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

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ethics are you don't take the mole out as such; you take it out
only if it is not readable just a distraction. The eye picks up
tiny little things all out of proportion to the size of the image.

Teiser: This brings up the viewing distance and how things are supposed
to be looked at.

Adams: Well, that's pretty complicated. The standard reading distance

is fourteen or fifteen inches from the eye, and what is called the
circle of confusion or the disk of confusion is the largest disk
that appears as a point at that distance. When that's about 1/200
of an inch in diameter it's accepted as sharp. Some people say
1/100 of an inch, and it has something to do with the reading
distance. But there comes a point when normal eyes cannot see a
disk other than as a point. Then the image is "sharp." That's a
very great simplification because that doesn't always hold. And
there are several things that are always expressed as basic
principles but for some reason or other are very flexible.

I'll never forget in San Francisco, I had a 16 by 20 print
of a picture taken near Aspen. And it wasn't really sharp. It
was all right in 8 by 10, but it did not look right in a 16 by 20.
But a friend, Dr. Overhage, sitting at the far end of the room
almost as far as that lamp looked at this picture and said, "Why
doesn't that one seem sharp?"

Teiser: That's about how far?


Adams: Twenty or thirty feet. Now, there's no way to define a degree of
sharpness it mathematically approached the disk of confusion
limit. Here, the illusion of sharpness brings in the term
"acuteness." And scientifically that is the micro-density
relationship that is, the sharp difference of one tone to another.
The curve appears as an abrupt "cliff" from black to white. Now
with a picture that's out of focus or not sharp, there's no direct
transition. You take the curve from black to white, that would be
only 45 or more. Now you take a really sharp photograph and the
curve is very abrupt. The eye in scanning it senses this thing.
It doesn't necessarily see a disk and a point; it senses the very
sudden difference in value. It's like an electronic scanner on an
airplane at great altitudes that is used for photographic purposes.

The difference is there. I was making an enlargement the
other day, and I can stand six feet away, and I can "judge" that
focus. I don't try to think about it. I just scan the thing and
judge. And then I go over it with my magnifier and I'm usually
right. If I try to think, try to look at it and get down to see,
"Now do I think this is the grain or it isn't?" it's not so accurate.
This is a very interesting psychological factor.

Then the other thing is that the ideal perspective say I
take an eight by ten picture with a twelve inch lens and make a
print, I get the perfect perspective effect if I look at it from
twelve inches away. If I enlarge it to twenty inches in length,
I can be twenty-four inches away. Well, I have a picture taken
with my 23 1/2-inch lens of the "New Mexico Moonrise" enlarged five
times that's enlarged to fifty inches my heavens, that should be
in correct perspective at one hundred inches, roughly. But I can
walk right up to it, within reading distance, and marvelous things
happen; the whole thing opens up. The psychological effect you see
is not just a physical optical one.

Teiser: When people read books the size of Fiat Lux*, do they hold them at
arms' length, do you think, or do they hold them at regular reading

Adams: I think regular reading distance. They hold them in their lap.
You see people pull a picture away sometimes, but that's to suit
the individual eye.

Teiser: Last Sunday, you were showing the students from Foothill College
a very large print of a bull

*The page size is approximately 10" by 13 1/2".


Adams :



Adams :


Well, wasn't that supposed to be a poster?
be way up on a wall somewhere?

Wasn't that supposed to

Well, it was used as such, and Europeans use a lot of stuff in
posters, and they make big prints, and they're hung on walls in
galleries. They have what are called "carrying power" when they're
that big. A subtle little print like one of the Polaroids would be
lost in a gallery of that kind.

But they don't care much for either print quality or spotting
it's very strange. The Europeans have a very poor concept of what
we call print quality. They achieve things that are very theatrical
in a very intense way a very human way I'm speaking of the good
ones now, not the picturesque postcard shooting. But what we call
print quality is like a beautiful piano and beautiful playing.
They get the image and the meaning of the image, and primarily
through reproduction because people in Europe don't buy prints.
There are very few prints bought in Europe; very few fine prints
around. You see European people come with a portfolio mostly of
loose, unmounted prints. They get dog-eared and cracked, and it
doesn't make any difference to them.

If that big picture of Half-Dome had a crack in the paper, I
couldn't use it. I threw away four of those before I got one that
was right. That's our standard! It's just like if I were a
pianist I wouldn't let a record out with a false note. I might
make some mistake, but if it's obviously a booboo then I would
retape it. I don't know whether that's a logical comparison. What
is quality? A great many photographers think that my work is a
particular school of photography very precious, where you overdo
the print quality; that that isn't really necessary; that the only
thing that counts is the image. Then you counter by saying that
the image isn't excitingly presented. It just doesn't get over,
it's not an appropriate or compelling print.

That bull picture is probably an appropriate print for the
way the man saw it. I can't imagine making a so-called fine print
of it because the image itself isn't a fine image. It's grainy and
harsh. I don't know what you could do with it.

Well, if you kept it down to a little tiny size, you wouldn't
notice it so much.

The photographer gave me that, and I should mount it, because it'll
get ruined. And as I say, it would be very good at a distance.
But now my big prints are made for another purpose. They're big
prints for their own sake, and you're supposed to be able to go up
close to them. But you can't do that with most blowups.


Teiser: I think you were saying that the prints for The Family of Man were

Adams: Oh, they were mostly terrible. That exhibit was a great blow to
photography. They were just casually made. The pictures were
selected for some theme, and the images themselves were mostly
disgracefully bad, and the prints commercially done no sympathy,
no feeling for it at all. They were terrible. From our standards,
they were just "commercial." The exhibit put photography back
twenty years!

Now, there are several things that happened to augment this
thing. The average blowup is terrible. The whole thing is con
ceptual, a big idea may need big prints. You should really
photograph it see something that you visualize as a large print.
Well, when you do that, you must have a certain optical precision.
If it's a poor negative, it just won't project. But sometimes, you
have tonal qualities that you can get by with an image that isn't
too sharp. But so much depends on the enlarging light.

There's quite a display up in Yosemite in the Mountain Room of
rock climbing pictures. It really is quite an achievement. They're
huge, and I know they're done with a four by five camera. They're
much better than any I've ever seen. They're relatively soft. The
definition is absolutely superb.

Well, I can go on forever on these things.

Light Sources and Light Measurement

Teiser: There's point source light, and then there's ?

Adams: There's condenser light varying phases of condenser illumination.
Point source uses a condenser; "point source" means a light of very
small area. The average condenser uses a frosted globe, so it
gives you a little more scattered light, but it still is primarily
columnated. And diffuse light is just light that comes from a
diffusing area.

Teiser: You were asking the students the other day if they used condenser

Adams: You can usually tell, because you get blocked whites, high values.
It's a matter of a pencil of light striking a small area of the
negative and scattering. A certain percentage of this gets to the
print and the rest is scattered beyond the picture area. And the


Adams: result is that the image of that particular high density is
proportionately less than the actual diffuse density of the
negative in that area. If you have enough shadows to hold low
values, it doesn't make too much difference.

When you get a diffuse light, every section of that negative
has myriads of pencils of light striking it; it scatters the light
but it maintains its diffuse-density scale. In other words, if
the negative scale is one to 1.7, then the image scale would be
about 1.7 on the enlarger easel. The print could be soft. If you
hold that scale, it would be soft. It could also be very rich in
development and toning and still hold the scale, but the actual
depth of tone would be greater. So we get up to an image scale of
log 2.3, which is one to 200 arithmetically. You see, the densities
are measured in log-to-the-base ten numbers. Some people are very
confused by it. I just sent a memo to Polaroid. There's some
people there that are a little mixed up. They've set their
reflection densitometer to zero (0.0) for the white paper; it is
really about 0.08. For several years, because of this setting,
they don't get the same measurements I do from prints. I've got a
well-calibrated Macbeth densitometer. They say, "We'll take your
density and subtract this." Well, that's all right, but when you
think of the arithmetic equivalent, when you subtract logs, you
divide, so you're getting a variation of one value to another,
which can be a very perplexing thing, you see.

Well, the best explanation of this is if 2.0 is 100, and 1.0
is 10 and you subtract 1.0 from 2.0, you get 1.0, and that would
be the log difference and represent arithmetic 10. Now, 2.0 is
100, 1.0 is 10; subtract 10 from 100 and you get 90. But 10 into
100 is 10, and not 90. (Maybe this is irrelevant for your project.)

Teiser: What would be the disadvantage of translating all those into
ordinary arithmetic expressions?

Adams: I'm thinking very seriously of doing it, because we talk in mixed
ways. The engraver says, "I want a print of 1.5 range." That's
roughly one to 32 arithmetically. So, we can talk about a range
of about one to 32. The Zone System would work out just as well
with arithmetic numbers. But H & D (Hurter and Driff ield) , who
developed the sensitometer, just established the logarithmic value
convention because it gives a much simpler curve than you get
arithmetically, although it can be thought of as geometric. I
think that sometimes people just perpetuate errors, because for
the life of me I don't see why you couldn't use arithmetic numbers.
I don't understand it. If you've got 100 and then 200, you've got
a range of one to 2. You can express one to 2 in logs one to 2 in
logs would be a value of 0.3. If 0.0 is one, 0.3 would be 2, 0.6
is 4, 0.9 is 8, 1.2 is 16, and so on.


Adams: You get to read the curves easily. I don't have any trouble with
them. I can read them. You can get a lot out of just looking at
the curve its shape. But as that log system is geometric, and
every step is 2X, I don't know why we can't call the steps 2, 4,
8, 16, and so on.

Teiser: Perhaps when everything goes on the metric system, all that can be

Adams: Yes, but they won't change that. But it will be wonderful with
computers. You can write in any log base you want.

That's why the camera can be a terrible thing. The camera is
now taken for granted: own the most expensive camera! You assume
if you buy it, it's got to work. The construction of them is
really a technological marvel. And the lenses are superb; nothing
has been made like them to date.

Technological Advances in Photographic Films

Teiser: You were speaking the other day about film bases and so forth. And
it occurred to me that you talked about the changes in printing
papers but not much about the changes in films and their emulsions.

Adams: Well, there's a progression from the beginning. Let's take the wet
plate. First go back to the daguerreotype and the calotype. Then
the wet plate and its collodion emulsion, it's sensitive to blue
light only, and it had to be exposed and developed when wet.
Collodion lasts a long, long time it's perfectly good. But it
had that great disadvantage.

Then back in the 1880s they developed the dry gelatin plate,
and that was also sensitive only to blue light. Then they added
dyes to the emulsion and rendered the plate sensitive to green
light. That was called orthochromatic . The function of the dye
is that while the silver halide responds only to blue light
radiant energy the dye responds to green light, absorbs it, and
transmits an energy to the halides, an amount of energy sufficient
to reproduce images of both blue and green colors. Then came the
panchromatic plate which had green- and red-sensitive dyes. And
infrared requires another dye.

Later, of course, everything went panchromatic, although you
can still get ortho. You can make panchromatic film of ortho type
by using a minus-red filter. And then you can make panchromatic
film blue-sensitive by using a C-5 filter which cuts out all color
but blue. The emulsions used to be fairly "thick." Nobody thought


Adams: of them as being thick, they were just that way. And they had

what is known as the "gamma wavelength effect." The short wave
lengths scattered very quickly near the surface and the green
penetrated, say, half-way (just for the sake of argument).
Therefore an image in green light would have higher density, and
then the red rays would penetrate much further. The contrasts
would be rather high with a red filter. That was apart from the
color separations. So in the old one-shot cameras, you took three
pictures at once, through the three different filters blue, green,
and red. You developed the green image normal, the blue image more,
and the red image less to get the same contrast, or what is called
"gamma" in the negatives. And that achieved the required color
balance. Some of the earlier plates and films were extremely
contrasty when made with a red filter. White clouds would be
"burned out," and the sky would be very dark.

With Polaroid, which gives a surface image, you can use all
the filters and you get only a small change of contrast. You get
a change of values the sky will be darker, the greens will be
lighter, depending on what filter you use. But the whites will not
increase in density to any extent. The shadows will be a little
darker with a yellow, green, red filter, because they reduce the
blue reflected light from the sky.

So most of our present film is known as thin-emulsion type;
one film made by Kodak, Super-XX, has the older characteristics.
It's quite valuable in some work, where we can expand by prolonged
development. With an emulsion we can't expand as much because
there is less silver in the emulsion. But on the other hand, we
get a sharper image.

Teiser: When did that change come about, generally?

Adams: I would say, thin emulsions, within the last ten years. I know

when I got the first thin emulsion pan film I was so mad I called
up Kodak and I said, "You put that on Kleenex! I can't handle it.
It just folds up in the developing tank! When are you going to
use a heavier film base?" They said, "Mr. Adams, it's just the
same film base, but the emulsion is that much thinner." They said,
"We are changing the film base. We have to." It was too flimsy.
You couldn't feed it into the developing reels. That may be a
great shock to people who always thought the emulsion was always
a very thin coating whisper thin, you know. But it isn't; it's
quite a structure.

[End Tape 8, Side 2]


[Begin Tape 9, Side 1]

Teiser: As I remember, at the time the thin emulsion films came out, there
was some claim that they were of higher acutance.

Adams: Yes, they are. Well, I guess we can say that light scatters from
a silver grain at a cosine 4 angle relationship to the direct ray.
Some say it is a spherical diffusion. In Polaroid, the earlier
positive-negative prints, the developing layer was fairly thick,
so you had a loss of acuteness. You still would get all the
resolution; if you look at it under a microscope you see so many
lines per millimeter. But because the silver passes at an angle
through the thickness of the developer, a difference of point of
emergence to the point of exit, you'd see there'd be quite a little
diffusion effect. With the old Ansco Superpan Supreme, which was
a magnificent film in large sizes, when used in 35 millimeter size
you couldn't get a sharp image except with a very long focus lens.
With short focal length lens, the light would come in at an angle;
the loss of acutance related to that angle. And the further away
you were from the center of the film the worse the loss of defi
nition would be.

Teiser: Meanwhile, the speeds of the film emulsions have...

Adams: They've improved speed. But of course that again is, in a sense,
misunderstood. The emulsion speed is a pretty fixed thing, and
you don't change it by development as some think you do; the ASA
remains the same on the exposure index. I have to operate and
work with Tri-X at 250 speed to get the density range I want. It's
advertised at 320 and 400, but that's losing some shadow densities.
Plus-X is advertised at 125; I use it at 64. Of course this means
less development; you get a very smooth image.

Now if, say, 64 gives me a zone I value proper density value
and I want to shoot at 125, that moves the exposure to Zone II; at
250 it moves up to III, and at 500 it moves up to IV. And that
means I must increase development, so what is there is a general
increase in density in other areas of the image. Also an increase
in grain. You've seen many pictures where you have no shadow
detail at all say pictures taken at night, groups in nightclubs
or theaters. They're actually empty shadows. They're shooting
that film at something like maybe 1200, and ferociously over
developing it, and they lost all the shadow values.

Teiser: I suppose you could be accused of overexposure and underdevelopment ,
but that would be a subjective judgment.

Adams: Well, at higher speeds, developed in conventional process, I think
it's Kodak's 8000, which is scientific film, there's not good image
quality. Land has the 10,000-speed film for the oscilloscope,


Adams: which does its work beautifully but it couldn't be used very well
in nature. Land actually had film at ASA 20,000 could photograph
by starlight. Twenty thousand ASA is a pretty fast you'd have a
hard time not overexposing that under any normal lighting

Teiser: Are attempts being made to increase speed in a quality sense?

Adams: Oh yes, they're doing that all the time. But you come into some
very complicated physical laws, I guess quantum laws apply. I
don't know; I'm not enough of a mathematician for that. But you
see, there are two big objectives. One is to get away from silver.
Silver is getting scarcer. Strangely enough, there's never been
anything as light sensitive as silver halide. And you know that
a halide is silver combined with bromine, chlorine, fluorine, or
iodine. And, there's been nothing that can equal that. They've
been experimenting with color-sensitive dyes and other strange
concoctions, and they haven't gotten very far with it.

Electrostatic photography like Xerox has got some continuous
tone, but it's not very good for general purpose; the equipment is

The next step will probably be light amplification. That is,
a cathode tube like they use in astronomical photography. With it
you are picking up the impulse of light, and you can magnify that
as many times as you wish. You have it also when you g6 to a
modern x-ray fluoroscope. They don't look through you any more
and see your "shadow" on the screen. You're getting one-fiftieth
of the dose, and they look at a television screen. This is
because the very faint image that is generated can be amplified
electrically. That may be the next step where you'll have a
very, very faint image which might be amplified in the camera or
might be amplified out of camera. We don't know. But it will

Teiser: What speed films were you using when you started photographing?

Adams: Oh heavens, they were down to 25, 40, 32 I think 50 was a pretty
high speed. Then they got to 100, and everybody gasped. The
picture of the Golden Gate [1932] was done on Kodak Super Pancho-
press, which I think had a Weston speed of 50, which would be 64
ASA. Pretty grainy, but it had fine quality.

Teiser: Those were the kinds of films that Oscar Barnack, who made the
first 35 millimeter "candid" photographs, was using.

Adams: The first miniature, yes.


Adams: I have made prints from old negatives. I have a print of Arnold
Genthe's picture of Chinatown- -1904. It was done with a postcard
Kodak, the film speed of which was probably 16. And this is as
good as anything Cartier-Bresson ever did. It's absolutely
magnificent. It is also a beautiful image. I mean, tonally.
We got a gorgeous print out of it. Now that was just an ortho-
chromatic film. And it was a very curly film. Noncurling it said,
"n.c.," but it was better than the earlier film.

"The Negative is Like the Composer's Score"

Adams: There's always this problem of the photographer having to adjust.
If I have a 35 millimeter camera, I see things a certain way, in
relation to that camera. And I would compose, if I were a
composer, for certain instruments. I wouldn't try to write some
thing for the flute that would sound better on the pipe organ. (I
mean, that's an extreme case.)

Then you go through all these processes. You just try to get
the image that you want. Sometimes you know what it is, and
sometimes you don't. You just feel your way. And a lot of photo
graphers only view something they don't really "see" it. They
see you sitting there and they go "click." And then they have some
empirical experience, so they get some usable exposure, but they
still may have an awful lot of darkroom fussing to do. And many
times they have no concern whatsoever for tonal quality or

I had a girl working for me once who wanted to be a
photographer. She'd done a little work. She made some proofs of
my pictures, and I couldn't recognize them. Now, this is an
interesting thing. She had absolutely no print sense. Could not
make a print that had any value at all. And I was printing my own
pictures of national parks, and I couldn't recognize them.'
Because I hadn't seen them just as a picture of the Big White
Throne, but as a value composition. This thing would come out
looking just awful.

Teiser: When you have someone working with you that way, do you ordinarily
have a print to guide them by?

Adams: Well, I don't let them print. Liliane De Cock was the only one
who really made very fine prints. And Gerry Sharpe could make a
fine print. And I think my new man, Ted Organ, can make them, too.
But he just thinks mostly of the work in his own field. But I have
to make my own fine exhibit prints. Sometimes, with the special


Adams: edition prints, I can start it off, then have my assistant repeat;
but even that has a very subtle difference. It's very hard to
explain, to put your finger right on the problem. Edward Weston's
boys made prints from his negatives. They were a little more
brilliant, some of them were really "better," but in the main they
don't look like Edward's prints. They don't have quite that
feeling. It's very hard to describe.

I had to make an enlargement of one of Edward Weston's
negatives for an exhibit. I had the print it was very good and
he loaned me the negative. I had his print to go by. And I had
one of the most difficult times in my life trying to make a print
that felt a little like Edward's. I can make a print no trouble
in that. This was a pretty good negative not too sharp; he'd
never enlarged, you know. But to get that peculiar quality that
was Edward Weston's to even approach it was tough!

And the same thing with the Clarence Kennedy pictures of
sculpture. He had the most extraordinary feeling in the marble

Online LibraryAnsel AdamsConversations with Ansel Adams : oral history transcript / 1972-1975 → online text (page 22 of 76)