Ansel Adams.

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

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we sold the book for fifteen dollars. It says in the colophon in
the back that five hundred copies were printed.

When I have done a book, I can remember nothing about it.
I can't remember the sequence of pictures

Teiser: Did you work with Wilder Bentley on it?

Adams: Oh yes, we worked very closely on it.

Teiser: What was he like?

Adams: Very fine man, very capable craftsman.

Teiser: There's an acknowledgement in the book. It says, "For permission

to use many of the pictures reproduced in this volume, I am indebted
to Alfred Stieglitz, the Studio Publications, the Sierra Club
Bulletin, Camera Craft magazine, and many other organizations and
individuals." What does that mean?

Adams: The acknowledgements are merely a courtesy to previous use of the
pictures. And it really isn't necessary.

Teiser: They didn't have rights?


Adams: They had no legal copyrights. But Stieglitz gave me an exhibit,
and the Sierra Club and these people that had used the pictures
I just wanted to give them credit. These acknowledgements, which,
as I said, have no legal obligation, as they would if rights had
been secured.

For instance, the pictures in my Portfolios Five and Six are
strictly limited and under the control of the Parasol Press. So
if the Morgans, who are doing my monograph*, want to reproduce one,
they have to get permission of the Parasol Press and pay a use fee.
Otherwise I'd be in difficulty, because I'm never supposed to let
any of those things out. The Parasol Press bought the entire
edition and the rights of use.

The courtesy is sometimes based on economic necessity, but
most times it's based on ethical consideration these people
encouraged me and showed my work.

Teiser: These photographs in the Sierra Nevada book had been made, then,
over quite a series of years?

Adams: Oh yes.

Teiser: We'd like to have on the record your comments on some of your

photographs, and since these are published, so that people could
see copies of them, could you just look at the book and discuss
them by title?

Adams: Well, the frontispiece, of the mountain climbers, was on the
Minarets, and one of those is Dave Brower.

Teiser: Which one?

Adams: I think it's this one [the one at the top].

Then, the "Yosemite Valley" shows many of the very first
negatives I made with an eight by ten camera. These negatives are
catalogued as I-Y-I et seq. "I" signifies eight by ten, "Y" is
Yosemite, and "I" is the serial number. I forget the dates, but
most were early, as is the "Bridalveil Fall," which is on a glass
plate. And "Half Dome, Yosemite Valley," with a thunder cloud,
is again one of my early good ones. I was always a little worried
about trimming, cropping it, but it has wonderful variation of
"feeling" depending on the cropping.

*Subsequently published.
Morgan & Morgan, 1972)

Ansel Adams (Hastings-on-Hudson, New York:


Teiser: Is this cropped to your satisfaction?

Adams: No, not entirely.

Teiser: Are these somewhat reduced from negative size?

Adams: Well, it depends: the largest negative size I use is eight by ten.
Now, "Vogelsang Peak" was made on a five by seven negative in the
late twenties. That's up near Tuolumne Pass.

Teiser: What time of day was that?

Adams: It could be late in the day, very late, perhaps an hour and a
half before sunset. "Mount Lyell," with Lyell Canyon and the
Tuolumne River, that was done early too, and on an eight by ten

Teiser: By "early" you mean in the twenties?

Adams: Well, around in that area. Maybe early 1930s. The "Grass and
Burned Stump," that's on a four by five. And was done near
Wawona. "Banner Peak and Thousand Island Lake" is a 6 1/2 by 8 1/2
glass plate done way back in the twenties.

Teiser: That's what Mrs. Newhall said is your first significant picture?

Adams: Well, I think the "Monolith, the Face of Half Dome" was, but
there's some discussion about the dates.

Teiser: Oh, you mean the discussion concerns the dates, not the significance?

Adams: Both! This "Shadow Lake" is one of the best ones. I took many on
that trip, but these were mostly on 6 1/2 by 8 1/2 glass plates,
whereas the other later ones are on eight by ten glass plates and,
of course, four by five film.

Teiser: That was well before your announced rejection of pictorialism, and
yet "Shadow Lake" is not pictorial in any way.

Adams: Yes. The first prints were made on goofy paper, but the negatives
were pretty good. Many were damaged in my Yosemite darkroom fire,
so in order to reproduce them now, we must have the prints
"retouched" by the engraver. This "Shadow Lake, Mount Ritter and
Banner Peak" was done on a five by four film. It's very interesting.
The Graflex people put out a roll film holder in which the image
proportions were full four by five. Now the standard four by five
film is a four by five sheet, but it has a small margin around it
areas to secure it in the film holder. But these Graflex roll films
actually were full four- by five-inch images, which of course no
four by five enlarger will take. I have to use a bigger enlarger.


Adams: "The Pass" was made on 3 1/4- by 4 1/4-inch roll film.
Teiser: What pass is that?

Adams: Well [pause] that's always a question. It's somewhere in the San
Joaquin Sierra. I've forgotten the name. It's near Isaac Walton
Lake in that area.

"Upper Iceberg Lake." Well, this is a heavy snow year, you
see. This was five by four. This was taken the same time as the
other lake.

"Michael Minarets" is the same. I think that's the one that
Peter Starr was killed on.

Teiser: Is that in the original proportion? Isn't it narrower than ?

Adams: Well, I don't follow strictly the film format. Negatives come in
certain sizes, and sometimes you follow them and sometimes you
"crop." And this has always been much better cropped narrower.
There's a lot of "disturbance" on the edge of the negative. So a
narrow crop is indicated.

This is a four by five, "Rock and Water," in the northern part
of Yosemite National Park, in the Virginia Canyon area. It was
done in gray light.

Teiser: These hold their full scale quite well, don't they these

Adams: Yes, these reproductions are wonderful.

That is the Devil's Post Pile monument, which is east of
Yosemite, on the John Muir Trail.

"Red and White Mountain." We are now getting into the San
Joaquin (South Fork) Sierra. This drains into the Middle Fork.
Bear Creek Spire, Mount Starr (the mountain off Mono Pass).

This is just "Leaves," somewhere in the Sierra.
Teiser: What kind of lighting is that?
Adams: It's gray light. Sky light or late evening or clouds.

"Pilot Knob" this has another name. It's an erroneous name
and I forget what it is. This is Evolution Creek, all right, but
it's not "Pilot Knob." "Emerald Peak and Cloud Shadows." That's
near Muir Pass.


Adams: Then here's "Lake Near Muir Pass." I think it's Wanda Lake. It's
interesting; was done before the time of polarizers. We are
looking down through clear water to submerged rocks. This shows
how pure that water was! It's very clear, and the sky was deep
blue. If there had been clouds in the sky, you would have had a
terrible time with the cloud reflections.

"Black Giant" near Muir Pass is a telephotograph. It is of
black slate which is accentuated by the cloud shadows here.

Then "Flowers and Rock." That's somewhere in the Kings River
Sierra. "Grouse Valley" is in the Middle Fork of the Kings. The
LeContes did a lot of exploration in there.

Teiser: What time of year do you get those big clouds?
Adams: Well, even in summer July, August.

"Bishop Pass and the Inconsolable Range." That's a spur on
the east side, near Bishop Pass. It's a great thunderstorm area;
it's usually muttering with thunder. "Inconsolable" is a
marvelous name. Theodore Solomons gave many of the names during
his early travels, like Scylla and Charybdis, and the Gorge of
Despair and many names of classic derivation.

"Devil's Crags from Palisade Creek Canyon" this is on the
Middle Fork of the Kings country. "Cascade, Palisade Creek Canyon."
I forget what mountain that is. And this is "The North Palisade;"
this is looking northeast big thunderstorm is building up.

Teiser: Did you often have to work on very sloping ground?

Adams: Oh no. You'd come to the top of a ridge. Then maybe use a long
lens, which would avoid foreground.

"Rocks and Grass" that's typical of almost anywhere in the

"Mount Winchell" is one of the Palisades the northern area.
This is at sunset. It is a telephotograph taken from eight miles

Teiser: How long a lens was that?

Adams: Well, it's what they call an adjustable telephoto, a Dallmeyer
Adon, which has a positive lens in the front which picks up the
image, and then a negative lens in the back which magnifies it in
relation to the extension. It's not optically very good, but I
have done some pretty good things with it .


Adams: Then "Mather Pass" that's going over from the Middle Fork to the
South Fork, Kings.

And "Marion Lake" was up in Cartridge Creek. This is named
after Joe LeConte's first wife, Helen Marion Gompertz. And her
ashes are there, and a little plaque on a beautiful rock somewhere
over here. This was taken with a glass plate. Later we took the
Sierra Club outing party across this country, which is about the
roughest thing we've ever done, fifteen, twenty miles from Granite
Pass. And it was really a tough thing, and the packers were so
glad to see the pass down to the lake. But getting one hundred
animals over this rough stuff is really terrific.

And "Arrow Peak from Cartridge Pass" Cartridge Pass goes over
into the upper South Fork of the Kings. And then when you cross
over beyond Arrow Peak you're going into the Kern River Sierra.

And "Pinchot Peak," which is really Mount Wynne: I misnamed
it. And again, the cloud shadows are marvelous. I remember working
very hard on that one. Obviously at timber line.

Here is "Mount Clarence King," and this is in the upper South
Fork of the Kings River, and there's a little non sequitur here.
I mean, if you're going in a given direction, these pictures
aren't in the right sequence.

Teiser: They're not entirely as you would go?
Adams: No. Then "Rae Lakes" and the Red Dragon.
Teiser: The water must have been extremely still there.

Adams: Well, there are little ripples, but sometimes the lakes are just

"The Mount Brewer Group from Glen Pass." And this is made
with a twelve-inch process lens on a four by five film. It is very

Teiser:: Have you often used process lenses?

Adams: Well, I had one for years still have it. One of the sharpest
lenses I've got. It's just a little thing. It's twelve inches
focal length and a maximum aperture of f/11, so the diameter of the
lens is only a little over an inch.

Teiser: I thought they did something strange optically.

Adams: Well, as you stop down you usually have to refocus; the process

lenses are corrected for near objects. If you don't remember that,
as you stop the lens down, you have to change the lens position,
because it's not corrected for infinity.


Adams: Then "Manzanita Twigs" could be anywhere in the Sierra.

"Peaks and Talus, Kings River Canyon" this is the Grand
Sentinel. This is taken at the bottom of a huge rock pile, looking
up four thousand feet.

The "Kearsarge Pinnacles" are in the upper Kings, on the way
to Kearsarge Pass, and Forester Pass, which leads into the Kern
River Sierra. This is "Junction Peak," near Forester Pass. We were
there on a good juicy, icy year, because usually this is probably
all clear of ice even in July.

Teiser: About what time of year would this have been?
Adams: Oh, this was in July, late July.

Then when you're over in the Kern, you have the "Diamond Mesa,"
where the timber line is very high.

"Milestone Mountain," that's right, taken from a place just
a few feet above timber line. That is on the Kings-Kern divide.
It goes from the Kaweah Range north to Hamilton Pass.

Then there's "Mount Whitney" from the rear, above Crabtree

Teiser: What's the shadow

Adams: Well, it's late in the day. These are all shadows of big gorges,
you see. It's very impressive one of my best pictures, I think.
Quiet things are happening in the sky that are nice.

Then here's the "Whitney Pinnacles (East Face)" and that's
from a five by seven negative.

Then "Sky Parlor Meadow" is in the Kaweah group at the base
of the Kaweah Range. It is a big meadow on the Chagoopah Plateau.
Moraine Lake, Sky Parlor are all very high in that area. "Rock and
Water" (a typical Sierra scene). "Mount Kaweah, Moraine Lake" the
Red Kaweah and the Black Kaweah in the distance.

Teiser: Red Kaweah is the

Adams: The big rounded peak. And then here's the "Kaweah Peaks from Little
Five Lakes." The Red Kaweah 's way down to the right. In fact, up
in the Chagoopah Plateau is where I found my meteorite.

And this is the Black Kaweah, then the Middle and the Red.
That is a tree that's just fallen; we are looking over to the peaks
of the Kern Canyon.


Adams: And this is "Lake and Cliffs," known as Precipice Lake on the way
through Sequoia Park, over the Kaweah Gap, as they call it, which
leads you into the Kern River Sierra.

Teiser: Are these made before your Canyon de Chelly pictures?

Adams : Oh yes .

Teiser: Thank you so much for going through your book.

Adams: This is my own copy. You know, there are series of about five

or six copies of the ten copies that weren't numbered. [Reading]
"Five hundred copies." Well, there should have been, say, 510.
"The book was printed... by Wilder and Ellen Bentley." But it's
very funny they say, "engravings and prints." Well, what they
mean they tipped in engravings which came from the Lakeside Press,
Chicago. *

Teiser: Well, thank you!

Adams: Now, I don't think that was too much of an ordeal. Boy, this tape
is going to be priceless for all these verbal accidents! [Laughter]

I find it very difficult to remember dates. I can usually
remember places. I can't remember some of those rock pictures,
except that first one, which I know was up in the Virginia Canyon
Cold Creek in the northern part of Yosemite. But for the "Rock
and Grass" and the others, I just have a complete blank. I can
still see myself with the camera there, but I can't geographically
place them. Of course, the Sierra is so similar, in certain
geological belts, that you really can't tell. An expert could pick
out a different type of granite, or some other minute variations.

When you go up Cartridge Creek, you have a marvelous stone
that is crystalline, shiny, multicolored, and that will blend into
granite, and the granite yields to slate metamorphic rock is the
real name for it. It may not be the true "slate" we know of.

Then there's traces of great volcanic action-
cap, and so on.

the ancient lava

And then jointed granite and granite that's been glaciated and
formed the roche moutonnee that you find around Merced Lake, Tenaya
Lake, and in the Yosemite country in general. I know very well if
a subject is in the Rockies or in the Cascades. But I can't pin
point things in the Sierra.

*Part of R. R. Donnelley & Sons Company.


Skiing in the Mountains

Teiser: In the 1930 Sierra Club Bulletin you had an article on a ski trip.
Skiing was apparently quite new then in this country.

Adams: Yes, they'd been making experiments with skiing in Yosemite, and
the company was trying to promote ski activity in the winter.
They had a miserable little ski hill called "The Moraine" which
is in the east end of the valley. The Tenaya Glacier and the
Merced Glacier joined here and made a medial (I think it's called)
moraine. And I think the whole thing's about 110 feet high, and
when they have show on the north side you can ski down it. But
that was a pretty pitiful ski situation.

Then they built a little hut up on Mount Watkins and would
take animals up as far as they could get up the zigzags of the
Snow Creek Trail. The skiing up there is pretty wonderful. But
all I did was cross-country skiing climb with seal skins, employ
telemark turns and sitzmarks and everything unorthodox you can
imagine .

In 1930 I took this trip to get photographs, with the group
that went around the High Sierra camps to fill the ice houses.
We'd go to Lake Tenaya, and would spend two or three days filling
the ice houses with snow, and I'd try to photograph as best I
could. The ski instructor, Jules Fritsch, and myself would go off
to the high places. We got into pretty tough scrapes sometimes
because we really didn't know too much about cross-country skiing
in the Sierra.

We went to Glen Aulin and then to Tuolumne Meadows, whereupon
everybody came down with some sort of food poisoning from a bad
can of food. I was the only one that escaped. And here I was all
alone, a storm was coming up, and all these four people were sick
as dogs. Should have been hospitalized. We were there for three
or four days .

Finally they recovered. The last day we got up at two in the
morning; it was six below zero (this is Tuolumne Meadows), and we
started out over Tuolumne Pass and down to Merced Lake. And there
was no place to stay. There was no food at the ranger camp, so we
went on to the Merced Lake Camp. And that was the most exhausting
thing I've ever done because I had a fifty-pound pack; had to climb
up to the top of the pass and then photograph and then go down, and
when we got down about fifteen hundred feet into the Merced Canyon
the snow would break through the manzanita. We'd collapse; we'd go
through the tangle and we'd take spills, one after the other.


Adams: We got down to the ranger cabin at the foot of the trail, and the
bears had gotten into it and there was nothing left. So we had to
ski further in mush, as they call it, to the Merced Lake camp, and
we were able to get something there. But we were absolutely so
tired we couldn't see straight.' We spent one day doing nothing.
While the others were filling the ice house, Jules and I went up to
Lake Washburn (I have quite a number of pictures), then returned
the final thirteen miles to the valley.

Teiser: How could you carry your equipment?
Adams: In a knapsack. It was all up in the pack.

I had one very amusing occurrence. I had my camera in my
knapsack, with my tripod sticking up and I was following Jules
Fritsch, who was a very accomplished skier. As we came down the
slopes from Tuolumne Pass we encountered a group of alders, and
Jules ducks and goes right through this group. I do exactly the
same thing but did not realize that my tripod was sticking up
above my head. The tripod catches in these alders, and my skis go
up and lace in the trees. They had to come to get me out and take
my skis off, and then unravel them from the alder branches. Of
course if I'd broken a ski, I'd have been in dire trouble, or worse
trouble if I'd broken a leg. But that was the most awful spot to
be in!! All I can remember is suddenly feeling the pull back and
seeing the skis go up with a loud whack. But I didn't break them.

Teiser: You mean to say that there were four of you out skiing that far
away without an extra pair of skis or a pair of snowshoes or

Adams: Yes. It was very foolish, extremely foolish. Well, there was a
pair of snowshoes in these various camps. Some of them had been
chewed up by animals. But that wouldn't do you any good if you
broke an ankle or a leg. I don't know what you'd do. I guess
they'd just cut down some trees and make a sled and haul you. You
have to figure that you have so many miles to go. If you're a fast
walker, you 'go between four and five an hour, and a fast skier
downhill can go very fast. But under different conditions you might
take two or three hours for a mile. If there's ten miles, there's
twenty or thirty hours. No way out of it; nothing else to do.

Teiser: Well, you must have been a pretty good skier.

Adams: Oh no. Pretty good cross country, in that I had a lot of

endurance. And I could make what they call a telemark turn, which
is the first thing we learned, where you bend the knee in the inner
part of the curve. It's quite a graceful turn. We didn't have the
Christiana at that time at all. Of course, it's as complicated as


Adams: golf is now. There's all kinds of wax for different things, and
different kinds of skis and different kinds of bindings. The old
bindings you would just latch on and the leg would come apart
before it would leave the ski. Now they have bindings that under
a certain stress will give way, you see, which saves lots of bones.
But still it's a very accident- infested sport.

Teiser: Did you go on skiing?

Adams: Oh, I did a little, but I never liked it. I liked the cross

country, but we did not have winter camping equipment. Now, you
know, they can go out for weeks with all this beautiful equipment.
I have a space blanket, for instance, which is aluminum foil, and
it's light as a feather. If you put the foil [surface on the
inside] around you, in ten minutes you're hot. And in hot weather,
you put the foil around you on the outside and you're cool. And
they have these two- or three-pound down sleeping bags, and the
way you do it now, you just dig a hole in the snow and sleep, and
keep out the moving air, because the chill factor can be very bad
in high altitudes with cold and wind.

Teiser: Well, did the Sierra Club interest continue interesting itself in

Adams: Oh yes. They have important ski Sections now. Ski mountaineering-
cross country skiing is very much in vogue now, which I think is a
wonderful way to really enjoy the wilderness. Skimobiles are
atrocious. They're just a horrible intrusion. And while they
don't do direct physical damage, because they are on snow, they do
create noise and aesthetic damage, and they disturb wildlife, of
which a surprising amount is out in winter. And they destroy any
sense of wilderness you have. But their tracks will melt. But
of course some of them want to clear routes. They want an open
forest so they can go through these like you do with a ski lift.
But that's only a short distance. The average snowmobile track
will be many miles long, which I'm very much against.

Teiser: I read somewhere that you moved your main residence to Yosemite
Valley was it in 1937?

Adams: Yes. My wife's father [Harry C. Best] died in 1936 in San

Francisco. And then we negotiated; in fact, her father had formed
a little family corporation, which allowed continuity. The general
idea had been that when the individual concessioner died, that was
the end. We applied to take it on, and the National Park Service
agreed, and we moved up there in '37. We were there for quite a
few years as our basic home, and rented the San Francisco place.
Well, it was impossible for me to do professional work in Yosemite;
it's illegal for an individual to do any private work. So I had to


Adams: come back to San Francisco and set up my headquarters. And then the
kids were in school in Yosemite and Mariposa. So we commuted.
After getting a good manager in Yosemite we moved to San Francisco.

The Sierra and Other Ranges

Adams: I never missed a year in Yosemite since 1916. Never a minimum of
less than five or six trips well, except in the first five years,
when my trips were just in the summer. But I think about 1926 or
'27 I was there three or four times; in '28 only twice; '29 very
much. So in a sense it's always been a second home.

Teiser: Twenty-eight was the year you were married, wasn't it?

Adams: Yes. And I went to Canada with the Sierra Club.

Teiser: You were on that high mountain trip in Canada?

Adams: Yes.

Teiser: Jasper

Adams: Jasper and Mount Robson, but I did not go to Yellowstone in 1929.

Teiser: Did you publish any of the Jasper pictures?

Adams: A few in the Sierra Club Bulletin.

Teiser: Did you enjoy photographing there?

Adams: Well, some of it's pretty good, but it's not like the Sierra.

Sedimentary rocks do not have the shapes and the strength. The
Canadian Rockies have a wonderful mood, but it's one of the most
infested areas you can possibly imagine mosquitoes, horseflies;
bad trails and very erratic weather. Of course it's quite far
north, so you're always up at two in the morning to start climbing.
And climbing was very dangerous because it's friable rock.

It's another world, and it's very spectacular. Something like
Glacier Park. In fact, Glacier and Waterman Park are much the same.
As far as I can make out from pictures, the Selkirks probably give
more the feeling of the Sierra, being more craggy and pointed. But

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