Ansel Adams.

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

. (page 27 of 76)
Online LibraryAnsel AdamsConversations with Ansel Adams : oral history transcript / 1972-1975 → online text (page 27 of 76)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

three, all together. And that's what I did the Monolith and other
early pictures with. Then Kodak made them, and they were called
Wrattan plates.

Teiser: Were they very much better than the material you'd been getting?

Adams: Well, there was nothing like them that I knew of. They were the
first panchromatic emulsions of any consequence.

Then of course they moved on to panchromatic film which is
today the principal emulsion. Basically, a photographic emulsion
is only sensitive to blue light. Plain silver halides react only
to blue light. Now you bring in a dye which is sensitive to or
absorbs the energy of green light and transfers that energy, as
quantum energy, to the silver. That means the emulsion is sensitive
to green as well as blue. Then you bring in the dyes that absorb
red and green light, and you have panchromatic emulsion.

They had three types of panchromatic A, B, and C. A is only
partially panchromatic. A is red-sensitive, but of rather low
green sensitivity. Type B, which is the standard film we have today,
still has a deficiency in the green. The green part of the spectrum
is that area of the spectrum to which the eye responds most. In
other words, anything that is green comes through with a higher
energy to the eye. So if I see a green fabric or a green tree and
I say I want to place that on, say, Zone V of the scale, I really
have to place it on VI to get the "visual" effect. That fools a
lot of people. That's why you see so many black trees in mountain
pictures. They are of low color saturation to begin with, and
panchromatic film does further lower the green values.


Adams: The Panchromatic C was super red-sensitive, and therefore it was
very fast with tungsten light. (Tungsten light has a greater
proportion of red light to it than daylight.) One effect was that
it produced white lips . They had to develop two correcting green
filters to take care of the type C.

All these things are simple to understand, but very few people
know about them at all!

Verichrome pan is a film which is more sensitive to green than
the ordinary pan. Therefore, it is recommended for a lot of
landscape work. But it never caught on, because people liked to use
strong filters and get black skies, whereas in the daguerreotype
and wet plate days, you'd only get white skies. You could only use
blue light.

I would say you got a greater 'stylization of values in the
early days with emulsions sensitive to blue light only than you do
now with panchromatic materials. I can duplicate that effect by
using a strong blue filter; it cuts out all the other light.

We have a series of filters that partially withhold light of
various colors . And you have filters which are called tri-color
say, the blue, green, and red, which transmit the respective colors.
Then you have the "minus" filters, which are very interesting, such
as the minus blue (number twelve) and the minus red and minus green.

Teiser: Does "minus blue" mean it doesn't let any blue through?

Adams: Yes, it completely cuts out the blue. There's more than a hundred
Wrattan filters. All of these are tools which the photographer can

Teiser: This photograph, "Banner Peak and Thousand Island Lake," I wonder
what film you used for it. This is the one that's variously dated
1923 and 1927.

Adams: That's glass plate. That's the same as the Half Dome. I think it
was made in 1923 on that trip with Harold Saville. And it was made
on a Wrattan plate.

Teiser: Is that why you were able to get such splendid sky?

Adams: Oh yes. Ordinary orthochromatic (green-sensitive) plates couldn't
do that. The sky you'd get the clouds and you'd get the clarity,
but you wouldn't get that level of richness. Strange things happen
when the sky drops in value below the clouds (because, you see, the
sky, say at that angle, would be around four hundred candles per
square foot, between three and four hundred), and the clouds would be
around eight hundred and a thousand. You'd have only a one to two or
a one to three ratio. And that isn't enough to be dramatic.


Adams: Now, with orthochromatic film, you could lower the sky value a lot.
I mean, I get a K2 or G filter. But you couldn't lower the sky
value as much as you could with a panchromatic plate or film. And
that's why in the early days using blue-sensitive plates you couldn't
photograph clouds, because the blue sky had the same photometric
value as the clouds. So they made separate negatives of clouds.

When they brought it down on the scale, giving one-eighth or
one-sixteenth the exposure, the clouds were obviously much brighter
than the sky. Then they'd use those cloud negatives and print them
in. Sometimes they'd get them upside down. [Laughter] Sometimes
they got them with light on the cloud from the right side and the
light on the mountain from the left. [More laughter] I'm telling

One of the funniest ones was years ago. The prize-winning
picture of the Royal Photographic Society in London. It was a
picture of the Parthenon, and it was in beautiful late evening light.
The white columns glowed in the late sun. And behind was a thunder
cloud, you see. A very beautiful picture. Boy, that's something!
Then you look at the light on the columns, which is coming from
this side, and the light on the clouds, which is coming from that
side. [Laughter]

And I have a picture of Half Dome and the moon which is an
unintentional phony. This picture of the Dome was taken about two
in the afternoon. And I just kept the camera in the same place,
and the moon came up after the sun had completely gone. Here's the
full moon in the sky the moon and Half Dome. It's a real moon
not "printed in." I show that to people and I say, "What's wrong
with this picture?" They can't figure it out.

V. Adams: The moon would never be that high when the sun is still up?

Adams: If you had a perfect full moon there wouldn't be any sun. Because,
it's always at the same angle opposite the sun. And you only get
the full moon when the sun is directly opposite and below the
horizon. So here's a full moon in the sky, and the sun was clearly
high, which is an absolute impossibility.

V. Adams: I think you took it at four in the afternoon.

Adams: Four, it might have been. Well, now the good one, the vertical one
(taken with the Hasselblad) , the one I use all the time, that's a
real moon in real time! That's about a little over three-quarters.
That's taken about three-thirty or four maybe by daylight savings
time, five. And the shadows are falling on the Dome. But the moon
is in the right phase for that position of the sun.

Teiser: It's on the cover of this last Infinity, May 1972.


Adams: Yes. Also a special edition print which you've seen around a lot.
It's a very impressive picture. It's absolutely real. There's
nothing wrong there. That's the moon and the Dome, and they are
taken together. But you just can't bring the moon up into the
wrong phase, you see. Because anybody who knows the disposition
of the heavenly bodies is going to immediately blow .their top.
[Laughs ]

[End Tape 10, Side 1]
[Begin Tape 10, Side 2]

Dreams and Heavenly Bodies

~~- ~

Adams: As you know, I'm scientifically inclined, and I am not a professional
mystic. I cannot categorically deny such things as ESP or thought
transference, because I think those are domains we know nothing
about. But I can record for you an experience that when I was a
young boy in San Francisco, before I ever went to Yosemite, I had
an extremely vivid dream of waking up in a big building on a cot.
I can still remember the discomfort of the cot. And I looked up
to my right and here was a multipaned window whatever you call
these window panes and the moonlight was coming through, and it
gave me the feeling of being in some kind of a stone-cast building.
The dream was so extremely vivid that I've never forgotten it. And
I've been very sure now to remember that it happened long before I
went to Yosemite.

And in 1919 I was sleeping in the LeConte Memorial on a cot,
and I woke up and here was the same window, the same moon, the same
mood the stone building the complete reconstruction, if you want
to say it, of this dream, which had made such an impression that I
couldn't forget it. And the effect on me was of course a little
bit shattering. I remember getting up and turning on the lights
and dressing and sitting and wondering what it was all about.
Because this was a complete, detailed duplication of the dream.

Whether that is total coincidence or whether it's something
else, I don't know, but it's something that's very important. And
I just record it with the assumption that it is coincidence and
probably emotionally exaggerated and so on. But it is something
that for me was a real occurrence.

And of course I do have these dreams recurrently, every six
months or so, of getting in a taxi and driving to a music hall or an
opera house or a symphony hall, and seeing great placards screaming
that Ansel Adams is going to play the Brahms Second Concerto with


Adams: the Boston Symphony. It's all very real. I'm in a terrible state
because I don't know the Brahms Second Concerto at all. But I
nevertheless am disgorged at the stage entrance and go in. All the
musicians are there backstage, tuning up and talking, and the
conductor comes forward and says, "I'm so glad to see you. Our
rehearsal was encouraging." And I sit there, and a slight feeling
of perspiration "What am I doing here?" I take a glimpse, and the
hall is completely packed with hundreds or thousands of people.
Finally the conductor invites the orchestra to go out on the stage,
and they go out and take their places. And I'm supposed to lead,
so I walk out and the conductor follows me, and I get as far as the
piano. And the conductor bows and we all bow, and he steps to the

And at that time I wake up from the situation with the screaming
heeby-jeebies because I don't know the work, I don't know anything
about it, even the first notes.' I'm absolutely incapable of doing

I've sometimes gotten further when it's been really a very
traumatic business. And sometimes I just barely get out to the
piano. But with the idea of not knowing anything about the music
but being fully billed for it, advertised, announced. It is a scary
situation. The orchestra's good. And in some strange way, I have
had a rehearsal of which I remember nothing. And I keep getting
this dream over and over again. I must have had it a dozen times.

It's a very interesting frustration dream. I've had the same
thing in climbing of climbing on an icy mountain; everything is
fine and then I find myself stuck, and I don't know where to go.
I suppose that's motivated a little bit by Muir's description of
Mount Ritter, where he was spread-eagled on the cliff and couldn't
see up or down or sideways. Of course, he never should have been
there anyway. (I never should have been in many of the places I
was really in.) But the instinct takes over and he leaps and grabs
a ledge and gets out of his predicament.

Well, I have these dreams getting into absolutely insoluble
problems and then I wake up. Sometimes you wake up with a sense
of relief, and sometimes you wake up, really, with just shock.

Teiser: Ever dream photographs?

Adams: Yes. And I also dream in color, which is very interesting. I'm
very conscious of color.

Teiser: There are few people, I think, who do.

Adams: Yes, I think so. I do dream in color. Things are seen in colors.
So I can say that , truthfully .


Adams: But this other one is such an interesting experience in Yosemite
in the LeConte Memorial. My father always recounted of having a
dream he's sleeping out somewhere and he sees a star, and the star
begins to move toward him and becomes brighter and brighter and
brighter. And finally he wakes up.

And I had one experience I was up, I guess, way up in
Tuolumne Meadow somewhere, where I saw a meteorite coming directly
at me, the first time I've ever seen that. The angle of approach
of the meteorite was right directly toward me, so that the object
became brighter and brighter and brighter and suddenly extinguished.
It was quite an experience. And of course I thought of my father's
dream. He might have seen something.

And then lately, in late years, we've gone to the high country,
and we see satellites. I remember seeing the first Sputnik from the
top of the Polaroid building in Boston. It was going south across
the sky. And many scientists were up there, and they were looking
at this with extraordinary interest! Some of us were just thinking,
"What a wonderful thing," and others were very glum: "They got
there first," they said. This little thing was traveling fast, and
it took quite a time to get down to the horizon. It had a strange,
illusionary flat trajectory, and it suddenly winked out when it got
in the earth's shadow.

I had a very interesting psychological experience in San
Francisco. I walked out of the house one night, going to my
darkroom, which was next door. And I looked up at the sky just
looked up a glance. (I always do, for some reason.) And then
after a few seconds I thought, "What is this?" My unconscious said,
"There's something going on." I looked up again and here was a
satellite moving. Now, the interesting thing was that I looked up
just as a glance, and yet my mental computers were able to tell me
that there was something moving among the stars.

The mind is so complex what goes on is so remarkable such as
the speed with which things are observed and computed. I just took
a quick glance at the sky, and then it took ten seconds or more for
my mind to tell me that there was something different up there.

Teiser: Your visual computers must be faster than most people's.

Adams: I don't know. They're probably more directed in some ways. They're
probably not any faster.


Concepts of Conservation and Wilderness

Teiser: I'll just ask you one question more about Yosemite. Did you think
in the early days, "This is a place to be preserved"?

Adams: Oh yes. But it was vaguely formed in my mind at that time. The
question of preservation the whole conservation picture was
confused in the early days. It still is!! The Sierra Club, with
their outings, was trying to get people into the mountains to see
them so that they would support legislation for their protection.
I used to get a more interesting reaction going to Forest Service
country, like the mining country at the Minarets, because of the
evidence of human content. I think we always felt the wilderness
had to be preserved, but we had a very hazy idea what preservation
really meant. And we thought nothing of putting our donkey in a
meadow to pasture, and nothing of having camped at a riverbank.

Mr. Holman had some pretty advanced ideas. And in fact, he was
the one who promoted the idea of fire being an important element in
continuing the character of the forest. Then later on, people came
and talked about the fact that wilderness is an illusion "What do
you call wilderness?" If nobody 'd been there ever, maybe that's
wilderness. But Yosemite was populated first with Indians, then
with sheepherders and cattle people. So, I always say wilderness is
a mystique. It's a state of mind, which we enjoy, in its so-called
pristine quality, because we have our wonderful equipment the best
boots in the world, the best clothing, condensed food all kinds of
things. It's like a man going to the moon and being completely
equipped with life-supporting units. We do the same thing in a way
in the wilderness.

I think if people in the club today went out and lived the way
Mr. Holman and I did in the twenties, they couldn't take it. We had
mush, bacon, egg powder, flour, salt, some pepper, beans, period.
You know, all cooked up over an open fire in tin cans. And my
digestion could take it! I used to eat the most colossal quantities
of mush, my God! Quarts! Just couldn't fill up. Weighed 120.

Teiser: Any corn meal?

Adams: Well, sometimes corn meal, but that had its difficulties. We

usually had oats Quaker oats and that was before the quick cooking
kind too, and at a high altitutde you have to cook and cook. Oh,
we had some rice; then we had tomato sauce. We had a lot of simple
things and we had honey. And then of course there was the eternal
biscuit and flapjack situation. The diet was very monotonous.


Yosemite Concessions

Adams: I think well, there's so much more to say there. I think the

conflict of the early concessions in Yosemite is important. They
were all bad. Nobody had any feeling for the place at all. Well,
I think Virginia had a real reaction. Grace Ewing had. But people
who came in the main were a very low order of people as a rule. The
whole place was a big curio, and people as well as the operators had
no understanding and no respect. They sold these horrible curios
and pandered to the worst possible level of taste you can imagine.
A lot of the people got together and petitioned the government to
build a road up by Vernal and Nevada Falls so the public could "see"
it. Well, naturally it would ruin the place! I remember arguing
that; they laughed me down. "Well, if you had to do business here,
you'd want more people, wouldn't you?" Which is unfortunately the
concessioner's idea. Not really in Yosemite now.

But after the formation of the big company [Yosemite Park and
Curry Company] they've always given good service.

In many ways, when you compare it to all the other parks, there's
nothing anywhere as good. After all, you ask somebody to come in and
run a business accommodations and food and hopefully make a little
profit; it can't be done on an entirely idealistic basis. You have
to have all kinds of little things to sell and "entertainment" to

Teiser: Should the government be running the concessions?

Adams: The government should own all the plants and lease the operations.
But you see, when [Stephen T. ] Mather took over the directorship of
the Park Service under President Wilson remember, it was a
Democratic administration, and Mather was a very prominent Republican
businessman (head of the Borax Company of America) but very
idealistic. He felt that everything could be operated on Republican
principles, and that private business should be invited into the park
to operate under government supervision. But there wasn't any
subsidy it was just taken for granted that it would be automatically
profit-making. But what happened was that people did invest money,
but they didn't earn anything. In other words, they had no property;
they just had leases for the land. You could build a building on it,
but it belonged to the government. You have only a sort of prior
right to it, and you have to maintain it. The whole thing is subject
to review now, and it's a very important thing. The government should
take over the capital investment, and then lease operation on a
percentage basis under the most strict controls. But who's going to
define the "strict control"? Who's going to write the taste pattern?
That's a terribly difficult thing.


Adams: So we have the eternal flux of enterprise, idealism, profit, loss,
and tolerance. [Laughter]

Well, I'll see you again next weekend?
[End Tape 10, Side 2]

Sierra Club Photographers

[Interview IX 2 June 1972]
[Begin Tape 11, Side 1]

Teiser: In 1923 you made an album of forty-five exhibit photographs for the
Sierra Club. What were they?

Adams: I went along for several years on the outings as the photographer,
as well as assistant manager, and I made countless pictures which
were available to the members at very low cost. We would get these
random orders one year, and I decided the next year I would take
this number of prints that I thought were good and do it all up as
a portfolio. It was very cheap, and they weren't very good prints.
They were as good as I could make them then. I wasn't planning to
cut corners, but it was just a selection of pictures on the trip; a
group of us got together and picked out which we thought were the
best ones. It was a personal club thing.

It's like, way back in 1925-1926, the LeConte family and I, we
met a big pack train with a lot of rich New York bankers terribly
important people financially, and they had about six mules per
person. They were so anxious Herbert Wykoff , a lawyer, had told
them about me, and they ordered several sets of pictures. I
remember, I got the largest fee I ever received from anybody, which
was $750. It probably cost me $710 to do it. [Laughs] These sets
were made for these five men; just a private order.

Teiser: Were you the first official photographer of the Sierra Club? Did
they make that title up for you?

Adams: Well, that was an "apocryphal" title. There were photographers that
had worked for years with the club. One of them was Rodney Gleason.
Then there was Walter Huber. But I have no idea what their status
was whether they went along for a free trip, or whether they just
photographed for pleasure. LeConte and Huber and Theodore Solomons,
all those people made photographs on an amateur basis and never made
anything out of it, and that's why I, when I did my set, I did it
practically at cost basis, because it was considered improper to
make money out of the club if you weren't a professional.


Adams: Then Cedric Wright followed me in that position. Got the free

outing for being both sanitary engineer and the photographer. He
made some very fine photographs, and he sold them. But at that
time he realized that he was a quasi-professional and could make
something on it.

Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail

Adams :



The John Muir Trail]

Adams :

Adams :

Now, the Sierra Nevada book [Sierra Nevada;

was done in '38, I think. In memory of Peter Starr, his father
[Walter A. Starr] sponsored it.

I see that it was done by the Archetype Press.
Bentley, was it?

That was Wilder

Yes, Wilder Bentley in Berkeley. And the engravings were done by
the Donnelley Company and tipped in. It's a very, very rare book.
We call it the "white elephant." There's some very poor pictures
in it and some of my best. And the reproductions (letterpress) as
a whole are very fine, but the tip- in, especially with calendared
or plated paper, is very bad because the corners break. If you
have a lithograph or a drawing on a sheet of rag paper, you can
bend the corner and it might not break, but the baryta coating on
smooth paper will crack. So there have been terrible disasters
with the book, where they folded the prints over and they have
broken. These reproductions are on a plate paper very smooth
surface and varnished.

I was talking the other day about the baryta coat, which is a
white clay filler which gives extremely smooth paper surface and
of course keeps the image away from contact with the paper fibers.
You take one of those engravings and bend it the paper surface
plus the varnish or lacquer you would have a break.

Same thing with the Making a Photograph book, which has tipped-
in illustrations, also reproduced by letterpress.

That was printed in large quantities, wasn't it?

Oh yes. It was printed in many editions. But the Sierra Nevada
book was printed in only one edition.

And a small one at that, wasn't it?
Yes. I forget how many.


Teiser: Did you initiate the idea, or did Mr. Starr initiate it?

Adams: Mr. Starr said he'd like to do a memorial for his son using

photographs, and asked me what did I have to suggest. So I said,
"Well, why don't we do the John Muir Trail?" (I had photographed
most of the area.) "We can put together something worthwhile."

Teiser: Was his son a mountaineer?

Adams: His son was a mountaineer a loner, as they call it. He was killed
on the Minarets, climbing all alone, which was a very stupid thing
to do. I think he was psychologically rather strange in that idea
of personal isolation immolation would be a good word. You can't
climb alone in that kind of crags without some day having something
happen to you. So he was found near the top of one of the Minarets
by Norman Clyde. He was buried there; they just cemented him in on
a ledge. The best thing to do.

Teiser: What a wonderful memorial to him.

Adams: Well, his father was a very prominent man businessman, connected
with the Sierra Club, of course, intimately president and so on.
Walter and I had been on trips. He lived to be eighty-seven or
something. A very fine person. Of course, he didn't have any
idea of books, and he was rather appalled at the cost. And I think

Online LibraryAnsel AdamsConversations with Ansel Adams : oral history transcript / 1972-1975 → online text (page 27 of 76)