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

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whenever you get into lava or sedimentary rock, you do not have the
clean-cut form that you get with crystalline rocks.

Now, I don't know what the Matterhorn is I think that is a
hard metamorphic, and that's all right. I guess well, a geologist
might scold me I refer to a very hard, flinty rock. In Hawaii


Adams: everything is lava. The Rocky Mountains is largely rolling country
and of sedimentary rock. It's extremely dangerous to climb on.
You're climbing up what amounts to a rock pile that just slides
under you. Well, the top of Rogers Peak in Yosemite Park is
something like that. In fact, one day we got up to within two
hundred feet of the summit, and it was just too dangerous.

Teiser: The Grand Canyon
Adams: That's all sedimentary.

Teiser: I think I read somewhere that when you first saw it you were kind
of unimpressed.

Adams: Well, it's a totally different experience, you see. You get into
the granite gorge in the bottom of the Grand Canyon. But
practically all of the Southwest is layer after layer after layer
of sedimentary and colorful rock which has been elevated.

I'm conscious of the fact that there are tremendous mountain
ranges all over the world. I've seen thousands of photographs.
And I'm convinced that the Sierra is unique in structure. At
least the Sierra seems to be the most livable range. I mean, most
of the other mountains have terrible climates.

Alaska weather can be excruciating! For instance, I spent
twenty-five days in the Glacier Bay area in 1948. There were only
five clear days the whole time. I had six fine days at Mount
McKinley in 1947, which was absolutely unusual if you saw the
mountain for that long a time. The Himalayas must be terrible
sudden disastrous weather conditions. And the Alps a storm can
come up within half an hour. A sudden shift of air, and then you
have some serious condition. I don't know about the Caucasus
they're probably fairly tough too, the way they look. Much of the
Rockies and the Tetons are beautiful, but there's nothing that
has the particular intimacy of the Sierra. Which I don't think
of as much as mountains as natural sculpture.

Teiser: And the vegetation?

Adams: The vegetation's extraordinary, but we don't have these rock and
ice challenges like they do on the great Alpine peaks. Thousands
of feet of ice and snow.

And the Cascades are very beautiful, and have a great rise
above base, but they have terrible weather problems. The north
slope of Mount Rainier has a wonderful forest. But there's just
something about the Sierra that is extraordinary. We're intimately
connected with it, but I think it's probably the most subtle and in
exhaustible mountain range. It certainly is infested with more
people than any other equivalent area now.


Teiser: Is it? More than Yellowstone even?
Adams: Well, Yellowstone isn't a mountain range.
Teiser: That's right.

Adams: There are a few small ranges in it, like the Ibex Peak area.

Glacier Park is quite beautiful, but again, it's of sedimentary,
stratified rock.

[End Tape 11, Side 1]
[Begin Tape 11, Side 2]

Adams: I must say for the record that I've traveled very little. I've

been in the Tetons and in the southern Rockies, and a little of the
Sangre de Cristo, very little in the San Juan Range. Just one
excursion into the Uintas near Salt Lake. And in the White
Mountains, which are east of the Sierra. And then a little in the
Southern California Sierras, which are rather dreadful. I mean,
barren. And in the Sierra Nevada and Cascades.

Teiser: British Columbia?

Adams: Yes, British Columbia, Robson and Tonquin in Jasper, the Rockies.

And then in Alaska. But never climbing mountains. I never climbed
anything in Alaska.


Teiser: You were in Alaska in the forties
Adams: Two trips, 1947 and 1948.
Teiser: How did you happen to go there?

Adams: Part of the national park project. Glacier Bay National Monument,
and Mount McKinley National Park.

Oh yes, my greatest experience of all, I guess, was flying
from Ketchikan over the coast range at Sunset. We came up to
Juneau, leaving Ketchikan at 10:30 p.m.

We left in the Fish and Wildlife plane. We got off at four
in the morning, my son Mike* and I. (He was just a kid.) The
governor had arranged for us to go on the first flight of the Fish
and Wildlife plane, which was the survey flight to see if a lot of

*Michael Adams.


Adams: fishermen in these bays and inlets were really behaving. And this
was a Grumman Amphibian. It was the first time Mike had ever been
in a plane. And the takeoff, with the two big motors right over
head, is extremely noisy, and Mike maybe that started him out on
his flying career his eyes nearly popped out of his head.

We took off from Juneau and went over, within a few hundred
feet of the mountain range to the east, looked down and could see
bear and other game in the meadows. Well, it got very rough and
the wind gusty, and we kept on making landings in all these little
sounds and bays and taxiing up to people in boats and asking for
their fishing licenses. This is the first day of the season; did
they have it? And when they didn't have it they got a citation.
Then we'd take off for more victims.

Starting at four in the morning, remember the sun was quite
high. So we got all the way down to Ketchikan about two in the
afternoon. Had lunch, and then the crew disappeared for two or
three hours on business. As we landed at Ketchikan, which was the
first time we landed on the ground, the pilot discovered that the
maintenance man had forgotten to put any hydraulic fluid in the
left wheel plunger. Now, if you've been in a Grumman, there's
only about two or three feet distance between the ground and the
fuselage, and these little wheels come down without much space to

Our pilot was extremely good, and as soon as he landed he knew
something was wrong, so he gunned the plane up, and he said, "Will
you all get over on the right side and keep your weight on that
side? I have plunger trouble, and we'll make a landing on one
wheel," which we did. And finally came down, and the pontoons on
the wings on the right side bounced. Then he tried to get it fixed
there and couldn't; they didn't have the right equipment to get the
fluid into the cylinder. So we had to take off on one wheel, and we
all had to stay over on the right side. I really was a little
worried there, because at a high speed you can get a ground loop.
But we took off; it was very late in the day ten o'clock. We flew
up the coast range at evening sunset, right along the crest. It
was just like the Sierra during the Ice Age. You'd see things like
Half Dome emerging from the ice and many beautiful peaks and the
incredible color of sunset and all these big glaciers, you know,
flowing down to the sea.

We landed at Juneau at about 11:30 p.m. That was really a

I had another flight with an exploration party. This was the
supply plane, and these people were surveying and traveling all
around some of these very high peaks of the coast range. The
function of this plane was to drop supplies at certain locations.


Adams: The explorers had put out a red-orange cloth on the snow. You'd
see this little speck. Then we'd fly over and drop the load of

I was in one of the compartments with a big sliding floor over
it, roped in, trying to get pictures. We went around these big
peaks, and all of a sudden it grayed over.

When you're in snow country and the sky goes gray, you don't
know whether you're at six hundred feet or six feet or six thousand'.
In such conditions the rule is to get out as quick as you can.

The same thing happens in very still water. If the amphibian
plane comes down in still water, you can't tell how far up you are.
We had to throw wads of newspaper around in Glacier Bay a couple of
times, to know what the elevation was.

Teiser: To make the water ripple?

Adams: No, to give an object that you can focus on. In that case, they

put the nose of the plane up and just drift in, and the tail of the
plane hits first and you hear a hissing sound. But you can't tell
much. You're going too fast to see anything if your paper goes by.

So that was quite a flight. And then we had several flights
into Glacier Bay and several places where we had to go up and down
and taxi on the water and see if there was no ice. Because a
relatively small piece of ice can do an awful lot of damage to the
plane's fuselage.

But flying in Alaska is just like taking a taxi. There's no
other way. Well, I suppose there is, but to walk in the tundra
and the wet stuff or go by boat oh, terrific! It's a long way.

Aerial Photography


Adams :


Have you done much aerial photography?

Well, no, I can't say much. I've done some, and the two things I
did in Fiat Lux were the rice fields in the northern Sacramento
Valley and the freeway in Los Angeles. I'm very happy about those;
they're very good.

You must have been low over the freeway.


Adams: I was, illegally, two thousand feet down, and we were flying with a
good pilot, and when 1 told him what I wanted, he said, "Well,
these regulations; okay if they don't watch you too closely." The
police helicopter passed under us about 150 feet below, enough to
rock the plane, and he said, "Well there's no point in immediately
going up now. They've got me if they're going to get me, so just
go ahead and do this job."

So we were going right over the crowded freeway. I kept
thinking, "A single-engine plane!" If that motor had conked out,
where would we have landed? I was very glad to get back to Santa
Monica. He never got a citation. [Laughter]

Teiser: Do you use ordinary equipment or aerial ?

Adams: I have Louise Boyd's Fairchild aerial camera, which she used in
Greenland. She used it mostly for five by seven stills on the
ground. With a complete set of magnificent filters (optical-flat
filters). But now with cameras like the Hasselblad, and the
beautiful lenses and filters and a little high-wing plane, you can
do awfully well. Of course now, photogrammetry surveying and really
accurate mapping stuff that requires very precise equipment and
materials. The slit photography is terrific. There's electronic
sensors that pick up patterns of objects, a difference of light and
shade on the ground, compute them, and establish the speed of the
plane, and that controls the speed of the film moving by the slit.
And at sixty thousand feet you can see gravel between railroad ties.
But that takes special ultra-thin emulsions and extreme precision of

I can't call myself an aerial photographer at all. I think I
would like it, but you see, when you're working that way you have
to have a high-wing plane and you usually take the door off. And
you have to keep the camera out of the slip stream. The novices
would go up with, say, something like a Speed Graphic, and they'd
just get so excited they'd lean out, and the slip stream hits the
camera and WOW away goes the bellows! [Laughter] But in a certain
space you don't feel the air at all, you see. But if you put your
hand out too far you may break your wrist, even at ordinary speeds.

Ever put your hand out driving a car on the highway on a hot
day? Well, that's nothing, but if you were going 150 miles per
hour and more, you can break your arm.

Teiser: Do you know the photographer who's been taking aerial pictures of
the Bay Area? He lives in the East Bay.

Adams: Well, there's a Sunder land.
Teiser: Yes, Clyde Sunder land.


Adams: He is a very factual, an extremely competent record photographer.
The greatest aerial artist is Bill Garnett. Nobody can touch
Garnett. He doesn't do the ordinary kind of work, you see.
Sunderland is a person that will make you a completely accurate
aerial survey or photograph. Then there's a man named Bob [Robert]
Campbell who has done some perfectly beautiful things of salt flats
and other subjects. Creative photography in the air is a terribly
important phase of the medium.

In fact, Bill Garnett is somebody who is worthy of an
autobiographic approach, because there's nobody who can touch him
anywhere. There's never been any aerial pictures made that are as
beautiful and as convincing. What he does with the natural forms!
He pilots his own plane. He's a very fine flyer.

You see, when I'm photographing, I'm sitting with the pilot,
and I'll say, "Now, I think it's coming! Now, you turn a little
to the left and then bank." Well, if he's sympathetic, he knows.
But you know you don't drive a plane like an automobile. By the
time you say those things you're quite a little ways off. So
getting a few pictures may mean a four-hour flight. The pilot
would bank, but you wouldn't get it right. And then he'd go a
little further back, bank again, and you were too close!

Now Bill Garnett can sit in there and he can control the plane
with his knees and make his photographs. Because, under good
conditions, the plane can drift and float along if you're a good
enough pilot to pull it out of a spin, etc.

The plane becomes part of the creative instrument, and that's
the important thing about Bill. In all my experience, and I've
seen thousands of pictures, there's nobody that can come anywhere
near him in the aesthetic command of his subject.

Teiser: Does he work in black and white?

Adams: Yes, and in color. Beautiful stuff. Lives up in Napa; Congress

Valley Road. Teaches design at the University of California. Doing
a wonderful job. I'd really recommend him as somebody to be

There are some other aerial photographers, but for some reason
or other they don't "click;" I guess it's a matter of anticipation,
because things happen pretty fast. Garnett has a picture of an
estuary that looks just like the branching of a tree. A most
beautiful thing. My friend [David H.] McAlpin has got one. It's a
print about twenty-four by thirty-six inches all black and white,
on a black block. Something like that monument in 2001! And all it
is is just these lines, and the estuary, the light shining on the




water, just like a great branching tree. It was an absolutely
honest photograph; there's no retouching. And then he did the
one of the birds flying against the water. It's in [This Is] The
American Earth. And the great picture of Los Angeles that
terrifying perspective.

Oh yes. In the same book.

But I can't begin to tell you how great I think he is.
one of the great living artists .

I think he's

But you can't count me as an aerial photographer at all. I've
written a little chapter on some of the technical elements, which
are very simple. I think the technical point is very simple to
manage, but the aesthetic getting the moment and the point of
view. .. .You're moving at a fairly high speed and the closer you
are to the object, the shorter the exposure must be. You have to
use filters to cut your blue atmospheric haze. You have to use
rather high speed film, with a four times filter, and you have to
develop for more than normal contrast because contrast lessens as
you go higher. You can get poor image quality in black and white,
and lots of grain.

Now, in color you don't have high speeds, but the aerial
lenses, the lenses that are corrected for infinity, work best at
very large apertures say up to f/2 or 2.8 and that permits you
to make short-exposure photographs. I have this new Hasselblad
with a 100 millimeter lens, which is corrected for extreme
definition. Al Weber uses it, and he said there's nothing like it
at all. Use the lens wide open, at f/4, and it's absolutely
diamond sharp; the lens is designed for infinity function. There's
no focussing. Everything has to be very accurate at infinity. But
if you use a monochromatic filter, like a red, green, or blue,
you'll get an extremely sharp image, with single-component lenses
which are not corrected for chromatic aberration.

I have a picture taken in Tuolumne Meadows of a skier coming
down Lembert Dome; it's done on orthochromatic film with a Graphic
camera and a Kodak Zeiss Tessar lens. It is incredibly sharp.
When I tried to use that lens on panchromatic film it was terrible,
because it wasn't corrected in the red area of the spectrum. In
other words, it focussed the reds at a different plane, so every
thing was fuzzy, you see. So with panchromatic film I'd have to
use with it a minus-red filter, keeping the transmission
orthochromatic (blue and green), and I'd get a very sharp image.

There's all these little things that a lot of people don't


and the Sit

Teiser: This is our copy of Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada that, you see,
has been well used. Would you go over it with us?

Adams: Yes. [Looking at book] Well, what I did with this book was to
consider the whole Sierra Nevada system. But the fact is that
when we think about our boundaries of the national parks, they
don't have any reality in nature. You know, the system is: here's
the ocean, and the rivers go back into the mountains. So the
pictures are in order of John Muir's experience he came in to San
Francisco from the sea. This first one is taken before the Bridge
was built 1932 or '33.* And that's one of the worst reproductions
ever made of "The Golden Gate."

And the second one is a foothill in the coast range, not too
far from here. ["In the Mount Diablo Range, near Pacheco Pass"]
It's not near Pacheco Pass, that's a mistake. It's about fifty
miles south, but it's in the same country.

And then, here's the great San Joaquin Valley, with these
storm clouds ["Rain Clouds Over the San Joaquin Valley"]. And John
Muir went through that when it was a garden of wild flowers.

Teiser: Did you just happen upon that?

Adams: We were driving, and I suddenly saw it; I get out and make a

photograph. This is a very rich image, but these are, might I say,
lousy reproductions I The Land of Little Rain is much better.

But you see, here, I've seen the Golden Gate, now I'm crossing
the coast range, then into the San Joaquin Valley, then into the
foothills of the Sierra. And these statements [quotations printed
on the pages opposite the photographs] of course are from Muir.
And this ["Slate Outcroppings , Sierra Foothills"] is on the way to
Yosemite. He probably passed this way with his sheep. And here are
sheep ["Flock of Sheep, Sierra Foothills"]. This happens to be a
little further north; it may be fifty miles north of Yosemite, but
it's you know exactly the same kind of country. And this again
["Dead Oak Tree, Sierra Foothills, Above Snelling"] is very typical
of the country near Hornitos, above Snelling.

*It is dated 1932 in the book.


Adams: Then the first view of Yosemite; this is taken from a point about
a thousand feet west of the tunnel, in a thunderstorm ["Yosemite

And then you come into the detail of the valley, in autumn
["Cathedral Rocks, Autumn Tree, Yosemite Valley"], and the Merced
River cascades ["River Cascade, Yosemite Valley"]. And a very
tranquil scene, of which I have several variations ["Late Autumn
Evening, Merced Canyon West of Ribbon Creek, Below Yosemite Valley"].
This isn't the best one. Down in the Merced Canyon in autumn. All
these are supposed to glow, you know, showing separate leaves and

And "El Capitan;" "Three Brothers;" "Cascade Fall;" floor of
the valley ["On the Floor of Yosemite Valley"]. The lower valley
in winter ["Winter, Yosemite Valley"], a horrible reproduction; just
unbelievably bad.

Teiser: How does the original differ from that?

Adams: Well, the original is a very rich, subtle photograph, with all the
whites separated. All this snow gleams. All this snow white is
different from the clouds. This is just one of the worst repro
ductions you can imagine.

"Nevada Fall" is fair, but perfectly flat light. Even in the
print it's very difficult to get water texture, because it's
absolutely "flat." And you see the rainbow it's 40 in angle to
the sun, so the shadow of your head would be down about here. And
I have to tell you about an experience something that has to be
seen, because it's hard to describe. But, if you put your left
thumb to your nose and make a gesture which is considered rather
vulgar, then take the thumb of the right hand and put it to the
little finger of the left and stretch it at right angles to your
left hand, it will describe a 40 arc. Now, if your hands are
small or big, as long as they're the same size, it doesn't make
any difference. But you can find out where a rainbow is going to
be. Because if you point this finger at the shadow of your head,
here is the rainbow area at 40 plus or minus. [Laughter]

Well, we had an experience when I was doing that one time at
Bridalveil Falls, all alone. And I thought, "I have two or three
hours to wait." I could see that, because it would take quite a
time to get the rainbow anywhere near the falls. I was describing
the arc (I think it's 42.3, something like that. I'm not that
accurate). I turned around, and here are two elderly ladies
looking at me in amazement. And I said, "I'm just trying to find a
rainbow." Whereupon they stepped back two or three paces. I said,
"No, really. I'll give you the technique." So they both came over.
And I said, "Now you see the shadow of your head. Now you put your


Adams: finger up here, right along the eye, and your little finger is right
on the shadow of your head, and now do this, and right where the
little finger is, is the arc of the rainbow." Well, that was
interesting. They were doing it. Then we turned around, and a
whole busload of people had arrived, and they were all looking at
us with their mouths open, you know, and I said to them, "We're
just trying to find rainbows," whereupon they all got back in the
bus and went off. [Laughter] That's a true story; it was one of
the funniest things.

Well, number seventeen ["Crags on the South Wall, Yosemite
Valley"] is just crags on the south side of Yosemite Valley. This
is Glacier Point. Then the Mariposa Grove in winter. More Yosemite
in the spring ["Yosemite Fall, Orchard in Blossom"]. Back to
Yosemite in winter ["North Dome, Winter"], with a detail ["Winter
Forest"]; sunset clouds ["Storm Clouds"].

I guess we decided on sequence on an aesthetic basis. Dogwood
["Dogwood Blossoms"]; top of Yosemite Fall ["Yosemite Fall"]. These
are all Yosemite, and it goes on for quite a little while until you
begin to get in the High Sierra

V. Adams: [Comes in] This is Liliane De Cock.

Adams: She's worked with me more than nine years, you know. She married
Douglas Morgan, my publisher. She's doing a wonderful job. She's
been working on my monograph.

[Back to book] Well, "Merced River Below Merced Lake,"
different forests, Half Dome in a storm. Then there's just a few
of the High Sierra, which we feel, if we do it again, must be in
better balance.

Teiser: You'd put more of the High Sierra in?

Adams: I think I would. Lyell Fork of the Merced. Tenaya Lake again;

Big Trees, Merced Lake I look at it now and I don't see why I made
this particular sequence.

That's the most beautiful juniper I guess there is, up in
Triple Peak Canyon ["Juniper, Upper Merced Canyon"]. Nobody ever
sees it. I'd like to go up again. Tuolumne Meadows, and then it
goes on into higher country. Now it goes over the Tuolumne Pass,
which is to the south, and Merced Canyon. This is typical ["Grove
of Lodgepole Pine"].

Here comes "Banner Peak and Thousand Island Lake," a hideous
reproduction again! And Mono Lake on the east side. Then we go
way down south, you see. Mount Williamson on the east side. Moro
Rock in Sequoia.


Telser: How did that book get started? Did the publishers ask you for it?

Adams: Yes. Well, it was done with Hough ton Mifflin

Teiser: There's a review of it here from the San Francisco Chronicle .

Adams: Oh, I didn't see that. Let me see.

Teiser: Joseph Henry Jackson wrote it. I think he must have reviewed all
your work.

Adams: Yes, he was very good to me.

Incidentally, you see how this clipping yellows. That's
because of the sulphur content of the pulp paper. [After reading
it] Yes, that's a nice review. Can you make me a copy of that
some time, because I really don't think I have one.

Teiser: Sure.

Adams: Well, I think the books in the main have been successful, but it

wasn't until considerably later years when we really began to think
of fine reproductions. That's when the "My Camera" series came,
My Camera in Yosemite Valley, then My Camera in Point Lobos by
Edward Weston, then My Camera in the National Parks. These were

Online LibraryAnsel AdamsConversations with Ansel Adams : oral history transcript / 1972-1975 → online text (page 29 of 76)