Ansel Adams.

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

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luck, fortuitous oh my, it's really a profound thing.

But a person like Newhall, who's a great researcher, will find
that maybe people in 1860 did things like that. The first
daguerreotype was a still life. I think there's several of Fox
Talbot that are of little natural things. But again, it was just
the miracle of the process there. "I'm going to photograph this."
You imagine yourself getting suddenly a new process, "My gosh, I
can do this." And you look around, and you look at that table, and
you go "click," you know. Then of course, in history, somebody
begins to build that up and read in "significance." It's very

So probably one of the main criteria to judge a great
photograph is, was there a creative intention? And lots of these
historical photographs have absolutely no creative intention at
all other than being a very good record of the scene. Perfectly
honest and capable. But the creative intention is really back of
the element of art. A great deal" of my early work, to my best

*In 1936.

**"Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest" (Thomas Gray's "Elegy")


Adams: knowledge and belief, had really no creative intention except to

record a lot of beautiful things I saw. But then once in a while
this is talking now of the early twenties every once in a while
something would appear before me in which I added the other
dimension. I don't know if I'm making sense. It's a very
difficult thing to discuss, because the dividing line is so thin
between the unconscious and the conscious thing. The difference
is between creativity and observation.

Teiser: When you had these early exhibits, did you make selections
arbitrarily for them? Were they your choices?

Adams: Well, I'd talk to Virginia about it, and lay them out in the room,
and the museum director would come over and [we'd] give him a drink
and he'd look at them. And he'd say, "Sure, that's fine, but
maybe you could use this one better here," and that was it. It
was very naive, the whole thing.

Teiser : Were they big exhibits?

Adams: Never very big, no; and very small prints five by seven, or eight
by ten.

Teiser: I mean, were there a very large number of prints?
Adams: No, thirty or forty.

Exhibit Prints and Archival Factors

Teiser: Were you making prints smaller in size then, than you do ?
Adams: I did mostly contact printing.
Teiser: Eight by tens?

Adams: Yes, and less. And if I enlarged them, I very seldom enlarged more
than that. I had an eight by ten darkroom; then I got an eleven
by fourteen darkroom; then I got the sixteen by twenty darkroom.
Then I got a forty by seventy darkroom.' [Laughter]

But, as Land points out, the basic fact of the big print it's
a conceptual thing. I mean, the print is done for a situation of
viewing. You just don't go through the files and say, "Gee, this is
a nice negative. I'll make a big print of it." I've been guilty of
that too. But you have to be sure that you're making a picture
which will stand a big enlargement. I've seen many pictures which


Adams: would be twenty by thirty feet in certain architectural situations.
But by the time you get to that, the photographic quality is so bad
that everybody has to be roped off thirty feet away. [Laughter]
You see, the angle subtended from the point of view is what
controls your sense of definition and of grain!

I was so mad at The Family of Man, the exhibit and the
Steichen book, that they wanted my negative of Mount Williamson.
And I said, "I cannot send you a negative. I just can't let this
out to anybody. I'll make it here." They said, "Can't afford
that. We'll make a copy from the print in the museum." I thought
there were good people in New York. Well, by gosh, they made a
terrible copy, and then when they cut the prints, they trimmed off
so the sections didn't match. There was an inch lost between each
one. And here was this thing on display!

And you know what the publicity picture was? A little girl
was trying to span one of the big rocks in the foreground,* and
that's publicity! That's the kind of thing that Steichen would do.
The print quality, the whole feeling of this image was debased. The
Family of Man is, I think I told you once before, one of the worst
catastrophes that ever happened to creative photography. Terribly
important from the social point of view, but hideous in its effect
on the whole idea of what is creative image quality and so on.

Teiser: Also sentimental.

Adams: Stickily sentimental. Advertising level sentimentality. So I

would say now, again, I think that was a catastrophe. Dr. Land had
the same idea. He said it was a very interesting show if you wanted
to get sentimental about the human kind, but it didn't do any good
for photography. He's an extremely astute man.

But am I unpopular in many circles for that opinion! Because
50 percent of the contemporary photographers sort of fall back on
that as the bible of justification for what they do.

Teiser: It seemed to me to reduce man to about the level of a guinea pig.

Adams: Well, that's a long story. I don't think I should get into it,
except to express my antagonism of the whole idea, and I'm sorry
I was even included.

*In the museum exhibit, "The Family of Man." This photograph is
reproduced on p. 202 of the volume, The Family of Man. New York:
Museum of Modern Art, 1955.


Teiser: I wondered why

Adams: Well, one wants to cooperate.

Teiser: You didn't know what it was going to be.

Adams: No; they wanted the picture. But I don't like to send my negatives
out and have something happen to them.

I know a man in San Francisco, Irwin Welcher at General
Graphic, I can trust him. He'd do the best he could. But it won't
be my print. It' can't be; he doesn't have the same equipment and
the same point of view. But it will be a decent, craf tsmanlike job,
and it will be accurate.

Teiser: He once told me that he handled your prints the way that was as
close as he could get to yours.

Adams: He did some for the visitors' center at Yosemite, and of course, he
has to use condenser enlargers, and that doesn't give the quality
of my negative. I have to use diffused light. But maybe there
isn't a strong enough diffused light to do it. But I can't criticize
him, because he's a very fine craftsman and I trust him. If the
Museum of Modern Art had said, "Send the negative to Welcher," I
would have sent it right up. I wouldn't have worried at all. I
might not get a print that I'd really like, from the creative point
of view for myself, but at least it would be technically clean. It
wouldn't be overlapped; it wouldn't be all full of wrinkles.

You know, these commercial photography processors use this
single weight mural paper, and they sell it by the square inch.
And you cannot process single weight paper properly. I mean, if
you put it through all the necessary washing solutions, it won't
stand it. It'll crack and wrinkle.

Most of these people make blowups for an occasion. If you had
a technical exhibit to last for six months, well, they'd make a
great big blowup; after that it goes out in the junk pile. But all
my prints are supposed to last! That one of Half Dome was made in
'63, and it's going to last until 2063. I don't see why not. All
prints go through selenium toner.

Teiser: The mounting board that you use is chemically inert, isn't it?

Adams: Well, it should be, but of course most everything is done with dry
mounting tissue, so I'm not so much worried about it except the
edges, if it's a bad board. We use Strathmore and a few other
things, now the Schoeller board. They have their problems. It's
very difficult. I'm using the Schoeller board now and get it
direct from Europe, and it's quite fine; it is a five-ply rag paper.


Adams: Now, Strathmore illustration board is one-ply on each side of a
pulp core. Well, the pulp core is the one that may have the
destructive effluvia or emission. Now, if you cut a mat out of
that, then the edges of the overmat, you see, are not very far from
the edge of the print. So under humid conditions, the sulphur can
migrate. But the Strathmore drawing board is fine.

On the other hand, if a print has really been fixed in two
hypos and toned in selenium, it will resist that. So I say my
work is done on a practical archival basis. I can't guarantee it's
going to last for three thousand years, and I don't think you could
do that with anything. I could do it better than I do itfix in
two regular hypos and take each print and hang it up to dry and
mount it with a big wide margin, under an overmat of super rag, and
all that. What's the use. That would exceed all of the archival
procedures in the whole history of art. [Laughter] I don't see the
sense of it.

[End Tape 12, Side 2]

Printing Earlier Photographers' Negatives

[Interview XI 4 June 1972]
[Begin Tape 13, Side 1]

Teiser: Mrs. Adams was just mentioning your printing the Brady negatives
the difficulties in handling them.

Adams: What happened was I was working with the Newhalls in the Museum of
Modern Art. We thought up an exhibit called "Brady and the
American Frontier." Of course, at that time, Beaumont hadn't done
all the research, but he had a pretty good idea that Brady never
made a picture himself but directed his associates. Well, as for
the entire exhibition, we looked all around, and I traveled east and
west; I stopped off at places like the Ford collection [in the
Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn, Michigan] of Jackson's photographs. I
found quite a few things. Francis Farquhar had some fine things.
We got a very good collection together.

Then it seemed, if my chronology is right, there 'd been a big
gift to the National Archives of about five thousand Brady negatives.
And Beaumont was asked to come and evaluate them. So, what a
wonderful chance we went together, and we looked through them.
That's a lot of negatives, but we noted some that were outstanding
in quality. And it's interesting that all these negatives were in
ordinary manila envelopes and had written on the face thereof the
name of the photographer [Alexander] Gardner, [F.H.] Bell, or whoever
did the actual picture for Brady.


Adams: So we picked out some. There's a strange rule at the Archives. In
the first place, we had to pull a lot of strings even to get into
the place! But you couldn't touch anything. They're glass
negatives, and they had to be carefully watched, because it's
government property. Now, making a print means you have to put a
negative in a printing frame and put the paper on it and turn it
around, and turn the light on it. But I couldn't touch the
negative, so I would designate one and the young fellow whom they
had assigned to me would take the negative out of the envelope and
dust it off and put it in the holder. Then I would put the paper
on it, close it up and make a print, you see. And we worked that
way, without disobeying the law. [Laughter] The Archives are not
like the Library of Congress. It's a very special collection a
terrible lot of junk and I suppose some priceless things.

Teiser: Imagine anyone thinking that archives could handle negatives better
than you.' When you've worked with material in the Library of
Congress, how have you ?

Adams: I've never made prints in there, but I think they might let me do
them. I don't think they'd be as strict as the Archives. If they
didn't know me or I had no reputation or no real introduction, they
would be very tight, because after all, they have to watch and care
for everything. But I don't think they would be as tough as the

Well, these old negatives, of course, were made by the wet
collodion process, and they were made for the printing-out process,
and they're extremely contrasty. Now, the difference between the
printing-out process and our modern developing-out process is that
the paper is placed back of the negative and is exposed to sunlight
or a very powerful arc. The effect of the strong light reduces the
silver directly. The silver halide is reduced directly to metallic
visual silver. There's a complicated step in the process I can't
fully understand it myself. But in theory what happens is that as
the print density builds up, it automatically reduces the amount of
light that can reach the remaining exposed silver. So it becomes
an "auto-masking" process. You finally get the silver to the point
where no more light can get through and there would be no more
silver affected.

In the meantime the high values are building up, and the middle
tones are getting grayer, and the whites are beginning to show
values and textures. The trick is to print so that you keep a clean
white and still retain a rich black. That means, of course, that
the negative has to have a large density range.

Now, we didn't have that kind of P.O. P. paper, so I had to use
Azo #0, that's the softest grade of Azo. And I used a developer,
Amidol, diluted one to fifteen normal solution with water, which


Adams: meant the developer had a very low energy. At the same time it gave
a pretty good print "color," and I could get a fairly good tone.
The idea was to tone the prints in selenium. And after the week or
so of work, we put these prints through an alkalizing bath and toned
them. Then the young fellow said, "I'm going to be here tonight;
I'll wash them for you, and you can pick them up in the morning."
Well, he washed them, but the water temperature was running about
10 higher than the toning solution had been, and that took out the
selenium tone. They were all just black and white again! So
nothing to do about it there. I took them back with me to Yosemite
and toned them in my Yosemite darkroom. The secret is, always wash
your prints in cooler water than you toned them in. Chemically, the
toning process is somewhat an adsorption as well as an absorption.
Absorption is when the material actually gathers things unto itself;
enters the structure. Adsorption is when it is attracted to the
surface. A lot of this selenium sulphide is attracted just to the
surface of the silver. As the gelatin expands under warmer water,
it releases it.

In Yosemite I mounted them and I was careful to make a few for
myself and the Museum of Modern Art too. They turned out very well.

Then we had another exhibit called "Sixty Photographs." And
they were supposed to be highly and carefully selected pictures.
Sixty images from the beginning to the most contemporary!

Teiser: Of all photography?

Adams: Of all photography. Sixty images that we thought adequate.

Teiser: Where was that?

Adams: The Museum of Modern Art.

Well, we wanted to include Genthe, but his prints were so
lousy, on a kind of rough greenish paper, or brown-green, and his
textures were awful, as with most "pictorial" prints. We couldn't
find anything original and good. And he was an old, old man. And
he had a couple of old, old ladies helping him to put his stuff in
order in his little apartment in New York. He was a very fine
gentleman, you know. He was a Ph.D. Dr. Genthe. He was really
quite a handsome man, and very erudite.

So I explained to him the problem. I said, "We want to
represent you, but we can't find any print that does you justice."
And he said, "I guess there aren't any." I said, "Well, would it
be possible could I, under your direction, make a couple of
prints?" He said, "Why, just take the negatives. I trust you."


Adams: So I took these negatives of the San Francisco fire and of a

street in Chinatown in 1904, and made the prints. And of course he
was flabbergasted, because he'd never seen a print of that kind.
It was on smooth paper. It didn't have that green tonality. And
it was sharp. I printed them on smooth paper, and we toned them
in selenium, and they came out absolutely magnificent. He could
have done it there's no trick in it but he just wasn't in that
mode or mood.

Teiser: How did some of his negatives get to the California Palace of the
Legion of Honor?

Adams: Well, he either left them, or his estate gave them some. Well,

they're not really Genthe is of historic value the San Francisco
fire picture, looking east on Clay Street, was great. But as a
rule, he's a very romantic portraitist. He was kind of the Cecil
Beaton of his time a great name-dropper. [Laughter] And a great
ladies' man; a perfectly charming man; a superior person. But he
wasn't, in the whole perspective, very important. But he just did
a few extraordinary things and they are extraordinary.

So that's for history of printing. And then I went to the
museum of anthropology [the Laboratory of Anthropology] in Santa Fe,
and they had some Ben Wittick negatives. I printed some of those in
the same way as I did the Bradys. And that was part of the American
frontier exhibit.

Teiser: Did you print them down there?

Adams: At the Laboratory of Anthropology. Then we had the big show. Of
course, we had a lot of beautiful old original prints, and there
was one of a cart at Laguna Pueblo about twenty by twenty-four
inches. Well, William Henry Jackson was living then, and painting
away in water color, remembering scenes of the Wild West. He lived
in an old New York hotel, and I would go down and see him.

When we had the opening of the show, he was the guest of honor.
And he was ninety-eight. I said, "I will come and get you in a cab."
So out of his hotel he comes, all dressed up with spats and a cane
runs down the steps, gets in the cab, and we go to the museum. The
only impediment , the only trouble from his age was that he had a
very cracked voice. And he looked at the photograph of Laguna Pueblo
saying [imitates the voice], "Well, that's a mighty fine photograph.
Who did that?" I said, "Well, Mr. Jackson, that's one of yours
1870." (This was seventy-something years earlier.) And Mr. Jackson
said, "Well, by cracky, it is.'" [Laughter] The old boy had several
martinis, and then I said, "Any time you want to go home, I'll be
glad to take you." He said, "I'm not going home. I'm going to a
cocktail party on East 57th Street, and you're coming with me." So


Adams: I had to take him over to the east side to this nice little

apartment, where there were many almost equally old people, all
having their martinis. They were writers and painters old buddies,
you know. Very kind. So I was beginning to get worried. I said,
"Mr. Jackson. You know, any time now, I'll get you down to the

He said, "I can't go home. I have to go to a dinner party.
Now, I don't know these people, so I can't ask you to that, but I'll
thank you if you'll leave me there." So we went over to the west
side again, and up to the seventies to an old town house, and I got
out and helped him to the door. I saw him a week later and he was
fine. But he couldn't recognize his own photograph at first, and
then I realized it was seventy years, more than my whole lifetime
span, between the time he took that picture and looked at it! It
was a great personal experience.


We had the titles wrong on a lot of things. They had been
written on the back of the prints, and that's all we had to go on.
He looked at them. "No, that's not Zuni. That's over at Acoma or
somewhere." Or, "That's not" a certain place on the Union Pacific,
or "The title's wrong." I said, "We took the titles from what was
on the photographs." "Well," he said, "you'd better correct them."
So we did, as best we could, and we had to make the note on the
back of the photograph that according to first-hand observation by
Mr. Jackson, "this is it." This then stood as the correct title.
And it's very difficult to do this archivally, because maybe he was
making a mistake. You see, who is the final authority?

Teiser: You have, in your own acquaintance, spanned a great period of

American photography. You've known people whose work went way back.

Adams: Oh yes. Jackson and Genthe, Dassonville, Stieglitz, Strand who
else? There's another old character in there somewhere.

Eastern Visit. 1933

Teiser: When we talked yesterday, we said we were going to start this
afternoon with your trip to New York in 1933.

Adams: Well, that was the first trip we had east.
V. Adams: [From next room] That was the spring of 1933.

Adams: Spring of 1933. Well, there was a Depression on, you know, and

Virginia was fairly well along with Dr. Adams [Michael]. [Laughs]
(He was born in Yosemite on the first of August, 1933.)


Adams: The banks closed, you see, while we were on the way [east], so we
stayed with the Applegates in Santa Fe for, what was it? six

V. Adams: No, not really.

Adams: [To Mrs. Adams] Well, you'd better tell it. You know more about it
than I do .

V. Adams: Well, we stayed about a week or so, but we kept getting telegrams

and letters from Albert Bender, and they said, "Go ahead, go ahead."
We didn't know whether we could or not. But the head of the bank
there was kind enough to cash our travelers checks , so we went on

Adams: Well, there was one lady who got hung up for weeks and weeks and
weeks in Santa Fe. A limousine chauff cured iier from Wilmington,
Delaware. She was living in La Fonda [Santa Fe] and had no "cash"
money at all. It was a very serious occasion.

Well, anyway, we went on to Detroit and Chicago. Had letters
to various people. I made many booboos on the way. I remember one
dinner party we were invited to in Chicago, and they were quite
surprised to hear we'd never been to Europe. And one lady said,
"Well, Mr. Adams, what do you think you would really like most if
you went to Europe? Have you any idea?" And I said, "I think it
would be the Gothic architecture." "Oh," she said, "it's very
interesting, the whole Gothic civilization. But what part of the
architecture really interests you the most?" I said, "The flying
buttocks." [Laughter] I was persona non grata after that in that

And then we crawled on to New York, arriving on a terrible
dull, gray, misty April morning, with ash cans out on the street.
Somebody had recommended to us a little hotel, the Pickwick Arms,
which was a hangout for tired radio and theatrical people. A very
decent place but, boy, it was grim! Unbelievable. This was
Depression time, and here, everything was just as sour as it could
possibly be. Rooms were dark and dank. Service lousy. Food worse!

So I went out sailed up Madison Avenue to see Stieglitz, who
had just moved into 509 Madison Avenue. Then we went on to Yale
I think I told you about going there and seeing Dean Meeks .

Teiser: Yes.

Adams: Oh, we went to Boston too, of course,

Teiser: Did you meet other people in New York?


Adams: Oh, Alma Reed, and some of Stieglitz's friends, but not many.
Teiser: Did you learn anything in New York that you wanted to know?

Adams: Not much. Never have, except in a few isolated places. Well, it's
hard to say that because, after all, there are the Cloisters. New
York is pretty much the center, but I couldn't possibly live there.
In fact, I even resent going there now.

Teiser: You had already met Marin and Georgia O'Keeffe.

Adams: Yes, I'd met them.

Teiser: Did you see them there at that time?

Adams: No, O'Keeffe was away. Strand was away. But I met Marsden
Hartley, Paul Rosenberg, a critic, and a young writer named
Einstein. (I haven't heard of him much.) And of course John Marin.
It was all right, but I just don't look back at it too much. It
should have had an awful lot of glamor about it which it didn't
have for me, let's face it.

Then we saw our friend in conservation, Horace Albright.
Teiser: At that time what was he doing?

Adams: He was the president of the U.S. Potash Company. And of course he
was always very closely associated with the Rockefellers. He
practically raised the boys one of their counselors. Very close
to John D. , Jr. A delightful person.

Teiser Had you known him before?

Adams: We knew him in National Parks as superintendent at Yosemite and
later as director of the National Park Service. He was very
prominent .

And then we went to Washington and met Eugene Meyer. I can't
remember the other people. Virginia might remember some, but I

Have you anything to say, Virginia? You can't say it from

V. Adams: [From next room] I'm not listening to you. I don't know.

Adams: Well, we're trying to say what happened on that trip. They want to
get the facts straight, and you know me and facts. Are you against
being recorded?


V. Adams: No, but I just didn't want to intrude.

Teiser: Oh no, come in.

V. Adams: It was Mrs. Stern's brother.

Adams: Eugene Meyer.

V. Adams: Not Eugene.

Adams: Oh yes, the other Meyer, Walter Meyer.