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

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and came up to Santa Fe and, without acclimatization, gave their
performance. They just collapsed, were actually falling down on
stage. Here they were going to the extreme of physical effort
which was all right under normal conditions, but at seven thousand
feet they couldn't do it.

And Stravinsky, when I saw him and heard him conduct his
Persephone at Santa Fe, was really- exhausted. But they warned him;
he'd been there about a week trying to get acclimated.

I get acclimated very quickly. I've been so used to altitudes.
You know, twelve thousand, ten, Yosemite, sea level, back and forth.
It took me a little longer this time in Albuquerque a couple of
days. I can "pick up" very quickly. But a lot of people have an
awful time at high altitudes.

Teiser: Is there smog there now that you didn't see before?

Adams: Yes, there is. There's natural smog in Albuquerque, because that's
a rather big city. But the worst thing comes from the Four Corners
power plant. They're coal stripping. They've got one plant;
they're going to have five. And the one already puts pollution
out which is seen in the Rio Grande Valley all the way to
Albuquerque. And Durango, and the Colorado

V. Adams: That's why they fight strip mining.

Adams: It's a terrible thing. In fact well, it's not that strip mining
isn't bad enough, but it's the fact that they've absolutely spent
no money in smog control. They say they have, but when you see the
smog coming down, for the first time, to Taos, Santa Fe, and
Albuquerque, you know that there's trouble. There are going to be
five plants. It will be the largest single power producing area,
but I don't know what they're going to do when they run out of coal.
They've drilled deep and gotten the beautiful spring water, which is
the clearest water in the country, which it is assumed feeds the
Hopi Springs, and they're using that to sluice the coal.

So the whole Southwest may be degenerating to a point where it
really will be lost to us forever.


V. Adams:

V. Adams:

Better enjoy it while you can.

Teiser :

V. Adams:
Adams :

Yes. An unhappy desert,
there's so many people,

It's very serious. But that's because
But who wants genocide? I'd rather have

Well, can you think of anything else for Santa Fe? Did you tell
them the story of when you got tight, and what Mary Austin said?

Oh yes. There was a big party at Witter Bynner's one night, and
I drove Mary Austin over. And then I got to saying, because I had
some consciousness left, "Well, who's going to get Mary Austin
home? I can't drive." I was very concerned that somebody get
Mary Austin home.

The next morning I said, "Well, Mary, I guess I lost my
reputation last night." And she said, "You certainly did. But
you lost it so quickly that nobody missed it." [Laughter]

I think I read in Mrs. Newhall's book that Ella Young was
encouraging you to continue writing poetry.

Which he did.

Oh yes, she did. Because I wrote very romantic poetry, and then
suddenly burst out into very avant-garde poetry, and then quit.
But I studied a great deal of literature and I was pretty good on
the sonnet.

Teiser: You write good prose too.

Adams: Well, I never should be known as a poet.

Teiser: Did Ella Young succeed in encouraging you? Did you write more
poetry as a result of her encouragement?

Adams: No. She said I looked like Yeats, and she thought I could write
like Yeats not to look like him, but write at a certain level.
But that was not something which was accepted. Well, if I didn't
have music and photography, who knows? I might have done a
cookbook. [Laughter]

I remember one time coming back from a party at Witter Bynner's
very late, and it was quite a party. In the morning I go out and I
find a flat tire, and I open the trunk of the little Marmon we had,
and here is one of Bynner's guests all curled up fast asleep. Of
course, somebody 'd put him in there when he was very tight, and why
he didn't suffocate I don't know. It was a horrifying experience
to see this body in this trunk! [Laughter] I pulled him out, and he
was breathing, and he said, "Where am I?" I said, "Well "


V. Adams: Horrible!

Adams: Yes. That was really quite a story.

Teiser: Maynard Dixon spent some time in the Southwest. That was not at
the same time?

V. Adams: He was in Tucson. I don't know that he was in Santa Fe, particularly.

Adams: Tucson is another story.

Teiser: When were you there?

V. Adams: We visited Maynard and Edie.

Adams: Maynard and Edie [Edith Hamlin] Dixon.

Teiser: That was later.

Adams: I did some work for Kodak in Phoenix, and then went to Tucson for
the Guggenheim project to do the Saguaro National Monument, you
know the cactus forest. And then our very dear friends Maynard
and Edie Dixon were there.

Now Edie is one who can tell you a lot Mrs. Maynard Dixon.
Edith Hamlin now. And she could tell you a lot about me because
we're old, old friends.

Oh boy. Can't think of anything else.

Harroun: Did you know Georgia O'Keeffe before? Or did you meet her down

Adams: I met her down there. And then of course we got to know her really
well in New York after 1933.

V. Adams: Stieglitz, you know, gave Ansel an exhibit in his rooms [An American
Place] there. He'd practically given up doing anything with anybody
new. But that would be a long story.

Adams: The New York story's another story entirely.
[End Tape 8, Side 1]

[Interview VII 27 May 1972]
[Begin Tape 8, Side 2]

Teiser: We were speaking of the Santa Fe period. You mentioned several

times A.R. Orage, who seems to have been a most fascinating person,
and I know very little about him.


Adams: Well, I didn't know too much about him. I met him in San

Francisco. He had been in New Mexico. He was a disciple of

Teiser: I didn't even realize he'd been in America very much. Did he live
here in the later years of his life?

Adams: For awhile he was here, yes. I really can't tell you any more than
that. Some mystically-minded people are very much surprised. They
say, "You know Orage!" Orage was a guru, I guess, to many people.

Teiser: Yes.

Adams: He was also a provocative discussionist, if you want to use the

Teiser: What did he look like?

Adams: He looked like a British orchestra conductor. [Laughs] He was
smooth shaven. I can't exactly remember just what he did look
like. He was rather intense. He had a very literary air about
him, but he also had a self-assured manner.

Teiser: He was apparently rather well known for having edited a literary
review in London.

Adams: Yes.

Teiser: Was he interested in photography, or all the arts?

Adams: I guess just in general. I can't remember. I did a picture of him;
not a very good one.

Teiser: Did he live in San Francisco for a time, or did he just come and go?

Adams: I think he visited a month maybe; came to the University at Berkeley
and Stanford, visiting and lecturing. It's hard to remember the

Let's see, about Santa Fe, I've been back quite often, and last
time, I had a good visit with Beaumont and Nancy Newhall, and
appeared with Beaumont's group at the University, and then gave a
talk at the Art Museum in Santa Fe; and of course I'm a great friend
of Laura Gilpin's, the photographer.

Teiser: Is she still photographing?

Adams: Oh yes, she just got a grant to do a book on the Navajos in the

Canyon de Chelly. She's eighty-three, and still gets around with
a cane and a little arthritis. Perhaps you saw that wonderful


Adams: picture of both of us when we met at the museum by a news

photographer giving each other a smack, and we were laughing.
It came out on the front page of the Herald , the Albuquerque

Teiser: Was the Taos book the success of it a factor in your decision to
make photography your profession then?

Adams: I think it was. But of course I changed my style; but it did have
success. And Stieglitz was very much impressed with it. It was
one of these things that sort of proved quality. You see, one of
my objectives is to maintain a very high image quality, both in the
originals and in reproduction. So I have been quite influential in
getting the reproduction of fine prints paid more attention to.

The Reproduction of Photographs

Adams: We did develop, I think, some of the finest reproductions in the
world in San Francisco with the Walter [J.] Mann Company. Mr.
[Raymond] Peterson was the engraver. And that was for the letter
press process.

Now you have several processes: intaglio and raised dot, and
there's callotype and gravure. But the half-tone process means
that the image is broken down into dots of so many per inch usually
lined up at 90 but not necessarily. And in letterpress these dots
stand up like little mushrooms; they are like type.

Teiser: Your interest in printing is a subject that we've got notes on.
I came across an article by Francis Farquhar in Touring Tropics,
February 1931, in which you had a lot of photographs a whole
section of photographs in sepia on brownish paper. Do you remember

Adams: Yes. That's probably rotogravure.

Teiser: Yes. The article was "Mountain Studies in the Sierra." In the
introduction Mr. Farquhar said, "From the beginning of his
professional career, he has closely associated photography with the
other graphic arts, especially printing. In selecting the process
for an individual picture, he keeps in mind not only the quality
of the negative and the photographic print, but also the relation
ship of the picture to its ultimate surroundings. It is this
comprehension of kindred arts that has made Ansel Adams so success
ful an illustrator."

You had then long had an interest in printing?


Adams: Oh yes. Through Albert Bender I knew many of the printers. I had
tried various reproduction processes and made some study of it. At
that time, the so-called offset was a very bad process of very poor
quality. The letterpress was the finest. Of course, you could get
gravure, but gravure is very tricky. It is an intaglio process.
It was expensive and it wasn't really too accurate.

This is the American Earth and Cedric Wright's book, for
instance, were done with that process, and it's really not too good.

Teiser: Was that sheet-fed gravure done by Charles Wood?

Adams: Yes. Well, no, Charles Wood was much better than that. This was
the Photogravure and Color Corporation of New York. Charles Wood
was very good, but I think he realized that there were problems,
because the scale of gravure certain tones had a tendency to "jump"
around the middle values; they'd go higher or lower in tone. And
the whites had a tendency to block.

Now, Stieglitz's gravures that appeared in Camera Work were
hand-done, and each one was put through the press and watched and
made like a fine print. It must have been a very costly process.

Teiser: I remember the Grabhorns used to use Meriden Gravure.

Adams: Yes. Well, that was one of the worst going for any continuous-tone
image. They could use it for etching or a litho or woodblock, and
they were really beautiful. But when it came to the continuous
tone of the photograph, it was just awful. The reproduction looked
like putty; it couldn't hold photographic values at all.

Teiser: You're speaking of Meriden?

Adams: Meriden. Grabhorn did a lot of reproductions that weren't from

photographs. He really didn't like photographs.* Whenever he made
a reproduction of a photograph it was terrible, because he always
did it with some kind of a soft process on rag paper. A photograph
needs a smooth surface. But the etching and the lithography, etc.,
Meriden would do beautifully I

*See interview with Edwin Grabhorn, Recollections of the Grabhorn
Press, Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library,
University of California, 1968, pp. 59-60, and interview with
Robert Grabhorn, Fine Printing and the Grabhorn Press, Regional
Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California,
1968, pp. 54-58.


Adams :

Adams :

Adams :


Adams :

Then of course, as I say, the letterpress, the three-color letter
press, is the great Bruehl-Bruges process you see in the old
Vanity Fair magazine that was really four-color where the red
plate is used as black plate as well and strengthens the image.
If you look at a color picture with a microscope, you see that the
colors rotate at certain angles. It looks like a mosaic. Those
of course were of the raised dot. But you get down to a minimum
dot size, beyond which it's just collapsible and it won't stand up
in the press. I think people don't realize that all the dots have
the same density of value. It's only the area of the dots in
relation to the white space that gives the fractional tones.

What's the highest screen you have used?

Well, the one that gave us the best results of all was the 133-line
screen. Now that didn't give as much definition, if you look very
closely. It's only 1/133 of an inch; one hundred thirty-three
lines to an inch. The deep tones wouldn't block up. And if you
stop to think about what happens, if you have no dots you have pure
white paper, then if you suddenly jump to a dot you get a "contour
line." What is called "highlighting in the forehead" as sometimes
you see it shows abruptly no tone to tone.

Then when you get into the two-plate offset, then you have a
very much finer progression of values.

It's two blacks?

It's two "blacks." And it's called duotone because at one time
people used color in one of the plates, and an awful color could
result. But if it's two plates two blacks one black ink may be
slightly warm or cold in tone. And then they can make exposures
of "long range" and "short range" and the two plates together will
hold a greater range. And that's the system used now. The letter
press is practically a lost art.

Walter Mann, whom we interviewed* and have known for many years, of
course took great pride in having done work on your photographs.

Oh, he did a beautiful job on the plates.

Everyone has said you had your own specifications,
are very careful, aren't you?

I imagine you

*See interview with Walter J. Mann, Photoengraving, 1910-1969,
Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of
California, 1974.


Adams: Well, I tried! There's two ways: you try to make the print which
will fit the process, because the negative that the engraver makes
has to be through a screen. He gets his negative in screen form.
In other words, if you look at it in a magnifying glass you see
the dots of varying size. And that gives a certain limitation in
his exposure scale. It goes to a maximum of 1.4, 1.5 on the scale.
My prints go up to 2.0+ on the log scale: more than a hundred to
one arithmetically. If I want to make a print for an engraver, he
tells me, "I want the print value to be 1.4 and I can handle it."
He can intensify the blacks. He can increase the contrast. But if
the print range goes beyond the range of his film, he cannot hold
the textures in high and low values. The whites go bleak, block
out, or the blacks block up, or both!

Teiser: When your prints were being reproduced by letterpress, did you
always see the proofs?

Adams: Oh yes. I'd try to make the prints the way they'd want them.
Then they'd pull a proof. The letterpress engravers had the
advantage of being able to selectively "etch" the high values.
And we would work for sort of gray-whites to get all the values
therein, and then "etch" them; it raises them up to the optimum

Teiser: That was where Peterson came in?

Adams: Yes. He was wonderful in that; a very sensitive craftsman!

There's a very amusing story when we were doing the Edward
Weston book, My Camera on Point Lobos. Body [Warren], Edward's
assistant, was watching everything with a hawk eye. She went down
to the plant one day, and there was this rather interesting picture
it was just sand and rock. And she said, "Well, Mr. Peterson, I
don't think you got this one! It's really flat. It's original
sparkle is gone. I think we'll have to do that again." And he
said, "Well, Dody, you're looking at the original print." [Laughter]
He actually improved it. He made this image come to life. The
original print was a little soft; Edward made it that way. She
thought that was the engraving, and that didn't remind her of the
print. But here was the reproduction, which was beautiful in tone.
That's really one of the memorable moments!

Teiser: Well, do you make a different print for reproduction than you do
for exhibit?

Adams: Oh yes. You have to. In fact, when the prints are in the solution
they always look brighter and lighter than when they're dry. And
papers don't all behave the same, so you have to learn how to use
them. Then you have to say, "This is going to be reproduced and


Adams: I've got to keep it within the scale." That's why I have a

reflection densitometer. I can check to see that I haven't over
printed. Underprinting I don't worry about too much. I'll show
you something very interesting [Walks away and voice trails off.
Returns.] These are proofs of a monograph that Morgan & Morgan are
doing.* These are good proofs. These are to be printed in New
York. The one of the tombstone is fantastic. This portrait is a
little too dark, see. Now we'll tell them they made that too dark.
They have to make another plate. The face is too dark, the shirt
is perfect. My print is all right in this case.

This one is one of the most extraordinary reproductions I've
ever seen. They kept the pure white and all the details on blacks.
But that was a soft print. This was a flat print which they
expanded. And they did beautifully on these, except this one was a
flat print, and they overdid the expansionl

Teiser: Is that the Golden Gate one you were speaking of yesterday?

Adams: Yes. This one before the bridge. But you see, this is good; this
is excellent, beautiful. This is a beautiful thing.

But here's where I told the engraver to expand the contrasts,
but he overdid it a little. They'll have to learn so do l! I'll
have to give them prints that are a little stronger. Psychologically,
this is a warm tone, and here's a cold tone, and you see it's just
terrible; loses all life, distance; but from the same plate!

We're not going to make it quite as brown as that. To show
what I mean, this is just as clear, but it has no life. Now, for
instance, just look at the aspens

Teiser: My word!

Adams: So, the psychological effect of color, well that's the thing you have
to know about. Talk to them. With engravers and most printers, it's
the same general thing. It's a terrible thing, to have someone who
doesn't know anything about quality come in and make remarks! If
you can give them a constructive pattern, all may be well.

Teiser: Did you do that when Lawton Kennedy was printing your work?

Adams: Oh yes, we'd watch everything. Crocker was very good that way.

They really printed very carefully, and they watched the press runs.

*De Cock, Liliane, ed. Ansel Adams. New York: Morgan & Morgan, 1972.


Adams: It would come off the press rather fast, and the printer was
anxious to get it right. You see, in letterpress many things
affect the result. The "makeready" has to be changed, and the ink
may change. With offset, once it's set up, it goes through very
fast; so you sit there, and they put a sheet in, and they run many
sheets and then you study the inking, and once they've got it,
there's nothing else you can do. And if that plate isn't what it
ought to be, it's pulled off and made over.

Now, gravure is on a copper plate. And in the American Earth
book, there were "four up," four pages on a side of a sheet. And
if you changed one letter of that, it cost seven hundred dollars
because you had to change the whole plate. But with letterpress,
you'd just lift out the plate, or the line of type; the corrections
were simple.

I had contact with Albert Bender and all the printers and the
Roxburghe Club, and many reproducing processes. So from the very
beginning that's been very important to me and my work.

Teiser: On the University of California book, Fiat Lux, wasn't that

originally to be done by sheet-fed gravure by Charles R. Wood?

Adams: That was originally planned, and it was done by Wood, for

Doubleday. You see, the University Press couldn't print it. It
was planned to have 286 pages, but Reagan got in as governor and
there was too much economy imposed, and everybody at the University
was scared to print it, so they turned it over to a publisher. And
in order to make it commercially feasible at the publishing level,
they had to reduce it to 196 pages.

Teiser: But the printing was still done by Wood?

Adams: The printing was still done by Wood. I'm sure of it.

Teiser: And by gravure?

Adams: Yes, and some of it's very good.

[Guests enter; interruption. Returns with book.]

Adams: Colophon says it was printed by the Cardinal Company, under the
supervision of Charles Wood. Designed by Nancy Newhall and
Adrian Wilson. But here is a case of approximate quality. You
see how granular that appears? That's really a very smooth
photographic image. It is pretty good in the whites, but certain
tones are not right see those shadows. This variation in tone
wasn't that extreme in the original. It "jumps" in stages.


Does that do violence to your original?


Adams: Yes, it does, very much. There's nothing much I can do about it.
But something like this, just black and white, is just beautiful.

Teiser: What is it that's in the University Archives prints or ?

Adams: Proofs. I have all the negatives. And they have a set of prints.
They own the negatives, but I keep control of them, because they
want prints all the time. I've got to turn them over to them
some day. But as long as I'm around I'd like to make my own

Teiser: That's a wonderful book, I think.

Adams: It could have been better, but it's not our fault. The University
really tried.

Teiser: I suppose books are often compromises unless you publish them

Adams: Oh yes. Going up in price, terribly expensive, mechanical

problems, paper problems, labor problems. We did so many things,
went through so many trials. That's why I have a very skeptical
point of view about the convention that things are better in
Europe. They have good craftsmen, but they can go just as haywire
as anybody if they're not under supervision. The best printing
I've ever seen has been right in San Francisco. In Japan and
Europe it's cheaper, except that you have to go there to supervise
it, and you lose copyright privilege there's all kinds of tangles
in the thing.

Teiser: Working with George Waters, as you do now, with duotone, do they

do the same kind of correction of plates that the engraver can do?

Adams: Well, they can't, no. That's two-plate litho. So he's got to do
it in his negative. In other words, I've got to give him the
right print. We can't monkey with the plate as much as the
letterpress men did. It's very complicated. Waters is doing
beautiful work.

Teiser: Adrian Wilson said that they often do quite a lot of correction.
He said once they took an automobile out of a picture

Adams: Oh, that's correction in the photograph. I have several photographs
that are very badly damaged. I couldn't sell a print that showed
marks and defects. Walter Mann Company has a very fine retoucher
an "airbrush" man. He can correct my print. He takes out these
defects. You can't see them. You don't have any sense that
there's any retouching at all. There's nothing worse than re
touching that shows.



Adams: We correct defects and spots. And it would be perfectly

possible to take out an automobile. You can do that. They have
to commercially sometimes. But if I have a fine photograph,
. I'm not going to take out something important but I might take out
a defect. Although, frankly, if I had a beautiful image and there
was a beer can in it, I'd spot that out if it had no relevance to
the picture.

And then there's all kinds of thousands of little things that
happen in photographs when they are this small; they look like
spots; then you take them out. When you enlarge the image, they
may become part of the structure and should not be touched.

Viewing Photographs

Adams: There is the famous matter of Lincoln's mole. Lincoln had a mole
on his face, and in little pictures, the mole looked like a spot.
When they made a nice 11 by 14, it looked like a mole. Now the

Online LibraryAnsel AdamsConversations with Ansel Adams : oral history transcript / 1972-1975 → online text (page 21 of 76)