Ansel Adams.

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

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Of course with the S.E.C. today and the rules we have, that couldn't
happen. There's no possible way that you could do a thing like that.
You could buy the stock, but you couldn't put it out of business, you
see protection of other stockholders is important. Of course, a lot
of people lost quite a little money in it, and my father was just
ruined, and of course in a terrible state over this financial
catastrophe, because he was always a person of the highest integrity.
But when someone of his own family, whom I was named after...! That's
why I don't use my middle name. Ansel Easton was unspeakable as far
as I'm concerned, because I know what he did. My father in fact felt
so much for him he named me after him, Ansel Easton, and unfortunately,
I have to use that name legally, and I just hate it. But you notice I
don't use it in any correspondence or in relation to my work. My

*Ansel Easton; see paragraph following.


Adams: professional name is Ansel Adams. But that was a family disruption
and, of course, part of the family went with them, and the other
part stayed with us.

Teiser: How old were you when that happened, about?

Adams: Oh, I guess I was about twelve or thirteen when it happened.

Teiser: Were you upset by that?

Adams: Well, I knew something had happened, because we went from a cook and
a maid and a governess to doing it all yourself! [Laughter] You know
what I mean quite down and out. Papa spent a lot of time after that
trying to recoup his plant. And they had an antimony process, and
inferior people in management. The Bank of California, which my
grandfather helped found, had carried the loans and mortgages on the
properties for years and years, and finally the law caught up with
them and they said, "We have to call the loan." But it was with
great regrets. I mean my father's word was like my grandfather's.
He'd go in and say, "I need a thousand dollars." "Well, here it is."
It was just this kind of an honorable thing.

I haven't had to lately, but in the last twenty years fifteen
I had to go to the Wells Fargo or the Bank of California and borrow
five thousand or so got a job coming up and they'd say, "Oh, yes,
sure, Mr. Adams, we don't need any collateral with you." And, you
know, you think, "Well, that ain't bad," [laughter] to have that
reputation. Of course, legally, they have to show something

Yes, I think it did have an effect on all of us, and I think it
probably was something that stirred me to think realistically when I
first went to the Sierra with my family in 1916, when I was fourteen
years old. I think my mother reacted very badly to this catastrophe,
and I think that tension probably encouraged me to go more into the

So, as I said I went early to Puget Sound, and then we went down
to the Santa Cruz mountains, and then my father became secretary to
the Astronomical Society [of the Pacific], and we used to go down to
Mount Hamilton often. I never went East until 1933. Oh, yes, we did
make a trip to Los Angeles when I was about nine or ten, and we
stayed at the Alexandria Hotel, and I remember going around and
seeing oranges and snow peaks and ostriches, and I can remember this
brilliant, clear airl Still can recall it! Something like Santa Fe,
New Mexico, has today. Certain moods in areas. I still remember
that well in Los Angeles; we were there about six weeks.

Harroun: That was about 1910?


Adams: That was 1910 or '12, yes. We went on the streetcars the Pacific
Electric Railway. But absolutely clear, you know, I recall that
whole feeling of clarity. It was like this place, really, as it is
now. [Carmel Highlands]

Teiser: Were you conscious as a youngster that things impressed you visually?

Adams: Yes, very much so. (Do you want anything now to drink, soft, hard,

Teiser: No, not a thing.

Adams: You've met Jim Taylor?

Teiser: No, we haven't. How do you do.

Adams: I would have introduced you, but I was swallowing.

Visualization and Music

Teiser: You said you were aware that you had a particular visual sense?

Adams: Yes, I think I always had. There comes a romantic period when you
can visualize literary realities. Say you hear music, and you
well, you're reminded of certain things. You see tangible images,
and that's the basis of all these terrible titles some music has,
like Moonlight Sonata. Whoever thought of moonlight rippling on
the water? I never got that corny. The Moonlight Sonata was
always a bad example, but you did get such things as the "Legendes"
of Liszt, "St. Francis of Assisi Preaching to the Birds," and "St.
Francis of Paulus Walking on the Waves." This is pictorial music.
Well, at one age of life I'd get into that kind of direct pictorial-
ism. I guess you'd call it "literary." But then it wasn't very
much later about five years before my visual impression of music
was quite abstract. I guess I got that mostly from Ben Moore and the
music of Scriabin. But I'd remember everything I'd seen very clearly,
and that's why the camera was so rewarding. I would capture what I
saw, and the dissatisfaction that the image wasn't what I'd really
"seen" was one of the things that kept me going. The average person
just goes "click" and there's Grandma, and that's the satisfaction
with the image. But in my case, the required image or the ideal
image which we see and hear was not casually seen in the photograph;
therefore I worked hard to get it. And when I got it, that was the
beginning of my real photography, and the actual visualization,
where you look into the world, you see a combination of shapes, and
you see them in terms of the final picture. You don't see them


Adams: "outside" any more. And then you've got to get your eye, your
camera, and everything around you into that position which will
support that visualization. It's all intuitive. It has to come
very quickly. That means you have to practice. If I don't go out
with the camera for quite a while, I find myself very, very clumsy.
I've just lost physical contact with the camera.

I have a little difficulty seeing and framing my images. Like,
what would I do with you [Harroun] sitting there with your pencil
and pad? I could go "click" and get a perfectly good record of you,
which you would date on the back, and it would be very valuable. I
think I have enough mechanics to get a good exposure, but that
wouldn't be a picture. The picture would be the combination of all
the relationships, the black line on your dress, and the black lines
on the blanket [on the couch], and- the element of light, and the
distractions of the environment to get rid of. If you can't get rid
of it, use it. But it's all quite plain in the end! Thousands of
things are going on at one time, and you can't be aware of all those
things, and you can't add conventions to it, because if you did that
you'd ruin it.

It's just the way you practice the piano for years to get a
facility in your fingers, tone control, shaping, dynamics, and when
you play you can't think of all the elements; you just do it. One
example, a friend said, "Well, you take the C Major Sonata of Weber
and you take the last movement, the Perpetual Motion and the Rondo.
You're playing four parts, sixteen hundred notes a minute." You have
to have your harmonics, your dynamics (which is phrase shape), your
rhythm or your accent, and then above all that, the pecular thing
in music the style the intangibles. And you practice. You're a
musician; you've spent ten years or twenty, and you play this thing.
And if you tried to even put it in a computer (it is going through
a mental computer) but there's no ordinary computer made that can
handle what you're doing.

Anticipation in Music and Photography

Adams: I was talking about this just a little while ago. The mind is so
far ahead of the computer except in some things, but in music, you
see, we're anticipating. We have a whole new pattern of thinking,
unconscious thought. You are anticipating things with appreciation
of a tenth of a second's psycho-physical lag. And you're hearing
harmonics, and the harmonics are developing in such a way that at
a certain point you instinctively know you're ready for the next
note. If you waited a tenth of a second until those harmonics had
resolved, you'd be late. So, that's part of the structure that

Adams: people don't think about. I mean, when you hear music, that's what
you hear. You hear this tremendously complex thing which can be
broken down into a few categories, but it's really beyond literary
definition. You can make a record of it. Of course, you don't get
everything, even the finest records are not complete, but they are
very close to it. You can break those records down on oscilloscopes.
I've seen violin records broken down, recorded and then re-recorded
slow, cutting out, cutting down to one-hundredth the time, and then
making oscillographs and measuring the harmonics. I was absolutely
fascinated with the complexity. You finally get a pattern where
this other note this thing which on the piano would be touch or
on the violin which, I guess, would be intonation why one is
beautiful and the other isn't, and yet they are the same notes, and
everything superficially the same.

And the same thing with the camera. I mean ten people can go to
exactly the same scene and get ten totally different images, although
they might have the cameras in the same position. Superficially the
tree and the rock would be the same, but there's something else, you
see. There's the way they felt it, visualized it, composed it,
exposed it, developed it, and printed it. I guess I'm wandering a
little bit.

Teiser: No, no, this is just fine. Is there a parallel in the sequential
character of music as you were just discussing it and the sequence
of events in a photograph or is that stretching it?

Adams: No, no. My work is fundamentally static. In other words, I see the
scene, and the scene is changing at a very slow rate. I'm not
talking about a spectacular wave coming in or clouds moving, but I
mean the natural scene is there, and I can think about it and compose
and move around and get this rock or tree right. You know, I have
command of it. Now, you take somebody like [Henri] Car tier-Bresson
(and I've done some of his kind of work, I know directly what it
means). His things are in motion. And the average candid so-called
photographer just gets people on the fly. But, there again is this
anticipation, and this might interest you. I was teaching at the
Art Center School. We were working with students (this was before
the second [world] war), Signal Corps people, photographers.

Gee, it was pretty hard. We didn't have much time with them,
and they were in the army, but they were studying to use the Speed
Graphic. Well, a very intelligent general, one of the few intelligent
generals I've known, said, "I know you people are interested in the
art phase, and that's why we want you to do this, because we can find
all kinds of mechanical people who can give us the answers, but
they're not the kind of answers that we want. We'd like to get these
boys to see and to anticipate. Say you're out in combat, something
is happening. You can't wait until something happens and then take a
picture of it. It's happened so fast that you'll be late.


Adams: So part of the training that went on for weeks I'd be upstairs
looking around in the street for something, and suddenly see a
streetcar, a block away, and I'd yell downstairs, "Let's go!" They'd
all arrive with their camera cases and I'd say, "Catch the front of
the streetcar in juxtaposition with that big power pole I must see
a precise juxtaposition." Well, they opened the case, they got out
the camera, they judged the distance (we had a lot of focus controls)-
"That's a hundred feet." They'd taken the light value measurements
and they knew the approximate exposure, and then they were ready.

Now the point was, if you waited until you saw that car line up
with the pole, then it'd be way over and beyond, because you have at
least a tenth of a second lag. About a third of the students could
hit it right on the nose, could anticipate the juxtaposition. Some
of them would get nervous, you see, and more than anticipate, so
they'd shoot too early. Then, well, after several weeks we'd have
about 90 percent of them doing an exact job. Of course we wouldn't
go back to the same subject, but they'd be more relaxed and see the
problem more clearly as time went on.

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

Adams: Well, to take this element of anticipation, which is essential, I

think I explained that is inevitable in music, although people don't
think of it in that sense, but in the event seeing that the event
doesn't trigger itself, at the point of the event, but goes. through
our ears, our "computer" recognition, motor impulse, and nerve and
muscle. I still have a very high reaction, but as you get older it
gets slower, and I still run I think a twelfth, and as high as a
fifteenth of a second on light impulse. You know, you can have
standard tests, and when the light flashes you react. Well, you'd be
surprised; you think you are fast, but then you see the graph, and
here's the light impulse and here's your response, and if you're
tired the response shows more delay.

Anyway, creative people like Cartier-Bresson use this anticipa
tion factor in a highly creative sense, and he was able to get these
marvelous compositions of people in motion. It wasn't only one
person; there may be as many as five all functioning together. He
has an uncanny sense gestalt patterns, perhaps. We don't know how
to explain it, but in many, many of his pictures, four or five
people will be seen in the ideal moment, and that's why the title of
his book, The Decisive Moment is so apt, because it is that decisive
moment. When he operated the shutter, his "computer" decided the
decisive moment. The real decisive moment is when the shutter
operated, which was at least a tenth of a second after he'd given
the signal. So, he must have anticipated in the creative sense of
the term.


Adams: I can make a probe and hit this metal and in a millionth of a
second I'll get a response from this dial, but that's a direct
contact. But if this is moving, and it has to go through my
mechanism, then operate the shutter, at the moment when I think
that's right it'll be too late. So this is a terribly important thing,
and I think in music it's essential, and I don't know in most
photography well, different degree I'd say in everything. You
anticipate light, you anticipate your position in relation to the
object. You don't think it out, you feel it out. If I'm looking at
you [Harroun] I would move in such a way that that string back of
you would be out, I wouldn't see it. If I can't do it, then I have
to use that string, so I see it another way. But I can't say to the
camera, "Move over on a track six feet and go click." When we think
of all the things photographed. .. 1 1 1

Mariner Photographs of Mars

Adams: I have a whole set of the new pictures of Mars taken on the last

Mariner flight, and they are wonderful technological achievements.
A good friend sent them to me. They're not really restricted, but
it's unusual to have so many. And you see in them one of the great
miracles of our time, scientifically speaking. The pictures have
absolutely no aesthetic quality at all except what you read into
them. Now if I were a painter, I could take some of the designs and
spots and features and I could expand them, and I think if I could
be there in space I could have made a better composition. But
[laughter], one, I can't be there in space and, two, I'm a little too
far away. And three, these don't come back as pictures, they come
back as a series of bits, one to a hundred and twenty-eight numbers,
and are recomposed in the computer. A picture is made, and it's
only this big [gesture], as big as your thumb, and scanned with a
television micro-scanner, and

V. Adams: [In the background] Oh, don't let the cat out!

Adams: every time the probes come across a change in density in this

image, they give a different number. That relates to intensity and
comes back to us as a continuous tape, and the computer is set up to
receive and interpret the signal.

Now, the scanner works two ways. It records in one direction
the intensity of the image and, returning, it is sending data from
a number of other scientific instruments. When it goes one way, it's
giving the image information, and when it goes back it's giving other
scientific data gain. Hundreds and thousands of lines are involved.
When you see the picture it's really sharp, this big [gesture], but


Adams :

Adams :

Adams :

Adams :

the image is only as big as my thumb to begin with. Well, that is
not art. People like, oh, [Gyorgy] Kepes or [Laszlo] Moholy-Nagy or
[Herbert] Bayer would say, "Ah, this begins art; this is the new art."
Well, it's another reality you're confronted with, but it doesn't
represent art in itself because you're not seeing and controlling it.
The machine is doing it, and I don't know whether we can always
control it! [To assistant, Ted Organ, holding framed photograph] That
went all around the world, God knows where, and I took the tape off
and it was perfectly beautiful. It has to be cleaned, though.

Travelling exhibit?

Mrs. [Estes] Kefauver.
Embassies program?


Remember Mrs. Kefauver, the Art in the

That was part of her project. That's been out for years. And I
opened one box today, a whole box, three hundred pounds of pictures
and frames.

How many photographs in all?

Forty or fifty. I've got a showl I just unpacked one to look at it.
Most beautifully packed stuff you ever saw.

"Monolith, the Face of Half Dome"

Adams: Well, anyway, back to anticipation! Now, what does the artist

really do? I'd go into the mountains as a kid, and I had unbounded
physical energy, which is something that I don't have now. Of
course, nobody realizes when they've got it, you just look back and
you wonder! You know, I could climb two peaks a day with a fifty-
pound pack and still want to photograph in the evening. [Laughter]

But I think the element of anticipation enters into this picture.
Something tells you this is something you recognize, and you begin to
see the picture visualize it and you make it. In the early days,
in the early twenties when I was out in the Sierra with the LeConte*
family (LeConte was a marvelous man, a very intelligent man, a really
very important person in Sierra history), he made any number of
photographs on five by seven plates but hardly any that contain this

*Joseph N. LeConte


Adams: particular quality. They're immensely valuable as records, and

they're pleasant. You know, you look at them and they bring back
scenes, but his mind wasn't in the creative direction at all.

See, compare him with William Henry Jackson; he was about the
same. He made thousands and thousands of pictures. Now, another
man of the Jackson period 1870-1880 called T.H. O'Sullivan had
another level of vision, and his pictures are always superb composi
tions. While the Jacksons historically were tremendously important,
O'Sullivan had that extra dimension of feeling. You sense it, you
see it. This Half Dome picture* of mine [on wall] was my first really
fine photograph. (I was ready to say, "Well, maybe I should have
stopped and gone into the ready-made clothing business.") Because
this was my first real visualization. I felt the monumental quality,
I saw it intensely. I had two plates with me, I took one with the
standard K2 filter, and I began to realize, why, I'm not creating
anything of what I feel, because I know the shadow on the cliff is
going to be like the sky; it's going to be gray. It will be an
accurate picture of Half Dome, but it won't have that emotional
quality I feel. I had a deep red filter and I used it on my last
plate. And that's the interpretive result that's what I felt at the

Literary Titles for Photographs

Adams: And this might be the time to bring in the term "equivalent" that
Alfred Stieglitz used, because he made the bridge between the
pictorialists and the creative people. Very difficult I Even today,
the so-called pictorialists have to title everything, you know:
"Autumn Tranquility ," or "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory," or "The
Smile of Spring," and all this incredible [laughter] literary
imitation. And Stieglitz said, "Of course, it's all right to say
this is 'Fifth Avenue, Winter;' that's fact." Edward Weston would
say, "Cyprus Number Twenty-three, Point Lobos." But when you begin
to say, oh, "Time to be Home," [laughter] you know, that's an awful

Well, anyway, Stieglitz tried to break way from that with the
idea of saying, "When I see something I react to it and I state it,
and that's the equivalent of what I felt. So, therefore I call my
print 'equivalent,' and I give it you as a spectator, and you get it
or you don't get it, you see, but there's nothing on the back of the

*"Monolith, the Face of Half Dome," Yosemite Valley, 1927(7). See
also p. 38 and other entries as indexed.


Adams: print that tells you what you should get. I put no literary title."
That was a very important thing, and I instinctively felt that way
back in the twenties. I rarely if ever gave a title, a literary
title. I'd give a definitive title like "Rocks, Bakers Beach" (if I
had only put the date on it, Newhall would have been happy), "Golden
Gate Park Number Sixteen," or "Red Slate Peak," and sometimes "Red
Slate Peak, Evening," another might be "Red Slate Peak, Morning."
But it was never a literary thing. This is terribly important, to
avoid this I call it literary; maybe that isn't the right term. I
think from the very beginning I was relatively free of that because
after going through a certain stage I was in, in photography and
music, I realized how shallow it was.

Teiser: It not only is literary, or romantic, or whatever, but it also

reflects what the picture is like. I mean, you don't find that kind
of title on a picture that would be called "Rock and Sea."

Adams: You're right there.

Teiser: I don't know what I'm trying to say, but

Adams: The person who would accept that philosophy of a title could not do
a Weston-approach picture, you see.

Teiser: That's what I'm trying to say.

Adams: Yes. I remember one of the criticisms that got me really worried was
James Huneker, the great music writer, critic for the Globe or New
York Times or something, but boy, was he floridl Wowl And his dis
cussions of Chopin's Sonatas and other works were memorably bad.
Now, the sonata is usually in four movements, and in the B-flat minor
Sonata of Chopin you have the "Marche Funebre," which is the Adagio,
and in which he took the mode of the funeral march. Now, actually,
it should be played with the utmost stylization, without thinking of
a funeral cortege. It's been interpreted so that people always
relate it to a funeral, but it's actually a theme, not a theme but a
structure. Otherwise you have just a funeral march.

The last movement is Presto Furioso, and is an awfully difficult
thing, with terrific surges of sound. Huneker ruins it for millions
of people by saying, "This is the night wind rushing over the graves."
You see, it immediately cuts off a whole dimension because it's so
trite. That's part of the philosophy that you have to contend with
with me. I avoid this aspect of triteness, and if I ever slip,
please, you know, take me up on it because I might make allusions
sometimes that might give you that impression. But it's very easy to
get emotional.



Teiser: Somebody with an unpracticed eye would look at Julia Margaret

Cameron's portrait of Tennyson, say, and then look at a turn-of-the-
century pictorialist portrait and find them similar. What's the

Adams: She was I don't know if we can say she was a dichotomy, but she

exhibited a dichotomy in the sense that most of her pictures are the
most sickly, stylized, posed, Burne- Jones compositions of wan,
tubercular maidens in white drapes, and boy, are they sentimental I
I mean, they're really Victorian! So that's part of Julia Margaret
Cameron. And they're awfully good for their time. The next step,
and the important thing, is when she got these great people to come
to her country house. (This is the story we get.) She was
apparently a very well-to-do woman, and had the equivalent of a salon,
and the people who'd come to visit would be trapped and photographed I

Online LibraryAnsel AdamsConversations with Ansel Adams : oral history transcript / 1972-1975 → online text (page 3 of 76)