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

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Some people are very rough with cameras and mistreat a delicate
instrument. That's something else. But I can still set the shutter
with accuracy, and I can still operate the camera. I may have
difficulty lifting it onto the tripod. The dexterity is really
partly when you're developing films in the tray that you get a very
sensitive feeling of the finger in handling these things. But I
don't think being a pianist or not would have any effect on that.

Now, if you were a watchmaker or putting a shutter together or
something, that's another world. But I really don't think dexterity
in general is so important .


The Friends of Photography

Teiser: We spoke yesterday about the Friends of Photography. Do you want
to go into that now?

Adams: Yes. Well, that's a continuation of my attitude towards the f/64

group. In other words, not exactly the same motivation. But, there
was no place, anywhere in the West, where a group of creative people
got together. And I thought about it, and we talked about it. And
one day Cole Weston came out; he was managing the Sunset Center [in
Carmel]. He said, "Well, if you want to do something in photography,
there's a space available for a gallery." And that sort of triggered
it off, and I got ahold of Wynn Bullock and Mazzeo and a few others.
"Let's do something about this." [Interruption]

We saw the space, and then we got very busy and raised a
little money, and then organized the Friends of Photography. It
was a pro tern committee which secured the place. Our lawyer then
drew up the articles of incorporation, which we signed, and this
committee then became secondary to the fundamental bylaws and the
election of officers and so on, as a charitable, tax-deductible
institution. So we're tax-deductible. If you wish to give us ten
thousand dollars, we'd accept it with the greatest of joy, and you
could take it off your income tax. If you can make it more, why
we'd much appreciate it. [Laughter]

We've had phenomenal success with shows; we haven't any money.
We've brought some beautiful work to the area have produced publi
cations and two portfolios. Bill Turnage came, primarily to work
for me, and he had several other things to manage. He acted as
the director and really did a fantastic job in waking us up made
a lot of us very mad because he told the truth. You know that
usually happens. He's a mover and a shaker, and he did his job of
organizing and telling us the truth analyzing the full situation.
And then on Turnage 's advice we appointed Fred Parker as the
regular executive director. He's a curator and a museum man and an
expert in photography, and there were very, very few trained
curators, art historians, or gallery persons in the world of
photography to draw upon. That's one thing that we now have to

I think that the Princeton center, which David McAlpin has just
initiated, will start developing such people. You see, it's not
necessary for them to be photographers. The curator of painting or
the museum director is not necessarily a painter. But we've had
few of these for photographers to call on, and their opinion is
usually biased; it can't be anything else. I've tried it; I've
run things. But it's just incredibly hard for a photographer to be


Teiser: What is the center that McAlpin's given?

Adams: The Princeton University Art Museum photography center. He's

founded a chair of photography. Peter Bunnell is running it. And
it's primarily related to the history of photography. He gave one
million dollars, which it costs to set up a chair. People never
think about a million dollars. What can one do with a million?
Well, normally you have to put it in securities, and out of that,
you get 50 percent fifty thousand a year.

That's an irrevocable trust, and that pays Bunnell's salary
and the space charges, and operating cost, and a secretary. You
can't do very much with fifty thousand a year in a big institutional
way. But you can train people who come and work through Princeton
in the various departments. Now, of course, the term "museology"
is really related to the physical care or the restoration or the
analysis of paintings and works of art. A curator is somebody who
has an art historian's knowledge in the field, you see, and cares
for and controls the prints in relation to this knowledge. The
museum director is somebody who just says what's going to be done.
The curator, by the way, usually has to prepare and hang the

But the director he has to know a lot, or should know a lot
but he also has the administration and politics and finance on his
neck, you see.

Teiser: And your director of the Friends is up to all those things.

Adams: Well we're very small. He was curator of photography at the

Pasadena Museum. Now he could move into a position like this chair
at Princeton. I don't think he would like it too much. His ideal
would be the curator of photography in some big institution, say
the Metropolitan. That would be an objective goal. But here he is
running the exhibits, he's running the workshops and the
publications. But it's all subject to the approval of committees
on the board, which it should be for saving his own neck. We
haven't disagreed yet.* But it's very important for the trustees
to keep control.

Some directors will say, "Well, I don't want to be subject to
anybody. I want to run the whole thing." That's one of the worst
things you could let anyone do. Because why not share your mistakes
[laughs] psychologically and otherwise? But we've had a very good
board. Liliane De Cock is on the board, for example.

Teiser: Are most of the members on the board photographers?

*We did later. [A. A.]


Adams: Too many. We were practically all photographers at one time. Now
we're stretching it more, because again, a complete board of just
photographers is biased. And we have some members who just can't
see any other work but their own. I mean it's very difficult for
an exhibitor to criticize exhibits, because it doesn't look like
the kind of photography that they believe in. Well, that's not
our function. And Fred Parker, with his very big knowledge of
photography, can get us exhibits of the photography of our time.
Now, I would say that half the shows that we've had there I don't
like, from the personal point of view. But I have no right to pass
that judgment. I don't like Rubens, and I don't like Picasso, but
I'm very fond of Rouault. So you wouldn't expect me, if I ran a
museum, to concentrate on Rouault. I'd have to admit the existence
of Picasso. [Interruption]

Well, so the Friends are a growing institution, and of course

I want to withdraw when it's reasonable to do so and concentrate

on my own work. I think it's terrible for people to stay on and on
and on and on in any institution.

Teiser: I imagine that it wouldn't have become a real organization without
your leadership , however

Adams: Well, I think probably I'd have to accept that fact. Not from the
point of view of conceit, but because of experience with the
Museum of Modern Art and many other things of its type. The Sierra
Club thirty-four years on the board there I learned something
about management at the board level.' And then I'm very well known.
So you put all these things together on a purely objective level,
and of course I would be useful to some degree.

Teiser: What is the geographical area of this' group? Is it really national?

Adams: We want to make it national. We've had exhibits from all over. One
of the things we wanted to avoid is being a camera club. Camera
clubs are really social clubs, like little men's chowder and
marching societies [laughter] and are not interested in photography
as an advanced art but more as a hobby. The Photographic Society
of America represents the camera club and hobbyist and practically
nobody else. It's another world. It's a very difficult thing to
explain, but you just go and look at a photographic salon by the
pictorial group and you see a totally different thing than when you
see a serious, creative, dedicated work.

Teiser: There's a man in San Francisco who I think you must have known, who
I think was a photography club man. Francis Brugiere

Adams: Brugiere. Well now, he was rather unusual. He was quite an artist.
But there was no outlet for photographic art, so he did function
through the only thing that existed to function in photography the


Adams: camera club. But he did many things with light photograms,

reflections, abstract things that are really quite extraordinary.

But I don't know enough about him to give you any authentic
information. It would be like Ann Brigman, you see, who did some
remarkable images which Stieglitz liked. But the only place she
could show was at the camera clubs .

Teiser: I rather suspected that Brugiere was better than most.
Adams: Oh yes, he was very much ahead.

Then, I forget the man that ran Camera Craft for so long. He
was a nice man, but boy I He had what you call "Kodak taste." He
was right down the pictorial line.

The Friends are a going organization, we hope. I think we've
accomplished a lot, and now photography is becoming a very big
factor in the art world. Scores, even hundreds of college depart
ments, hundreds of workshops some are bad, some are good, but it's
now being recognized.

And a museum will have a photography show. Heretofore, you'd
have Stieglitz and Strand and Weston that would be about it. Then
[Eliot] Porter and I got in, and some of the Europeans Cartier-
Bresson, Andre Kertesz, a few others, but it still was always
played pretty much on the safe side.

Now they're really showing much younger people. Liliane's
had some fine shows. She's got one coming up at the Amon Carter
Museum, and I think at the Art Institute in Chicago I'm not sure.
She's had some very good exhibits at this level of an artist, which
is the thing that we have to maintain in photography. It's a very
difficult point.

You see, it's up to the photographer to maintain his work at
the level of the artist. The painter and the sculptor automatically
assume that they do. "I'm a sculptor I'm in the fine arts." Of
course I might be a lousy sculptor, but still, I'm automatically
there. A photographer never has quite that conviction. That's one
of the reasons the insecurity why so many photographers talk so
much. You know, to justify their own work and try to mystically
explain the inner unmeanings.

Teiser: .1 know the Friends of Photography is not like the Eastman House,

Adams: The Friends of The Bancroft Library would be people who'd go out to
raise money for the library. Well, we might have the "Friends of
the Friends of Photography" some day. It's what we need. [Laughter]
But there are friends of almost anything friends of the sea otter.
It's a vague term it means supporters.


Teiser: Well, do I remember that the Eastman House group has published and
shown exhibits and sent exhibits around

Adams: It's not got a big membership. It is a nonprofit membership

institution. But they never went out after many members. They
were very generous to their members . We were too generous in
giving each of ours the portfolios. We had about twelve thousand
dollars tied up in portfolios that haven't sold yet. Every member
got a free copy. And they're beautifully reproduced.

But you'll always find that there's something wrong with
whatever you do. "Why did you make this selection?" "I didn't
think that picture was any good." And the next person will say,
"Well, I think that's one of the best things in it." When I did my
Portfolio V it was extraordinary because there were two or three
images which most people liked. But every one was liked by a
number of people. And that's kind of lucky, because sometimes
there'll be one or two that will be by-passed entirely.

Museums and Critics

Teiser: To go back in time to other exhibits of photographs in 1931 you
had an exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution called "Pictorial
Photographs of the Sierra Nevada Mountains"

Adams: Everything is wrong: "pictorial" is wrong, "Sierra Nevada" is
wrong, "Mountains" is wrong. [Laughs] We all use that, but
Francis Farquhar oh, he used to go wild over that.

Teiser: But that was what they called it.

Adams: Well, that was just like the name they gave Parmelian Prints , I

Teiser: Was that your first major exhibit?

Adams: I wouldn't consider the Smithsonian at that time as having any

status as an exhibit place. They showed curiosities and scenes and
such things, but I don't think they had museum status. It even
doesn't have what you'd call really museum status, although of late
it's getting there.

Teiser: How did they happen to know about you?

Adams: Well, word of mouth. Francis Farquhar, somebody. Bradford

Washburn of course had shown a lot of his Mount McKinley pictures.
But the Smithsonian has always related more or less to science,


Adams: travel, invention. And boy, when Beaumont [Newhall] and I went

there, they had their exhibit of photographs of early Fox Talbots
[photographs by William Henry Fox Talbot] up in the top floor
under the skylight, completely unprotected. And these things
were literally fading. And I blew my top. I said, "Beaumont,
can't you do something about it?" He said, "You don't understand
the museum world. I could no more go down there and criticize
this curator!" He said, "You could," you see, because I wasn't
in the museum world. And I wrote a very strong letter, first
thing. I said, "As a photographer, subjecting these invaluable
photographs, some of the most important things ever done
subjecting them to this unfiltered light is well, it's incompre
hensible." There were other people who were upset too. They did
finally cover these cases with a yellow glass filter. Still it
was a poor job.

So then I went to Dearborn to see the Ford collection [at the
Henry Ford Museum] of [William Henry] Jackson photographs. We were
trying to get something for the "Brady and the American Frontier"
exhibit. They had fourteen thousand glass plates in a loft of one
of their big buildings, and the temperature was about 110.
Fortunately, it was dry. But collodion won't take too much
temperature. And I blew my top there. . I told this man, I said,
"I think keeping these plates here is absolutely disastrous. I'm
no chemist, but this heat is such a hazard" the sun beating on the
roof. He said, "I think we know what we're doing, Mr. Adams." I
said, "Well, I guess perhaps you don't. I would say this could
lead to a most serious deterioration." Well, I wrote a letter to
Henry Ford II about it. But you see, I'm not in the museum world;
I was clear. I could do this. But if Beaumont [Newhall] had done
that, he'd have been immediately blacklisted in the profession.
Because you never criticize another curator like a doctor, you
see. A doctor can't go and say anything negative about any other
doctor unless he is a downright fake. But even then you have to
be very careful.

And when one doctor criticizes another, it's always by
innuendo. They say, "Well, some people will go to anybody." Never
really say that Dr. Jones is an impostor I

But photographers among the good ones as soon as a photogra
pher knows another one is sincere, he usually is very supportive.
But he also can get hideously jealous. That happens in music too;
I suppose all the arts. I know some very unfortunate high-level
jealousy among some of the very top people. And it's purely
psychological, because they have nothing to be jealous about.

A lot of people are jealous of me because of my apparent
success in selling prints. I'm not conservative in spirit. My
work is fairly "set" you know, it's me, and it belongs to another


Adams: and earlier period. The criticism I get quite often is that well,
I'm dead, I'm finished. I've had people tell me that to my face.
"Why don't you go and retire. You're through; you haven't done
anything new for years." I say, "You're perfectly right. But I
may." [Laughter]

It's very hard to judge things such as methods of photography
or any art at its own level. Another thing that's been very
serious in the museum world is that the dealer world has been one
of the extraordinary merchandising machines of the times. These
people like Warhol and others will have an exhibit, and an agent
will take them on. Now, the agent promotes them, and within a
short time this man is the "greatest artist of our time." And
people are like sheep. They get a page in Time. You'll see very
often Newsweek and Time will have the same story. Now, that comes
right out of the publicity offices. It's all very well engineered.
And they like to come out at the same time because one doesn't want
to follow the other.

Then I've heard a museum man say, "Veil, I was considering
Harry, but you know, he's about six months passe now." [Laughter]
It's the truth. And I said to one curator, "Well, does that in any
way influence Harry's quality?" He said, "No, but he's just dead.
He's not up with the times, he's not with it." Well, in six months
time, you know

Goya is still with it. [Laughter] And El Greco is still with
it. And I'd say that the early period of Picasso is to me
extremely moving. And I never can accept the later period. I
think he had his tongue in cheek in a lot of it, and I know a lot
of contemporary art which is far more abstract and far out than
Picasso, which moves me deeply. But again, not being a museum man,
not being a trained art historian, I have no right to say that as
anything more than a strictly personal reaction.

Some say, "I don't like Joe, and I think Harry's a good guy,
and what's the matter with Jim?" It has nothing to do with the
real value of the people as artists. It's just their own reaction.
And the critics! We are trying to train now in photography
knowledgeable critics , because there are very few of them and
many are needed. A painter cannot criticize a photograph.

Teiser: There's Mrs. Mann?

Adams: Oh yes, Marjorie Mann. Well, she's a psychological case. She

writes sometimes brilliantly, but she has just decided that some
thing's wrong in photography and she's going to set it right. I
would say that Mann is inclined to be rather brutal and inconsiderate
When she's writing about something she knows, she's fine, but she
immediately tied onto the Friends of Photography as being nothing


Adams: but an old fogey organization perpetuating the West Coast school.
Well, she came to the first opening. We told her what we were
going to do. And immediately she decides we show only the classics.

Well, then she hit a couple of other shows that were of
somewhat conservative type, and she missed all the ones that were
highly contemporary and experimental. I think she missed the
platinum show, which was history, and she missed the oh gosh, I
just can't begin to tell you. So she has a total misconception.
Now, her influence is considerable. So before Fred Parker knew
about us, he had that impression through her writing. And then
when he came and looked at the series of exhibits that we had, he
said, "I want to apologize for my previous opinion. Why didn't
somebody tell me?"

We had Van Deren Coke class work from the University of New
Mexico. We had the Institute of Design, we had Todd Walker we
went all over the map; a very fine cross section of what's going
on in photography. We had the Visual Dialogue show, with photo
sculpture things in the round and in plastic. So one of our big
problems is to show to the world that we have a very catholic

But you see if you can be a belligerant critic, if you can be
a showoff, if you can make everybody feel that you're right out
there crusading you can get a lot of attention.

Her [Mann's] own photographs are simply terrible the weakest
things. I think she never should photograph. A critic should be
absolutely objective. Most art critics are not painters they've
studied art, they're art historians. Beaumont is a superb critic
in photography, about the only one that really exists.

Teiser: Does he write that analytically?

Adams: Well, I'm trying to get him to do it, but Beaumont's a rather mild,
kindly person, and he's interested in the history of photography,
and for him there's no difference between the past and the present.
It's a continuous flow. He can pick up from my work things that
happened a hundred years ago and vice versa. Not that we're
imitating, but it's just a broad approach to the world, you see.

Now, a typical happening is somebody wrote me a letter: "How
did Stieglitz get these rich qualities?" I wrote a letter back
saying as best I could that the chances were that the rich qualities
he saw were a psychological effect due to his wonderful sense of
values. And I sent that letter on to Beaumont, and he was able to
say, well, the values are a little extreme in some cases, in lantern
slides, for example, because Stieglitz intensified them with
mercury. But mercury isn't permanent. He didn't know it at the
time, so all those slides are gone.


Adams: I have some intensified in mercury and chromium that have gone too!
It isn't permanent. It's very complex. You add mercuric salts to
the silver, and the result is a kind of mutual deterioration. The
negative just turns a ghastly yellow, and I don't know of any way
to get it back.

Teiser: I was impressed that someone writing so seriously in a popular
photographic magazine would get as much space as Mrs. Mann has.

Adams: Well, she approached it as a profession.

There's [A.D.] Coleman, who writes for the New York Times, and
he seems pretty erudite. I think he's been pretty good.

Now, Jacob Deschin, who wrote for the [New York] Times first,
is a very nice man, but he really knows nothing about photography.
He really started writing about photo products. And people used to
look at that column like we look at Herb Caen, and believe it, you
know. A lot of people never enjoy a concert until they've read
the paper the next morning. But of course Deschin wasn't really
in that critical class at all.

There's a very interesting story about Beaumont. You see,
Nancy [Newhall] designed my big show in San Francisco [the 1963
exhibit at the de Young Museum]. And one of the photographic
magazines asked would Beaumont write a criticism of it. And
Beaumont, being a professional and not having enough money, said,
"Yes, but it must be professional." They said, "We'll pay your
way to San Francisco as an honorarium." Which is all right. He
said, "Now, there are my wife and one of my close friends there
who could do it." They said, "No, no, we trust you." So he came

Well, Beaumont wrote a perfectly beautiful analysis of the
show and of my different periods of work and was very objective.
He took the text to the editor, and the editor said, "Gee, this is
pretty good writing, but can't you find anything wrong with it?"
And Beaumont said, "Well, the function of criticism is not to find
something wrong. It's to interpret. But," he said, "no, I can't
find anything wrong with it. There's a few prints quite a few
prints that I wouldn't have put in myself, but there's nothing
wrong with it in the total sense."

But then, it makes people feel very superior to have somebody
say, "Well, it's obvious that Paul Strand has done some very bad
things," or "This picture doesn't hold a candle to that" you know,
some needling remarks. It's like the old Roman arena and the
gladiators, I guess. They just like to see people taken apart.
And most of the photographic criticism has been that way.


Adams: The art criticism has been much better because the critics have
been much more erudite and the same with music. There was a
famous music critic at the Examiner many, many years ago. Or
maybe it was the Chronicle. I think it was Rosenthal who played,
and after the intermission the manager came out and said there had
been a mistake in the program, and Mr. Rosenthal is not going to
play this, he's going to play this and this and this. What do
you think the next morning in the newspaper here's a glowing de
scription of what Mr. Rosenthal didn't play. And the critic heard
him. I saw him there. Then he left to write and meet the deadline.
He maybe, after all, had heard Rosenthal do the "Fantasy" of Liszt,
you know, or the "Don Juan Suite," or whatever was on the program,
so he just wrote about them.

Imagine the embarrassment of writing a critique about something
that wasn't played. [Laughs] He was a very kindly man, and he was
terribly embarrassed. The next week he wrote a letter of apology

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