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

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reaction. And I usually tell them that.

I had a man here the other day who was an engineer and wanted
to get into photography. And, oh boy, he'd really worked out a
lot of good mechanics. But he absolutely didn't have any "eye."
All I could do was to say, "Look, you're seeing all this stuff.


Adams :



It's like carrying rocks in a knapsack. You don't have to."
There was all this dead space. Then you bring the "L" cards in
and you show him how, when you bring a piece of grass in the
image up to the edge, the grass suddenly becomes significant in
relation to the whole thing. He says, "I never saw that. I
never thought of that." I say, "You have to look for it. I mean,
that's part of seeing and feeling." It's a very subtle and very
complicated thing!

Do you sometimes discourage people who you think really would be

Oh yes. I don't try to tell them they're no good and bums and
everything. Well, I just say to them, "You have a long ways to
go. And you haven't got your techniques, and you're really not
expressing anything. And you just better either get off the dime
and do something " Sometimes it's that. But most of the time
it's some very gifted person who thinks he wants to go into
photography, and then you try to pick out for him all of the
pitfalls of the so-called professional world.

You may work five days a week in a professional studio and
get fed up with the most commonplace, dull assignments. At the
end of that week, believe me, you'd rather go bowling than work
further with the camera. You'd be tired. Whereas, if you're a
lawyer or an engineer or a bootblack or anything, you build up
this creative tension. Many of the great photographers in the
world have been amateurs.

I try to point out how difficult it is to break into
photography. "Well," they say, "but you sell prints."

"Yes," I say, "I've been doing it for forty years."

There.'s a little difference. I mean, I sell a great many
prints. But twenty-five years ago I didn't sell a great many
prints. I was scratching pretty hard. I say, "You just can't
go out and sell prints. You could get an agent. You could get
a publicity man. You might suddenly emerge as a shooting star
and it would be wonderful, but the chances are against that."
But the people that you see that you instinctively know have
absolutely no taste, no knowledge, no perception, sensitivity
they might be fine people and really good in many other ways, but
not in photography.

Just like music. You've heard people play the piano and
you wish to gosh they'd go and start fishing or something. Yet
they may be playing accurately, but their whole tone construction,
their whole pattern of phrasing and shaping, is all off, and it's
an agonizing thing to hear. [Interruption]


Joseph N. LeConte in the Sierra

Adams :


Adams :

Up in Yosemite in the earlier days, I was not conscious of being
a photographer at all. I was just making photographs. But the
difference between someone like LeConte and myself was that I was
expressing my feelings. And while he had very intense feelings
about the mountains he really loved them he was content to
express the factual, scientific, topographic features. I mean,
as a scientist. These things are fully documented in his

But photography, being a language, admits poetry. Th
no good grounds of comparison there; both are separate and
important .


There were two or three years when you went on trips with the
LeConte family; was he an accomplished mountaineer?

Oh yes, in relation to the period. He was a climber, but he
never took chances. He wasn't a rock climber. They didn't
exist then.

We made many ascents. We climbed the Agassiz Needle, we
climbed the Goat Mountain lots of peaks that are commonplace
climbing now, but we did them with excitement then. He was the
one that explored the Kings River Sierra. It seemed that quite
a number of years ago, the State employed a topographer I forget
what you'd call them a cartographer a surveyor, I guess, to
prepare a map of the southern Sierra Nevada. It was about 1880,
I think. And this man got to the top of the Granite Divide and
took one look north into the middle fork of the Kings and beyond,
and just started sketching in. And the maps were quite wrong.
The sheepherders and the cattlemen knew this didn't jibe with
anything they had experienced .

So, LeConte and his friends who loved mountains went up and
down what is now the John Muir Trail I don't know how many times.
And they had to haul animals over cliffs with block and tackle.
People like the Duncan McDuffies, the Charlie Nobles (the
mathematics professor) really a very elite group of people.
Theodore Solomons was sort of a "parallel" figure, but not one
of the group.

So LeConte decided he was really going to map this region
properly. And of course, being a scientist-surveyor, he had all
the techniques. So he produced the first functioning maps, which
were not really accurate, as he said they might be off a half a
mile. But at least we know the North Fork of the Kings exists,


Adams: and we know that the Middle Fork of the Kings goes all the way
up LeConte Canyon to Mount Goddard, and Goddard Creek doesn't
flow north and so on. All kinds of terrible mistakes were made
on those earlier maps.

So he drew up the whole complex of the Kings-Kern region,
triangulated it, and did what remains an extremely creditable job,
although with no presumption of being really accurate, because he
didn't have the equipment. But he was within, I would say, half
a mile; that's what people who know told me. His maps were very
rewarding and useful.

I don't think his wife, Helen Gompertz, went on too many of
those big trips. I think they were married after most of them.
But they went to Yosemite. And of course the senior LeConte
[Joseph LeConte] was with them in 1901, and he died there. The
LeConte Memorial is dedicated to him.

And then later on, in the late twenties and early thirties,
Mrs. [Joseph N.] LeConte wasn't very well, and they would go to
Porcupine Flat. It was a place near the Tioga Road, a very
delightful campsite, and she'd rest. I remember in 1923 they
were at Porcupine Flat, because that's the time of the big
Berkeley fire. And I received word of this fire and went to
Porcupine Flat to let the LeContes know that the house had been
saved but the roof was slightly damaged.

I left the Memorial in Yosemite. In those days, for hikers
everything was "shortcuts." I remember climbing right out of
Indian Canyon and making a bee-line to Porcupine Flat. I was
wearing a straw hat, and I had gone through brush and forest
not paying any attention to the trail. This was almost a straight
line. And when I arrived at the camp I had a baby robin in the
top of my straw hat I I think a few of the people thought I was
nuts and that I had done this on purpose, but I was the most
surprised person of all. [Laughter] Mrs. LeConte nourished this
bird for two or three weeks, and finally it flew off.* I'd gone
through a tree, you see, and knocked the bird out of its nest.

I told them about the fire, and that it was nothing to
worry about, but they should know about it. But it was something
to worry about. So they debated whether they should go home, and
I said, "Well, I didn't think so. The information was that the
house was all right. The roof had been burned a little and singed-
no damage."

*For another version of this story, see Helen M. LeConte,
Reminiscences , op. cit . , p. 69.


Adams: They gave me a message to telephone to somebody to go and look
at it. This was the house on Hillside Court in Berkeley. So I
stayed with them a day or so. They used to climb Mount Hoffman,
climb out on the top of Mount Watkins and look down on Yosemite.
It was a kind of an intimate life. They'd always give me a
little libation before dinner. Really, they were delightfully
drinking people. Never too much.

Teiser: This was during Prohibition

Adams: Oh yes

Teiser: Did they make their own wine?

Adams: Oh no, they just had bottles of booze, like everybody else did.

(The whole thing was a farce.) It was usually bourbon. And we'd
all get together before the campfire in the evening, before
dinner, and they'd give these toasts these little Scotch or
Southern toasts. You know, like, "Here's tae [sic] us. Wha's
like us? Dahmn few. Thank God." (I can't pronounce it.) These
toasts would go back and forth. [Laughter] And the other one is,
"I lifts my glass. I has your eye. I winks accordin'. I likewise
bows." [Laughter]

And they'd always have this ceremony. And they'd have guests
all the time, and they'd have these wonderful campfire dinners to
gether. It was a really great experience!

And Joe always had the camera and was always making records .
And of course he just exposed and developed empirically. You do
the best you can under the circumstances. I later made albums
of prints for the Sierra Club of his Hetch-Hetchy pictures, and
while they don't say much emotionally, they are simply an
amazing survey of this country in the 1890s and early 1900s.
And now that there's seventy years in perspective, this documenta
tion becomes terribly important, you see. The forest people can
look at them and see the disposition of trees and meadows in
early days.

You see, very few people realize that Yosemite meadows are
not natural grass; they imported grass for cattle feed. Because
when people like the [John] Degnans were there in the seventies
or eighties, I think Virginia can check the date they raised
cattle for their milk. And they imported this very special grass.
It was ordinary feed grass, but the grass you see in the meadows
now has nothing to do with what was there first. The Kings
Canyon has bunch grass, which is a quite different thing and very
nourishing for donkeys, but it's not good for cows.


Adams: Well, to get back to Yosemite the awful condition of the

concessions that were there there were always conflicts. The Camp
Curry people and the Desmond Park [Service] Company and somebody
else's hotel and [A.C.] Pillsbury's studio and [David J.] Foley's
studio and [Julius] Boysen's studio and Best's studio. Everybody
just scratching for a living, you know. [Interruption]

Some of the early Yosemite people were remarkable. [Gabriel]
Sovulewski; you met Grace Ewing [Mrs. Frank B. Ewing], his daughter.
He was a man who was very prominent in the building of the trails.
He did very fine trail engineering, because some of the routing and
structure o f those trails today are perfect. Some have just been

The Half Dome Cable

Adams: McAllister gave the cable up Half Dome, and asked me if I would put

on the Crosby clamps. Now, a Crosby clamp is a U-shaped device which
secures the cable from slipping through the post rings. Well, they
weigh about five pounds apiece.

So the government brought in at least two mule-loads of Crosby
clamps and dumped them at the spring at the base of Half Dome,
about a half a mile away, and left me a couple of monkey wrenches
and a safety belt and said, "Good luck to you." [Laughter]

Well, you know, I had no idea of the weight. Here I have this
pile of metal, and I have to think, "Do I start the clamps at the
top or bottom?" Well, I started them at the top, logically, because
we have to "break in" on a job like this. So I took about ten
clamps fifty or sixty pounds in my knapsack and went up these
cables, which weren't really rightly set. I first had to climb up
to what they call the "neck" of the "Elephant," several hundred feet
of trail to the base of the Dome. Then I had to go up the seven
hundred feet to the top and attach the clamps as I came down. Let's
see, there 'd be one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine,
ten there 'd be five pairs of posts, and I could do them in one trip.
And I had to work at 45, but I had a belt. They were very thoughtful
for that, but the hook was wrong. If I had fallen, it might have
pulled off. But I was supposed to clamp that into the post while I
set these clamps on and put the bolts together.

Let's see. That took me six days of dawn-to-dusk work. And
finally I got all the clamps on. I did this in the last part of
April and early May. So it served its purpose all summer. But
they had to be taken down every winter. They left the cables on
the Dome. If the posts were strong enough and were shaped a different
way, I think they could have left them up without damage from snow.
But I'm not an engineer, so I don't know.


Adams: Hence I have been up Half Dome probably more than anybody I can
think of. [Laughter]

In the first days, [George C.] Anderson climbed Half Dome
drilling holes in the rock and inserting little expansion bolts.
And the rope laid right on the surface of the Dome. It was quite a
hazardous climb because the Dome was an exfoliated mass. Contrary
to Muir, the glaciers never came to within seven hundred feet of the
top of it. But these great plates of granite overlap on the down
ward side, so you come across about a two-foot height of granite
ledge. Well, when you're climbing at 45 a two-foot step or a thirty-
inch step is really a pretty hazardous obstruction, especially when
you're going down. So today we can climb the Dome safely, but a lot
of climbers ascend the Dome outside the cable but only with ropes
and the most careful "friction" climbing.

But now they have cables with smaller clamps and a little
different system. They still take them down. But it wasn't the
cumbersome thing I had to work with.

But that was an interesting experience. There was a sleet
storm once, when everything was covered with ice. I didn't have any
gloves and, oh gosh, it was terrible. [Laughs] Especially me, as a
pianist, getting my fingers frozen.

So, that was a very nice experience.

When the LeContes were in Yosemite, we explored the Quarter
Domes which are in between Half Dome and Clouds Rest actually
between Half Dome and the Pinnacles. And on one of the Quarter
Domes is an enormous erratic boulder, one of the best examples I
know of. I have a picture somewhere of Joe LeConte standing by this
boulder. LeConte was a tiny man (he was about five feet one) and
this boulder looks gigantic. We agreed that he should always be
around to be photographed in scenes of nature, because he made
nature look so much bigger. [Laughter]

Then I met Virginia. I used to go down to Best's studio, and
Harry Best had an old Chickering square. And I used to practice.
And of course the inevitable happened, but it was a very long
engagement. She had tremendous patience.

I would walk down from LeConte Memorial; it was about a mile.
Didn't think anything at all of the fact that we had no car. I did
have a car, a little old Ford laundry wagon. But I didn't have any
lights, so at night I had to walk down to the studio and practice
two or three hours .

Teiser: You were practicing and taking care of the lodge and photographing
all the time?


Adams: Oh yes. You see, I also was studying harmony and musicology that I
had to work on. So I was pretty busy.

Teiser: You certainly were.

Adams: On a nonacademic basis, but still...

Logic and Faith

Teiser: I'm amazed that you were such a responsible young man. You
apparently did everything you said you were going to do.

Adams: Yes, I did tried, at least. I guess I was pretty good. My father
was a pretty good logician. I mean, he would say: if you have to
do it, you do it, and do it the best you can. That's all there is
to it. But I also was required to do a lot of literary work. And
a lot of writing.

Teiser: I wonder if your first published piece isn't a report in the Sierra
Club Bulletin of 1921, as custodian of the LeConte Lodge. It was
a report for 1920.

Adams: Yes, it probably is.

Teiser: About needed repairs. A short report.

Adams: Yes. I have completely forgotten it, but that probably would be it.
I think I told you the experience when I was studying Greek with
old Dr. Harriot in San Francisco. Did I tell you that? Was that on
the tape?

Teiser: Yes.

Adams: Yes. Dr. Harriot was a fundamentalist. He was a Canadian. He was
apparently a very fine Greek scholar there was no question about
that. He really was an awfully good teacher, I must say that for
him. I read quite a little of the classic Greek and got a lot out
of it.

But he asked me one time, he asked, "What are you doing? What
are you reading? Do you go to church?" I said, "No."

"Oh, my God. You don't go to church!" I don't think he said
"my God," but he indicated it was terrible.

He asked, "What's your religion?" I said, "I guess it's
Episcopalian. I don't know."


Adams :


Well, that goggle-eyed him. And then he asked, "What are you
reading?" I said, "Poets. Of course I like the Romantic poets,"
and included Shelley.

"Oh, Shelley! Evil!" He blew his top. Dr. Harriot said,
"I suppose, young man, that you are one of those believers in

I said, "Yes, it makes a lot of sense."

He said, "Well, evolution is a very false thing, as the
Scriptures clearly show you. It's a matter of devolution."

I said, "What do you mean?"

He said, "Well, the world was created by God in 4004 B.C. And
we know that. That's been proven by " (I forget the name,)* And he
said, "Ever since then, man has been de-volving instead of evolving,
and will until the Second Coming will come and will clear it all


Those were about the exact words.

I said, "Well, Dr. Harriot, how do you account for the fossils
in the rocks? I mean, geological history "

"Oh," he said, "that's a lot of nonsense. My dear young man,
God put the fossils in the rocks to tempt our faith." [Laughter]

Well, that got my innate scientific mind, or tendency, really
mad! I remember telling my father about it.

"Well," he said, "if Dr. Harriot can multiply a time factor by
maybe a million. The fossils, you know, are there like we are, and
tempting what fate?" He couldn't quite blast the old man Papa was
very kind. But looking back at it, it's absolutely curious that
people have that degree of logic in modern times!

This image I had of God was of a bearded man in a white robe
with a knapsack full of fossils, poking them in the rocks to tempt
the faith of some serfs that would follow. So I think from that
time on I was really soured on conventional religion, because
felt it was pretty bad and weak.

Well, you were ready to be a pantheist, I suppose.

Yes, I guess I was, but I never got to the point of the pathetic
fallacy. And that's interesting that I didn't, because I very
easily could have. And a lot of people today, in this super-
conservation time, with movements and ideologies, approach pantheism
more than I ever did. That is, imputing individualistic qualities
to natural things. Who called it the pathetic fallacy? I can't
remember the wasn't it Wordsworth?

*Bishop Ussher.


Teiser: It may have been Wordsworth.

Adams: Wordsworth was kind of a highly expressive John Muir. Well, I'll
try to find out, because it really is an important element of

Teiser: Well, maybe it was Ruskin.

Adams: I think maybe you're right. I think maybe it s^ Ruskin. Let's

look it up. [It was!] It means we attribute human qualities to the
inanimate or to the nonhuman.

Of course, remember, being born in San Francisco, being part of
the Golden Gate and the West and the Sierra Nevada, I have a
totally different concept of the world from the people born in the
Midwest and the East.

Although the early paintings of the Hudson River School are
really quite remarkable. There are some beautiful places, but
they're all on relatively small scale. You never have this over
powering impact of the West but you have more thunderstorms, which
make up for it!

Panchromatic Plates

Teiser: Were you aware of Carle ton E. Watkins's photographs?

Adams: No. I'm very glad you brought that up, because I didn't know about
Watkins for decades. I saw a lot of old photographs and they didn't
mean anything to me. I'd see some and I'd say, "Oh, they're terrible.'
The only thrill I got in that domain was when I went in to see old
A.C. Pillsbury and he was a rather remarkable man. He did the
first time-lapse movies of flowers opening. Great man. He'd
received some Wrattan & Wainright glass plates from England. And
they were panchromatic, and he used a red filter, and he showed these
pictures, and you never saw such glorious clouds and dark skies, and
oh gosh, it was just something!

Well then, the story should revert a little to a bit of
photographic history which is not very much known. George Eastman
had a terrific industry by the tail, and realizing that this thing
was just getting beyond him and beyond anybody on his staff, and
knowing that he had to have photo-scientists, he 'd heard that Dr.
C.E.K. Mees was the really top photographic scientist going. There
was somebody in Germany, but George didn't like the Germans, and he
went to England. And he saw Mees and said, "I want you to work for


Adams: me." He offered him a salary very much more than Mees could even
dream of getting in England, and Mees said, "I'm under contract to
Wrattan & Wainright for ten years; I can't accept it." What did
Eastman do? He bought out Wrattan & Wainright [laughter] to get

So that was why you had for a while Kodak-Wrattan plates. My
"Monolith, the Face of Half Dome" is made on one, incidentally. And
the Wrattan filters, which still persist today are the world standard
of color filters. They're now all in gelatins, but they can be made
up in glass.

Mees was imported to Kodak in Rochester and became the
director of research. And Eastman was a very strange man a
bachelor had a great Momma complex. He was not a very easily
understood person, but completely honorable. Many great stories
were told me by Mees. I used to see Mees often after he'd retired
to Honolulu. I'd go to his home every other day or so while I was
there, and we'd sit down and have a drink by the sea and talk, and
he'd reminisce. Loved to see me, because it was a way of blowing
off steam. Boy, the stuff I got from him! If I'd had a tape
recorder, it would be invaluable! I mean the early part of Kodak,
and the struggles, and what was quality , and why they didn't take
up the Land projects. You see, Land had an option of a hundred
or two hundred thousand dollars with Kodak to buy his project.
They were just beginning. And "Nobby" [Walter] Clark said, "Oh,
it's just a toy. We can't do it."

Mees said, "I was inclined to favor us getting it, but of
course, we couldn't have brought it out until it had been perfected.
A young company could bring out something that isn't perfect, but an
established company cannot do that."

Well, of course Polaroid is second to Kodak now, thank God
[laughter], for that very reason, and has achieved perfection.

Mees told me this wonderful story of advertising. "I was at
my desk early one morning and a man comes down and gives me a
message. 'Mr. Eastman wishes to see you immediately, without delay.'"
And Mees thought, "What have I done now?" He'd never got a message
like this before! "So I went up to the office." [Imitates Eastman
hearty tone:] "Come in, Mees. Sit down." And he pulled out an
advertisement that had been in the morning paper: 'Kodak makes the
best lenses in the world.' And he says, "Mees, is that true?" And
Mees said (he had a couple of fast thoughts, you see), "Well, I'm a
scientist. I can't do any sales or advertising." He said, "No,
Mr. Eastman. It isn't true. The Dahlmeyer, Zeiss, and Cooke and a
few others make, really, better lenses than we do." [Imitating
Eastman:] "That's what I thought. I know we're trying. Thank you
very much."


Adams: From that time on, every advertisement that came over the desk of
George Eastman had to be checked by Mees and one or another person
for accuracy and honesty.

And that's one of the best things I heard about Eastman. He
was that kind of a person.

I must say that of all the material I use, Eastman Kodak's the
most consistent. They're the least imaginative company, the least
innovative in one sense the aesthetic sense. But they're really
a pretty fantastic outfit.

Teiser: You said that Pillsbury showed you a Wrattan & Wainright plate?

Adams: Yes. Wrattan and Wainright were the big English firm that made
plates and filters, maybe papers.

Teiser: Were they new?

Adams: Oh yes. He got some of the first ones. And then I got a box when
they came on the market. I got two boxes, in fact. I guess I had

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