Ansel Adams.

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

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in photography at Yosemite under the direction of Ansel Adams was
held. The interviewers attended several sessions of it.]

Teiser: We were both tremendously impressed by how interested and serious
people were at the workshop.

Adams: It was a very nice group this year very little trouble. I never

have any real trouble, but sometimes we have a few people that want
more or aren't getting what they expected. God knows what they
expected. I think we give them more than any workshop of its kind
I know of, because we begin with the setting, and then the staff is
very inclusive. I thought the whole thing was very exciting. You
got a lot out of it? You felt good about it?

Teiser: Yes, yes. I was interested in the range of people who attended.
There were some very good young students, I thought.

Adams: A few more young people this year than there were last year. I think
maybe ten more. We didn't have any repeaters only one or two. But
we had a pretty broad bunch, pretty good cross section.

Teiser: I realized that some of them were definitely there because they were
interested in professional photography

Adams: A few professional, but most of them are creative there's a

Teiser: I'm sorry; I mean photography as a vocation not "commercial."

Adams: Well, you see, commercial work is a bad term. That means you run a
studio and you do nuts and bolts and machinery and copying and all
this stuff. Then you have the professional photographer who's really-
he's "commercial," but he does primarily advertising or portraits
brochures, etc. Then the purely creative photographer is like the
photo-poet. He does the equivalent of easel painting. And if he


Adams: makes a living with it, he's professional too. A lot of the young
students are trying to find themselves, and the important thing is
to develop new attitudes towards photo-appreciation, an approach
which applies to all cultural effort. The other aspect of study
would apply to strictly training in professional work. Too many
people are being trained towards professional work that are never
going to make it. There's a glut in the market. They're going to
be very unhappy.

Then there's the other level which we don't know much about,
which is out of my field that's the technological the photo
science. There's instrumentation and the study of photographic
science and the making of color prints, processing color, photo
optics all these really advanced technical things which are not
necessary for the professional or creative photographer to know.

Dick Julian gave a fine talk on optics, and some of the kids
were bored with it; they thought it was dead. "Why do we have to do
that? Do you have to know how to make a piano?" "No, but I have to
know how to voice a piano, and I should know how to tune it, and I
should know that when I get a false harmonic something is wrong
somewhere. And besides, I think it's very important to know a lot
about lenses, because it explains a great many things that the
average photographer suffers by not knowing. I mean, like what is
focus-shift, how do you overcome it? What is chromatic aberration?"

I think all of those things are important parts of knowledge.
Now, how to make a lens, or compute a lens well now, that would be
something else! I couldn't make a piano.

When I got the new car today, I said to the man, "I take that
car out, and in one block I know it's a good automobile. And why?
I've driven over a million miles and had many cars. I can't describe
it, but I just feel perfectly at home with it." The other day I got
in a car, and I wouldn't have it as a gift. My son's got a Jaguar
he's mighty proud of, and for me it's a terrible automobile. It's
rough on the road, it doesn't steer well, it has no room, and I feel
very unfriendly. And it's a $9000 automobile in this country! He
got a good buy on it in England and got it over here through the air
force. But you just can't describe those things, what the feeling is.

As soon as I got in that station wagon today "This is it." Got
a wonderful bargain. Only gone six thousand miles, and $1200 off, and
a safe car. You can look around for a month and not find anything
that good.

Teiser: For someone interested in photographing as a major part of his life's
work, I should think there's nothing comparable to those workshops.

Ansel Adams with students, Yosemite Photography Workshop, July 1972

Photography by Puth Teieer


Adams: Well, there are many, many workshops. They're now practically a
glut on the market. In the first place, the word "workshop is
very bad. It's not a school. We have only a demonstrating darkroom,
as you saw. We usually run for two weeks or less, so we can't have a
semester or a quartera long drawn-out program. We give them ideas
in rather machine-gun fashion and demonstrations, and we hope if they
take their notes they can go home and remember it and benefit.

Now, the seminar is where you have discussions. We're going to
have this big one with the Friends of Photography in August, and
we're having all the arts represented dance, philosophy, poetry,
painting. And everybody's going to come and rap. There'll be
sessions where people will probably ask different and difficult
questions. There won't be much discussion of technique. But what
is technique? Technique is the application of mechanics. Well, for
what purpose? You don't just go out and expose the film on a
mechanical basis.

Of course, my approach with the Zone Systemand everything in
that directionis a matter of visualization. You're supposed to
have enough technique to "realize" your visualization.

We have the seminars. But the workshop is where we demonstrate
and show prints, talk and argue. We get into some heated arguments,
you know. We get somebody like Barbara Morgan who comes in with
whole new ideas; Ralph Putzker presents totally different ideas.
He's very much like [Edward] Kaminski who taught at the Art Center.
They may not be the least bit interested in the Zone System, for
instance. They're just agitating people to see.

And Brett Weston sets up his big camera, and puffs his pipe and
lets people look into it. Of course, he seldom goes through making
a picture. That always worried me. I like to know what you can see
and how you would "realize" it.

All in all, it's a very vital thing, and I'm very pleased with
it. We're going to continue it. I'm stepping out of the programs
more and more. I only have three workshops I'm connected with, and
maybe will get down to one. But we're going to have as many
workshops, symposiums, and groups as we can manage.

The whole system of education is, you know, in quite a mess.
I'm just old-fashioned enough to think that somebody at the school
knows more than the student, otherwise there's no reason for the
student going there. When the student starts to tell the instructor
what he should be taught, it doesn't make any sense. Now, it's
perfectly true that the instructor might have poor taste and less
imagination. But it's presumed, as a general rule, that the teacher
knows more than the student.


Adams: And in music that's very important. In photography and in many

phases of the university, the students have wanted to write their
own course. Well, how can they? They can say, "I want to have Black
studies." I think that's wonderful. And, "I want to have something
to do with contemporary economics." But they can't tell the teacher
what to teach. If they could, they'd be up there teaching, you see.
It isn't a matter of putting one person over the other, or of any
superiority or inferiority of personality. It's just that I know
more than most student photographers; that's why I'm teaching. As
soon as they know as much as I do, they'd be teaching too.' Of course,
in a figurative way, I learn a great deal from them because of their
reactions. Very often, a student will come out with a very fine
solution to a problem that I'm very thankful for. But, basically,
they don't know sensitometry , and they don't know a certain amount
of history, and they don't know applications. So they come to the
workshop to get the ideas we can impart.

Teiser: The session at which you discussed other photographers' work and
showed examples to them I was interested in how carefully they
looked at the pictures and how carefully they listened to what you
were saying.

Adams: That's my collection.

Teiser: Your collection of photographs, yes. And everything you said meant
something to them and they stored it up until they saw the prints.

Adams: Which confirmed the ideas. That's good.
Teiser: They were thinking hard.

Adams: Well, they pay a lot. These workshops are not cheap. And some of
them have an awful time paying for it. But we can't do it for less
and do it well. We give them everything we can, and they'd better
pay close attention. The average workshop I've been around is the
most slapdash, lackadaisical about one-sixth or one-seventh the
intensity of this one. People do a lot of yakking and no work. Then
there are other workshops that work very severely over a full weekend.
The student goes out and makes the picture, develops the film, makes
the print. Well, that's all right. But I think during that time,
they could be getting a lot of ideas which they could apply later.
I'm not entirely in favor of crash programs. It might be very
stimulating, but when you add it all up, it's only one situation
which is only partially resolved.

Minor White and his people they do wonderful work, and they
have a totally different concept from mine.

Teiser: Your discussion of the students' work, when they brought it you, I
thought must have been very helpful to them.


Adams: Well, yes, I'm glad you felt that. That's very touchy because I
guess you were there when I made the prelude statement that it's
unfair to really evaluate someone's work unless you know something
about it and something about them. So all you can do is to first
go through the prints fast. I get an all-over picture, and my
computer's working and I'm not even looking carefully. I just look
and follow the reactions I like this, don't like that. You say that.
Then you go back and you look closely and all you can do is try to
find out what the student wanted to say and then observe how did he
say it. Now why he said it, or how his personality influenced his
work, we have no way of telling. And it would take me a long time to
learn somebody's work and the person well enough to sit down and say.

I was interested in your reaction to the teaching because that's
been a very considerable part of my life and it's been one that's
very controversial, because there's more argument and dissension in
the teaching world than in almost anything else. And some people
teach in the most casual, off-hand way. Kaminski, who was a great
man at the Art Center School, comes to mind when I think of
imaginative teaching. He would get middle-western kids who'd never
had a bright idea out of a church-social society. They were
absolutely amazed at all the things going on. They had no imagination
to begin with. They had learned a little mechanics. Kaminski takes
them out to the beach and he may bring a faucet and a pipe that's
been painted and dipped in white plaster. Then he has a few grape
fruits, a couple of doll heads, a pipe an incongruous collection.'
He finds some seaweed and junk and puts it all together and says,
"Now make these things relate." They all stand there looking goggle-
eyed. "What do you mean?" Well, he shows them: seaweed has a shape,
the faucet has a shape, the pipe has a shape think of a square and
how the rhythm is oh boy, they really do begin to see that there are
relationships of shapes. And, while it sounds terribly corny, it
still is tremendously effective.

Ralph Putzker tried that. Barbara Morgan is a very confusing
speaker in the sense that she gets so vague and symbolic that nobody
can ever follow her, but everybody knows what she feels, and she
becomes a wonderful teacher and person. And she's always looking for
these things called relationships. Well, I use a little different
term, but it adds up to the same thing.

A young person who doesn't know much is more open and alive to
that kind of thinking than a more or less well-trained habit-formed
person who has gone to camera clubs or has read books on "rules."
Now, did you go to Fred Parker's lecture that night?

Teiser: No.


Adams: Well, I wish you had, because that was very enlightening on the

contemporary sense. Nine-tenths of what he showed and what he said
is completely out of my world and I have little to do with it,
personally, at all. But it represents very important areas of
photography like contemporary art versus Cezanne.

My trouble now with some of my colleagues here in Carmel is that
they say, "Of course, you and I wouldn't do a thing like that. And
of course there's no reason why you do have to like it."

But it is , you see; it exists , and therefore it has to be
evaluated. And a person who isn't a photographer, but trained in
art history and criticism, isn't always the right one to make those
fundamental evaluations. I can get very upset about something from
my point of view "It's hideous. Why do you photograph this thing?
I wouldn't." But then you stop to think, "Well, why is it hideous?"
A man saw it, goes back in his psyche and his perceptions, and he
creates in a certain way. And if it's done well, it's perfectly
obvious something is achieved. That's why we want to get more and
more people with different and contemporary attitudes.

Teiser: Are you speaking, in general, of nonrepresentational photography, or
contrived photography?

Adams: Oh yes. contrived may include positive-negative images, solarized
images, etc.

Teiser: Tortured pictures, in short?

Adams: Well, some may look at them as that. So I have to struggle with the
dichotomy of my personal judgment and my personal work. That's why
I should never run a gallery or direct an exhibit. I've done it many
times and I've had to be very objective, and it's very painful for
an artist to be objective.

I don't much like Cartier-Bresson. I don't get any deep reactions,
I have the greatest admiration for him for what he's done, but his
pictures don't move me at all. But I can't just go back and say,
"They're not good because they don't move me."

It's like a lot
a lot of Chopin. I
personally bore me,
say that they're not
denying junk. Junk'
Prokofiev and Webern
marvelous structures
problems .

of music. I love Bach, and I love Beethoven and
can think of quite a number of composers that
especially a lot of the contemporaries. I can't

good for that reason. I'm not saying I'm
s perfectly obvious to everybody. But a lot of

and some of the really contemporary things are
and they generally are solving their particular


Adams: A lot of collectors in art collect nothing but names. I know some
people that have very fine personal art collections, and the
paintings have nothing more to do with their personality than I have
to do with a space flight. They're collecting names, and also
working through a series of values. The dealers convince them that
it should be that for this Utrillo. "You can get one or two Cezannes,'
and the values will go up." "You paid twelve or fifteen thousand for
the Utrillo and it's twenty-seven now." Or, "I can exchange it for
two of these, and that will probably be an advantage," etc. And you'd
be surprised; they get great pride out of it because these paintings
are very good; they're tops in the field. But they don't have any
feeling for them. They don't buy it like I did that little Donner
ceramic by the front door, which really hit me like a ton of bricks.
I thought, "That's marvelous'." and I got it. I believe it's good,
but I don't say that I think it is a great work of art. I'm not an
expert in judging it.

Teachers and Critics

Adams :
Adams :

Adams :

The man you speak of at the Art Center

He's dead now. It was Edward "Eddie" Kaminski.

When did you first go to the Center?

Around the late thirties forty

Was it before the Golden Gate exposition?

Yes well, it was before that, and during that.
in time. I went there to teach.

It's all mixed up

How did you happen to be willing to go to Southern California to

Well, I thought the Art Center School was pretty darn good, and they
sold me on it.

I'll tell you one experience, though, that was really one of
these turning points: at four in the morning I was loading the station
wagon in front of the studio at Yosemite all the cameras and the stuff,
And it was one of the most magnificent dawns, you know two morning
stars and the sound of the water. And I suddenly stopped and I said,
"Am I going away from this? Am I crazy?" And I almost started to
unpack the car. Then I realized, "No, I've contracted to go there."
And really, this was a very strange thing because it seemed as if


Adams: somebody was saying, "Don't, don't." Same thing happened going East;
same thing happened again it was so strong when I was supposed to
go to England a year or so ago to give a lecture. Just "no." I
mean, I was tired, I had books to do, I had things to finish, I
wasn't sleeping at night. And I went to the doctor and said, "I've
got to make a decision." He said, "Well, if you feel that way don't
go." I said, "I've got all these things to do, and now I'm supposed
to go to England. How can I get out of it?" [He said,] "I'll write
you a letter." So he wrote me a letter saying it was "inadvisable
in your present fatigued condition to undertake anything further."
And I sent a copy of my letter along to my friend in the Royal
Photographic Society in London saying I couldn't do it. That wasn't
a contract. It was just to let them know I could not come to give
the Cox lecture (an important "funded" lecture) . But I had this
horrible feeling that I shouldn't go don't!

And I had not as strong a feeling about Los Angeles , but
Yosemite was like a siren enticing you back. And I often wondered
if I hadn't done that, would the Zone System ever have come into
being which is a very important thing.

Teiser: Did you develop that when you were at the Art Center?

Adams: At the Art Center. And the interesting thing was that the reason
that was done was because I was trained as a musician and as a
teacher the whole training was that you never allow the students
to hear you or "duplicate" you, imitate you. And none of my teachers,
with the exception of one which didn't last very long, ever played
for me. It was a philosophic thing. I had to do my own shaping, my
own expression. And it would be verbalized or discussed or criticized,
but never in the sense of imitation. This teacher in Berkeley [Marie
Butler] taught with two pianos and she had a marvelous responsive
class and talented people, and they all sounded exactly alike. She
was a disciple of E. Robert Schmitz, the French pianist, and she
sounded just like him. She played extremely well, and I imitated her
played by ear. I got through with the E flat major sonata of
Beethoven and it didn't sound like me at all. I've never been able
to quite clear that up back to the way I want to do it. It's always
been the one thing that was an imposition of style that is not mine.

But Frederick Zech, who was a pupil and assistant of Von Billow
he was eighty years old. He could flow up and down the keyboard in
chromatic double sixths a fantastic pianistic technique. He would
say to me, "Now, you know better than that. You did not crest that
phrase. You did not read that ff } that accent. Now think of it
like a cathedral in that shape." I mean, that's teaching. Now if
he had just played it, then you sit and you play it, pretty soon you
disappear and it's the teacher's pattern of expression that wins.


Adams: The same thing with Minor White in photography. He dominates his

students. You can always tell a Minor White student because they do
work like him. They look like him. After awhile they do get out
of it, and he encourages them to get out of it. But he has to teach
in that sort of didactic [fashion]: "This is the way. This is what
you should feel, you think you enter into it." And that's mysticism,
and "I am the guru." It's never put in words, but it's just implied.
That's why he and I he wrote a little forward to this forthcoming
monograph [Ansel Adams ] . We first thought we couldn't use it because
it stresses a point that "in spite of doing what Adams does," he still
likes what I do. But there's always that slight reservation, and
everybody caught it. (It was modified for use.) I have to say,
"Well, I'm not the editor. You didn't say anything wrong, or anything
questionable." If anybody asked me to write a critique of Steichen,
I suppose I'd be almost that bad. I mean I'd try to say, "Of course
he's very important in the history of photography, but I do not react
personally to him." [Laughter] Therefore, I shouldn't write it. If
I have that feeling about it, I could not write a critical essay.

And I must say one thing, that when Nancy [Newhall] put on the
big show in 1963, one of the photo magazines paid her husband,
Beaumont, to come out and write a criticism of it. And he wrote a
very scholarly criticism in which he traced my different periods and
how I had developed in certain directions. He returned to New York
and showed it to the editor and the editor said, "Well, I guess this
is fine. But my God, man, can't you find anything wrong with it?"
And Beaumont said, "The essence of criticism is not finding anything
wrong. If it's completely wrong you make no comment. You just say
it's a failure or don't mention it at all. Fine criticism is
enlightenment. You make a comment on a work of art and help somebody
to understand it."

And that's the trouble with Marjorie Mann and some of those
people. They're rather belligerent and destructive. And those
people are often wrong. They usually have made paranoid personal
decisions which don't just hold up. Marjorie Mann is, however, a
very well-read and intelligent person.

Teiser: When Alfred Frankenstein ventures into criticism of photography,
which he does sometimes, is he knowledgeable?

Adams: No, not much in photography. He is much better now, but he was always
associating photography with some other set of standards in art. But
among all of the art critics, he was the best I mean in terms of
photography. He really did some very good criticism. Sometimes he'd
go completely off the beam, because he didn't understand the medium
and he'd try to relate it to a school of painting or a nonphotographic
approach. Still, I have a great love and affection for him, because
he really has tried terribly hard to relate photography to the other
arts .


The Development of the Zone System

Teiser: Back to the Art Center School you taught there, then, and developed
the Zone System so that students would have a system to work on their
own. Is that it?

Adams: It was a system of technique which would liberate them to do anything
they wanted to do creatively. And Fred Archer and I Fred Archer was
the man who taught portraiture, and he was very sympathetic. I
realize sometimes I don't give him enough credit, although I did all
the theoretical work and the checking. But he made some of the first
applications. It's not easy to figure out exactly what happened.
Then we got the Weston meter people very much interested, and one of
their men made us a mimeographed Zone System chart exposure and
density is on a logjn basis, but going as sensitometry sometimes does
from the center positive numbers up, negative numbers down. And the
good man, who was an engineer, forgot the 0.0 point, which is, of
course, arithmetic one. So he started with 2 plus, or 1/2, and after
about a month of trying to make this thing work, we suddenly realized
that this man had just made a wrong graph. Nothing would come out.
In the log sequence you start with 0.0, and that period doesn't mean
a decimanl point! 0.0 is one, and 0.3 is 2, 0.6 is 4 and 0.9 is 8
and 1.2 is 16, and so on. Then it goes the other way same thing in
minus 1/2, 1/4, 1/8. So if you leave out the 0.0, and just go minus
0.3 and plus 0.3 you have a difference of four you have from 1/2 to
2. So we had a wonderful time of it [laughter] clearing that up.

Teiser: But you worked out this system systematized this principle, I suppose.
It was developed for the immediate use of the students there?

Adams: Yes, it is only applied sensitometry. There was nothing that I could