Ansel Adams.

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

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Adams: Oh yes, ever since I got it, way back in the fifties. I've used it
a lot.

Teiser: I suppose you don't take pictures with it that need the adjustments

Adams: No, I use my Area Swiss view camera. Of course, you remember, there
are ways and means of correcting distortions by enlarging systems,
where the lens and the easel can be tilted to overcome the distor
tion. It's a pretty complicated business, because there's the
negative holder and lens board adjustments. I'd rather get it
straight to begin with!

Now, getting back to 35 for a minute, we find that with color,
many publications, like National Geographic, demand 35-millimeter
color because they can get better results than they can from larger
transparencies under their economic way of doing it. I don't know
whether that would hold if they really went to town with the larger
formats, but they can make a blowup from 35 and get an illusion of
depth. Also, anybody who goes out to do a story for National
Geographic does literally thousands and thousands of pictures, that
you wouldn't do if you used a four by five camera!

Photographs for Magazines

Teiser: Have you ever done any work for National Geographic?

Adams : No .

Teiser: Have they picked up any of your pictures ever?


Adams: I think they used one once. We aren't very sympathetic. Their
whole approach is extremely factual. Of course, it's getting
better now. But it's a kind of sterile thing. They don't invite

The worst example we had of that is when an editor from
Holiday magazine came to San Francisco just before the magazine
started, and he had a big lunch or dinner for all the photographers.
Invited about thirty or forty photographers. And everybody got a
little happy and gay, nice dinner, and then he talked with them.
He said, "We're putting out this new magazine, and we're interested
in ideas, and we'd like to give you as many assignments as possible.
But we want it very clearly understood that we want to make the
pictures to look like the kind of pictures that a reasonably
knowledgeable, wealthy traveler would take. "We don't want no
estetics." [Laughter] In other words, the individual photographers
are proud; some got up and walked put. And he tried to explain
what his concept of journalism was, that this magazine was to be
sold to those people. First, they had to have money, good equip
ment. Now, what kind of pictures do they get? If you showed them
better pictures than they can do, you're patronizing them. So we
can't have that, you see. [Laughter]

Teiser: Didn't Holiday end by having some slightly more imaginative pictures,

Adams: Yes. But you have to realize that when you're thinking of movies,
like the Disney movies, or National Geographic any magazine that
probably for every picture shown there's been a hundred taken, at
least. The law of averages says that if you take one hundred, you
might get something, and if you take fifty, you might not.

And of course, the best of all Herbert Bayer, the designer
we were all down at Aspen once, and the advertising man from Kodak
was attending the conference. He said, "Mr. Bayer, how many
submissions do you make when you have an advertising design job?"
Mr. Bayer says, "One, the best." Well, the Kodak man just couldn't
possibly understand. Because they're so used to seeing dozens of
things come in of the same subject. A fine artist says, "Well,
you ask me to do it, so I do one. That's my best. You don't see
the others."

And that is a problem in photography. I did a number of
assignments for Fortune, and you're working under a time pressure,
and you don't have time to contemplate, think and balance and
figure out. You have to do it. You have two weeks for the Union
Carbide article, for instance, and you work all day long and into
the night and you get everything you can and you know you've
failed on some. And you do them again and again. Then you end
up with some things that they're happy about. But if they'd only


Adams: give you two months, you could do so much better, but that isn't

the way. Everybody waits until the last minute, and then "Got to
have it right away!" Has to be in yesterday!

Teiser: When you work for a magazine like Fortune, however, isn't it a lot
more satisfactory because the reproduction is

Adams: I haven't done anything for a long, long time. I wouldn't know.
It used to be pretty good. It was a showcase for the advertising
profession, primarily. Very interesting thing the whole theory
of Fortune. It still keeps going. It is notoriously inaccurate.
And I know, for instance, that the story I did with the PG&E, they
made something like twenty serious factual mistakes. And the PG&E
people were trying to prove to them. Of course, this was out of my
field; I was doing the pictures. They were trying to say, "Well,
this isn't right!" But the editors would go right ahead and do it
their way.

Now, the same thing happened with the big corporate farm story
they did in the Central Valley. Dorothea Lange and I worked on
that. And they made all kinds of impossible statements. -We saw the
text, and Paul Taylor would say, "That's not right. This is not
the description of the 160-acre law, and you've got the dates wrong."
Fortune would say, "Oh, we know what we're doing." So it really
is a come-around that you really can't trust anything.

Polaroid had an article in Fortune. They didn't say much
about it, but I know it missed a lot of things, exaggerated others,
and was wrong in others.

A journalist gets in there and resents any adjustment. A
photographer, he just tries! Your best pictures aren't used, but
you've got nothing to do with that. However, the titles are
usually right; they don't mix those up.

Teiser: When you do work for a magazine, then do they own the negative?

Adams: It all depends. Usually, in an editorial story, they buy the
rights. They may want the negatives; on the other hand, if
you've done some beautiful stuff, you might keep the negatives.
Then if you ever use it, you only use it with their permission.

And the big battle with the A.S.M.P. [American Society of
Magazine Photographers] is when advertising use is involved. You
see, there's a difference between editorials and advertising. When
you do an advertising picture for a firm now, what are you doing it
for? Are you doing it for the one-time right, say a page in Life,
or are you doing it for the many times they wish to use that
picture in many magazines? And there's been a big squawk about
that, because the firm claims they can't afford it. Then we


Adams :

Teiser :
Adams :

Adams :
Adams :

counter back and say, "Well, you're paying $45,000, $50,000 a
page." One page in Life now one issue. "Well, that's why we
can't afford it." [Laughter]

So the cost of advertising is simply tremendous, and there's
right on both sides. It seems a photographer should get a certain
percentage of the total cost. But say a Life page costs $40,000
the makeup alone of that page is costing the agency $5000; the
photography might cost as high as $5000, plus the models used.
There's $50,000. Well, of course the photographer would be paid
fully. But the agency takes 15 percent on the purchase. So if
you bought $100,000 worth of advertising from Life, the agent will
make $15,000. And that's where they make that money. Plus billing
for the photography and the art work and so on. So when you hear
of an agency having a $100 million billing, that means perhaps
that they took in $15 million as profit, because above and beyond
that they have to pay for the art work, but the customer also pays
for the photograph. But there's no two things exactly the same.
It's quite complicated.

Have you done photography for ads on commission or have you ?

Oh yes I've done several things. I did some for the National Gas
Association, just did a series for the Wolverine company a

Were they done for that catalogue?
No, they just used existing work.
They took ones you'd already done.

And in my position now, I get a pretty high fee for the use of a
picture. But if, of course, Wolverine called up and said, "We want
to get a picture of a particular scene, with a mountain boot. We
want this situation," and so on, that's kind of a big undertaking
because you have to figure everything out from scratch, you have
to get your models right, you have to get a location. I don't know
what the going rate is now; the highest I know of was for a 35
millimeter shot of a still life that was on two pages of the Ladies'
Home Journal (I think) by I Richard] Avedon. He got $3600 just for
the use of this picture. That was editorial, you see. Now, if
that had been an advertisement, he would have probably gotten much



Adams: They have rates. When you do a job, it's so much a day, or so
much a page, whichever is larger. If I go out and it takes me
ten days to do a job at $400, that's $4000. If it's ten pages,
at $400 a page, that's $4000. But they usually pay expenses in
addition. Kodak always is very generous model expense all your
expenses, mileage, food, anything. All the film you could possibly
use. And then on top of that, they guarantee a fee for the
accepted picture $1000, $1500, whatever it was.

Well, for one Colorama I did for them, the costs went way
over $6000 (this was twenty years ago) because of the trouble we
had finding the location and having expensive models along. I'd
call up Rochester frantically; I'd say, "Look, this is getting out
of hand." "Oh, just keep at it. That's all right." Well, it was
$6800 expenses!

Teiser: When you did work for Kodak, did they specify a certain type of
photograph they wanted or ?

Adams: No. This is for the Colorama. They did two things: the big
Colorama in New York Central had to fit a certain dimension a
certain size film. And I made mine seven by seventeen, the film
was cut for the seven by seventeen banquet camera. The image came
out finally 4 3/4 by 16 1/2. It has to be seen and planned on
that proportion, using models in the costumes and the desired
colors and using Kodak cameras. And the Kodak camera has to show
well and the models have to be the strawberries-and-cream, ail-
American "wasp" type, you know. Then of course it has to be very
sharp, because it is blown up to sixty feet long. Well, that's
one phase, and I would submit many images. We'd go out for maybe
a week, and I'd maybe take ten, fifteen, or more "situations."
And I'd go through $250 worth of flash lamps (blue) to fill in
shadows. I don't know what the film cost. They get that at a
rate, but that's hundreds of dollars, you see.

Then the other type is where they tell you, "Now, if you're
going on a trip, we'll send you a bunch of film. We guarantee
five hundred dollars," or so for a picture. And sometimes I'd
come back and would have less than that in value, and they
wouldn't care. And sometimes I'd come back and have very much

So they've always been very fair. Of course, that's quite a
time ago. The rates have gone up. And they have their own crews.
And some of these things are getting terribly sterile, because they
don't have proper artists.


Teiser: Things like the U.S. Potash series was that for annual reports ?

Adams: I did quite a "take out" for IBM. They asked, "Come and do some
pictures down at the Poughkeepsie plant." I just went there and
lived at their Homestead at their expense and made many photographs.

Teiser: Had you done many so-called industrial photographs before?

Adams: Yes, quite a few.

Teiser: Can you remember what your earliest industrial photography was?

Adams: Oh, I did a winery.

Teiser: When was that?

Adams: Oh gosh, that was back in the thirties.

Teiser: What winery was that?

Adams: The S&J Winery, up in Lodi. And then I did Kennicott Copper; and
Union Carbide; Del Monte Properties, many years ago.

Teiser: What about Salz

Adams: The Salz Leather Company, yes. In Santa Cruz.

Teiser: What work did you do for Salz Leather?

Adams: Just pictures in the tannery.

Teiser: IBM?

Adams: And there's IBM just the Poughkeepsie plant. They then made
typewriters and some computers there. Then they moved the
typewriters to Kingston and the whole building went to computers.
Then they moved the typewriters from Kingston to Kentucky. Now
the typewriters are I think made in Italy, and I guess the Pough
keepsie plant is still in advanced computer work. And they
developed the new research lab at Kingston a perfectly gorgeous

Oh, I did all kinds of little things; I can't begin to

Teiser: The book for the University of Rochester?

Adams: Yes, I did a book for the University of Rochester, Creative Change.
The University of California Fiat Lux. Dominican College, and
Paul Masson. The Sugar Institute as well.


Teiser: Is that beet or cane sugar?

Adams: That was beet well, a little of everything. The Sugar Institute
was a general institution, and we had the cane sugar from Hawaii
and the beet sugar locally. And of course you're never supposed
to speak of one with the other, although it ends up as identical

Teiser: They present different photographic problems, don't they?
Adams: Only in the field

And of course my biggest continuing project has been my
consultantship with Polaroid.

Working with Dorothea Lange, Continued

Teiser: You mentioned that you had worked with Dorothea Lange on what was

Adams: Well, we worked on the Fortune story on the Central Valley, the
corporate farms.

Teiser: I think you said you'd worked with her on a series on the shipyards.

Adams: Yes, that was the OWI the Office of War Information. It was quite
a "take out." Then we did a big story on the Mormons in southern
Utah three villages, Gunlock, Toquerville, and St. George.

Teiser: What was that for?

Adams: That was done for Life, but that was kind of an unfortunate mix-up....

Teiser: Did it appear?

Adams: It wasn't very clear to anybody; it was a misrepresentation. I
didn't like it.

Teiser: Was it published?

Adams: It was published, but very small. We had an exhibit.

You see, they told me that we were going to do this exhibit,
that Life was going to publish it. Of course, the Mormons are very
suspicious people. Dorothea and Paul [Taylor], they took it on,
and they went to Utah and saw the big shots and got permission,
and it was very difficult. Then once we got in, we got going pretty


Adams: good, and the first set of pictures were very fine. Then it got
intellectual Dorothea's capacity to get intellectual and it's a
very strange dichotomy there, because she changed the whole
character of this exhibit from an emotional thing into a sort of
a sociological viewpoint. And then a few pictures came out in
Life, which were a very poor representation.

Teiser: Does it still exist as a collection somewhere?
Adams: I don't know where it is.
Teiser: Life has the whole thing?

Adams: No, Life just has a set of prints. I don't know what happened to
the exhibit.

Teiser: I hope it's been preserved.

Adams: Well, they weren't very satisfactory

Teiser: As it was originally conceived, was it?

Adams: Well, as originally conceived, I think it had a great quality,
but when you get into politics, social points of view, things
can get hairy, you know.

Teiser: The OWI?

Adams: Well, it was a story on the shipyard production at Richmond, and
the life of the people. Of course, we got lots of things that
were not too pleasant, like people living in trailer houses on
mud flats. We had to walk over fifty feet of planks to get to
them, through mud. Incredible bars. And then, one of the typical
things we were getting on the Richmond ferry and seeing these
people come in from some factory on the Peninsula and just flop
down and go to sleep by the boilers, just getting some rest so
they could work the next eight hours at Richmond. There were
untold numbers of people that were doing two full shifts a day
moonlighting under different names and everything. You see, it
was kind of controlled, but they got by with it. And some of them
had sons in the war, and most of them were really trying to do
everything possible. It was a terrific experience.

Teiser: Was that satisfactory to you?

Adams: Yes, that was all right. We mixed our negatives. I can

recognize some I did and some I don't know. I mean, we would
just work together. For instance, we had one big job of the
people coming down out of this building quitting time. Just a
whole flood of people coming.


Adams: That's my photograph I remember

Teiser: That's one often attributed to Dorothea Lange, isn't it? [the one
in the 1966 Museum of Modern Art catalogue, Dorothea Lange,
captioned "Shipyard Construction Workers, Richmond, California,

Adams: But when I say it's mine, I mean we were there with the camera, so
we worked it together.

Teiser: Were you using similar cameras?

Adams: Oh, sometimes. Yes, I used a Super Ikonta B and four by five
and five by seven cameras . Then we had to do a picture of the
big church in North Beach. That was a toughy. I always got the
tough technical things to do I

Teiser: Was that in the same OWI series?

Adams: Yes, in some way related to the freedoms part of the government
project. But we did the freedom of religion, and then the farm
scenes it was very complex, and I don't know what really
happened to that.

Teiser: Are all of these negatives with Dorothea Lange 's negatives in the
Oakland Museum?

Adams: I don't know where they are.


I had one my trailer camp children was part of the OWI
series. I wouldn't give that negative up for anything; I want
to hang on to that. Then I have another one of this stout Negro
lady sitting in her trailer home doorway above the mud.

Teiser: With the goat?

Adams: With the goat, and then the panel in the mud, you know.

And then I had another one of the work transfer desk, which
is quite an emotional picture. I'd like to think of using that
again in an exhibit. You may remember that one, of the men talking.
It was done with a remote control camera. I was controlling the
camera as far away as I could. And these people would come in and
plead to change their jobs. You see, jobs were fixed. And they'd
come in with their hard hats on and say, "My family's not doing
so well in Alabama, and there's a job down there in a war plant,
and I'd like to transfer." So they'd have to have it all analyzed;
some could get it, some couldn't.


Adams: But there's something strange about that I wonder why people

don't like that picture much. The expression of the man is very
good. Maybe it's the way it's cut. His head is against the light
globe. I can see where that would be disturbing. They weren't
even conscious of the camera. The camera a Zeiss Juel was low
on a tripod, back of filing cases, and I was operating it from a
distance, trying to get these people. They were talking.
Because in those days, people were very camera conscious.

Wartime Work

Adams: That takes us into the wartime. Part of the war, when I was

working I wanted to get into something, and I was past the age
except for extreme emergency of what you'd call military work.
But here I was a photographer and I wanted to do something. Well,
whenever you ask a military man and say, "Am I going to be a
photographer?" they laugh at you. They'll make you a cook, like
Brett Weston. Through the intervention of Charis's uncle a
general he got closer to photography than many. He was cleaning
film on Long Island movie filml

I asked General [Simon B.] Buckner once. I said, "I never
can understand. Here's trained photographers, and gee, as soon as
they get in the army they're digging holes somewhere or putting up
fences or cleaning guns." He said, "Well, you don't understand the
military. There's just a certain number of photographers. We have
to start from scratch. And when we get a man in unless he's a
very top expert and goes in top echelon, he's a person in the ranks.
He gets a kind of evaluation, and maybe he'll be a good cook. So
we train him to be a cook. I don't care whether he's a photographer
or anything. Because in that way, there's always a resource of
expendable manpower. A trained cook could be eliminated, and
there 'd be another one. But if you said, "We've got just so many
photographers,' and put them in, if they were eliminated we
wouldn't have this recourse. So we can't count on their previous

I wanted to do something. So Steichen called me up one day,
and he said, "Adams, I want you to run my labs." You know, he was
a captain in the navy. And I said, "Well, that's the only decent
offer I've had, where I feel I might be able to accomplish
something." "Yes," he says, "this is very important, and you'll
hear from me within the week." And the rank would be major and,
oh gosh lot of baloney guaranteed living quarters, and "You
would direct my central lab." That's the last I ever heard of it.


Adams: After a week, I called up; they said, "Captain Steichen is in the
South Pacific." I said, "Does anybody know about my offer?" He
said, "No, So-and-so is running his labs." As far as I can make
out, it was just a lot of hot air. I never had any use for him
anyway. This is one of the typical examples.

I went down to the Art Center School well, it was before
then. I guess I was there earlier. But the Art Center School did
get contract jobs from the army. One was to train an airplane
workers photography group. And the other was to train young
men for the signal corps. That was very interesting, and was
really complex. Maybe that's worth a whole yak some time. Then
there was the office of engineering management and well, it had
three initials (I forget). The schools were given grants for
training. But you had to have a minimum class; there had to be a
minimum number enrolled. The Art Center manager would go out in
the street and pull in the funniest people you've ever seen, you
know, and say, "Come on, we've got a job, and it pays pretty well.
We'll train you to be a printer." Our assignment was to teach
people to be printers. Other schools had the negative developing
classes. We would get reject negatives from the airplane plants
by hundreds. All kinds of parts of planes detailed electronic
stuff, etc., and the students would have to learn how to print
them. Well, of course, it hit me right away how do they know
what they're printing? I don't know what these things represent.
There's no title. They're all either stamped restricted or there's

So we started analyzing light on various substances. If you
take a stainless steel tube, it will have a certain highlight.
But the thing you first look at is the shadow, and if the shadows
of all these little pieces are sharp, then you know a spotlight
or sunlight was used.

If the shadows are very diffused, you then have diffused
light maybe available light in a room, or a big floodlight.
Well, once you know what the kind of light is from the shadows,
then you can figure what the highlight means. So you can then
interpret whether you're printing for steel or plastic or fabric
so we would ask these people, "What do you think this material is?"
And they would finally get it; would study the negative and say,
"This is a plastic sheath over here, and this is a metal tube,"
etc., and then print accordingly.

Well, we got quite a commendation on the people who went to
work in the plants because they could take a negative that they'd
never seen before and print it and make some visual sense. It was
a very interesting thing.


Adams :


Adams :

Then I taught a group of people a "disaster group" in Los
Angeles at corpse identification techniques. In case of
disaster, how do you photograph? Well, we used a system of
mirrors. And we'd go to the morgue and pull out somebody; then
we'd place the mirror and photograph the profile and the full
face in one picture. And the idea there was to make two prints
one reversed for recognition. So somebody could say, "Well, this
picture's a profile; it's right. And this other one is full face.
It's right." And we had twenty people in that group.

My last night in Los Angeles, I was up until nearly midnight
in the morgue with a group of people making photographs and
measuring and documenting. Then they had to figure out how when
you have a disaster, you're not nicely laid out on a slab in an
icebox, you're out there in the dust. And what do you do? And
they had all kinds of techniques trying to just get identification.

Online LibraryAnsel AdamsConversations with Ansel Adams : oral history transcript / 1972-1975 → online text (page 35 of 76)