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

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really know little more than anyone reading a paper. And you know,
it's only when it comes in the scientific journals that you find
out a little bit more in terms of technical details. It's a very

Adams: What was exciting about this was that this was a real supernova,
the first one observed for many years. Now with our knowledge of
radio-astronomy, they know how to really look at such things.

Crotch: Well, the whole field of communications when these spacecraft get
out there hundreds of millions of miles away, it's no mean trick
to be able to pick up their signal the radio signal. In fact,
that's the only contact we have with them. And the technology for
being able to do that is really an extraordinary one. Just simply
being able to hear something transmitting with a few watts of power
at several hundred million miles away.

Adams: And the energy that comes in is about equivalent to a gnat slowly
crawling up a window pane.

Crotch: A drunken gnat. lLaughter"] No, the whole technology of being able
to do that and that of course has gone over into this area of
radio-astronomy of being able to pick out these extremely weak
sources is incredible.

Adams: She was asking about photography extending photography into

different fields. I was talking about computer enhancement, digital
frequencies and

*See also p. 221.


Crotch: I think they're only just beginning now to scratch the surface.
It's really remarkable that the whole thing has existed, maybe,
ten years. It's so new, and it's changing so rapidly as more
people get into it. It's very hard to see it. One doesn't see it
yet as a creative kind of thing, perhaps because the people who are
in it are basically not artistic as such, but are more scientific.

You know, the guys at JPL I the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in
Pasadena], when I mentioned I might see you this weekend, said
you've got to come and see some of the facilities they have there
for doing exactly what you're saying computer processing.

[End Tape 9, Side 1]

Early Years in Yosemite

[Interview VIII 29 May 1972]
[Begin Tape 9, Side 2]

[Mr. and Mrs. Adams. Mrs. Adams alone at the beginning.]

Teiser: When did you meet your husband?

V. Adams: I don't know 1923 maybe. I don't know. You know, my father had
that shop and studio* in Yosemite Valley. Mother died, and I was
taking care of the house. And we had a piano. Not many people
in the valley at that time had a piano. This was an old square
Chickering. There was a ranger-naturalist named Ansel Hall, and
so one day he brought this young man in. He said, "I'm going to
bring in my namesake. And he'd like to play on your piano." And
I thought you know, namesake . To my mind, it was the last name,
and I kept wanting to say, "Mr. Hall." It seemed to me to be the
natural thing to do. It took me awhile to realize it was the
first name.

Well anyway, Ansel was acting as custodian at the LeConte
Memorial in the valley, and his custom was to take photographs for
a month after this summer in the valley, and then go back home to
San Francisco, and he'd spend weeks developing all the pictures
he'd made. You know, there was no darkroom in Yosemite then. That
was just in the bathroom, you know things were simple like that.

*The Best Studio. Mrs. Adams's father was Harry C. Best, the
artist, who established the studio in 1902. He died in 1936.


V. Adams: Then he'd go back to practicing again. He used to practice eight
hours a day in fall and winter so that well, when he was really
going on his practicing, he'd start in the morning his father
would leave for the office about eight-thirty and then he'd go
into the living room and practice. (This was in San Francisco.)
And about ten- thirty he'd go out in the kitchen and he'd make tea
for his mother and his aunt and himself that gave him a break,
you see and then he'd go back until half past eleven or twelve,
and then it was lunchtime, and then he'd practice in the afternoon

V . Adams :

V. Adams:

V. Adams:

Well anyway, to go back to Yosemite, he had no piano up there,
and he was delighted at the idea of having one not to practice on
but to sit and play a little bit. And it took me quite awhile
before I realized that it wasn't only the piano that brought him
down to the [laughter] Because I just really wasn't emotionally
ready to get interested in anybody, and didn't believe anybody 'd
be interested in me.

So he'd come down it's about a mile, mile and a quarter,
maybe from the LeConte Lodge to the old village. He came down
fairly often. He used to make the excuse that he had to go over
to the government warehouse to get something, and they used to
tease him about that. It was his excuse to get out and do something
else. [Laughter]

So that's when I first met him and sort of the second year,
I was amazed that he was really interested in me. It took me awhile
to really respond. I just thought I wasn't ready for it. And then
when we did get engaged, I went down to see his family in San
Francisco and visited with them. Dad and I lived in San Diego in
the winter time, and so we'd stop by on the way up or down. That's
the first time I can think of meeting his family.

Was he photographing then?

Well, he'd go out for a month on a trip after he'd had the summer
in the valley and photograph, and then he'd come back with the
pictures. He'd go with some other young man and a donkey or two.

At some point fairly early he had started making prints for your

Shop, yes. He did that. [Speaks to A. A.] Are you ready now,
darling? All right.

[In the distance] Not quite.

Yes, he did. I mean, after we got engaged. Here was an opportunity
to make a little money. Nobody had any money in those days, you


V. Adams: [Aside] Ansel, I'm going to go in about one-half minute, unless
you can think of something I can do for you. I can stay

Adams: You can help by correcting my dates.

V. Adams: No. [To Teiser] Ask me some more, I'm full of facts.

Teiser: What were the pictures he started making that you sold?

V. Adams: Oh, of Yosemite. Not so much of the high country, because I don't
think Dad thought they would sell as well. Pictures of the valley,
and nice delicate little scenes in the forest.

Teiser: Small prints?

V. Adams: Yes. Some were four by five mounted on a bigger card, and some
I guess were maybe eight by ten and ten by twelve, but nothing
like these big things at all.

Teiser: Do any of those still exist? Do you have any of them?

V. Adams: I don't think that I have. I don't know. We'll have to ask

Ansel. It may be that there are some. I know Nancy Newhall tried
to find all sorts of things from early days [when she was gathering
material for The Eloquent Light] .

Teiser: Incidentally, you asked if we'd like to see some of those papers,
and maybe sometime we would.

V. Adams: Well, I know she sent back a lot of things. We'll have to ask Jim
where he filed them away.* There were many things she took east
right in the beginning. Then they had a big fire in Rochester, and
there was smoke damage on some things, and things that I didn't
know what had happened to them turned up to be safe and came back
west again.

But I know there are lots and lots of things, and I've got
pictures and pictures and pictures.

Teiser: We were speaking this morning to Mr. Mazzeo...

V. Adams: The Mazzeos knew Ansel when he'd go to Boston, and I didn't get

east. I had to stay here and run the shop in Yosemite, so I didn't
get out very much. He said he's got a beautiful tape of Ansel's
playing that someday he's going to try to put together. He can't
do it now because of his hands arthritis.

*A lot of material is now in my vault. [A. A.]


V. Adams: [Calling] Ansel, come back now; it's your turn. [To A. A. , who had
come in] Was that '23 when you and I met, when Ansel Hall
introduced us?

Adams: No, I think it was before that. I first came there in 1916. I had
been laid up with the flu, and I read [James M. ] Hutchings's book,
In the Heart of the Sierras, and got very excited. The family was
going to take a vacation, and I said, "Well, why not go to Yosemite?"

V. Adams: Was that the first time they visited Yosemite?

Adams: Yes, 1916.

V. Adams: Because they went almost every year afterwards.*

Adams: None of the family had been there earlier except my grandmother had
in 1870. We were there for the first vacation. I think it was four
weeks long.

Teiser: Was it as good as Hutchings said it was going to be?

Adams: Oh, much core so. Yes. But Hutchings had a definite control,

though a mood. We took walks up in the Little Yosemite Valley,
and then up the Yosemite Falls trail, and I remember seeing Joe
LeConte running down with his family one afternoon.

Teiser: Helen LeConte** said that he said that you had met in 1916; she
didn't remember, but he said you had.

Adams: It was on the Yosemite Falls trail in 1916.
V. Adams: I didn't realize that.

Adams: We went to the Big Trees. We then left by way of Miami Lodge,
stayed there, and then on to Raymond.

V. Adams: They went by auto stage.

Adams: Coming in you'd take the Pullman at eight o'clock in the morning

from Oakland. You'd get to Merced around noon, and they'd connect
the car to the Yosemite Valley Railroad, and then you'd puff up the
Merced River to El Portal, which was hotter than the hinges of the
hereafter! We stayed overnight at the El Portal Hotel.

*In 1917, '18, '19, and '20. [A. A.]

**Joseph N. LeConte 's daughter. See her Reminiscences, a Sierra

Club interview completed in 1977.


V. Adanis: They arranged it so they got to see lots of scenery.
Adams: We came in early in the morning in big white buses.
V. Adams: Well, it's very beautiful coming in the morning.

Adams: Yes, marvelous. And we arrived at Camp Curry. And an old fake,
Mr. [D.A.] Curry, roaming around, greeting people and shouting at
night for the fire fall. It was real circus stuff. And we had
tent #305

V. Adams: Oh, you did? [Laughter]

Adams: And I think it was that afternoon that I fell off a stump. I got
up on a stump which was rotten. I was trying to take a picture of
Half Dome. I fell off, and on the way down I clicked the camera
a little Number One Brownie and got a completely upside down
picture. Mr. [A.C.] Pillsbury developed the film couldn't
understand how that picture was upside down. "What did you do
hold it over your head?" And I said, "No, I fell off a stump."
I think from that time on he thought I was a liar. I knew him for
many years .

Teiser: Who else, however, could have got a picture at all? [Laughs]
Adams: It's a good picture. I've got the negative somewhere. [Laughter]

And, oh, I don't know... we did all the things. And then I
came back with my mother the next year, and that's when I met Mr.
[Francis] Holman and went on my first camping trip. Bessie Pond and
the Admiral. . .

V. Adams: Admiral Pond.

Adams: I forget. Bessie [Elizabeth Keith] Pond and a Miss Smith, a Scotch
lady. I guess the admiral [Charles F. Pond] was there, and some
other friend. It was raining; and, oh, Merced Lake was very dismal.
It cleared up that night, and the next morning I remember climbing
up the ridge. We camped between Lake Merced and Lake Washburn at a
bend in the river, and a big glaciated ridge, right out to the north.
I climbed up at dawn, and there were all those crags under Mount
Clark, all shining in the sunrise, and that "did it." [Pause] That
entrapped me forever. We didn't climb Mount Clark that year. We
went to Lake Washburn and Babcock Lake and Fletcher Creek Dome and
returned to Yosemite Valley.


Mountain Trips with Francis Holman

Adams: Then the next year I was there with my mother, who stayed at Camp
Curry, and Mr. Holman and I went on many trips. And an old
friend, Mr. Schu, a farmer, was with us. And oh boy, we did some
real scrambles. We got up at dawn and got going with our donkeys.
We would get in at dark and set up camp, and dinner was a mixture
of ants and cinders and hash or whatever it was.

V. Adams: Who did the cooking?

Adams: Everybody sort of pitched in. We had nothing but coffee cans with
wires as holders; we had one frying pan, the coffee pot, and
several kettles tin cans only. And of course, they'd get all
blackened. So it was quite a job to keep it clean. And then we'd
travel or climb all day.

V. Adams: Where did you go Merced Lake?

Adams: Oh yes. Well, Merced Lake and Tuolomne Pass and the Young Lakes.
One year, I forget, we got stuck out in the first snowstorm of
the season in October. We had to get out very fast so nobody got
stuck. Went all the way from Young Lakes to Yosemite

V. Adams: That's a long way. That's a hard day.

Adams: We were a tired bunch of animals and people. It was terrible.

That was more than twenty-eight miles. And the first four or five
miles was through about a foot of fresh snow. And we were scared
to death, because if the snow got too deep, the animals would
flounder in it, and we'd be taking everything off and junking it
and trying to see how far we could take the animals without any
thing in their packs.

And on another trip we went over Isberg Pass to the Minarets,
and all around the Minarets, Mount Ritter, Iron Mountain, and Koip
Pass. In fact, we were often out of the park, in national forest
areas, but never got to the southern Sierras, never went below
Minaret Summit.

Ted Organ: Were you on the first ascent of any of those peaks?

Adams: Oh, I climbed one of the Minarets but I don't think it was an
important climb.

V. Adams: That was before people did formal climbing.

Ansel bringing in the biscuits."
Camp on summit of Cooper Pass,
California, 1926. Sierra Club

Left to right: Admiral Charles
Fremont Pond, Helen LeConte,
May Isabel Wocker, May Elizabeth
Plehn, Ansel Adams, four donkeys,

Photograph by J. Malcolm G^eany
Ansel Adams, Juneau, Alaska, 1947

Photograph by Christine L. Reid

Ansel Adams, guest speaker,
Annual meeting of the Friends
of The Bancroft Library,
May 14, 1967.


AdaEs: I've got my name in a number of registers. At first there was no
record kept; I can't believe that people hadn't climbed a lot,
especially the shepherds. They were in the country for months at
a time. And all the packers, they thought we were just crazy to
walk. The people would go along the trail riding horses. They
were called "horse muckers." The real elite was the campers, going
along with the donkeys, walking.

V. Adams : What were you?

Adams: I was the elite. I was just walking on the ground and had a

donkey or a mule for my outfit. But the ones who rode, with guides
and things, they were "intruders" [laughs] and "softies."

We climbed all kinds of things. We had a very dangerous
ascent of the gorge east of Lake Washburn. And our technique was
just scrambling we had a World War I trench pick, and long window
sash cords you know, the kind that hold up the weights in windows
which at that time were the strongest material available. We'd
just tie ourselves together with those and climb together.' Of
course, if you ever fell on it, you would just cut yourself right
in two; they were only about one-eighth of an inch thick! We had
no knowledge of climbing and we came so close to disaster so many
times, I'd hate to tell you.

And the worst of all was the gorge in the southeast end of
Lake Washburn. It's just a fault line on a cliff leading up to a
little lake at the top (it's about sixteen hundred to eighteen
hundred feet long). Holman said, "There's a couple of small chock
stones in there." Chock stones are stones that have fallen down
and wedged in the gorge, which was about 70 to 80 steep.

So we started out on a real scramble. We didn't think anything
of it at all; at first I could just go all day long climbing. I
guess it was kind of a tough place, and we came upon the first
chock stone. And there was no way of getting under it, so we had to
go up the face of the gorge wall. The top of the face of the wall
in that case was about as high as this ceiling, sixteen feet. But
at this angle, if you let go, you'd go down about two hundred feet.
Looking down was a bit distracting.

We got over that, and I began to tremble; "How do we get back?"
Because, you know, climbing is one thing, and getting down is
another. And then there was another chock stone and a bigger one.
Mr. Holman said, "Well, we can't go back, we've got to go on." So
we had to start climbing this wall again, and it was really pretty
dangerous this time. And of course, no one had an idea of how to
belay and protect yourself.


Adams: I'd get ahead (I was a little more agile), and then I'd sort of

help pull Mr. Holman up, but if he fell I couldn't have held him.
We got up over that difficulty and thought we were almost up, and
then there was another chock stone, and this was the big one. And
that vertical wall was something! It was about one hundred feet
high straight up!

And we got over that, and we knew there weren't any more,
because we could see the top. But talk about being scared! The
feeling of being trapped at a late hour, and no place to lie down;
it was so steep it was hard even to sit.

V. Adams: Where were you?

Adams: This gorge east of Lake Washburn.

We finally came out on top. Glory Hallelujah! We decided we
wouldn't do anything like that again without knowing what we were
getting into.

Of course, there wouldn't be anything to it today. I mean,
you would protect against exposure. If you couldn't give a person
a safe body belay, you'd drive in a piton and secure the rope

V. Adams: They didn't have equipment then.

Adams: Nobody knew anything about real climbing in those days.

Teiser: Who was Mr. Holman?

Adams: Frank [Francis] Holman was a mining engineer who lost an eye at the
age of twelve, and he had, with his one very sharp eagle eye,
remarkable vision. He'd been in South America, and I guess he'd
done pretty well for himself. He was an old bachelor. He could be
very crusty. But a very distinguished man.

V. Adams: How did you and he get together?

Adams: I think it was through Bessie Pond.

V. Adams: He wasn't at LeConte Memorial first?

Adams : Oh no .

V. Adams: You took that together?

Adams: I took that myself first for several years, and he came and stayed
with me.


V. Adams:

V. Adams:

Adams :

V. Adams
Adams :
V. Adams:

Adams :
V. Adams:

Adams :


LeConte Memorial. He had his quarters there in summer.

And then, I forget where he'd spend the winters.

And then my aunt, my father's brother's second wife, met him;
she was a professional nurse. And they became companions.

She'd read to him and write his letters because he couldn't see too
well to write.

This was after his strenuous climbing days. His eye was giving out.

So I was taking care of LeConte Memorial for several years, and
then he joined with me, and finally he and my aunt said they'd take
it over. Then I went with the LeConte family for two summers or was
it three? to the southern Sierra.

They could camp behind the lodge at that time

Oh yes, we had a nice little camp there.

They allowed it at that time, to camp right behind the lodge, behind
LeConte Memorial. Now you can't.

We had a regular camp set up: kitchen, camp stove,
the donkey out in Stoneman Meadow.

We would stake

Finally they even got to taking a cook out with them, Aunt Beth
[Adams] and Mr. Holman. They'd come down here to Carmel for the
winter, and they'd take a house that had two wings. They each had
to live their own lives, and yet she was a good companion to him.

We took her on trips. One night up at Triple Creek Fork, the
coyotes let loose. She came over from the designated women's camp,
which was about (very properly) three hundred feet away, about
midnight. It was moonlit and these coyotes were just going strong!
And she said, "I don't care, but I am going to move in with you
men. I'm scared." [Laughter]

Then we lost the donkey. The donkey ran down Triple Creek and
away home, and they can run faster than we can if they want to run,
and Mr. Holman had a marvelous string of repetitive profanity. The
whole canyon ringing with a combination of entreaties to the
donkey and consignments of the donkey to inconceivable areas.


Adams: Once the donkey got stuck on a steep cliff; we had an awful time
getting it out of trouble. Tied it to a belay with a hack rope,
and it fell down several times. It was belayed by the wall. We'd
get it to its feet, and it would scramble along the very steep

Now there's a trail indicated there. But that was a really
tough place to get up with an animal. Of course, I'd take every
thing off the animal and carry things up. The work we did was just
tremendous just sheer physical toil.

Perils and Close Calls

Adams: For instance, we'd climb Red, Gray, and Mount Clark in one day. We'd
leave camp about four- thirty in the morning. Those are three peaks
in the Merced Group. That was a pretty strenuous deal, you know.
Lost the camp (many people lost Illilouette Valley) , found it about
ten o'clock at night!

That's the time we had the fall on Red Peak. We were going up
with the old ice pick and the window sash cords, chopping little
steps. It was frozen snow, it wasn't ice, and about a thousand
steep feet of it. About eight hundred feet up, I slipped. And of
course I started to slide it was about 60 to 70 steep pulled
Mr. Holman off his feet, and we both went down. He was yelling,
"Keep your feet front front! Don't roll!" And finally we got
down. We were sliding face-down, and if you just touched your hands
to the frozen snow it would take the skin off. We were really going
awfully fast. And there was a whole lot of rock and snow piled at
the bottom, and we went right through that but missed all the rocks!
Mr. Holman sort of sat there and rubbed the snow out of his eyes and
said, "Well, we'll go right up again." That was the best philosophy.
So back we went.

Then we came down the Red Peak ridge, and kept on the
connecting ridge, and up to Gray Peak and down that connecting ridge,
over to Mount Clark. Mount Clark was very steep stone and snow on
the eastern side. And the top of it was a little broken crag. It's
one of the great Yosemite mountains. When we got down to the base
of Mount Clark, we came out three miles below camp, which was worse
because we had to go uphill up the trail to get to our camp. And
everything looks alike in that place in the lodge pole forest.

So, let's see. What else did Mr. Holman and I do? Well, we
climbed everything around Yosemite. He was a great ornithologist.
One harrowing experience was in the Lyell Fork of the Merced. He


Adams: had a little collector's gun. He just hated to shoot birds, but the
Academy of Sciences gave him this commission for collecting. And he
had a can of arsenic salts with which to cure the skins. We would
shoot a bird and feel very sad about it. He would very carefully
skin it, and save all the feathers and everything, and then rub the
inside of the skin with the arsenic salt. And then wrap it all up
in some material so that it wouldn't dry out. He kept the arsenic
in a large salt shaker.

Well, one night at a campfire, we were frying some fish or hash
and it was quite dark. I got hold of this salt shaker, you see, and
I put some salt on the fish. And at that time, he threw some twigs
on the fire and the fire came up, and I said, "This is funny. The
salt looks green." I'd gotten hold of the arsenic, and I've never
seen anybody so disturbed as Frank Holman! He just took that
arsenic and hid it . But that shows how easy it is to have something
happen to you. He just had it in a salt shaker and, oh my!

V. Adams: Like the time that you were at Merced Lake and you had a tummy ache.

Adams: If I'd known it was an appendicitis, I would have died of fright.
I was in terrible pain. Drank a whole bucket of water, all alone.
A storm was coming up. I was not expected back for four days. I'd
been up to Isberg Pass and Isberg Peak, came late to the camp, went
down to get some water at the river, and it was just like a knife
sticking in me. I thought, "Oh, ptomaine poisoning." I felt terrible,
you know. All of a sudden. I'd eaten nothing but grape nuts and a
can of condensed milk. I was on the simplest possible diet. I had
this fever coming on, and this pain, and the only thing I could think
of to do was to drink water. So I just got a bucket of water and
went up to our lean-to and just lay there and drank; all instinctive

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