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

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quality of his images. I've tried everything under the sun. I'm
printing, I'm bleaching I can't get that same "feeling." Of
course, what really happened is that he didn't process things too
accurately. In twenty, thirty years high values have bleached out
a little. The high values as they are suggest sparkle and trans-
lucence, which is in a way an accident!

Teiser: That brings up the whole point of what is a negative, and how will
it last? What should it stand for? What should its life be?

Adams: There's the recent trend (of course, like most trends, everything
is overdone) for the "archival" as they call it. People are just
going out of their minds in trying to process and protect the
negative and print images, making the image totally permanent.
Well, two hypo baths and selenium toning will make an image
extremely permanent. If you mounted it on a bad board or subjected
it to sulphur carrying boards, high acid boards and slip sheets,
and other chemical conditions, you could do damage.

Now, I have some of my earlier negatives and prints that are
fading; the ones made before we used the two fixing baths. But I
seldom find a negative, even some I developed in the field, that
shows deterioration. The early negatives, of course, were on
nitrate base, which was very dangerous, because under humid
conditions, if people didn't keep them properly, they would
deteriorate into nitroglycerin. Kennedy had a whole bunch of
negatives with paper separators in a drawer, and all of them were
in almost liquid condition! If anybody would come there with a
cigarette a dangerous fire could occur.


Adams :

Teiser ;

Adams :

Adams :

Adams :

And I remember one time an air force captain, Albert Stevens, gave
me a great big roll of outdated aerofilm. And he said, "Look, I
just have to throw it away. So why don't you take it? You can
cut it up and use it. It's fine stuff. It's just outdated and we
can't use it; it'll last for a year or two if you keep it cool."

Well, I kept it around for three or four years, and I thought,
"I'd better dispose of this," so I took it out in a sand lot in
back of my house, dug a hole, and I put the cannister in it. I
had an old flashpowder wick; I stuck that into the roll of film,
and lit it and went to a safe distance. The fire looked like Old
Faithful. The thing blew up, in roaring flames.

The Cleveland Clinic disaster in its x-ray department was of
similar nature. The fire started, and then thousands of x-ray
films, of nitrate base, exploded.

Then the manufacturers changed to acetate base, which is much
more stable. The Golden Gate picture, for instance, has shrunk
over a quarter of an inch in both dimensions. The acetate base
has more stability.

Now Kodak has what they call the Estar base, which has
extraordinary stability. It's a plastic well, so's acetate,
because they're all plastic of a kind.

We were looking in the Friends of Photography gallery here in
Carmel, at photographs by Frederick Evans. One of the captions
said that his wife required that all of his negatives be destroyed
on his death or her death.

No, they really weren't, because they've been making some prints
from them. I guess his son kept them. Well now, maybe they copied
his prints.

It said they were made from positive slides for projection.

That may be right,
copies from those.

There were positive slides, and they could make

I wonder, though, why would anyone want the negatives destroyed.

Well, it's a great problem we all have. Now, with Weston, his sons
could carry on his work, in a sense. Now, I have a great many
Yosemite pictures which are very valuable commercially for the
family. And it would be terrible to destroy those. But take that
white post and spandrel picture ["White Post, Columbia, California"]
I don't know who else could print that just that way. I have a
certain feeling about it, and it takes quite a technique to get it,
and if it wouldn't be my work, what good would the negative be? It


Adams: would be very easy to destroy all the negatives, except the ones
that have historic value or scientific value, or some commercial
value. But my "Moonrise" [Hernandez] print, unless it were made
by me, it would have no value. There are hundreds of them. And
so, if something happens to me and I can't print them any more,
what do I do? My Portfolio V negatives are all canceled. I have
an old canceling machine I got from the Wells Fargo Bank I

Teiser: That's the Varian portfolio?

Adams: No, Varian 's was Portfolio IV. Portfolio V was limited to 110

copies only. That means I never can print any more of the images.
The other day I found two or three prints, and I had to tear them
up because they're not supposed to be out. And I have quite a
number of them extra ones that were mounted in case of disaster.
And they really shouldn't be around, because my contract and my
ethics say that there were just 110 things printed, and one hundred
for sale. But I have a few temporarily. For instance, an accident
happened to the one a client had; I could supply another. And I
asked for the damaged print back, and that was destroyed, and I
sent them another numbered the same. But I can do that up to a
certain point, you see. But I'd have to have the other one back
and destroy it, so there' d never be any more than the stated number
of prints available.

Teiser: So, in effect, the negative stands for nothing in itself?

Adams: No. The negative is like the composer's score. The print is like
the performance, but it's not a score that can be performed by
others. We say that. Now, of course, it's perfectly possible
that a photographer could come along and get more out of my prints.
But the question is: would it be me? And the collector, the
purchaser, and the expert, they want the original of the artist's
work. Whether the other person doing it would do a better job is
an ethical question that's very important.

Sometimes we get too precious, but it depends. I sell .a print
for, say, $200, $250. The price for a 16 by 20, after this fall,
is going to be $350.* Now, that has a rare value. I mean if a
person buys a print by me and pays for it. That person is not
going to be very happy if he sees another print out that's almost
like it but doesn't have my signature. That's an ethical point.

*After September 1976 it is five hundred dollars for all prints
16 by 20 or smaller. [A. A.]


Adams: As far as the creation of a photograph goes, if you can divorce

it from that element, then you should make as many as possible for
as low a price as possible, if you want to get the message around.

Clarence Kennedy, after all his sculpture pictures were out,
claimed he could do prints for fifteen or twenty cents apiece!
He'd have a student printing them. But I think he tried it, but
the prints didn't look like his pictures. There are all kinds of
pictures of these sculptures around. There wasn't a thing he
photographed that hadn't been photographed a thousand times. But
he got something remarkable in his images, you see a "spiritual"
interpretation of the marble. Then the whole concept related to
the original art element, and the creative photographic element.
For instance, there are many pictures of Death Valley that are
much sharper than anything Edward [Weston] ever did. Edward didn't
worry too much about true sharpness. He didn't enlarge, he didn't
have very good lenses until the end. And it didn't make any
difference with the contact print an old rectilinear lens gave a
beautiful image. But you enlarge it two or three times, and it
begins to "go to pieces."

But as I say, there's nothing worse than a very sharp image
of a very fuzzy concept. [Laughter] That's one of the illusions
that people have about Group f/64. Actually if we had stopped
down everything to f/64, we couldn't make many enlargements,
because at f/64 the diffraction patterns enter and the image isn't
sharp. It just has great depth of field, which gives an illusion
of sharpness.

Well, I think the reason that I went to the Art Center School
was to teach, and the reason that the Zone System was developed
was that I found that I couldn't teach anything but just the way I
did it myself. And, as a musician and teacher, I was trained that
you had to find out what the student had to say and help him say it
his way. Because all hands are different and minds are different
and feelings are different, so the function of a good teacher is to
draw out, not necessarily to make the student imitate. One of the
most successful teachers in Berkeley, Miss Simpson, taught with
two pianos. And that's one of the most dangerous things you can do,
because her students sounded just like she did. She would play a
phrase and they would imitate it. But a teacher like Benjamin
Moore, for instance, would never play for the student. He'd always
ask you, "Now, do you really think that you have fully developed
that phrase?" etc. And would give me other descriptive symbols,
but would never play.

Frederick Zech was a pupil of Von Billow. He was the most
incredible technician. When he was eighty years old he could do
chromatic double sixths which would put your hair on end. And he
would sometimes show off, you know. "I want you to get your double


Adams: thirds," [makes a sound] "rruup," straight chromatic," and your
double fourths" "rruup," you know. And I'd go home with these
things in mind and try to get it. But when it came to playing,
he would talk about the playing, not play for you!

I remember doing some Liszt and he'd talk about everything
in the world from pontifical moods to passion, to many things, but
he never would play. He certainly could play it. He had this
ability as a pianist, but he didn't want me to hear him and imitate
him. That wasn't the job. I had to do it.

Teiser: So he had to teach you basic technique.

Adams: Well, the technique and the style is very complicated, because
they're there and they guide you. That was the whole point of
getting the person facile but it's so easy to imitate. Some
people play "by ear." They've heard something and they can
imitate it. That isn't true individualism in music.

Well, the same thing in photography. You can set up your
tripod, find the tripod holes in the ground your predecessor made,
set up and do the picture, and you may get just as sharp an image,
and with a lens of the same focal length you'll get everything
optically the same.

Then comes the other thing what kind of a print? I mean,
how you carry the interpretation. You can lose the sense of your
substance, rock; you can lose the sense of light. I don't know if
I'm making any sense now. This is getting a little bit quasi-

Beauty or Therapy

Adams: But the photograph can be beautiful and personal. I think the

sense of beauty in photographs belongs to a romantic age. I think
the contemporary whole art spirit is really negative to photographic
expression in the sense that I practice it (or vice versa) . Very
few people are making what we call beautiful prints, where the
print itself is a beautiful object. They're making images
extraordinary, complex and sometimes very brilliant experiments.
The image may be interesting, but the print inadequate. The idea
is interesting. The actual print can be very ugly. And whether
the idea would ever admit to a beautiful print being made of it,
we don't know.


Adams: And of course a lot of the philosophy today is camera as therapy
that was one of Minor White's points; presuming that everybody has
problems and is a bit on the psychologically sick side. You had to
explore yourself little outgoing motivation. I think that bothers
me more than anything. The fact of doing something for the outer
world as Beaumont Newhall said, "After all, pictures should be
things to look at, not just experiments in vacuum cleaning your
psyche." [Laughter]

Teiser: Well, it's communication.

Adams: It really is communication, and the communication depends pretty

much on the state of mind or the condition of your compassion, and
I think the trouble today is that there is a lack of compassion,
which means mutual understanding and acceptance. These artists
are so flagrantly well, I could choose the word dominating. It's
a very difficult word to find. It's not a matter of being selfish,
not a matter of being opinionated, but simply I guess you'd use
the words "flamboyant insistence."

But one of the reasons that the painters have been holding
onto these big galleries is that they're painting gigantic pictures,
you see. Pictures half the size of the wall.

And I saw in Pasadena a beautifully hung show a lot of
contemporary things which were just structures attached to the
wall; some came out on the floor. And we had a joke here the
other day, because there was some photographic paper that had not
been developed. It had just been taken out in long rolls. And
of course they've turned color. It's a kind of a blue and a brown.
So I thought if I could just set that up on a wall and exhibit it.
During the whole exhibit, it would be different every day. It
would change, fade and turn color. And it was just as interesting
as some of the [Mark] Rothko things. [Doorbell rings people enter]

Astronomical Photography and Videotape

Adams: Now, this man that's coming in is at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
And he brings me moon pictures and Mars pictures. And he's a
fascinating gentleman and very much interested in photography.
I'd like to introduce him, because he represents another phase of
work I'm interested in, moon and the Mars photography. I have
quite a collection. He's Stanley Crotch, Ph.D. He is an analytical
chemist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. They come up
every once in a while to see us, and they're a wonderful family.


Adams: But anyway, the description of astronomical photography in plain
and simple form is complicated enough, but now we have image-
amplification and the radio telescope responses, plus satellite
photography; the computer numerical system such as used by the
Mariners where the picture is scanned and instead of an "image"
they send numbers it's a kind of a super-densitometer the numbers
relating to the areas of density of the image. And these numbers
come in a continuous stream so they can be picked up by the
computer and put in sequence and line. The scanner goes in one
direction for the image. When it reverses it transmits the read
ings of the instruments on board, then it reverses direction again
for the image and again returns with instrumental information.
When you consider the whole electronic image is about twenty
millimeters square, or 20 by 30 millimeters (and there's hundreds
of lines scanning in that small area), and it travels thirty-five
million miles or fifty million miles, you have a miracle. As
somebody said, the energy received is much less than that used by
a very small fly climbing up the window, and yet these pictures
come out with amazing precision and clarity.

Then the image is put in a computer and translated into
actual tonal values and can be "enhanced." The acuteness can be
enhanced by the computer. The first moon pictures were produced
that way. You saw the actual grains of sand and soil actually
fantastic. Hence the illusion of extreme definition through
computer enhancement. That can be used in ordinary photography
too, I imagine. It's really quite something!

Teiser: I've been wondering about the videotape system, where you put the
image on tape.

Adams: Oh, that's a tremendous new field.

Teiser: Has it any possible future application to still photography?

Adams: Right now it is not so much still as moving. But there's no

reason it couldn't be still. The whole cassette concept has really
changed the world of television. Your live shows may be the
exception. For instance, we could have a converter set on which
we could show about anything we wanted, black and white or in
color. We could rent or buy tape. And we could have the whole
opera or a travelogue or a scientific lecture or a dissertation.
Anything we wanted, we'd just put in this device and it is
revealed on the screen. I've seen some trials and they're
absolutely beautiful. Now there's no reason why I couldn't go out
with a video machine that will give me an image, you see, on tape
a creative image. That could be moving or static. It could be a
photograph of a photograph! And they did some very fine things in
reproductions of works of art.


Adams: The first time I saw this tape system they used a van, and they

did a picture at Glacier Point. It was a television series, and I
was in it, and I had to come out and talk. They had focussed on
the landscape, and they used filters just like I would. When
finished with this, they said, "Well, I think we have it. Would
you like to come in and see it?" I said, "Come and see what?"
"Come see it in this bus." In this little room were two or three
seats and a screen, and we saw the "take" and it was absolutely
beautiful! The mountains were clear and sharp. The only thing is,
my face was in shadow. It was out of the exposure range, and they
could not hold values in the shadows. We had to do it all over
again, with lights and reflections, and build up the shadow. It
was a fantastic experience; the final results were remarkably well

All of that is one form of imagery, and photography is a form
of imagery. I mean, what is a photograph but an image? Now we
are doing three-dimensional photography. There was a show in San
Francisco by Michael Bry. I was quite impressed with these big
translucent panels hanging moving in space with images on them.
I mean, all these things are very moving if they're well done.
First, they're all valid experiments in the laboratory. Now how
many experiments are worth taking out of the laboratory and showing?
The trouble today is they're showing too many things that still
should be in the laboratory. As if I would rent Carnegie Hall and
play the Clement i octave studies, you see. [Laughs] It's not that
you wouldn't have a student gallery, but I'm speaking of public
communication. Some things are so far-out, so far undeveloped that
they don't belong in exhibits. Too many of our exhibits today are
of that character.

Teiser: Is there any reason why you couldn't use videotape in a still


Adams: Well, no, the principle is well, what is a television camera?
It's a cathode tube, which is scanning four hundred lines, or
something, per second. I can put it on tape; I can compose, as I
would a movie. I don't see why it couldn't be simply wonderful,
why I couldn't go out with this camera and a finder, and whether
this camera couldn't have the adjustments that we have with
conventional equipment. I don't know why it couldn't. They use
perfectly beautiful optical lenses, just about the same as camera
lenses. I'd never know the difference if I used one on the camera.

I saw the big CBS studio when I was on the "Today" show the
lens, for instance, about that big (four inches across!) working
about f/2. Twenty-four thousand dollars for a zoom lens some
fantastic figure I don't think that's accurate; it may be a little
less. But it was a very impressive amount. And they're picking up
these images in color and when you see them on the monitors in the
television control room they're really beautiful. They're sharp.


Adams :




So most of your color, and even black and white, transmission you
get is always of lesser quality than what you'd get in the station.
Except when you have cable television; then you have, of course,
much more accurate delivery.

So we're getting into another field now, but television is an
image process. Being an image process, it has a direct relation to
photography. And maybe the future of photography will be very
closely allied to this technique. And I would very much like to
have a television camera and do a tape which would go on a cassette,
which would be a creative experience.

Have you done any motion pictures?

Oh no, very little. I did a series in Yosemite years ago with a
Zeiss Moviecon, which was a beautiful piece of equipment. It was
like the Kodak 16 camera, and it had a shutter adjustment u p to
1/1000 of a second, so you could take separate frames of 1/1000
per second exposure. I did details of water with a very high
shutter speed on panatomic film and had that developed in para-
phenylene-diamine, and had a print made and developed also in para-
phenylene-diamine . It was the most beautiful image you've ever
seen in your life. Beautiful color, warm, rich, and sharp. It
burned up in the fire we had at Yosemite. It was only one hundred
feet, but it proved a point to me. And then I never got back to

Brett Weston is home,

Why don't you interview him,* maybe

We were going to talk to Henry Gilpin

Oh yes, that's good. Well, Brett Weston called me and told me he
was back.

I tried to get hold of your neighbor here, Dick McGraw.
Oh, he's gone, he's on a trip. Just left.

I'm thinking of Fred Farr can give you conservation ideas
so can the Owings . I think you ought to do a tape on both Margaret
and Nat [Nathaniel] Owings. They're remarkable people, and they

*A series of interviews with some friends and associates of
Ansel Adams was taped. See Interview History.



have really a big background in everything,
in conservation and the environment.

They'd be very fine

Adams :

Adams :

At this moment, I'm sort of anathema to a large group of
environmentalists because I insist on using common sense, and I
won't get emotional about some of these things. I'm not a push
button liberal or environmentalist. I'd like to go on record.
[Laughs] Things are getting really out of hand, and the backlash
is going to be very distressing. People like Margaret and Nat are
very wonderful, sensible people.

You mentioned Garrod, and we'll try to speak to him.

Yes, Dick Garrod. He's the city planner at Monterey and he's good.
McGraw is good. I think he well, you get another side. He's an
extremely critical person. We are very old friends, dear friends,
but we scold each other, so he probably will give you some valuable
but slightly negative ideas about what I should have done, and what
I didn't do, and so on.

Rosario Mazzeo, he's quite important.
Who is he?

He's a very fine musician, a clarinetist, and he was the first desk
clarinet with the Boston Symphony, and the personnel manager as
well. And he also is a very experienced photographer, especially
in wildlife. And he's going to do more photography, I hope. Don't
quote me he's got a very good eye, but he doesn't know yet how to
print. I scold him all the time. But both he and his wife are
extraordinary musicians she's a pianist. And Rosario 's quite a
force. I mean, he's a very potent gentleman. We've known each
other now for twenty years, and he can give you all kinds of details
of my life in Boston. I introduced the Lands to them, and I
insisted on painting their dining room ceiling blue, which they
liked very much because it made a terrible difference in the Boston
stuffy apartments. This was a kind of Italianate space. I said,
"Well, this room is kind of brown-gray dim. If you just take the
ceiling and paint it blue, you'll have a sense of space." My God,
Katy did it, and it looked beautiful. I kept my fingers crossed,
because I am no decorator! [Laughs]

Anyway, he's somebody you might see, and he's somebody that
really would deserve quite an interview in himself, because he works
very closely with the University and at Tanglewood. Big musical
background, very big. [Interruption]


Adams: This is Dr. Stanley Crotch.* This is the oral biography project
for The Bancroft Library. So if you have anything to say about
me... [Laughs] I've been telling them about my interest in
astronomical and satellite photography, and I have a total lack of
technical knowledge about it, but a great interest.

Crotch: Well, you've sort of come in at I guess the highlight of the whole
thing the renaissance, if you will. And probably the end of it
for a while. We in it can see just another few more years of it,
and that's probably going to be the end of it for a while. Within
probably our creative life.

V. Adams: What about the brilliant things we read about in the paper the
other day?

Adams: Supernova, they said.

Crotch: I don't know much about it. It's not that we don't hear it, but we

Online LibraryAnsel AdamsConversations with Ansel Adams : oral history transcript / 1972-1975 → online text (page 23 of 76)