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

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Teiser: Was he interested in your photographs?

V. Adams: No, he was being nice, I think, to some young people that his
sister knew.

Teiser: Did they all represent a kind of luxury that we didn't have in the
West at that time?

Adams: Well, it's hard to say, because New York is the East they have

great wealth, but they seldom show it. Everybody still keeps it;
everybody lives more "elegantly" in the West. I guess Mrs. Meyer's
estate in Mount Kisco was probably something like Mrs. Stern's
Atherton home.

V. Adams: Well, we went to the little farm that Walter Meyer had, somewhere
around Mount Kisco.

Adams: A nice little place, but nothing pretentious.

And then these apartments Mrs. [Charles] Lehmann[?] had a duplex
on Fifth Avenue. Very big place

V. Adams: You and I went to Doris Ulmann's apartment on Park Avenue.

Adams: Oh yes, then we saw Doris Ulmann, the photographer. That's
important. I've forgotten that.

Teiser: Who was she?

Adams: She was the one that did a lot of photography in Appalachia, and of
the Negroes in the South. A very wealthy woman with an old Mercedes
car and a German chauffeur. Took pictures of everybody who came to
see her. Had this great eight by ten camera and a flimsy tripod.
And while her exposure of me was going on, I could see the camera
swaying. [Laughter] So I said, "You know, Doris, really, your
tripod's terrible." [She said,] "You know, I just can't get sharp
pictures. I thought it was the lens." I said, "It's the tripod."



332



Adams :



V . Adams :

Adams:
Teiser:
Adams :
Teiser:

Adams :



Teiser:
Adams:
V. Adams:

Adams :

Teiser:

Adams:



"Well, will you help me pick one out?" So the next day I was
picked up in the car and we went down to Willoughby's and all the
other big photography stores; finally got her a tripod that would
hold her eight by ten monstrosity up. And then she'd go to the
lens case in the store and say, "I want that one and that one and
that one." God knows how many lenses that woman had. She just
would buy lenses like Virginia would buy "Cool and Creamy" at the
Safeway. [Laughter] But she had a very fine feeling and did many
fine things. She had a book published; I don't know whether we
have it or not. [Added:] We do several books.

I know somebody else we saw when we were in New York that time, and
that was those people whose pictures we have downstairs

Oh, the Zorachs. Yes, well, we'd known them in Yosemite.

You had climbed with Zorach?

Yes.

What was it like for one person to paint or sketch and one to
photograph on the same theme?

Oh, we had a fine time. He didn't know anything about climbing.
He nearly got killed coming down Grizzly Peak Gulch. Didn't follow
my reasonable advice, which was not to get out on that slick
gravelly granite. But he wanted to see if he'd get a view, and away
he went , throwing all his new sketches up in the air , which showered
down out of sight. He caught onto a little tree and just hung there;
we had no ropes or anything. I had quite a time crawling out to
him and getting him back, but he was chastened. I was scared to
death, because he could have gone about three or four hundred feet,
right down.

He lived in New York, did he?
In Brooklyn.

There must have been some connection with his wife's family in
Fresno, because she visited Fresno. But that was before that was
early '24 or something.

Yes, in '23 or '24 we were climbing around the valley. And his
wife was a very fine artist painting and textiles were her main
fields. They were both excellent.



So you were glad to come home again?

Oh yes, very glad to come home again. [To Virginia:]
off at Detroit on the way home or on the way east?



Did we stop



333



V. Adams: No, on the way east.



Adams :
Teiser:
Adams:
V. Adams:
Adams:
Adams :



V. Adams:
Adams:



We saw Diego Rivera painting something for the Rockefellers,
in New York City, which was later destroyed because they didn't
approve of it.

Of course we'd seen him before, in San Francisco.

The Rockefeller Center murals was that what he was working on?

Yes, they were in Rockefeller Center.

Was Radio City already started?

Oh yes. He was working in the big building.



And it was a very interesting thing, because the Rockefellers were
very fair. But he gave them the "cartoon," which was approved by
them; it was an historic perspective on America. Then he brought
in Lenin and Mooney and had it all political! They said it was
not according to the original agreement. If it had been in the
original cartoon, they might not have bothered about it, because
it was part of the history of the labor movement, and so on. But
they didn't like being put upon.

Albright told me that. They were just furious. "Why should
he put something over on us?" He didn't have to do that. He could
have talked it over, and they could have listened. And what
happened was they simply paid him off and painted the walls over
and got [Jose M.] Sert to do the job. It wasn't a very good mural
job. But Rivera could be an awful potboiler. The one in Detroit now
at the big Museum of Art is fantastic.

You saw it again recently, didn't you?

Yes, while I was at an architectural convention. It was done before
1933. And every little wall space is filled with tight images and
designs. It will take a couple of hundred years for that to really
get back into appreciation because it's so corny compared to modern
art. Well, maybe they thought that about the frescoes at Pompeii!
[Laughter]

But there's one big central design, men working, the great
machinery (automobile workers mostly), that was very impressive.
But all those little spaces! The whole room is like a great mosaic;
little narrow spaces between doors all filled up. Pipes and people
and hammers and expressions and clenched fists [laughter]



Teiser: How long was that trip all together? How many months were you gone?



334



Adams: Oh, it wasn't months.

V. Adams: Whenever the Bank Holiday began was when we went east, and we came
back when it got hot in Washington. We cut short going to the
University of Virginia that we were to visit, because it was so
hot we decided we were ready to come home.

Adams: Six weeks, I guess.

Teiser: Well, did you then keep in touch with Stieglitz after that?

Adams: Oh yes constantly.

Teiser: Did you see him often?

Adams: Saw him a lot every time I was in New York; got many letters from
him.

Teiser: Were you back and forth frequently in the thirties?

Adams: Well, I was there in '34, '36. Then with McAlpin, we went on a
trip to the Southwest, went on a trip to the Sierras, went on a
trip down the inland waterway, Norfolk to Savannah, and to New
England. So I've seen a lot of the East of that character. Some
of it's really beautiful.

V. Adams: When did you meet the Charles Sheelers?

Adams: I met the Sheelers at the Newhalls'. And then Barbara and Willard

("Herk") Morgan had their studio in New York, a big studio I remember
that it was a loft apartment. But again, I can't remember the exact
date.

And Gjon Mili. I saw Mili on a recent trip.

I don't know you meet all these people and you just can't
remember. It just comes to mind by association, so if I think of
something, I'll just have to interject it.

Teiser: In any case, in those years, you met a lot of people of significance
and interest.

Adams: Yes. Robert Flaherty, the movie man he was rather important. And
Henwar Rodakiewicz, whom I'd known in New Mexico.



335



The Stieglitz Exhibit and the Adams Gallery



Teiser:

Adams:
V . Adams :

Adams:



Teiser:
Adams :



Teiser!



Adams:



Teiser:



Then in '36 you had the show at Stieglitz gallery,
one in a series of exhibits?

Oh no, that was a very special one.



Was that just



He hadn't been doing anything with photographers or taking anybody
new on until he took you.

Then he showed Eliot Porter (perhaps before my show) . But my
exhibit there was a big event for me. Other things might have
happened that were of practical importance. But this is sort of a
papal audience!

Was it a large show? Did you show many photographs?

No, thirty-five, thirty-six. The place was too small for a lot of
stuff, which was really an advantage, as work is boiled down to the
essence.

The 1963 show in San Francisco had over five hundred items,
you see, which is ridiculously large. Big shows should not have
more than two hundred prints. Strand had over five hundred, and
you can't possibly take it all in at one visit. You have to go
back and back again. You can put up shows at different times. But
there isn't that much variety in a person's work.

Minor White had a big show, but it was too much also. So I'm
trying to cut down. There's something about just a small exhibit
well, fifty or sixty prints is an ideal show. If they're all
really your top stuff. Then people can look at them and they don't
get fatigued. A lot of people were very mad at the San Francisco
show. They had to come back several times to see it! They couldn't
possibly go through it thoughtfully in a day or two days. They
resented this.

The Stieglitz show at his gallery did you show some portraits?
By then you had taken quite a few portraits.

Oh yes, I had a few portraits. Stieglitz didn't like my portraits
very much. He had a different philosophy. I don't like the
"candid" as a rule. But I'd get a person's face in repose. And
Stieglitz would say you have to sit for a one- or two-minute
exposure! Then things happen, a combination of tension and relax
ation.

Did it advance you in prestige? You said it was perhaps more
psychological than practical. But wouldn't it also have meant much
for you so far as the whole art world was concerned...



336



Adams: I wouldn't know. I think that it's probable. I came back all
fired up to have a nice little gallery of my own. I remember
Stieglitz asking, "What's that group I've been hearing about out
there?" I said, "Oh, you mean Group f/64?" He said, "Yes. Well,
I'm f/128." [Laughter]

I tried running a gallery [the Ansel Adams Gallery, 166 Geary
Street]. I tried to get some ideas in doing it, because I realized
what Stieglitz was doing was very wonderful for young people, but
it was at a totally unrealistic level. He had a private income.
So did Strand and Dorothy Norman, who came from a very well-to-do
family. In so much of the art of the East that I saw, people were
unrealistic in the sense that they had money. When you don't have
money, it's awfully hard to keep up with a noncommercial approach.

Teiser: The gallery was at one time called the Adams-Danysh Galleries. Who
was Danysh?

Adams: Joseph Danysh.

Teiser: At the gallery did you do some photographic work too?

Adams: Not in the gallery, never had a studio as such. Oh, I did a couple
of things, but nothing important. I used to do that in my home.
But I never was really a commercial photographer, a professional.
I would do things, but I never had a sign out. Most of the work
was outside project work.

Teiser: I think I read somewhere that you also gave some talks on photography
and did you teach?

Adams: Oh yes, I did an awful lot of talking and yakking and print
criticism. Yes



Teiser: Do you still know any of the people who came to you then for
instruction?

Adams: Some I faintly remember; some remember me. You just meet people,
and people talk, and you talk and show prints, exchange ideas, and
hope it's helpful. It takes a great deal out of you; much more so
than people realize.

I notice that now especially, say at the end of the day.
People come with a set of prints. It's comfortable sitting here
talking, but when I should look at a bunch of prints critically if
you don't look at it critically, it's not fair. It's superficial.
And you have to stand back of what you say, and make it clear.

Teiser: I was looking at a list of people whose work you showed at that San
Francisco gallery, and Peter Stackpole was one.



337



Adams: Oh yes, Peter was quite remarkable. His father was Ralph Stackpole,
the sculptor. I think he [Ralph] was one of our very best artists
a wonderful person. He spent his last years in France.

His son, Peter, got interested in photography and worked hard
to develop a 35-millimeter technique. And he would come around with
his prints and look at various prints I had and compare definition;
he was always trying to perfect definition.

i

Then Tim Pflueger, who was a great friend of Stackpole's, an
architect and a big man around town, got Peter the job of document
ing the building of the San Francisco Bay Bridge. It's a monumental
series of pictures. He was right up there with the men, on the
slings and on the cables and on the towers, and had a few close calls
I was told. But that series of pictures that he made is really a
very impressive set. And I don't know whether they really have been
brought together as they should be.



35 Millimeter and 2 1/4 Cameras



Teiser: Was that the first time you had carefully studied 35-millimeter work?

Adams: When I was in New York I think in '34 I went to see the Zeiss

people a Dr. Bauer, Karl Bauer, a very fine gentleman, who was the
Zeiss American representative. He liked what he saw, and he wanted
to know if I wanted to try the Contax. Now, the Contax was the only
35-millimeter camera that really worked, other than the Leica, and
there was a very interesting psychology back of it. They made
twenty-five prototypes, by hand, of a miniature camera, and gave
them to twenty-five leading photographers in Germany.

They said, "We want you to find out everything that's wrong.
Just comment what's good, what's bad, what you'd like to have, etc.,
and send us your report. When the camera comes out, you will get one
with your name engraved on it." The result is that it's the only
camera made (I have a new one) that when it came out had no "bugs."
It was practically perfect. It still is that first Contax and
always has been the most perfect camera. I've had several. They've
sent me different ones to try, different lenses to try. Now I have
the Contarex, which is the last camera of that line made. But now,
of course, the company is all mixed up, changed now called Zeiss
Ikon. The original Zeiss was appropriated by the Russians.

They made the best lenses, I guess, along with the Nikon people
in Japan. The Zeiss Ikon establishment are phased out now. Zeiss
Ikon was a big combination of German camera makers. They all got



338



Adams:



together and put out the Zeiss Ikon line,
conglomerate name.



Zeiss Ikon was a



Teiser:

Adams:
Teiser:

Adams:



Teiser:
Adams:



But the Japanese have gone ahead. A lot of the cameras you
think of the Pentax and the Minolta and the Konica those are all
Japanese. The Nikon of course is Japanese. The Canon is a
Japanese Leica. So there's only three important small format
European cameras today. That's the Hasselblad of Sweden, and I
guess the Rolleiflex I have to say that, but that's going to be
made in Hong Kong or Singapore. And the Leitz, and the Zeiss
Contarex, the only one left. And it's an incredible machine, a
beautiful machine. I hope they keep it going.

When you first used the 35-millimeter camera, did you take many
pictures with it?

Oh yes, I did a lot of 35 work in the thirties and forties.

Were they the kind of pictures you would have taken with other
cameras?

No, no. Thirty-five millimeter is a language all its own, you know.
You don't set up a tripod and try eight by ten quality pictures with
it. It's more an immediate "extension" of the eye, you see. And I
will be very happy to get back to it again some day.

Oh, that would be interesting.

Liliane [De Cock] has put some 35s in the monograph.* But it was
always a conflict between the mechanical perfection of the eight by
ten image and the limits of the 35 millimeter, because in the old
days, with the thick emulsion film, it was very hard to get away
from grain, and it was very hard to get definition from corner to
corner because of the negative thickness. The film was actually
thick, and light impinging on it at an angle, in any density level
of importance, enters the surface at one point, and emerges further
away from the axis of the lens. So when you look at that directly
in the normal position, you see diffused areas near the edges.
With ordinary short-focus enlarging lenses it was very difficult to
get an all-over crisp negative.

And then they worked with thinner and thinner emulsions now
the problem is quite minor. But a lot of people become very
careless with the 35, sloppy and get harsh values in black and white.
Of course, the Europeans use it almost exclusively. Maybe that's an



*Ansel Adams . Hastings-on-Hudson, New York: Morgan & Morgan, 1972.



339



Adams: exaggeration. But most journalists and most people who travel do,
and they have their work done for them. Not too many European
people print. I don't think Cartier-Bresson prints his own. So
print quality as we know it as being part of the expression, it
doesn't exist. It would be like a composer never hearing his
works done, you see, or having someone else finish it without his
control. But there s^ something about the inherent quality of the
35 millimeter.

Of course, the Hasselblad is betwixt and between. I can get
incredibly sharp things now with 2 1/4 by 2 1/4 film.

[End Tape 13, Side 1]

[Begin Tape 13, Side 2]

Teiser: We were talking this morning to Mr. Richard Garrod.
Adams: Oh, nice man, yes.

Teiser: And he was saying that Brett Weston had recently been given a
single-lens Rolleiflex and it was opening a new world to him.

Adams: That's quite true. It wasn't recently; I think it was two years
ago. And of course he was always a large-format man, and then he
tried the Rolleiflex, and he's used very sharp film, like Adox, and
a point-source light, and he gets extremely sharp, brilliant images.
(It's interesting that the Rolleiflex uses exactly the same lenses
as the Hasselblad made by Zeiss.) But what it's done is to open up
for him another world. But it is a very abstract world. It's
about the same point of view that he would have with his eight by
ten, except that he can do more on a physical basis. The 2 1/4 by
2 1/4 and the four by five those formats really relate more to
the larger format now. The 35 millimeter still is something of
particular function and quality.

Teiser: When the Rolleiflex first became popular, the twin-lens Rolleiflex,
wasn't that thought to be a journalist's camera, and no serious
photographer

Adams: Oh yes. But it was a beautiful camera. The trouble with the twin-
lens it has parallax which you can't overcome. The correction of
parallax that you hear about is merely that as you focus near
objects, the mirror tilts, so that you center the object in the
field. But the taking lens still doesn't see it as the other lens,
so you have to elevate the camera the same distance as the difference
of the axis of the taking and the viewing lens in order to get the
correct reference in near /far images.



340



Teiser: But wasn't the size even considered a great limitation when it
first came out?

Adams: Oh yes. Well, one of the problems was one of getting negatives
of good quality. But many, many people used it, and people like
Dorothea Lange and most people in the Farm Security group would
prefer that to 35 on the basis of quality. But you remember that
all of those cameras have no adjustments, and when you tilt the
camera you get convergence; you have no way of correcting it in
the field. So it had certain limitations.

Now the Rolleiflex and a couple of other new ones have tilt
fronts, which give you a little better definition, near and far.
But the Zeiss lenses are designed for maximum coverage of the
2 1/4 by 2 1/4 on axis. So they don't have much "covering" power;
they're not designed to have it. Now, you take a Goerz Dagor or
you take the wonderful Super Angulon lens the 121 millimeter lens
covers an eight by ten on axis, which was unheard of until it
appeared. [It] is a computerized lens. So that means you can
take a four by five area and move all around in an eight by ten
field. And that gives you an idea of the amount of adjustments
you have how much you can move the image, you see, and still keep
a sharp field.

But these other lenses, especially the Tessar type, if you
move them half an inch or so you may get into trouble. Brett has
done extremely fine work with the Rolleiflex. I don't like the
camera as much as the Hasselblad. I think it's very bulky. It has
the focal plane shutter, which Hasselblad got away from. (Because
it seems to be impossible to make a focal plane shutter that really
works.) The Hasselblad system has got a shutter for each lens.
Well, the difficulty there is that the shutters are not all the
same, so you have to have them all calibrated. But at least, once
they're calibrated, they're consistent.

But the thing that a lot of people forget is that the old
Graf lex, the reflex type, which is like the old Mirroflex of
Zeiss, and several English cameras is the first single-lens reflex
in which you saw exactly what the lens was seeing, and the mirror
moved up out of the way when the shutter was released. But of
course it was a reversed image on the mirror. And the cameras you
have now use the pentaprism; the "roof prism," as they call it, not
only puts the image right side up but also makes it "right side"
too. It's a very complicated cross-over. It's called a "roof"
because the image meets the roof and folds around, laterally. And
it's quite an amazing optical device. One can't see that dividing
line'.

Teiser: The Hasselblad has that, doesn't it?



341



Adams: Several have that now. It's a rather massive thing. The

Hasselblad has it, the Rolleiflex has it, as well as the 35
millimeter.

Teiser: How did you happen to start using the Hasselblad?

Adams: They sent me the first model, the 1600, saying, "We'd like you to

try this. Tell us how you like it." Mr. [Victor] Hasselblad is a very
fine gentleman. So I got it and I worked with it, and I wrote a
report; it was about sixteen pages, double spaced, of what I found
wrong with it. From that time we were buddy-buddies. The people
that designed these cameras were engineers, had never taken any
pictures. For instance, the first camera, you'd put it in a
knapsack and tilt it and the mirror would fall out of its toggles.
The engineer had only thought of the camera as being upright. You
don't have to turn it sideways, because it's a square image. He
never thought you might carry it sideways.

Then the inside was a jet black cube. But there's no such
thing as a nonreflective surface, so we got some of the worst flare
that any camera's ever produced. And the lens shade was round
because that was the way you made lens shades then. It's just a
convention; it's perfectly ridiculous. Now Hasselblad has finally
come out with a lens-shade box system that the movie people have
been using ever since the days of Griffith, I think. It's just a
square opening, combined with bellows, which "frames" the image;
whatever the particular lens is seeing. It's quite a beautiful
device.

So then they made the 1000, and that was an improvement. That
meant one-thousandth of a second, focal plane.

Teiser: What was the 1600?

Adams: One sixteen-hundredth of a second. They never worked up at that
level. They never worked up to that point at all. They were
pretty accurate in the lower levels.

[Richard McGraw enters] Hi! Dick McGraw, this is The Bancroft
Library oral biography people. I'm telling them all. I was just
talking about you recently.

McGraw: Don't tell them too much about yourself.

Adams: They ought to interview you so you could tell them. [Laughter]

The between-the-lens shutters are, of course, more dependable.

In theory they shouldn't be, but it's awfully hard to get mechanical

systems that will move a curtain across a field at equal speed, from

start to finish. Of course, they've had all kinds of mathematical



342



Adams: compensations, where the curtain slit is a little bigger at first,
and then gets smaller as the curtain speed increases.

Teiser: Is there one called the Copal?

Adams: Well, that's just a between-the-lens; that's just a make, a design.

Teiser: Is there not a different kind of

Adams: Oh, it has a little different system, and it's a shutter-blade

system. And of course we have the electronic shutters now, they're
somewhat different. They work on a capacitor system. They're very
accurate and quite expensive.

Teiser: Did you use the Hasselblad then quite a lot for awhile?



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