Ansel Adams.

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

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done by the H.S. Crocker Company beautiful press work, and the
engravings were done by Walter Mann, with Mr. Raymond Peterson in
charge. Now, I think we've mentioned this before, but these were
really milestones, because I still think they're the best letter
press engravings ever made.

But letterpress is now passe and hardly anybody knows how to
use it, and the two-plate offset is far superior as far as tone
control. So these books, if they're republished, would be done in
offset. By somebody of George Waters 's quality.

Teiser: Do various people do press work for George Waters?

Adams: No, he is a producer. In other words, he makes the plates and does
the actual printing. Now, we did a big advertising campaign for the
Wolverine people [Wolverine World Wide Inc.], and he made negatives
for them.

Teiser: Oh yes. I sent in a dollar for a poster-size reproduction of one.

Adams: Wolverine had four thousand orders on that first advertisement

extremely satisfying, you know. Waters didn't do that. He did the
catalogue. (I have to give you one of the catalogues.) He did the
plates for that, but they had to be printed in the East. Very


Adams: complicated. He did the negatives from the prints. Then the
negatives go off and are "separated" and printed by whatever
printer does the job. This one was printed in Michigan. Then
Waters made the negatives for the advertisement, which they would
take and enlarge to any size they want. So he was trying to
capture my photograph the quality which he could do better than
a person who didn't understand it. But the reproduction in [the
advertisement in] Life and so on was lousy anyway, so it really
doesn't make much difference, you know.

And those plates go out as paper matrices, usually, and of
course, Life is printed in quite a few places simultaneously. And
you know, when you get Time and Life out here, you get advertise
ments relating to the West Coast, and if you're in the Midwest, you
get advertisements relating to the Midwest, and so on in the East
and Europe.

It's a very complicated thing. The pattern is set up and
there's so many pages of ads, which are made up in the particular
area, which fit into the main plates which come from the main
editorial office.

Teiser: I think the reproduction that I saw was in the Examiner Sunday
gravure section recently.

Adams: Oh, was it there?

Teiser: And I thought it came out quite well.

Adams: I've only seen the one in Life. But they spent a fantastic amount
of money on these advertising campaigns. I guess that one page in
Life was probably $45,000, just for that issue.

Teiser: But what a wonderful way to advertise!

Adams: They're very good. And then that little column off to one side.
We're hoping we can continue.

Yosemite Photography Workshops

Teiser: Back to Yosemite do you want to start now or do you want to leave
this for tomorrow or the next day? We'd like to ask you about the
history of the workshops when they started and how they've gone,
and so forth; who's been involved.

Adams: [Somewhat tentatively] I think I can do that.


Teiser: The brochure says this is the twenty-sixth year, which would make it

Adams: Well, no; before the war [World War II], I think, several times we
had what was called the "U.S. Camera, Ansel Adams, Yosemite
Photographic Forum." Dorothea Lange and Edward Weston, Rex Hardy
and myself. We had quite a group.

Teiser: What's happened to Rex Hardy?

Adams: He was here the other day. Lives in England. Is going to move
back here.

We had a big enrollment. And then Hitler invaded something,
and that put on a war scare, so the enrollment was cut down by half;
yet it was satisfactory. Nothing further happened until after the
war. Then we revised it, which I would say was in when was the
war over?

Harroun: Forty- five.

Adams: I think we had the first one in '46. It's been a continuous

enterprise since, plus several others in the year. Now we have
this June one coming, and Al Weber has a print one in August, and I
have another one in the end of September. But I'm going to have to
back out of it soon and let other people do it more and more. But
the main June workshop is very closely associated with me.

Liliane [De Cock] came out all the way from Scarsdale; she's
going to teach. And Barbara Morgan's coming her mother-in-law
and a great photographer.

Teiser: Originally, then, it was cosponsored by U.S. Camera?

Adams: The first one was U.S. Camera, with a very elaborate folder. They
had, you know, a magazine.

Teiser: Did you have a big turnout then?

Adams: Well, we had sixty-plus enrolled. Then, as I said, the war had
started in Europe, and it cut down enrollment to less than half.
Eastern people were too scared. Because it was pretty precarious
when Hitler started invading Sudetenland and Austria, etc.

Teiser: Did Edward Weston start teaching again after the war, then?

Adams: No.

Teiser: Was he a good teacher for groups of that sort?


Adams: No. He was a very bad teacher, but a wonderful person for an

example. You see, he was like Brett [Weston], his son. Now, Brett
doesn't impart any detailed information. He has no technical
knowledge; he just has his own extraordinary intuitive way. He
goes out with a camera and he sees things the way he sees them, and
lets people look through the ground glass of the big camera it's
quite a thrilling experience. But technically he prides himself
on not being able to add five and four, you know. Many artists do
that. But he's perfectly capable of doing it.

Teiser: Did Dorothea Lange have the same sort of individual approach?

Adams: No, her approach was "seeing" and people the social, human meaning
of photographs. Extremely important. Barbara Morgan I don't
suggest her as a teacher in the technical sense, but she inspires
people; she comments on their work. She speaks of feeling; she
talks about the intangibles. And those people are just as important
[as those who discuss technical matters.]

Teiser: What did Rex Hardy do?

Adams: Well, Rex was sort of a journalist type.

Teiser: Did he teach classes, or did he work with individuals?

Adams: Well, you see, we don't work that way. We have groups, seminars
we play it by ear. And the most important thing is to be in the
field. A person has a problem, so you help him out with it. Then
the instructor gives some talks. He can talk about artificial
light, and the small camera, or anything in his field. This year,
we have quite a variety of very good people. We have Dorr Bothwell,
the painter. She's very stimulating.

Teiser: Has she been participating for many years?

Adams : Yes , quite a few years .

Teiser: Your assistant, Gerry Sharpe ?

Adams: Yes, unfortunately for us all, she died.

Teiser: Could you speak a little about her?

Adams: Gerry was an extremely gifted gal. She had psychological troubles
in adjusting the creative world to the real world. But she was an
extraordinary, fine photographer. She had a little more technical
knowledge than people give her credit for having. She knew. Her
negatives and pictures were always pretty much "there." There
wasn't a lot of trial and error in her work. And she had this very


Adams: important, rather impressive emotional feeling about things. Her
greatest ability was to sit down with an individual and talk about
their work. And they'd go away just simply inspired, because she
could really dig into them, if you want to use the term. "Why did
you do this?" she'd say. "Why did you see it this way?" You know,
talk back and forth, instead of being didactic. She got a
Guggenheim, and she went to Ghana, and was starting in on really a
very important program, and made some beautiful photographs, and
then was involved in a tragic accident. A doctor was driving out
to some village in a Volkswagen, and they hit a truck, and she
nearly lost her leg, and was laid up in a hospital there for weeks.
Then she came home and almost died; tropical injuries are bad.
That sort of knocked everything out of her. I mean, she never
really regained the impulse to create. Finally, she had a job in
the Winterthur Museum [Wilmington, Delaware], but I think the
bottle got the best of her and she just couldn't stand being
restricted to a job. She was born in New Jersey, but came west with
the idea of spending her life photographing early Americana. Her
disability really got her down, and then the decline started, and
she just kept drinking, and that was the end of it.

It's typical of very gifted people who can't relate to the
realities of life. Her photographs are quite remarkable. We were
very fond of her, and her passing was a great loss.

Teiser: You've had some very talented people

Adams: Well, Liliane is just marvelous. She has a Guggenheim fellowship

now, you know. Right after she was married she got that. That was
too much. Her husband figured it out that she'd worked for me nine
years, three months, two weeks and three days. She knew where
everything was. But she's quite a creative person easily one of
the best of the younger people.

And Don Worth worked for me for several years. He's a very
fine photographer. He teaches art at San Francisco State University.

Teiser: I remember a picture of his of your lighted studio window, from

Adams: I happen to have a very fine personal collection of photographs.

Never realized what I had. But the Lands very kindly gave us some
Clarence Kennedy portfolios. That in itself is very important. And
then I have all the portfolios of Weston, Minor White, Don Worth,
Dick Julian. Then all kinds of individual prints. [Charles]
Sheeler et al. And I have early Brady images my prints, though.
I have daguerreotypes. I don't know what to do with them.


Adams: I should get an interne, a young person from a college who's
studying photography, and have him come and analyze them and
catalogue them and document them, because you know, a thing like
that is an awful job. Then the next step is the evaluation; then
the next step is what to do with them.

Teiser: I trust they're all dated.'

Adams: Not too many. I'm not the only one that fails on datingl [Laughter]

Well, let's see the workshops at first we had only the June
one. Then we decided that when we put in the new darkroom. .. .The
government gave us the renewed fifteen-year contract, and they
always require improvements. We have spent quite a little money
improving the studio and putting in a darkroom, which is a very
good darkroom, especially as a teaching and demonstration one.

There's no reason why we couldn't have workshops and groups
the whole year, but I myself have to withdraw from that because it's
just too much. To get good photographers to come up and conduct
workshops is our present plan. All I can say is I'm the general
director and I'm not going to let some inferior operation go on.
Al Weber, who lives here, is one of our staff members, and he's a
very good photographer. He's having a workshop in August, and
we're going to develop him more. And we're getting in the fall
workshops. We're getting a great variety of photographers, like
Wynn Bullock, and Jerry Uelsman, and top names to come.

And then the Friends of Photography of course that's another
subject. Maybe you'd better put that down as a separate subject,
because that ties into the theory of the f/64; really it's the
latter-day f/64 group, but with a modern slant, as far as I'm

So let me see what would be logical? Oh, I might say that I
have given workshops in the Museum of Modern Art, and the museum
in Memphis, and Rochester, and many other places. Workshops last
sometimes a week, sometimes they're just two days. I hate the term
"workshop," but there's no other term in the language that seems to
cover exactly what that means. Because a seminar's something where
a whole group of people get together and exchange ideas. In the
Friends of Photography we say we're having an "event," but that's
very ambiguous too.

Teiser: The word has become so closely associated with these workshops,
you'd have a hard time changing it now, I should think.

Adams: Yes there are so many hundreds of workshops given, and there's

such a fantastic interest in photography. It's a whole new world.
It's really a tremendous thing, and relates to thousands of people.


Adams: Of course, the basic idea is that photography is a language; you
have the aesthetic approach, and the documentary, and the
journalistic, and the scientific, and many other categories. We
use the English language to depict the world in the written word.
We have also the photographic language to express the visual
world. And the audio-visual world well, all colleges, schools,
institutions, companies, all have what is usually called the
audio-visual department. It's a fantastic growth. I mean it's
an industry, something that represents untold millions of dollars
and hundreds of thousands of people working, making slides,
documentary records, etc.

I'm not plugging anybody, but the Bell & Howell people have
just come out with this new copy machine, which happens to cost
seven hundred and something dollars, but it is fantastic in the
sense that it makes copies of anything in just a few seconds. It
makes transparencies for what they call "overhead projection work."
You can make a transparency, and in about two or three minutes have
a hundred or two hundred ditto copies, which you can put in the
hands of the audience while you're projecting images on the screen.
It's one of the great, I think, steps forward, because it's not
litho reproduction, but it is a quick means of communicating type
written pages, copies, letters, even pictures in a crude sense.
Many advanced duplicating systems are being developed.

[End Tape 11, Side 2]

Skill in Music and Photography

[Interview X 3 June 1972]
[Begin Tape 12, Side 1]

Teiser: ...then your career in music and your career in photography have
been related?

Adams: Yes. Well, I think it was Wilenski who said that all art is the
expression of the same thing. But actually, I don't necessarily
subscribe to what would you call it? a two-dimensional, mystical
relationship because when we start reading qualities of one art
into another, we get in trouble. It's like when we try to talk
about pictures, or when people give literary titles to music, like
the Moonlight Sonata.

I think I mentioned once that Huneker criticism of the B flat
minor Sonata of Chopin, which contains the Funeral March (the
"Marche Funebre") , which is really the stylistic interpretation in
the Adagio, but which is used as a funeral march. It was not Chopin's
intention that it be played with a brass band and used in a procession




Adams :





Hunneker accepted that Romantic interpretation, and then said the
last movement, which is Presto Furioso, I think, is the "night
winds rushing over the graves." Well, that kind of relationship
to me is completely nauseating. I mean [laughs] it's a concept to
which I can't possibly relate. What happened is that the expressive
capacities of the music were undoubtedly damaged by literary
interpretation. But the best thing, the thing that probably saved
me, was the strict discipline involved in music that automatically
carried over into the photography. There was no such thing as
"schools" in photography at that time. It was a very sloppy art,
and only a very few people gave it any critical or technical
dignity. There was no training in photography to speak of.

So I could have been a real "sloppy Joe" photographically, if
it hadn't been for the discipline which is absolutely required for

When you first started taking photographs and doing your own
printing, did you print and print and print from the same negative
to teach yourself how to do it?

Oh yes. Well, in the first period, it was empirical trial and
error, over and over and over, until I got some results. Then
later on, when I established the technical basis of the Zone
System, then I knew much better what I was doing. But I still
have to print quite a number of times to get the expressive result,
because you can't put that on a slide rule. The fact is that it is
so completely subtle, you can't really physically describe it.

You said yesterday that Mr. Mazzeo was a good photographer and not
a very good painter.

Well, I'll put it this way: his prints in no way come up to what
he sees. Now, this "seeing" is used in quotes. As Edward Weston.
would say, the "seeing" is not adequate, or the "seeing" is great.
As I've mentioned before, the internal event and the external event
are so terribly important. And with people like Mazzeo being
interested in birds and things the external event is really what
interests him. He does pictures because the subject interests him,
and he conveys the subject. But he doesn't have the design sense
that Brett Weston has or Edward Weston had, for whom the photograph
becomes an object and not just a record of a subject. It becomes
something in itself. But Mazzeo is a great musician! I

Are there people who can make a good negative but can't print it,
and people who can print but not make a good negative?

Well, put it this way: there are many people who could make
absolutely adequate negatives with no expressive intention. And it
comes down to a complicated thing: your visualization is in relation


Adams: to the final Image, and it usually works out that the person doesn't
make a good negative because he's failed in some way to visualize.
Then in some way, by hook or crook, he does the best he can in the
darkroom, you see.

I have many very bad negatives that I can take to the darkroom
and really do a lot to bring up some expressive quality. But I can
have an absolutely perfect negative, and if I didn't have the
feeling or the sensitivity, simply nothing would happen. In many
cases I've taken other people's photographs, like some of the early
photographs, and have made prints which were, frankly, much better
than anything they made technically, because I have better materials
and controls than they had.

When I say better, I mean the print had more impact. And I
know that Bill Webb has done the same thing with the [Adam Clark]
Vroman negatives. He's made really wonderful images; much better
images than Vroman ever made. And in my case, the two examples are
the San Francisco fire and the Chinatown street of Arnold Genthe.
Genthe's prints are notoriously weak and fuzzy and (quote) "artistic"
(unquote). And it's the same thing with his records of the fire.
They're pretty tough; some of those negatives are very, very bad.

Teiser: How about O'Sullivan? Did you improve ?

Adams: I never worked with any O'Sullivan negative. I certainly improved
on the Bradys, but I never printed any O'Sullivan or Jackson. I
printed some Wittick, Brady [pause] well, when we say Brady, we
don't know who it could be any one of his photographers.

You see, Brady was a promoter, not a photographer. He had a
business called Matthew Brady, and he employed photographers. And
on the envelopes of all these negatives that were put in the
National Archives were written the name of the photographer. But
he never gave them credit in the published work. Only more recent
historians have done that.

But Roy Stryker, when he took on the farm resettlement project
you know, the big "dust bowl" job always gave the photographers
leading credit. It would be a photograph of such and such "by
Walker Evans, Farm Security Administration Historical Project, Roy
Stryker, director." That was the way it would be documented the
photographer always got the leading line.

Teiser: I'm sorry, I took you away from
Adams: The music

Teiser: You were telling us yesterday, after we were taping, about the kind
of pianist you were and are, and how your technique differs from


Adams: Well, probably that sounded a little too pompous. The fact remains
that I have a very light hand. I have an ideal violin hand. And
my very good friend, Cedric Wright, who was a violinist, had an
ideal piano hand we should have grafted them. [Laughs]

In any event , my technique was based largely on the dynamic
finger action. I think it would be called the Leschetizky method.
Now that goes back to the turn of the century, and the fundamental
technical pattern is that you lift, strike, and relax. You
practice hours: you lift, strike, and relax, until it becomes
absolutely free. If you lift, strike, and hold down, you
immediately tighten; then you have no flexibility.

Then the same thing would apply to the wrist for certain
things. Now, there's a difference in the relaxing it would be
legato (because the key is held down), or it would be a portamento,
or it would be a staccato. Then to reinforce the sound, I would
bring in some weight. But, there are whole schools of weight
playing in which you sort of "pour in" your weight. You see people
using shoulder or arm, and that almost invariably results in less
brilliance of tone. The ideal situation is that you balance them
out your weight and your dynamics depending on your hand structure.

Now, Victor Babin, the late pianist, he was really marvelous.
He had very large hands. And he had complete control magnificent
finger action and complete weight control. And he could produce
the most incredible sounds!

Harold Bauer, when he was playing a concerto with an orchestra,
could actually imitate the quality of an instrument. If a flute
or string passage was to come, say with a Schumann concerto, his
piano would take on that quality. Now it's all illusionary,
because it really can't imitate; it still is a percussion instrument.
But it isn't the way you hit one key; it's the time, the dynamics,
in which you hit the next key.

You see, there's no real way in which you can change the sound
of the piano at all. Now, the harpsichord is different; you strike
it and you can vibrate, and you can get a little pulse in the sound.
But the piano the hammer strikes the key and retracts. So there's
no control but volume and the relationship to the next note.
Intuitively, it probably could be explained. I think even [H.L.F.
von] Helmholtz touched on that. He explained that when you strike
a note and this depends not only on the fact that it's a piano or
an organ, but say that it's a piano, upright, square, or grand
when you strike that note, you have produced the fundamental tone,
and then you have a whole series of harmonics , and those harmonics
are not necessarily the same that you get with the open strings.
But they're there. They're even within the part of the strings that


Adams: are dampened. There's a very subtle resolution. And then you
anticipate this resolution, and you play the next note; and in
anticipating it, you also have to bring in this psychophysical law.

So a beautiful touch is something that makes the sounds seem to
flow with absolute completion. You don't worry about them at all.
And a poor touch we all know what that is. It drives you up the
wall. Because here's people playing precisely everything that's
written, playing everything in time, in unison but they have not
got this sense of the connecting sequence, which can't be called
just simply "legato." It is legato, but that's too simple a term.

And in photography, when you're photographing actions I think
I mentioned Cartier-Bresson as anticipatory. There's a girl who's
walking toward us, toward the camera, and I anticipate her; I want
her at a certain place. If I wait until she's there, she's caught
beyond! So I have to see this possibility and feel all the
relationships. There is about one-tenth second delay between
"seeing" and operating the shutter.

But now getting to the music-photography relationship. I don't
see anything except certain standards of discipline, which are
obvious, and then standards of taste or aesthetics. It's impossible
for me to think of people spending their lives in music and not
having good taste in the other arts. But that is not the case,
because I have been in music studios in New York, some of my good
friends , very fine musicians with the worst possible furniture and
the worst possible things on the wall you could imagine. I mean,
absolutely no sensitivity for the visual.

So there's nothing cut and dried in this relationship!
Teiser: What about the very simple thing of manual dexterity?

Adams: Finger dexterity is something which is very important well, unless
you're crippled, as I partially am with arthritis now nobody has
any trouble with a camera. It's rather a gross instrument in a way.