Ansel Adams.

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

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Adams: They apparently were all over the place.

V. Adams: That is a thing I would need to have more documentation on.

Adams: Well, it is a very important thing. And historians shy clear
because there isn't more documentation.

Santa Fe People, Continued

V. Adams: Ansel, one of the times when you were at Taos, Becky [Mrs. Paul]
Strand and Georgia O'Keeffe lived in one of Mabel's houses across
a meadowland. And then later on you went up there, maybe to take
that one picture that you wanted to do afterwards, and for some
reason or other, Mabel was upset

Adams: Said she had no room for me. And Becky Strand stood up for me and
said, "Mabel, that big studio is entirely vacant, and you put Adams
up in that studio." (Everybody in Stieglitz's group called
everybody by his last name.) "Or else!" And by gosh, I was over
there in a cot in this enormous studio.

V. Adams: But Mabel was just mad at the time, and she didn't want anything to
do with Ansel.

Adams: Very mercurial. But she was very nice the last time I saw her before
she died, and so I have


V. Adams:


V . Adams ;

V. Adams:

V. Adams:


V. Adams:

V. Adams :

V. Adams:

Adams :
V. Adams:

They came down here to Carmel a number of times. And I guess one
of her last times was to get Robinson Jeffers and his family to
come to Taos .

Oh, that was a tragedy, because she got him and started putting
Robin on the make, and Una attempted suicide in the bathtub cut
her wrists, but it was a failure. It was that kind of an intense
situation. If you didn't have a clinical approach to life...

Well now, what more about New Mexico, while you're thinking about

To conclude the story about Robinson Jeffers, he went?
Yes. And wrote some poems.

He went down to Taos, yes. And his wife was so upset about it that,
of course, it ruined everybody's point of view.

Yes, that was really terrible.

After that, I guess, they went to Ireland once or twice, and they
had a happy time there. Mabel, for once, didn't really win.

Mabel was after Robin, and that was it. And Una wasn't going to
take it. I don't know what his attitude was. I suppose he she
was a bedazzling person. I mean, you had this opulence and style

I don't think opulence would affect him, but she was an intelligent

Well, it was intellectual opulence. And Una was a very quiet
person very intelligent and nice but there was a very great
difference from the quiet of the Tor House in Carmel to this super
spectacular landscape and house at Taos.

Probably Jeffers just hid behind his pipe and didn't say much of

Well, you don't know.

We don't know. We weren't around at that time.

What sort of a woman was Mary Austin? Was she a commanding person

She was a commando! [Laughter] She thought she was the most
beautiful woman alive.

Well, not beautiful physically


Adams: Oh yes, the most beautiful and appealing woman.
V. Adams: Noble.

Teiser: Well, in your picture reproduced in The Eloquent Light she's

V. Adams: Well, that's the most becoming picture I've ever seen of her.

Adams: She was very intense. Extremely intelligent. Extremely

opinionated, and thought that all men were just going to fall
right at her feet.

I think I can tell this story about Orage at a party at
Bynner's, with Mary Austin. This is really very funny. Orage, of
course, was a provocative person. He was a disciple of Gurdjieff.

Teiser: I didn't realize he was in the West.

Adams: Oh yes. We were very good friends, and I have an excellent
picture of him.

Well anyhow, they were at Bynner's and Orage was giving a
little seminar discussion in which he said he figures that the
value of literary work is entirely what you were paid for it he
was that kind of a person. He'd say these provocative things, you

V. Adams: Always stimulating conversation with him!

Adams: So Mary Austin said, "I dispute this." He said, "Well, Miss Austin,
history seems to bear this out." She said, "I dispute that." He
said, "Well, Miss Austin, that's what I believe." She said, "Mr.
Orage, do you mean to say that if I sell a production novel, or a
story for the Ladies' Home Journal, for five thousand dollars that
that's more important than my books on the Southwest, my creative
series, my creative work?" He said, "Yes. If you sold it for five
thousand dollars, I would say it was more important." She said,
"Why, Mr. Orage, I would rather prostitute my body than do that."
He said, "Don't worry, Miss Austin, you couldn't." [Laughter] Dead
silence! One of the greatest stories I've ever heard, and I was
right there when it happened. Oh, that's the kind of thing that
went on down there all the time, and Bynner was just about blowing
a cork. He was very, very kind, very intelligent, a very considerate
man, and he couldn't laugh. I could just see him sort of holding
back. That was really a great story.

Teiser: Was working with her difficult?


Adams: I never had any trouble with Mary. She wrote an iron-bound contract
on the book with the idea that among friends a contract should be
severe and nothing left to argument. Can you remember one episode
that wasn't pleasant?

V. Adams: No.

Adams: She was mad at you once, because you didn't have lunch ready for
the working man that's right.

V. Adams: I don't remember that.

Adams: A man was working in the garden, and you said you'd have lunch, and
it was twelve o'clock and it wasn't quite ready, and she said, "Oh,
the working man has to have his lunch right on time." But she
liked you much better than most people.

V. Adams: I don't even remember that.

Well, I remember the trouble I had trying to get things ready
for the working men [in Yosemite] when I was eighteen, but this was
after I had gotten married. I just don't remember.

Adams: That's the only thing. Let's see she was mad at me for something
else. Oh, I wrote a letter to the Yale Press saying that it was
all right with me to do something extra to the text of The Land of
Little Rain, but you'd have to check with Mary Austin. And her
letter to me was, "You have no idea of the terrible thing you have
done. You should have checked with me first before you wrote the
Yale Press."

V. Adams: She stood on her rights.

Adams: That was perfectly ridiculous, but that was the end of that. I
mean, we were all very good friends.

V. Adams: She was awfully nice to us; she was really.

Taos Pueblo, Continued, and The Land of Little Rain

Teiser: For the Taos book, did you show her the photographs and she followed
them with the text? How did it work?

Adams: No, no. She did the text and left me alone. The text doesn't

relate to the photographs. It's an essay on Taos. It's very good.
I think we really should reprint that.


V. Adams:
Adams :
V. Adams:

Adams :

V. Adams:

V. Adams:
Adams :
V . Adams :

V. Adams:

V . Adams
Adams :

I think so .

I think Morgan & Morgan could do that.

Well, Jim Holliday was very interested in having the Book Club do

I still think the artist

No money in the Book Club, dear,
deserves payment.


There are lots of things that you'll never get paid for anywhere
else that you could let the Book Club do, and of course, the Book
Club does beautiful things.

They do a beautiful job.

But when it comes to a person who's still a professional

I still would like to see a thing like that done by the Book Club.

Well, it would never get out to the people,
small, tight membership, which keeps it.

It just gets to a

Well, that's true. But it would be kind of nice.

I think there's thousands of things done in the twenties, thirties,
and forties at the Grabhorn Press like Mark Twain's letter to his
lawyer and laundress, you know completely inconsequential things.
And done up by such as John Henry Nash in expensive style.

We don't have very many Nash things, you know.

No. I thought he was terrible; a fake. Grabhorn was one of the
greatest printers that ever lived. But if you were very wealthy,
you could say, "Well, sure, we'll let the Book Club do it, and give
it as a keepsake." But I'd like to see that Taos book done as a
facsimile by the Morgans, and I bet they'd sell twenty-five thousand
copies. And the people would see it, and I'd make some money. I'm
getting along. I have to begin to make some money and salt it
away, so I can afford the papers that have my reviews in them.

I have plenty of things that we could do. I have early pictures
of the Sierra Club, camp pictures, and groups of the early people,
and little episodes ideal Book Club stuff. I mean, if I was just to
give my reminiscences of John Henry Nash well here's the thing: the
Taos book [Taos Pueblo] . Bender had gotten John Henry Nash to agree
to do it. Bender said, "I'll subsidize it." I went over to see


Adams: Nash and he said, "Well, I've got the end-papers for it," which
were a great big stack of Spanish parchment you know, Gregorian
chant music sheets!

"But," I said, "Mr. Nash, Taos is Indian, not Spanish."
"Pueblo, pueblo that's Spanish." [Laughter]

So I went back to Albert and I said, "This is hopeless. This

guy doesn't know what he's talking about. We can't have a Gregorian

chant as the end-paper." He said, "Well, I guess we'd better talk
to old Grab."

Then there was a very interesting episode there, because [Edwin]
Grabhorn did not print that big a spread as a unit. He printed them
this side and that side, and for some reason they weren't lined up.
And so when Hazel Dreis begins to bind it, she finds that the pages
are misaligned; they will not be parallel in the binding, you see.

V. Adams: Does that show? Or was she able to correct it?

Adams: Oh, you couldn't do it. Grabhorn said, "Why, this is absolutely
crazy. It is absolutely accurate." She laid them out, and he'd
made them a quarter of an inch off. Well, this wouldn't do Grabhorn
any good. We just had enough paper left to print it. And he sent
it to another and larger press [William Eveleth's] and sat over its

But even the greatest people, you know, can make terrible faux
pas. And he had never printed anything bigger than what the press
would take. So he thought that if he fed this in, then reversed it
not a really work and turn system, but a reversal. And it wasn't
aligned. So you have to imagine that as the pages became misaligned
the misalignment would accumulate in the binding!

And poor Hazel! I remember the perspiration on her forehead.
She said, "I can't bind it. There's no way to bind it. They don't
pull. I'd have to cut every sheet, and put them in and correct
them, and that would cut down the sheet size." And she was
absolutely right.

Teiser: Was the book itself a great success?

Adams: Oh yes. Sold out, and it's worth a fortune now. I don't know what
it's worth. You'd get a thousand, two thousand, anything you want.
One of the rarest books there is.

Harroun: It's a beautiful book.

Adams: It sold for seventy- five dollars, I think.


Teiser: But then, on top of that great success, you turned your back on
that type of photography?

Adams: On that type of pictorial image. I didn't exactly turn my back on
it, but I changed. Now the difficulty is and this is a very
important thing I can't make what I call satisfactory prints from
most of those negatives, because they were made for another process.
That was empirical in approach. I didn't know what I was really
doing in those days. It was all by trial and error. And I can
print the "Woman Winnowing Grain," and the "Ranches de Taos Church"
and maybe one or two others like the New Church I can print those
well now. The others I just can't print on the modern papers.
They're not sharp enough; they're not decisive. That's why just
printing the Taos book again wouldn't work. But if you made
facsimile pictures took them to an engraver to make a facsimile
plate and did it as a reprint, in a smaller format it could be
very nice, I think. It's in the public domain now, so anybody can
do it.

Teiser: You didn't copyright it?

Adams: It's copyrighted, but the copyright only runs twenty-eight years.

Teiser: And you can't renew it now?

Adams: No, no. In fact The Land of Little Rain is in the public domain,

and John Muir's writing. You could do a book of The Land of Little
Rain. You could do it by etchings or drawings or photographs
anything you want.

Teiser: That was published in 1950. How did you happen to decide to do it?

Adams: Well, this meant so much to Mary Austin. I loved the country and

I had so many pictures of it. I'd like to do that book again; most
of those pictures could be much better reproduced. Because I think
that's quite an impressive book. There are lots of things I could
add to it.

Teiser: Were many of the photographs taken before, or were they done for
this purpose?

Adams: Well, they couldn't be done after the book was published! They all
had to be done before. But for ten years we thought about it. As
I say, the text was public after her death. And the heirs have
no right to it. In fact, if there were any heirs you should
ethically advise them you were going to do it, but there aren't
any. That's an ethical point. Say that Ella Young had done a book
of poems , and I wanted to take the poems and make photographs for
them, I wouldn't have to pay anybody anything. But still, you would


Adams: feel, ethically, that perhaps her heirs would have some rights, so
you'd make a token payment. You'd put something in there for them.
But you can't do it in royalty. That's a personal decision. It
does not have to be done.

Teiser: The work on The Land of Little Rain, then, was done over a period
of years your photographs?

Adams: Oh yes. Many photographs over a long time. And I've done things
since then of the same areas.

More Southwest Friends and Experiences

Teiser: You met John Marin in 1929, according to Mrs. Newhall.
Adams: That's right. At Mabel's.
Teiser: Had you known his work before?

Adams: Oh, very slightly. He was a funny little man. He was very shy,

mouse-like. And I met him first in a bare room; he was laying out
paintings, and they were absolutely beautiful. It was obvious he
didn't want to talk. And then you've read Nancy's thing about the
piano [in The Eloquent Light]. Well, after that we got along fine.
But I know that Marin would go out and would sit around for two or
three weeks never doing anything, just looking around at the
country and then suddenly distilling it, and in one morning doing
ten, fifteen, or more watercolors using brush, fingers, thumb,
everything just pouring these things out. I think he's one of
the greatest artists we've ever had.

[Interruption discussion of details of coming exhibit at
Metropolitan Museum]

Adams: Let me see, there are some things in New Mexico Well, much later
I did a series of pictures for the Boy Scout Camp at Cimarron.
That was left by a very wealthy man, who was a parody of rightist
virtue. But it was a very moving thing, and a very distressing
thing, in a way, to see busloads come in from all over the country,
disgorging these kids who'd never been anywhere with any mountains.
Cimarron 's is a low place in the Sangre de Cristos, east of the

They would set up their pup tents, and they'd have to go
through all the Boy Scout rituals. And then they'd be taken out
on trips. Unfortunately it's a rather uninteresting area it's
rather arid. There's only one peak that looks like a peak. The


Adams: rest of it's great Colorado-type slopes. I stayed there for three
weeks. I liked the story, but it was awfully difficult, because
the environment was so dry and barren.

Get a bunch of kids from Alabama and Rhode Island and dump
them out in the wilderness and see what happens. It rains,
thunders oh, it was terrifically stormy, you know; the worst hail
storm I've ever seen was in Cimarron. I have one gorgeous photo
graph of a thunderstorm and clearing clouds, and the wind was so
strong that I had to hold the eight by ten camera down. The
photograph isn't sharp for that reason, because it's vibrating.
But we had hailstones right at the Kit Carson museum as big as
golf balls. And this terrible roar begins, and I'm in this place,
and I knew the car was closed up, and I said, "Well, here goes the
old Cadillac!" That radiator hood will go right to the moon.
Everything bounced off the car; there wasn't a single dent, but
it killed crops. It did a lot of crop damage. When you see hail
stones that big, you get a bit concerned.

Teiser: Were you photographing the kids too?
Adams: The kids, the camp, and the landscape.
Teiser: What was the end result of that?

Adams: It came out in the Boy Scout magazine big article. Strictly a
professional job, and a very difficult subject to photograph.

In the early days, Frank Applegate and I would tour all
around. We went south of Albuquerque and way up into the Chama
Valley, and visited lots of places. And with my ferocious lack of
documentation ability, I just don't have any real record of it.
Saw a major part of northern New Mexico, and many moradas that no
longer exist.

The roads were unbelievable. At that time, the major
population of the villages north of Santa Fe was Spanish-American;
there was little English spoken. And the Spanish is a very
interesting Spanish, I've been told. It's a bastardized
conquistadore Spanish of four hundred years ago. They've had
scholars from all over come and try to study this particular
Spanish dialect that's used. And there were people at Chimayo
that had been to Espanola, twenty miles away, but had never been
to Santa Fe, thirty or forty miles away, in their whole lives.

I visited the Los Alamos school when it was a school, and it
was just like a camp in the high mountains with log cabins big
log cabin buildings. I can't remember the design. But it was a
very remote place a rather special place for kids. This was
called the Los Alamos Ranch School, I think that was the name.


Teiser: The Los Alamos School was that originally an Indian school?
Adams: No, it was a boy's school.
Teiser: Private boys' school?

Adams: When the Manhattan Project came into being, they bought this

whole thing out; of course, during the War I think the school had
closed down. Well, what they did was to draw employees from all
over the area, and the brighter young people from these villages
would go up there and work. And that disrupted the village life
everywhere. It created a different economic picture.

And now the villages are in, I would say, a rather horrible
state. Lots of delinquency, vandalism, nothing really going on,
nothing made, you know. Chimayo is the top place. They have
Chimayo blankets and the Santuario.

It's important to say that it's Spanish-American and not
Mexican, you see.

V. Adams: They have Anglos and Spanish-Americans in the Southwest.

Adams: And for many, many years it still is, I think the government

documents in the legislature were bilingual. But as I say, there
were many times when Applegate and I would go out to the remote
places and there wasn't one person around with whom we could talk
English. There are a few of the older people remaining.

V. Adams: Santuario was, I thought, emotionally very nice when we went this

Adams: Yes, it was good.

V. Adams: There were people who went in with their little children into that
inner sanctuary.

Teiser: Where is that?

V. Adams: Santuario is a place north of Santa Fe.

Adams: It's called the Santuario de Chimayo. Chimayo is a town.

V. Adams: But the chapel has an inner place, a little deep hole with mud that
they feel is healing.

Adams: The hole didn't seem much bigger forty years ago I don't know what
they do. [Laughs]


V. Adans: But here are these people these Spanish-Americans coming there

from all over the Southwest and taking their children in; they all
brought back little bits of mud. They'd have a paper bag or
something, I noticed, when they went out, to take the mud home in.

Adams: I remember, the last time I was there, I happened to come on a
very old Spanish-American lady, and she hobbled in and then she
touched all of these things on the railing, and altar, and gave
her Hail Marys in Spanish. And boy, she had a lot of stamina!
She went through that whole building and out the back. That was
her last visit this was the feeling of finality. She came from
a hundred miles south.

V. Adams: Saying goodbye to all these things known in her youth.

Adams: Yes. Most of these people were very provincial, and as I said,

many of those people in Chimayo had never been as far away as Santa

V. Adams: Of course, but that changed after they had the buses to go over
to Los Alamos .

Adams: Then, of course, the whole thing blew up and changed. But there's
still Trampas

V. Adams: They still have faith in these places, and that's what was very

exciting to us. Beaumont [Newhall] said, too, it was very touching
to him.

Teiser: Has it changed greatly physically the country and the buildings?
V. Adams: Fewer old wrecks and more tin roofs.

Adams: Very little; I was amazed. I think it's still quite a remarkable

V. Adams: It's beautiful country.

Adams: Canyon Road and Camino del Monte Sol are still pretty much like
they were forty years ago.

V. Adams: It's like here in Carmel. We want to keep the artichoke fields.

In Santa Fe they want to keep the old things. They do pretty well.

Adams: Albuquerque is a mess, in a way.
V. Adams: Well, that's a big city now.

Adams: But where my friends the Newhalls live La Luz it's stunning; a
fine architectural development.


V. Adams: Modern adaptation of Pueblo style.

Adams: Oh, it's beautiful design like nothing I know of, actually. You
can go up to Santa Fe in less than an hour. Parts of Santa Fe are
commercial, but still there are these old beautiful things to be

Teiser: The quality of the light there is it special still, or was it ever?

Adams: All of this "quality of light" business is an illusion in a sense.
Santa Fe is at seven thousand feet. So you have a different
intensity relationship between sunlight and shadow because the
sky is a deeper blue, because it's that high elevation. And the
reflection of the ground is different. It's a little lighter than
in most areas in the country, I think. Now apparently the quality
of the light in Greece is due to the fact that there's water vapor
in the air and there's a fairly soft light, and there's a lot of
white. So you get reflections and general illuminations. It's a
very intangible thing.

San Francisco has a special light too. When we test Polaroid
film, we get totally different results than we do in Cambridge.

Teiser: Even though all measurements are the same?

Adams: The measurements are not the same, that's it. If you design a

film for a camera for somebody to make a snapshot, and you design
it for Cambridge and Boston, for many days of the year you're
going to have a different quality than if you design it for San
Francisco or Santa Fe.

Teiser: What do you do then?

Adams: Well, this is one of the great problems. I mean, you get more

contrast. Out here, we always have of course, today's a fog day
I mean this is a gray day, but this is a purer gray than you get in
Boston or Cambridge, because there would be smog mixed with it
there. You'd get a little yellower light there. This is very
neutral light now. So, it's a matter well, if you want to be
technical about it, it's a matter of Kelvin degrees color
temperature. As you go into higher altitudes, you get a higher
and higher Kelvin. The sun is a little brighter, the sky is a
little bluer, and the shadows, of course, are much bluer, because
they reflect from the deeper blue sky.

Then you get to a water vapor atmosphere, like the tropics or
Florida or the east coast, and you have a lower Kelvin, and you
have a little warmer shadows a softer luminance range. There's
nothing mystic about it.


Adams: But Santa Fe gives you the feeling of being on top of the world.

It's at seven thousand feet, like Mexico City. Albuquerque's five
thousand feet. So there is a fundamental difference. There's less
atmosphere I think one- third less for the sunlight to go through.
You're getting about one-third the oxygen, maybe a little less.

That's why some people have trouble. The ballet came, you
know, to Santa Fe for a performance. The previous performance they
gave was, I think, in Dallas, and then they were flown to Albuquerque

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