Ansel Adams.

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

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and explained why that he'd heard Rosenthal many times and knew
how he would perform. But still, it was an inexcusable breach.
But everybody thought it was a good joke. [Laughter]

[End Tape 12, Side 1]
[Begin Tape 12, Side 2]

Teiser: To get back to your exhibits the one you would perhaps consider
your first real exhibit. It was a one-man show in 1932 at the
de Young. It was before the f/64 show.

Adams: I think that would be fairly important. [Lloyd] Rollins, the
director, was way ahead of his time; he did a great service to
photography in the fact that he did show it. He showed Weston, he
showed Brett [Weston], and he showed me, and he showed others, and
he showed f/64, and he had the museum trustees down on him for
wasting space on photographs.

The whole Art Association in San Francisco has had a vendetta
against photography as long as I can remember. They resent any
space [used for it] because to them photography is not art. And
my dearest friends, people like Colonel [C.E.S.] Wood and Sara
Bard Field, would take me aside: "You could go anywhere in music.
Why did you choose photography? The camera cannot express the
human soul."

I told Stieglitz that. Stieglitz said, "Oh, so?" [Laughs]
I mean, making this romantic failure, I guess you'd call it, to see
what you saw and feel it was just as spiritual an accomplishment as
what a painter could do. But to them (they were a generation before
me, you see), it was a mechanical process. You click and then you


Adams: develop and then you print, that's it. But they don't realize all
the magical visualization and controls that go into it. And this
is terribly important. [Interruption]

Teiser: Your show at the de Young, then, in '32, was of prints that you
had recently made?

Adams: Yes, most of the early better things.

You see, I have a big problem now, that I'm probably the most
disorganized photographer that ever lived, and probably the one
who has the greatest number of things to fight with and combat, in
items and early pictures. And for my show in San Francisco that's
coming up, I have to go out to that darkroom and I have to start
in from the beginning.

Proper Disposition of Photographs

Adams: I have hundreds of prints, and twenty-five, thirty thousand

negatives, and of course some are useless and some are of purely
historic value. I should take my early pictures of Yosemite
negatives and give them to some historical [organization], like
the Yosemite Natural History Association, because there's
thousands of pictures that are just "Ridge No. 3," "Peak X," etc.
Well, they'd take them and look at them over a period of forty or
fifty years watch for the changes. That's very important

And I've had a little struggle over what to do in relation to
The Bancroft [Library] because where do the prints go? Well, in
fact we're having a discussion with some good friends this summer
about what's going to happen to this place.

Teiser: The Bancroft has new space being planned

Adams: Well, if any architect at all knows his salt, he would make purely
archival conditions for collections. But the point is, The
Bancroft is historical and I sent up all the Sierra Club papers
I just sent up all kinds of things. Now, when you come to a
photographic collection of prints, if it's purely art items it
should go to a different place, I think an art repository. The
Bancroft have a lot of early California things, but that's not
necessarily art.

Now, Edward Weston's pictures were given to the library at
Santa Cruz by a friend, anonymously. He's given eight hundred of
them, and this could be the nucleus of a photographic collection.


Adams: But there were forty prints of Edward Weston over at Monterey

Peninsula College, and nobody recognized what they had. They were
in drawers without slipsheets on them, and the students would take
them out and prop them up carelessly. Finally we got terribly sore
over that and we had them all overmatted, and really when we told
them they were worth five hundred dollars apiece on the market,
they immediately made a flip. They are very nice people, but they
were absolutely opaque to the quality of these prints.

And this is the kind of thing that we really have to consider
in disposition of creative work.

Now, the pictures I have of Yosemite and of the California of
my time, and so on they are history. If they're fine photographs,
that's good too. But I have many photographs that have nothing to
do with the subjects of history. How is The Bancroft going to
handle it? It belongs in a different category. It belongs with a
photography collection in a photography department. And once you
give a thing, you have no control over it.

The Huntington Library has a magnificent collection of Edward
Weston photographs, and I think they're taking care of it. But
they are isolated.

Teiser: They have a very good group of yours, too.

Adams: Yes, I've heard that. I don't know. But in Edward Weston 's [case],
some donor gave five hundred prints I think valued at twelve dollars
apiece. Paid Edward that, and Edward made six thousand dollars.
These photographs are now worth a fortune forty thousand dollars.
They're scarce as hen's teeth. An original good condition Weston
print is worth at least eight hundred dollars today.

Well, now, I'm getting two hundred dollars for the 16 by 20s.*
If I were to die tomorrow, those things would immediately go to
one thousand dollars or more, like Stieglitz. You couldn't buy a
Stieglitz today. I have one that should come back pretty soon.
It's loaned out on a museum tour. I insured it for six thousand
dollars. I know two people who'd give me ten thousand dollars for
that picture. And that is ridiculous, you see, because Stieglitz
is dead. There's only two of these in existence. So it has
nothing to do with the art value. So what do I do? Do I
capitalize on these things?

*Five hundred dollars after July 1974. [A. A.]


Financial Practicalities

Adams: There's a terrible thing that happened with the estate of David
Smith, the sculptor; the IRS has come in to his studio, with all
these things, and has put a death tax on the dealer's value, which
goes into millions. And the estate can't possibly pay it.

And what happened with Stieglitz he never took a cent out of
the gallery. And Marin and [Arthur] Dove and O'Keeffe, they'd
bring their paintings and leave them there a good, safe depository,
Well, he died, and in comes the IRS, and they say, "Oh, there's an
O'Keeffe twelve thousand dollars," which is what it would have
sold for. And here were a hundred Marins at twelve thousand
dollars apiece, and so on. And they went up into fantastic sums.
The estate said, "We don't own these. It was just that they were
on consignment." "Well, show us the papers." Well, there were no
papers. He never gave anybody a receipt; they were all "family."
So it took the combined effort of two top New York lawyers and
McAlpin and somebody else to go down to Washington and state the
situation, that these paintings belonged to the artists.

So you see you're in a very difficult situation in any
artistic value. On the other hand, I could take one of my two-
hundred-dollar prints and give it to the Institute of Foreign
Studies for an auction, and the only thing is that they can't sell
it for less than the going price, because that wouldn't be fair to
the clients. But I want nothing for it at all. I give it to them.
All I can take off of my income tax is ten dollars.

Teiser: Why?

Adams: Because the artist can only take off his material costs. That's
the new reading. Now you can buy that print for ten dollars from
me and give it to the Institute. Then its value is two hundred
dollars, and you can take that off your income tax.

Teiser: You mentioned the other day that prints were not, earlier,
collected or bought. When did it start?

Adams: No. Well, Stieglitz sold a few. God knows how few. Strand
Teiser: How did Strand make a living?

Adams: Strand inherited quite a fortune. Stieglitz had a very nice

living. Julia Margaret Cameron had a nice living. Edward Weston
was broke all his life, except when he was a portrait photographer
in Glendale; then he was doing very well. Then he threw that all
over it wasn't creative. And he nearly starved to death on a
couple of occasions.


Teiser: Could Edward Western have sold more prints?

Adams: Edward Weston needed a manager. If Edward Weston had had a really
sympathetic, good manager, Edward could have done very well,
because he was a superb photographer. But he just philosophically
he just pulled away from all that. You couldn't talk to Edward
about anything. 1 used to plead with him on insurance. I used to
plead with him on making out a will, for the sake of his family.
[He'd say,] "Oh, I'm not interested."

Robinson Jeffers came here in 1924 or before and got all that
land at Carmel Point. And finally friends used to say, "Well,
look, Robin " Of course, he had an income too, you see. Taxes
were getting a little high. They'd say, "You have to remember,
this land is tremendously valuable and you ought to do something
about it or your children are going to have tax trouble." Jeffers
would say, "Oh, they'll have to take care of themselves. I can't
be bothered." Well, when he died the property was worth over a
million dollars and the death tax duties [were so high that]
within a year they didn't have any money at all. They had to
immediately start borrowing, selling, subdividing. That whole
point should have been a Robinson Jeffers memorial area, you see.
And he could have very easily made a corporation a trust and put
everything in it. There'd be some taxes, but so little!

So as I say, many of the greatest creative photographers have
had private incomes and were really amateurs. Eliot Porter is very
well off. I know of several others.

Original Prints

Teiser: In Stieglitz's time, then, very few prints were sold?

Adams: Oh, very few photographs. He just put impossible [prices on them]
thousand dollars, seven hundred fifty; Strand, five hundred. Mrs.
Liebman would buy a Strand. But the prints were sold. Most of it
was done in portrait commissions, or sold [for reproduction in]
books. But the actual purchase of a print as an art was very
little known.

Teiser: When did people start buying them?

Adams: I'd say it really started probably before the 1929 crash. Then
after the Great Depression, and shows were given in galleries,
people started acquiring prints. But never at more than a personal
level. And then, you see, as the galleries developed, people got
aware of the fact that a print had value.


Adams: Now, my Portfolio V is strictly limited to one hundred copies for
sale, and everything's destroyed negatives and all other prints.
And the collector will say, "You don't number this edition of
other prints." I say, "No." To me a photograph can be reproduced
a thousand times, but it has no value to a collector, because he's
just buying something anybody else can have. Etchers have done
that. Weston did it. He used to have, say, fifty prints, so he'd
make a few prints. They might be number 5/50. Well, he very
seldom sold more than five or six, except for just a handful [of
photographs]. And I'd say the same thing. I can think of ten or
twelve photographs which have sold very considerable quantities,
way beyond any normal edition. And the rest seven, five, ten,
none. So in theory I should set a limit; that I will make no more
than fifty prints, a hundred prints. And then every one bears the
number of the print and the edition.

Teiser: Then after you make those, you should discard the negative?

Adams: I should discard the negative. Now, fundamentally that is wrong,
but also, I couldn't charge what I charge if I didn't. In other
words well, suppose you had a photograph you knew was going to
sell a thousand copies, and you put those out, say, for fifteen
dollars, the edition. You get fifteen thousand dollars, which is
more than you'd get from all but a few photographs. We've sold
nearly twenty-five thousand dollars of special edition prints in

Teiser: But how long does it take you to make a thousand prints?

Adams: Well, that's another point. I'm one of the few photographers that
has a plant where we can do it well. You should see the darkroom
of most of the photographers! Absolute little holes in the wall.
Wynn Bullock's darkroom looks like a back room in a basement
somewhere. Imogen Cunningham's darkroom is a shambles. Eliot
Porter's is very fine. He does color work, and he has a lot of
money to put in it. Weston's darkroom was one-quarter the size of
this alcove, and the only thing he had of any value was a dry
mounting press. He put the negative in a printing frame and turned
on a light overhead to make a print no enlarging!! I mean, almost
a mannerism of simplicity. But I have a room in which I make my
big prints. I have some beautiful electronic equipment. I've got
a new digital clock. I've got a timer, a metronome, which is
regulated in intervals by voltage change, so I'm always getting the
right amount of light. When I'm counting ten seconds, or ten units
of light, if the voltage drops, the interval will increase. Those
things are very simple. The average color processing darkroom
costs ten times what I've got.


Would you make a thousand prints? Could you stand it?


Adams: I've made two hundred 16 by 20s in one day, from one or two

Teiser: My word!

Adams: Oh yes. I can make special edition prints. I can do 250 a day
without any trouble at all. Well, with assistance. I have to
have somebody assisting with fixing and washing. If I had to go
through the whole thing alone, it would be too much. But if I
sign the prints, I have to make them.

I'm going to get Ted Organ to help out with special editions.
He's a fine photographer. I'll turn him loose. Now, if all his
prints are what I approve of, I'll initial them. And most of the
painters great painters always had assistants. Diego Rivera's
murals I mean, many of these oh, probably 70 percent was done
by somebody else, but of course under his direction. It's a
ticklish thing. A negative can give you more reproductions than
any other medium. A copper plate will wear out, a lithograph stone
will wear out, but a film will last forever because there's nothing
going through it but light .

Teiser: Who are the people who buy prints?

Adams: Well, you have a few individuals who just like a photograph, and
want it. Then you have a few people that like a big photograph
in the house. I make these big ones, you know, 30 by 40. They
want them "over a mantel." Then there are business firms that
want to use big photographs for general decor. There is a law
firm [in Los Angeles] that has eighty-plus prints, my biggest
single installation.

Teiser: Where is this?

Adams: McElviny & Myers, the big law firm. Then the Fremont Indemnity
has three floors of prints. IBM has got thirty-two pictures in
the roomssin the Homestead at San Jose. They're all fine prints.
You give them a discount when they say they want to buy fifty
prints. They don't pay a gallery rate, obviously. I make ten of
each, twelve of each ten of each in this case. I have another
job coming up for them.

Then there are simply collectors . Some do it for financial
reasons. I know one man that's bought something like ten thousand
dollars worth of photographs and sold them for forty thousand
dollars just like you do paintings or stocks and bonds!

Teiser: That's a speculator. But are there any great private collections
of photographs in the country?


Adams: Oh yes, there are some very good ones. Lane has got the biggest
one, William Lane in Luninberg, Massachusetts. He has a
tremendous collection Sheeler's and Weston's and mine. Witkin and
Harry Lunn are the best men in the gallery world, and they have
people that are buying. 1 think most important collections are in
museums. People buy and give to museums.

Teiser: I was thinking for instance the way people put together book
collections .

Adams: [David] McAlpin had a very fine collection. But he's giving it

away to the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan, and to Princeton,
He's probably our great patron he's the one that really started
[buying]. When I had that show at Stieglitz's, he came in, and he
wanted the "White Gravestone." He asked, "What is it?" Stieglitz
said, "Seven hundred fifty dollars." McAlpin sort of blinks,
because even that was high. But Stieglitz said, "If you get that,
you can have this one, this one, and this one." That was the begin
ning. So McAlpin has bought untold thousands of dollars of prints
the most generous [buyer]. Of course, he's one of the Rockefellers
on William Rockefeller's side, and he must have a tremendous amount
of money, but he used it in the most marvelous ways supporting
music, the Philharmonic, the opera, the Princeton choral society,
the Alexander Hamilton papers; different art museums. Oh gosh,
there's no end to his munificence. And he lives in a nice house in
Princeton, very unostentatious. (All these people that really do
these fine things never live [lavishly.]) The Lands have a very fine
photographic collection. They're thinking of what they're going to
do with it.

Teiser: I think of the many people who collect fine editions of books,
whether they ever read them or not . And very often they go to
libraries or institutions.

Adams: Well, the fine book a collection of fine printing, and the buying
of books well, it's a little closer to photography than is the
collection of paintings. Because, first the original cost is less.
Albert Bender used to buy any number of fine press books. But then
you're talking about ten, twenty dollars, a relatively low field.
Well, somebody comes along with a very expensive book, like the
Kelmscott Chaucer. A dealer in New York called Bender up one day
this is back in the thirties and said, "I have a Kelmscott Chaucer
for $3200." Bender says, "Hold it. I'll let you know today."
What does he do? He picks up the phone. "Rosalie Stern, top of
the morning to you. We can get a Kelmscott Chaucer for Mills for
$3200. I'll put in five hundred dollars." [Mrs. Stern says,] "Put
me down for five hundred dollars, Albert." He writes this down,
calls up Cora Koshland, "Top of the morning to you, Cora. How's
the sunshine off Washington Street?" "Well," she says, "it's very



Adams :

gray, Albert. But I know you're after something. What is it?"
He says, "Well, the Kelmscott Chaucer for Mills College we can get
it for $3200. I've put in five hundred dollars, Rosalie's put in
five hundred dollars." [She says,] "Put me down for $750." Well,
you know, in about two hours time he had all the money raised for
this thing, and he calls up New York, and he says, "Send it out.
I'll send my check today." That's the way Albert Bender operated,
you see. And that Kelmscott Chaucer, one of the rarest books in
the world, is in the Mills College Library!

Same thing for Stanford. But that's like buying a Rembrandt,
you see. Virginia and I are a little bit disappointed in each
other because I had most of the keepsakes of the Roxburghe Club
and we gave them to somebody, some institution. And now I
understand they're worth $2500. [Laughs] We thought they were
just a lot of old folders and things. They were Grabhorn and Nash,
and Jonck & Seeger and Lawton Kennedy fine examples of printing.
And we had the greatest printers out here; there were a few in the
East, but nothing as extraordinary.

So what are values? As a creative artist, I shouldn't be
worrying about that. I should sell my prints for the most I can
get for them and do the best prints I can, and then let the
historians and the dealers reap the harvest.

But as the owner of negatives, you must, mustn't you?

Well, the negatives have no meaning unless I print them. Now, the
great architectural picture I have Piranesi. Now, that is an
original Piranesi. It was given to us by Robert Farquhar, the
architect. The Italian state made a special edition of all of his
remaining engravings and ruined them; they didn't give them to the
right technician. They didn't look like the originals; they weren't
the real thing. This is the maddening thing, because with some
superb technician and artist, they could have done it. But
somebody sold them on the idea, and didn't do a good job.

Well, now, I think I'm missing out on a couple of things you
asked me.

One-Man Shows

Harroun: We were talking about the '32 exhibit.

Teiser: That's right. At the de Young. What I read about it recently was

that, in it, you said that you had changed your method and your view
of photography, and these were new prints that you had made, not the
kind that you had made previous to that.


Adams: The criticism could be that the new prints of many of the old

negatives were poor because the negatives weren't made for that
kind of technique, for that kind of printing. And it was interest
ing, in my big show in the de Young in 1963, there were two small
rooms of early originals made before 1930, and most of those had
gone to Lane; he owns those, and they're some day going to museums.

Teiser: But in the 1932 show

Adams: As I say, most of those that were made from negatives that I had
before 1930 were probably on Dassonville papers, and I can't
remember that show as to whether the prints were all up-to-date.

I can't remember much about other shows. I had one at the
University of California [in 1939]. When I made the prints for it,
I thought I'd do a new thing; I made them very rich and dark.
Everybody said, "Your prints are awfully dark." I said, "No, I
want to get this richness." A year later, I saw them, and I
wondered how in the world I had ever made such prints! They were
terribly dark, they were heavy, they were over-toned. But I was
going through a "thing," as they call it, in which these "qualities"
symbolized something that I felt. And they're very depressing. I
got a lot of bad reviews, which they deserved. But it's a fact that
the photographer shouldn't judge his own work and shouldn't plan his
shows, because he's too close to them.

Teiser: You had your own gallery in San Francisco for about a year, was it?
Adams: That was a headache.

Teiser: Was it? You gave some shows, though, that were pretty good,
weren't they?

Adams: I had a Zorach show painting, sculpture. I had a Bufano show
sculpture. I had f/64. I had my own. I had Weston. Virginia
probably has the list. It was all so unreal and impractical. But
I never forget what the manager at the Wittell building told me
when I had to close up. He said, "You can put me down for this
you're the only artist I ever knew that ever paid all your bills
right on time." [Laughs] I didn't say I used to go and beg advances
from Albert Bender. [Laughter]

Now, there's many other shows. The first show in New York was
at Alma Reed's [Delphic Studios] in 1933. And that was the kind of
a person who made you put up cash money to pay for the announcement .
I sold about six prints. Stieglitz was very mad at me. But my
prime story is, in 1933 the first trip east we went to Yale, and
I had a letter to Dean Meeks, who was the head of the art department,
I showed him the photographs. He was very excited, called in a


Adams: curator. Looked at them all over again, and when he came to the

one I have of leaves at Mills College, he said, "Mr. Adams, I find
this absolutely extraordinary. What is it?" I said, "Well, it's
a leaf pattern." "But," he says, "What is it?" I said, "What do
you mean, what is it?" "Is it a tapestry? Is it an engraving?"
I said, "It's a picture from nature." And [at first] he didn't

Well, then I had a show there, I think in '33, '34, '35,* at
Yale, and that was pretty good. That created a lot of excitement.
That was probably the first time that photographs of this type ever
came to that part of the country. But Dean Meeks was so unknowledge-
able in photography that he couldn't believe that this was a
photograph from nature.

Teiser: Had many pictures of that sort been taken by then?

Adams: [Albert] Renger-Patzsch was beginning it in Europe, and Paul Strand
had done some. Edward Weston had done some. But nothing that I
know of of that particular approach.

The Creative Intention

Adams: Is it Wordsworth or Gray who made the poetic statement, "How many

a rustic Milton may have passed this way"?** All of the ability, but
none of the realization. And that realization depends so much on

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