
those memories the wild country and the beautiful flowers and Lobos
Creek, and the fog horns, and Bakers Beach right down below. You know,
you had a feeling of very close contact with nature.

And a very interesting thing, when they started developing the
area, there was a man named S. [Stephen] A. Born, a contractor, who
built the houses now in Westclay Park. He did some of Seacliff, but
Westclay Park was his area. And he was a very fine builder, I mean
he always put more wood in than was needed. Some of those houses are
just as sturdy as a rock. I know a friend of mine has a house that
he built in 1918, 1916 I guess, and that house is absolutely solid.
You know its timbers wonderful construction! But he used to let me
go over to the work room and shed and draw plans, and the architect
and draftsmen were very kind and would show me how to draw, you know,
building plans what an elevation was, and space problems. I still
remember all that very clearly. I could have been an architect.

*Ansel Adams's photographs.

Teiser: How old were you when you were interested in this?

Adams: Ten, eight or ten. So I learned a great deal of that. And that
helped precision of thinking. Now, this is all very important,
because that gave me a certain precision. Well, you draw a straight
line and measure it, you see. Even showed me how they form a drawing,
leave spaces for the rug, how to figure all the different dimensions,
and how to draw an arch. You know, I just learned the guy loved to
teach me these things, and he'd give me a T-square and a little desk,
and I'd sit over there in the corner and work.

He said once that I had a couple of good ideas and he was going
to use them. I don't know what they were.

Studying the Piano

Adams: Well, the next thing as far as precision goes, the training in

music, which was with an elderly maiden lady, Miss Marie Butler, who
was a long-time associate with the New England Conservatory of Music.
She came from a Unitarian family from Boston, very precise and
extremely accurate, and had the patience of Job because I was really
pretty scatterbrained. She told my father that I had talent, it was
obvious, but I never was going to get anywhere unless I had discipline,
and the discipline might take anywhere from six months to five years.
Was he willing to stick it out? I mean she was perfectly frank. She
said, "He's extremely scatterbrained. He looks out the window. He
thinks of something else." My father said, "Keep at him," so I had
her for years.

It finally got to the point when I would do, say, a Bach
Invention, it'd have to be note perfect. I mean it, there was no
compromise, and if I didn't, "Bring it back next Friday." I mean no
soft decision. I'd get so damn sick of that thing that I'd just go
out of my mind. But I finally, by feeling obligated, I just did it.
So, I would do it. Fine. I would go to something else, and on, and
on. Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann. And this perfection, and the quality
of tone which I learned from her and, of course, my finger technique
my hands weren't heavy, so it was impact, you know: lift, strike and
relax. The idea is you strike a key but you relax immediately and
slightly lift the key; that's part of the first exercise you do, to
get that dynamic thing, and then the release. So that gave you a
terrific tempo, you see, and very crisp sound and that built up,
well, a dependency on accuracy. She wouldn't tolerate any sloppiness.
I remember one day she said, "Well, now, I'm very happy about you,
and you've gone as far as you can go with me, and I think you now
should study with Professor [Frederick] Zech. (Old man then, seventy-
eight.) And he had studied with and assisted Von Bulow.

Adams: And he was a real Germanic you know, incredible, I'll never forget -
he'd demonstrate technical passages, the only thing he'd ever demon
strate with me. And he said, "Well, you're a little weak on your
double fourths and thirds and sixths." He said, "You must play sixths
like this." And here was this chromatic cascade of double sixths, you
see. [Laughter] I'll never forget hearing this, but it was a totally
impossible thing. But I did it, I got it! But never any one of the
teachers played for me just the plain music, on an imitative basis.
It was all done by encouraging that you ask yourself, "Did this sound
right?" or, "Do you think you really shaped that phrase?" You know,
this dialectic thing.

After Zech I went for six weeks to a woman called Elizabeth
Simpson in Berkeley, who was one of those most satisfactory teachers
as far as the facility of her class was concerned, and she taught
with two pianos, which is I think the most deadly thing you can do,
because all of her class sounded just like her; no individuality.
Now, my father was pretty sensitive, because I came back after a
couple of lessons, and I was playing Schubert, and he came over and
he said, "What's happened, it doesn't sound like you?" And I said,
"What do you mean it doesn't sound like me?" He said, "Well, the
style is not you. You know, I've been listening to you now for quite
a few years." And it occurred to me, well, my gosh, she was "showing"
me. She was playing a phrase leading me on and I went a few more
weeks and went to a recital, and it all became perfectly clear that
it was parroting. And she just simply taught that way. She had
immense success. They all played exceedingly well, but they all
sounded just like she did. (Do cats bother you? Because this one is
very friendly.)

Well, then I went to Ben [Benjamin S.] Moore who was an organist-
pianist, and he was a very great influence on my life because he was
also a philosopher and gave the music another dimension. He was also
a purist. And that was the end of my musical training. I worked
with him for years five or six years, I guess.

Beginning in Photography

Adams: Then gradually I got off into photography, and pretty soon I'm in
photography professionally!

But the important thing is that these precisions were un
obtainable in the photographic world. There was no school of
photography, nothing but going out and apprenticing yourself to
someone who did photof inishing, which I did for a couple of summers,
You know, you learned how to "soup a print," as they called it and,

Adams: oh, terrible stuff but there was no school relationship, no

academic contact or anything, and there were just two or three very
good photographers who were terribly jealous. [William E. ]
Dassonville was very kind to me. He made photographic papers, and
he helped me a great deal. The other photographers were nice enough,
but, gee, they just hated to give away secrets, you know as if there
were secrets in simple technology!

I remember Moulin*, the old man. He had a big factory I'm sure
you know of it in San Francisco. A big place. He called me up once
and he said, "Mr. Adams, I know we photographers don't like to give
away our secrets because it's all we've got. I don't know how you
feel about it, but I've got to ask a question. Something I just
don't know, and it bothers me." I said, "Well, Mr. Moulin, I have
no secrets, but I'm not an encyclopedia." He said, "What does
potassium bromide do in the developer?"

Now, that is like asking, "What does salt do in soup?" or "What
does yeast do in bread?" It is one of the fundamentals, a restrainer,
and it's been around for nearly a century, and it simply keeps the
developer grains from developing themselves where they have not been
exposed to light, so it prevents fog, and most developers are active
enough to always develop a certain amount of grains that have not
been affected by light, and then you get this fog. You see, if it
has a little restrainer, which is bromide, it puts bromide back into
the halide crystals, and this "clears the whites." But here is this
man who was the biggest photographer in the city, and had the biggest
business and the biggest staff, and nobody on his staff or he knew
what potassium bromide did.

But of course if I really had to tell you what potassium bromide
did and describe the chemical structure, the reaction, that would be
far beyond me from the point of view of a chemist. This is a very
complicated physical chemistry step. But for all intents and purposes,
you know what it does when you add it to the developer. You add
seasoning to food and you don't chemically analyze seasoning; you ask
for saffron or, you know, pepper or something, but you don't give the
chemical analysis of it. But at that time, you see, we weren't getting
information from anybody. Everybody either didn't know or wouldn't

Teiser: This would have been when?
Adams: The twenties.

*Gabriel Moulin, founder of a major San Francisco photography studio.

Teiser: I see. That late.

Adams: The end of the twenties. And the Moulin episode came in the thirties.
At that time there were only a few there was Ann Brigman, there was
Imogen Cunningham, there was Dorothea Lange, Consuelo Kanaga, William
Dassonville. As far as I know, they were the only photographers in
the area who had any creativity. (Well, I was on that side of the
fence.) And Dassonville did portraits, pretty good ones, although
to the "trade;" it was soft-focus, and on soft papers. Imogen was
doing portraits. I guess she was the best; she had the greatest
variety of approach. Dorothea Lange was doing portraits and some
Indian work, not very good. Didn't have any technique. Consuelo
Kanaga was a delightful woman and imaginative artist, but again, no
technique. They were trying to say something in a language you can't

So then when I first started in serious photography that's
1930 it was people like Willard Van Dyke and Edward Weston that
came on the scene. Of course, they found that here we had all these
damn camera club people with hideous taste, imitative stuff, soupy
sentimental business. A lot of them had a very fine mechanical
technique, which was always very irritating to me. [Laughter] They
knew a lot about it, you know, but what they did was terrible
aesthetically. And that led into Group f/64, and this is probably
another chapter entirely. I'm going way ahead.

Youthful Experiences

Adams: I'd say that my first experience in nature was a regional

experience; of Bakers Beach and that whole western part of the City,
which profoundly influenced me; the storms and the fogs and all this
open space. Why I didn't get killed a hundred times on those
Golden Gate cliffs I don't know. I used to go out to Land's End and
climb all over without knowing how to climb, and all alone. I got
into some tight situations.

Teiser: Did you play alone a good deal of the time?
Adams: Oh, yes, yes.
Teiser: You did?

Adams: Yes, I didn't have well, there were a few boys in the neighborhood.
Nothing really happened that way. It was interesting; I didn't have
any real friends. I just didn't need them. I don't know.


Adams: But the other experience was then going to Puget Sound to my father's
plant. It was after 1912 when he started the plant to recoup the
family fortune, and we had this property on Puget Sound. He acquired
the rights to the Classen process. Now, this is chemically interest
ing, but today things have superseded it. It was a way of making
industrially pure alcohol, ethyl alcohol, not methyl or wood alcohol
but just industrially pure ethyl alcohol, 200 proof, from cellulose.
They decided that that area was magnificent because of all the
sawdust and the slash, and all the available wood material which the
lumber mills would just love to get rid of, and they'd send the barges
around all over the Sound and collect tons of this stuff, and then
come back and go through this Classen chemical process which involved
treatment by sulphurous acid, and they made we still have some 200
proof alcohol. It's as pure as anything you'll ever get, and more
potent, easily drinkable. The residue of that, the cellulose, was
then mixed with molasses and a few other things (they didn't know
about vitamins then, but "enrichments") and it was sold as cattle food.
It was called Bastol, and that had a great future because it was
relatively light in relation to energy, and it could be mixed with
hay or grain.

And what happened in this case was that industrial alcohol was
at that time a by-product of the sugar industry (the sugar cane
residue). And the Hawaiian sugar trust you can literally say that
the group got together and decided that this company can't go on.
And they bought out every share of stock they could get, and my
father's brother-in-law* was bribed and he sold out and betrayed him.
It was a terrible blow. My father's lawyer betrayed him. They sold
their stock and got out of it, for a price. It was a terrible blow
to Papa, and they got 54 percent control of the stock, threw everybody
out, put in a dummy board, and wrecked the plant.

Now, it was so important to them, they didn't even try to
salvage some of this beautiful equipment the machinery was wrecked.