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

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And numbers had to be placed in the image coded numbers and dates.

And I arrived at Edward Weston's the next morning smelling of
formaldehyde, feeling very weary having spent part of the night
in the morgue. You picked up this formaldehyde effluvia very
interesting stuff. Didn't bother me any those people were not
worried about anything. [Laughs]

Was your whole period of teaching at the Art Center School just
in wartime?

Oh no, no. No, we had a regular photography department,
the war came on, and the whole school responded.

But then

Problems Encountered

Adams: Several things I did for Fortune were preliminary in anticipation
of the war. I never realized it until later. But the people who
knew just said, "We're going to be in this, and we'd better get
ready." I photographed [for Fortune] the big electric furnaces of
Union Carbide in the town of Alloy [West Virginia]. Unbelievable.
I don't know how they work them now, but the electrodes carbon
arcs a single arc three feet in diameter, nine feet long, and
three of them are screwed together. They were cast with threads,
so they'd be screwed together into a single arc twenty-seven feet
high carbon. And they would be grouped together in threes,
operated by hydraulic controls, and the cauldron was as big as
this whole place forty feet across. The voltage was only six
volts, but it would have a tremendous amperage. And the current
comes in in folds of copper not wires, but just thick bands
ribbons of copper.


Adams: Well, anyway, these great carbon electrodes come down into this
mix slowly come down and make the contact, and it's just like a
volcano! It displays absolutely tremendous power. They had a
hydroelectric plant just for that purpose in that area.

[End Tape 13, Side 2]
[Begin Tape 14, Side 1]

Adams: Now, getting back to this photography for Fortune , the photography
of the electric furnaces at the town of Alloy, which is up the
Kanawha River. I described these great electrodes, which were
three feet across and twenty-seven feet long three of them
bunched together. And the tremendous amount of electric power
required. And when these things touched the mix (I think they
call it the mix), it's something like a volcano. And they keep
burrowing in, and producing tremendous heat. And finally the
material starts to melt. It is steel and various alloy chemicals
making up certain crucial alloy metal.

Nobody is supposed to be in that place when the contact is
made, because it'd be like being on Mount Etna during an eruption,
you see. Well, I said I had to be there to make the photograph.
So they made me an asbestos garment, and they made an asbestos
shield for the camera. And I would stand there under the shield
with my hand on the cable release, you see. One could see just
the lens and my goggles. When the process began, I thought, "What
am I doing here?" Pieces of molten metal were coming at you. And
after about five minutes of this it quiets down and just starts to
melt, and then finally the carbon arcs are used up. You see them
dropping, slowly dropping into this incredible blue-white heat.
I forget the temperatures. I think it was over 4000. It's one
of the highest temperatures used in metallurgy. I wouldn't want
to state it erroneously.

Anyway, when they pour this "melt," it's blinding blue-white.
And it runs out like water that seems much lighter than any water
you have seen. It just pours out through the channels and you
have to wear goggles. You can't possibly look directly at it.
And they'd make these big ingots, and they go off to the mills.

And then we had another job for the Gas Association,* showing
the various uses of gas in industry and in the war. Oh, I did
everything from gas baking crackers to annealing anchor chains!
This was in Columbus, Ohio. I watched the chains come out of the
annealing chamber, moving very slowly. There was a great pile of
them. So they got a platform built, and I got my camera set up,
focussed on where they would be. And I was to take these red-hot
anchor chains as they were pushed out of this great asbestos crib.

*National Gas Association.


Adams: Orange-hot, they'd come out, moving very slowly. And I'd say,

"Stop," and they'd stop the belt and I'd take the picture. "Let
it go," and I'd take another one. And that was all rehearsed.

And here I am up there, and the real thing's happening.
This was in color. And out comes the chains. The heat was some
thing unbelievable, you see never counted on that. So I'd yell,
"Stop," I'd take a picture; "Stop," I'd take another one. Finally,
my pants caught on fire. And I just grabbed the camera and
jumped, because here was a pile of massive chains that would fill
this room, and you're just about ten feet away from them.

Teiser: What happens to color film in that heat?

Adams: Oh, it doesn't make any difference. I got beautiful pictures.

It doesn't get hot enough for the camera, but my pants came down
nearer to them, and they just started to smolder. And I still
have a burn scar on my leg from it. But it was quite exciting.

These things happen to all photographers, sometimes much worse
things I

I think it was Eisenstadt some big Life magazine man who was
up on the roof of a great cathedral oh, I know what this is: it
was when they were building the fake Gothic Grace Cathedral in
San Francisco in concrete. And the photographer was up there in
the roof getting pictures from the top. He dropped his camera,
and it fell all the way and landed on a little piece of wood just
above the concrete floor and bounced over on some sacking no
damage I [Laughter] People have all kinds of things happen, but
of course all photography is not really glamorous. Most of it is
very hard work, very boring waiting, fussing with equipment,
worrying about lights, etc. I told you what happened with the
round table group in the Palace Hotel.

Teiser: Oh yes. [Laughter]

Adams: And then the fact of getting somewhere and finding that you've
left all your lenses at home. You've got the camera, film but
no lenses. When I was very young, in the 1920s, I made an arduous
ascent to the top of North Dome in Yosemite, with the most
beautiful thunder clouds I'd ever seen. I exposed twelve plates,
and came home and found I'd taken all the empty holders instead of
the full holders. There are equivalent stories that every
photographer can tell you.

Teiser: You were speaking of Rex Hardy. I remember he had a story about
his first assignment for Life, taking tine-lapse photographs of
a flower opening in a greenhouse. He thought he was going to
lead the glamorous life.


Adams: I did an assignment for Life which was a begonia story. And that
was to be fourteen or sixteen pages. It was a very lucrative
story. I got a several-thousand-dollar fee and time and expenses.
The begonias were up near Capitola, Santa Cruz, that area. Well,
the problem was, of course, when you're working with begonias
outdoors, the sunlight is very difficult and you have trouble.
So we did them in the greenhouse. But we had to use certain color
filters to balance the light through the greenhouse glass. One
person said, "That's just diffuse light, so you don't need any."
Well, you take one picture and you find you do. That light was
very much toward the greenish, so I had to use magenta filters.
And after working a week and having pictures taken, processed
and looked at, I finally got what I wanted. That's before they
had color-temperature meters. Now we have electric color-
temperature meters that work well. They're very expensive, but
they're really very elegant. They can tell you the Kelvin
temperature in almost any situation. And they translate that in
to what we call "decamirad" control. And you use filters as
indicated to balance the light to the sensitivity of the film.
The eye does that automatically, of course. You can be in blue
skylight or warm tungsten or light and white paper still looks
white to the eye, but not to the filml

So I did all these pictures beautifully. I worked like
a dog for three weeks. I understand the pictures were printed
the whole insert of sixteen pages I saw the proofs. They were
beautiful. They were all ready for an edition of Life. But "news"
started happening, and they couldn't find enough space. Finally
that whole begonia project was junked. They prepared a little
story on begonias in which they used a couple of the plates, but
that whole sixteen-page signature of color photographs a million
copies or more was printed, and then junked. And that happened
to so many Life stories. It finally came to the point when they
could not afford such stories. It costs thousands of dollars to
print one of these inserts maybe fifty or sixty thousand at least
for that one.

Teiser: You don't do your own processing when you do color?

Adams: Oh no, I don't. A lot of photographers do. Life photographers

sent the work back to Life. They had wonderful labs. Life bought
whole "emulsions" of color. They'll order an emulsion and get the
whole run from the factory. And they had their own testing
laboratory so they could instruct the photographers what compensating
filters were needed. But those days are over. Look went out, and
Life will go out too.* And the future is in television and the

*Life did suspend publication in December 1972.


Teiser: Did you do any work with Look?

Adams: I never did a job for Look. I was there once remember meeting
Merle Armitage, the art editor at the time. He and I never got
along. I've met a few people I don't get along with. Might as
well let it go down on tape as a fact; it's bound to come out.

Teiser: A lot of people didn't get on with him.

Adams: Well, he is a strange man. He had an enormous amount of energy.
He would plan or lay out a book and then have some company do it,
like Ward Ritchie, which really did the design work, but he'd take
the credit. The thing that bothered me all the time was that he
took credit for things he really never did. He was a kind of a
promoter a producer. And my first gripe was when he put out the
first Edward Weston book quite handsome reproductions, although
the whole job, type and everything, had a Vogue magazine feeling.
I wrote a criticism of it, and he never forgave me.

Teiser: What did you write it for for publication?

Adams: Yes, it was a criticism for the Fortnightly here were these great
photographs, but they were done in this kind of a slick Vogue
magazine manner which defeated Edward Weston' s simplicity. But
Edward Weston never got a bloody cent out of it. I thought that
was terrible. Armitage would do that with people, you see. He'd
say, "Well, I'll make you famous," or, "I'll get a book out for
you," and so on. But I just don't like the guy never did and
never will, and I think the feeling is mutual. [Laughter] And I'm
on tape too.

There are very few people I've met in my life that I really
dislike. I've been very lucky only one or two organizations I've
had any trouble with. Most of the time it's been on a good,
logical human basis and most people have been good. I've had a few
sour moments, like working on an advertisement for the telephone
company, and when we got into Virginia and into the deep South
it was real "anti-nigra" you know, that kind of business. And
that got me down. It was very difficult.

Teiser: Did they want you to take pictures of a certain kind?

Adams: No, it had nothing to do with that. It was just their own human
attitude. Had it all the time it was an obsession, you know.

But one very amusing thing a little town in Virginia, and
the story of these ads related to "how does the telephone
representative help the community." Well, in small towns as, for
instance, in an Ohio River community (I forget the name of it),
this man put in a water system for them; he got pipes and he laid


Adams: it, I had to photograph an old lady turning on the first spigot

in her sink cold water. Everybody else had to go down to the town
well. She was the first one that had cold water come into the house.
And this was all done by a telephone employee very carefully

Well, we got to this place in Virginia where there was another
telephone man. But we couldn't figure out what he did. What did
he do for the community? He had a complicated job taking care of
all the telephones. That wasn't the point. It finally came out
that he'd helped people understand their phone bills. He'd
interpret the telephone bills to them. There was a horrendous old
lady who ran the grocery store and the mortuary, and she agreed to
be photographed talking with him in the car he sort of explaining
things to this weird character. We did it over and over. It was
hard to cooperate. It was very hot, and the light was not right,
and we had to come around and do it again. We tried to get
spontaneous things I was using a Hasselblad. And finally she says,
"Well, I guess we've done all we should do. You know this is
annoying my mother." And here was this old lady sitting at the
second-story window; she must have been ninety or more. Our woman
was seventy. I saw this woman up there glaring down on us, you
know. [Laughter] What an experience! So we got out of that fast.

Then I had to get a picture of the man who was taking care of
the nitrogen-measuring units many of the cable telephone lines are
filled with nitrogen at slightly more than atmospheric pressure,
which keeps moisture out if there's a leak. These people have to
climb the poles and take the reading, just like you would blood
pressure, with a mercury device. They plug it in and they check it.
Here I was out with a truck with a lifting platform. We had to get
this thing done fast. We had two days to finish. And it was
sleeting. I've never been so cold in my life. And this guy was
all dressed up, and he was up here he was all right at the top.
And here's me with the camera and no warm overcoat. This sleet is
drifting down and getting on the lens , and I was trying to get this
person working. It was a pretty good picture, though; came out all
right .

And then there was another one of the cable splicer. That was
done with just one tungsten lamp. That's one of my best things.
It was made with a 60-millimeter Hasselblad lens down in this tunnel
where he was splicing cables. He'd been doing it for twenty years;
that was his job.

And the people who came here to put in our new phone system
the other day oh boy, were they efficient! They have been doing
it for years. Whether they ever advance or not, I don't know, but
they know how to handle cables. You'd be surprised at the complexity


Adams: of this little three-line telephone unit in this house. The control
box looks like a mouse's eye view of a television set, you know
relays and everything you can think of.

Teiser: I hesitate to start a whole large new subject at this point but

maybe I should ask you about Yosemite, your workshop, that we'll be
looking in on soon.

Adams: We'll be showing a series of photographs. We have an overhead

projector, which can show small prints project them on the screen.
The reflected quality is not very good, but for identification it's
all right.

I think it's the ideas that develop when you look at a print
that are important. For instance, the man the guard standing by
the cannon in the Brady picture. Well how long was the exposure?
How long was he standing there? Was he asked over into this
particular position for composition reasons? Has somebody just
said, "Stand there and hold it," you see.

"Making" and "Shooting" Photographs

Adams: There's a very interesting comment, which I'm inclined to agree
with, by Ruth Bernhard, who is quite a person. She said we have
all kinds of colloquial terms in photography, and one is, "I'm
going to take a photograph." Now, taking a photograph is a bit
aggressive. We make a photograph that's productive. Why do we
say "shoot"? That's the modern term. Why do we say "we made this
shot" or "we shoot a photograph"? If we say we take a photograph,
then what do we do when we operate the shutter? We expose the film.
But it's common practice now it's in the dictionary this "shot"
that means a photograph. When you stop to think in terms,
psychologically related violence you shoot, you have a shot, you
take. As against now what does a painter do? He doesn't do
anything like that. He observes and sketches and he draws and he
paints. But these aggressive terms relate to photography, as if
somebody was pointing at you with a gun. And a lot of people express
a certain amount of aggression through use of these terms. And a lot
of inferior photographers are very aggressive people. I'm inclined
to think there is a relationship there, although I'd like a
psychologist to clarify it.

When you stop and go back and think of the connotations, it
really makes a lot of difference. I can't imagine Stieglitz "shoot
ing" anything, and I don't go out and "shoot" landscapes. It's
really kind of an immediate thing, you see. It's a newsman's term
you grab it, you shoot it. But it still has a very strange
aggressive overtone to it.


Teiser: Would you say, "I'm going out and make photographs"?

Adams: Yes. "Let's go to Point Lobos and make some photographs." Not

taking them that was the old Indian idea a lot of tribes in the
world today have the same thing, that when you make a photograph
you're taking something away of their souls, you're extracting
something. Something comes from the person into the box and
disappears. And the early philosophy of light was a strange
illogical concept that light was like bullets that originated in
the eye, went out to the subject and bounced back!

But if you take these terms, and look back in time on them,
you find that there are very strange connotations. And I suppose
one would be, "I'm looking at you. I'm burning you with my gaze,"
and I can't do that at all. I can look at you, but I can't give
you a "burning" glance, you see. And the photograph itself it's
almost fundamentally an invasion of privacy, either of people or
nature. It's not a memory which you sketch; it's a thing that can
be made at the moment. And that tree is my "victim," for instance.
It can't fight back.

Teiser: The reaction of people to photographs brings to mind the use of the
Polaroid Land camera to give people pictures immediately to
reassure them, or something of the sort. Does it work?

Adams: Oh, it works tremendously well. Not for sophisticated people who
know what it is but people travel in various countries around the
world and they find that some of the inhabitants are scared to
death of cameras. But they make a picture and give it to the
subject and immediately there's a sympathetic rapport established.

Well, a very interesting thing is what I experienced in
1928-1929 in the hill towns of New Mexico. These natives would
cooperate, and we'd come back and give them a print or proof. And
the native turned these pictures all around he couldn't "read"
the picture as being anything to do with reality. I mentioned that
once to Margaret Mead, and she said, "Oh yes. That's very common.
There's many primitive races that have absolutely no ability or
understanding of translating the pictorial image to reality." Now,
I am sure the cave paintings and other primitive art forms can mean
something definite. But when you show primitives a real photographic
image they may not comprehend.

Teiser: You mean not even another person who knew that man could believe it
was his image?

Adams: No, he couldn't believe it. He'd never seen that aspect of the


Adams: Then another thing is, the daguerreotype was so tremendously

popular because it is a mirror image, and it's the only way that
people ever see themselves. You only see yourself by looking in
the mirror. Now, I take a photograph of you, you're seeing you as
I see you, and having seen yourself only in the mirror all your
life, you may not be very happy with the result. The daguerreotype
is really that was a very important step. And it was called I
forget who used the term "the mirror with a memory."

Printing and Papers

Teiser: You were speaking of mercury as being unstable

Adams: It's not unstable, it's just poisonous.

Teiser: No

Adams: Oh, mercury intensification of the negative. Oh yes.

Teiser: But isn't mercury a factor in the image in a daguerreotype?

Adams: Yes. But that's quite a different chemistry. Intensifying by

mercury is simply, as I remember, building mercuric salts around
the silver. It has a tendency to just dissolve, dissipate in time
the negative fades, turns a bad yellow. But you remember that in
the earlier days, when you created a yellow or reddish image, you
held back light, you see. And we have a thing that's called "new
coccine," which has been used about a hundred years, which is a
reddish dye which you can apply in different degrees to the
negative. Take a shadow area and just put a slight wash of new
coccine, and that will hold back the area, because the photographic
papers are not sensitive to red or to green.

I was using today my Codelite, an enlarging light of both green
and blue light for variable contrast papers. I can see a brilliant
image on the enlarging screen with the green light, but the ordinary
"graded" paper won't respond to it. It only responds to blue.
Putting the new coccine on the negative will strengthen shadows,
but that can be grossly overdone.

And then, of course, there's the same thing in intensifying
negatives. The only safe intensifier is the Kodak In-5, which is an
intensifier which actually adds silver to the existing silver image.
And it is permanent. And the interesting thing is the five-solution
formula. You have to mix up five different solutions silver
nitrate, elon, sulphite then you mix up (well, I forget), but there's
five different solutions you blend in different quantities, then you
use that to intensify the negative.


Teiser: Let me ask you one question that slipped down in my mind when you
were talking about printing-out papers. Isn't the kind of studio
proof print paper that they use now printing-out paper?

Adams: Well, they have two kinds. They had the solio type, and you'll see
it has kind of a red brick color. But now Kodak has what is called
a proof-paper, which is a developing-out paper. Lousy quality.

Teiser: But the red is a printing-out paper?

Adams: Yes. It can be toned into very beautiful colors by various

processes. It's good paper but archaic in style. When it's toned,
it's as permanent as anything.

Teiser: Is it used much?

Adams: No. The paper stock is so bad, and I don't know what toner you'd use
now a lead acetate perhaps. This chemistry gets rather complex.

Teiser: So it isn't worth it?

Adams: It isn't worth worrying about now. They make a paper in England,

I've been told, which is a good printing-out paper. But it requires
various toning procedures.

Now, we had beautiful results at the Art Center by subjecting
one of these prints to a few seconds in a hydroquinone developer,
arresting development and then putting it through the regular toner.
And we got a very rich tone. We never could duplicate it, I guess,
because we couldn't count seconds accurately enough I

No, I don't think these things are terribly important. They
get into complicated chemistry and physics , and even if we do get
them clarified, they don't have much meaning, because they're always
changing or being discontinued.

But the principle of the auto-masking printing-out paper still
is very important. What's called a "mask" in printing if I have a
very contrasty negative, I can make a very delicate positive mask of
it, or a reverse mask, on which builds up density values in the
shadows. When I put mask and negative together, I get a more
balanced negative. But there's always something the edging or the
strange feeling about appropriate tonal value. I have not used a
mask for years. In color, the masking is used all the time to balance
different values. But if those masks don't absolutely align, it's
terrible. And in most of the color reproductions you see, the masking
is very bad. Because you may have illogical color effects, and you
have fuzzy edges .

Teiser: Well, I think we've kept you too long.


Adams: We got a lot of facts today. We didn't get much continuity,
[End Tape 14, Side 1]

More on Photography Workshops

[Interview XII 30 June 1972]
[Begin Tape 15, Side 1]

[Between the last interview session and this, several weeks passed.
There was a break during which the twenty-sixth annual June workshop

Online LibraryAnsel AdamsConversations with Ansel Adams : oral history transcript / 1972-1975 → online text (page 36 of 76)