Ansel Adams.

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

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invent . It's like the silver transfer principle in photography, which
was known fifty years before Edwin Land invented the Land process ,
which is a silver transfer process. Everybody knew that silver
"transferred," but didn't know how to control it. So if Land had
suddenly discovered this principle, why, he might have gotten a Nobel
Prize, because it would have been a new basic concept. But it wasn't,
it was an old concept that nobody had ever used. Nobody had the
ingenuity to make the silver transfer possible, and Land made a great

The Art Center School

Teiser: Your students at the Art Center they were, as you described them,
not very sophisticated when they enrolled. Did they take to this


Adams :

Adams :







Well, when they came they certainly weren't sophisticated, and they
had a period of "filtering out," and the people who got to the
second or third year had to be pretty darn good. The most important
division in the Art Center was probably the industrial design
department. I think it probably still is because many of the top
designers in automobile factories now are graduates of it.
Advertising, commercial art, industrial design, and advertising
photography; it was not a creative place. I used to have terrible
arguments with Edward Adams (they called him "Tink" Adams no
relation), the director, and I finally left because he wasn't the
least bit interested in what I would call the creative or poetic
approaches. It was all dramatic advertising he put great emphasis
on crafts, and some of his design work is just magnificent. He had
some painters who were working in the commercial art field who were
terribly good Alexander King, a great colorist. Kaminski was a
painter, but he was the ideal gadfly, and he was appreciated as such.
He just upset everybody, but in a very wonderful way. I mean, he just
knocked the props out of conventional approaches. So that was quite a
place. Now it's a foundation, a nonprofit institution. And I
understand it's pretty good.

The photographer who does great aerial work
Bill Garnett.

Yes. I was reading some place that he had studied at the Art Center
at one time. Was that that same period?

I think so. Can't remember the people with whom he studied. And a
lot of people Charles Cur ley, and Eaton they were really very fine
professionals, and they taught a lot of people the basic techniques.
But there's a case where Garnett is so superior to anybody who ever
taught him. You know, he's really a great artist.

Was that your first experience in teaching in an established


And then your second would have been

California School of Fine Arts. We set up the department. Well, I
did have a class for six weeks at the Museum of Modern Art in the
thirties. And I also had a weekend in Detroit.

The Museum of Modern Art; I read that you gave a series of lectures
there in 1945.

Adams: That was the class.

Teiser: I see.


Adams: I can't remember these dates.

The California School of Fine Arts

Adams: I guess we started the department at the California School of Fine
Arts around 1945. The School of Fine Arts program was just after
the war.

Teiser: At that time there was a great resurgence of the creative arts,
wasn't there?

Adams: That was terrific. In fact, Eldridge Spencer was president of the
Art Association and encouraged the formation of a photography
department. I went out to the Columbia Foundation and got $10,000
to put in a lab. Then we started interviewing students. We had one
or two very productive years, in which very good work was done fine
student stuff turned out. But it was taking all my time, and I was
missing assignments. Life offered me an assignment to do a Canadian
story, which would have been a six months to a year job. I couldn't
do it because of this school commitment .

Minor White came as a student first, and then he took over the
department, and that started that particular regime.

Teiser: Was it he who started what was perhaps a fad for small photographs
for display?

Adams: Yes, he made 4 by 5s, and that was my encouragement, though, because
I believed students should spend a year with a view camera doing 4 by
5s, not worrying about enlargement. Just "seeing" and making
beautiful prints. Edward Weston portraits were mostly 4 by 5. Scale
is entirely relative.

I'm making too big prints now. I should get back to the 8 by
10s . But I have the equipment and I go to the 11 by 14 , 16 by 20s .
It's awfully hard to move back.

Teiser: You stayed with the California School of Fine Arts about two years

Adams: At least two, and Minor took over. William Quandt, he was one of my
students he became an assistant to Minor. He was a very fine
photographer. Pirkle Jones is a very fine photographer. I think he's
teaching at the San Francisco Art Institute, which is the present name
[of the school] .


Adams: But after Minor left, as far as I'm concerned, it very seriously
deteriorated. It became an "idea blender," which is good in its
way, but people are turning out inferior images.

Teiser: I still see the effects of that one period, though, in exhibits,
even among young photographers who are studying now.

Adams: Well, it was semiclassic. It was sort of the f/64 impact on straight
photography. You never know. 1 You can sometimes say, "Well, So-and-so
started a trend," and then you really get into it and you find that
it's really somebody else, some other set of conditions. But a lot
of the stuff I've seen coming out of there now certainly has nothing
to do with anything we stood for at that time. There's no reason it
should. It's just a fact of life. The thing that does bother me is
the lack of emphasis on technique, on mechanics. This simply inhibits
the student from saying what he has to say. This relates to music:
if you don't have a keyboard technique, you just can't play good
piano! There isn't any way out of it you can make sounds and you
can probably convince a cult or a group around you that you're trying
to say something, but still you can't communicate. If I can't write
seventh-grade English text, no one's going to read me. And some of
the stuff I see recently gives the impression of being later-
kindergarten stage.

Large Photographs

Teiser: You were mentioning large prints. I think I have read that the

first mural size prints you made were for the San Diego Fair. Is
that right?

Adams: Yes, the Yosemite Company ordered some prints from me for the San
Diego Fair. And they advanced money to put in the darkroom in San
Francisco so that I could do it. Never an entirely generous
attitude. I mean I had to pay for it, amortize it over several years.
But I did get some fine large pictures made. Now I have a problem
of getting some huge things for the Museum of Science in Boston, but
I'm not going to do them myself. [Telephone rings]

[End Tape 15, Side 1]
[Begin Tape 15, Side 2]

Teiser: I took that opportunity to turn the tape. We were talking about photo
murals. Would you ever have thought of making that huge print if you
hadn't had that specific order?


Adams: Well, just before the war, Secretary Ickes appointed me photo

muralist for the Department of the Interior, with the idea that I
would go around the national parks and make photographs which could
be used as big mural installations. I never thought of making the
prints; I just thought of directing the making of the prints.

Now, we have to clarify something: a mural means something on
the wall, and you paint a mural or a fresco. If you make a photograph
and paste it on a wall, it's probably the worst thing you can do be
cause it contracts and swells and wrinkles and curls, and the wall
settles and you can have a series of catastrophes, and usually the
adhesive you put it on is hygroscopic and makes it perfectly terrible-
fading, etc.

So I make fine quality big prints limited in width to thirty-nine
inches. We do it in the form of panels. I did make one years ago
that was 12 by 18 feet a picture of Half Dome; I did it in sections.
The sections were mounted on panels and put up like a double screen
with dividing lines. It was extremely effective. It still remained
a good print; it was not plastered on a wall.

The only good photographic paper is forty-inch width, and of
course it's impossible to process single-weight paper adequately;
it's so delicate, and the basic processing and adequate washing
required would crack and crease it.

There's an awful term called "blowup," which just means an
enlargement "without consideration." Most photo murals are blowups.
They're pretty terrible. They're usually toned (bleached and toned)
in silver sulphide and come out an egg-yolk-yellow sepia [laughter],
which is perfectly horrible but very permanent. That's the reason
it's done. They've reduced the silver to silver sulphide, which it
would naturally gravitate to if it wasn't well processed, only it
wouldn't do it evenly.

I can make prints up to seventy-six inches high and thirty-nine
inches wide. And I make screens I've made five-panel screens and
four-panel screens, but they have fine print characteristics. They're
not just blowups. And they're also rather costly. It's a terrible
job. The large print is $2500 plus, and a screen would be about
$10,000. It would have to be

In making a screen you first have to make your dummy, you have
to know just where to divide the image, and you have to plan the
divisions so that when the screen is folded you don't get a
displacement of diagonal lines. You have also to consider frame and
hinge space. It really is an awful job. Then you have to do it in
the enlarger and scale it exactly to be sure you have the required
"safe" overlaps. Then you have to plan carefully controlled exposure


Adams: and use pretty big sheets of paper for tests to get just what you
want. Then when you make the screen, you expose each section in
sequence and you develop them, each one in a fresh developer,
exactly under time and temperature control so that they will match.

And when that's all done, you feel happy. You make at least
two or three of the complete screens while you're doing it. You
tone them, and you have to be sure the toning is equal. Every time
you put a section through a bath it has to be a fresh bath, so I'll
use up ten dollars worth of toning solution in making a screen.
But, after all, time is the most important thing. And making big
prints is very expensive and when you throw away well, let's say,
every time I make a large print order for that Half Dome picture
say 30 by 40 inches I would probably use an entire roll of paper.

Teiser: How much

Adams: Well, it's about thirty dollars.

Teiser: No, I mean how many

Adams: Oh, I might use up eight feet. The rolls come in 40 inches by 30
feet or 40 inches by 50 feet. I can manage a 50-foot roll, but it
"squeezes" my equipment. They make it in 100- foot rolls, but the
trouble is now that Kodak and other manufacturers are restrictive.
With certain items like Kodabromide rolls, you have to order at
least $300 worth. You see, that's what they call a restricted
order. You can't just go to the store and buy them they ship to
order from the factory. And with certain films I was trying to
get some Tri-X Ortho the other day you can't buy less than a
hundred sheets. You used to buy twenty-five-sheet boxes, but there
was not enough sale. So they make them in this "restricted"

Teiser: That reminds me that perhaps you know why they pack twenty-five
instead of twenty-four to a box.

Adams: They got into the decimal system. And it was one of the craziest

things in the world ten (ten is all right, because that would take
five film holders), and twenty-four would be good, because it would
take twelve film holders you know, two sheet films to a holder.
But they decided on twenty-five. Well, when you're traveling,
there's always a waste of one film. And it's partially decimal.
Now, if they had twenty, thirty, or fifty, but they decided on
twenty-five, and there's always a film left over when loading
holders, and very seldom do you save and use it. And the film packs
were then stepped up to twelve and sixteen films each. Well, that
means you should expose the entire pack; you can develop eight at a
time it's pretty hard to develop sixteen at a time. It's all in
the lap of the gods, because they've talked about canceling the film


Adams: packs. Film pack is the simplest way for people who work in the

field with 4 by 5 cameras. But nobody can tell them what to do, and
Eastman's the only one that makes them. Ansco used to, but they
never learned the secret of avoiding scratches. Probably Kodak will
end up by making film packs to order (maybe) .

Teiser: Back to the mural Mrs. Eldridge Spencer told us the story about a
large photograph for the Mountain Room at Yo Semite. She said she
wanted to crop the photograph in a way that you thought was entirely
wrong, and she won!

Adams: She insisted on a detailed image of Sequoia foliage. She wanted it
fifty inches wide, and I could only do it forty inches. So we had
Moulin make the print , and Moulin charges so much a square inch
and would never think of making two prints. And I told her, I said,
"I'll let Moulin do it, but it's got to be a good print." I think
I insisted on three before he got it, and of course he charged for
every one of them. And it added up it was a big charge for a
lousy job. She bought a group of twenty or thirty fine prints made
especially for the room. Then there were some mountain climbing
pictures made for the Boiler Room, which is a very good technical
job great huge climbing pictures. I don't know who did those. I
think General Graphic enlarged them. General Graphic did much
better than Moulin.

Teiser: Do you make a photograph with the idea of its final size?

Adams: Oh yes, that's a basic conceptual idea of what's a photograph for.

Now, I do a lot of work for Polaroid Corporation, and I always think
in terms of 11 by 14 or of 16 by 20 from the Polaroid negative 4 by
5. I always try to think, "Will this really enlarge? Can I make
it?" I know that's what they want. I mean, they have these great
rooms and halls and they want pictures of that size. So I try to
think of that.

Teiser: Most of the murals that you have made or that have been made from
your negatives were the photographs taken as mural photographs?

Adams: Yes, the ones for the Park Service, many of them were done with
processing that was favorable to big enlargement. I guess I had
one of the Grand Canyon that was going to be twenty feet high and
fifty feet long. It never has been made. And then I'd done
Coloramas for Kodak sixteen of those things, which are twenty feet
high and sixty feet long, in color. But of course those were all
produced in Rochester. I used my 7 by 17 banquet camera for the
color film. I had lots of fun. But large size is a conceptual
matter. The best photograph in the world can be on 4 by 5; "blowing
it up" to a big size might ruin it for both technical and aesthetic
reasons. So I have people who say, "Well, I'd like an over-mantle
of a certain picture." I say, "You can't have it; it won't go that


Adams: I had a problem the other day. A lady her daughter died, and she
wanted to give something to her sorority at Bennington. She wanted
a picture of the "Moon and Half Dome," which is from a Hasselblad
negative, 2 1/4 by 2 1/4. And she wanted it to be four feet high.
I asked, "How's it going to be seen? It's only from a very small
negative. And if you want it four feet high it's got to be seen
from a considerable distance or it'll look terrible." We finally
got it down to twenty inches high framed, and it is placed over a
mantelpiece. It is seen very close, so it still looks acceptable.
But if it had been forty-eight inches high, the average person
would have sensed a certain grossness in it. [Telephone rings]

Well, where was I? Oh yes the photo mural. I hate that word.
I simply say I make a large fine print, and it has to have fine
quality and be absolutely permanent. To get that quality, there
are many things that have to be overcome, like reciprocity effects,
long exposures in the enlarger, and the extraordinary amount of
handling these prints have to have. They're developed and processed
by rolling. You take a print six feet long and just roll it and
adjust the development to give you five- or six-minute developing
time. And it's rolled back and forth maybe fifteen times and maybe
five times in the acid stop and fifteen more times in the hypo and
five times in the rinse, then goes back to ten times more in the
plain hypo, and at least ten or fifteen times in the toner and at
least six times in the hypo clearing, and at least five times
rinsing, and then maybe twenty-five times in the washing. So it's
a miracle that the print gets out without having breaks and folds.
But it has to be done that way to be permanent.

Then it has to be carefully mounted.

Photographing a Potash Mine

Teiser: To go back to the 1930s, 1936 was the year of your exhibit at An
American Place. Was that the same year you did the U.S. Potash
series in Carlsbad, New Mexico?

Adams: Yes, I think so.

Teiser: I think you said that Horace Albright had asked you to do that.
But was that your first large industrial photography commission?

Adams: Well, I guess it was the largest I'd done. I'd done several other
things, like the Shewan-Jones winery, and single pictures. But I
think that potash thing was probably the largest at that time.


Teiser: The Shewan- Jones winery, while you mention it that was a remarkable
construction at that time, wasn't it? They must have been very
proud of it.

Adams: That's probably the best little winery of its kind in the state.

It's the first time the new equipment was brought in [after Repeal].
It's still functioning.

The Carlsbad job that's Carlsbad, New Mexico was a very
interesting story. They wanted color photographs. I took 5 by 7
Kodachromes with an enormous amount of flash lights, and worked for
days in the mine, with the men working on scaffolds and handling the
big tools. And oh, the pictures came out just beautifully. And
everybody was happy. And I went into Mr. {Thomas] Cramer's office,
who was one of the mine foremen, and put these things up in the
viewers, and he started to turn ashen gray. "We can't use these,"
he said, because the people had used wooden planks in the metal
scaffold, which is absolutely against mining law. They were supposed
to use trussed steel metal planks aluminum, and they hardly ever
did. There wasn't one that was right, one that could be used,
because we were showing a violation of the basic mining safety laws.
They were using 2 by 10- or 12-foot wooden planks, which sagged.
These men are up there with big machines and hammers, and here's
two or three together; theoretically a plank could break. I had
absolutely no knowledge of this rule. The superintendent was fired.
Oh boy, it was a terrible thing. They had to be all done over.
That was not easy!

Teiser: Is the ore white?

Adams: No, it's wonderful amethyst a purple amethyst color. It's very

hard to photograph. The least bit of overexposure and you lose the
color. So we did dress the men in shirts warm, different-colored
shirts and there was some color. But I was surprised how the
amethystine quality did come through.

Then another very funny thing, I wanted to get a picture of
the plant a great cloudy sky and the plant in the distance with its
big stacks. So I found a place, and determined the right time of
day. Bunches of nice clouds; it was that time of year. I went over
to the engineer and said, "Now look, I've got it all figured out.
About 2:30 p.m., if you can just stoke up these stacks to get the
feeling of smoke in the wind " Well, he nearly died. "Any smoke
comes out those stacks," he says, "I'll be dumped off Staten Island.
You know, we burn natural gas and there ain't never no smoke."
[Laughter] I'd built up this fantasy of this industrial scene, but
there was never any smoke. The stacks were just for a draft, and
in the cold morning there was a little vapor. I've never lived that


Adams: But there's one note the engineer left. I was coming around to do
some details, and he left this note for the evening shift. "Their
(sic) will be a Mr. Adams coming to make photographs. Please be
kindly and corporate (sic) to him at all times." [Laughter] But it
was done with such warm feeling

Photographing the Carlsbad Caverns



Adams :

Did you take pictures of the Carlsbad Caverns at that time?

Yes, then I went down in the big caves and did many pictures. Used
up millions of flashbulbs that time. That was very difficult,
because the humidity down there was almost total. The temperature
was 56. So all of the cardboard cartons of the flash globes would
just come apart, and the globes would just roll out in the mud.
We'd have to put these lamps in reflectors, and use an electric
torch to compose the lighting, expose, set up another lighting
situation, expose that, and when all were exposed, put the slide
back in the holder. What we didn't realize was that the humidity
was so high, and the film of the period was so sensitive to moisture,
that the film would expand, and we got "double images" from
sequential exposures. About two-thirds of all the pictures I did
in two weeks time, with great effort, were all double-imaged.

How did you solve it?

Didn't I mean, I had five or six good ones; that's all I got.
That was chiefly black and white color too. But, you see, you
and/or your assistant pulls out the slide and opens the shutter and
takes the picture. Then you go over and connect the current to that
bank and take the second picture on the same negative. Glass plates
would have been perfect a very massive tripod was used and every
thing carefully placed and figured. But the film would just expand
with the dampness! That's what you find out through experience.

How many minutes did elapse between your first and last exposures?
Oh, five or ten minutes.
In that short a time!

Oh yes. Now, modern film, Estar-based film, as they call it (I
think it means Eastman synthetic plastic), has what they call great
dimensional stability, and it doesn't absorb water and doesn't
change dimensions in the heat. But in those early days, you were
just using nitrate film, and when nitrate film disintegrates,
especially when it's in bulk and packed together, it exhibits a


Adams: hygroscopic effect acquires water, and becomes nitroglycerin! So
that's the great and continual danger of having the old nitrate
film around. The great Cleveland Clinic disaster was due to x-ray
film nitrate base; the fire started and the film just blew up.

I have nitrate film out here, but they're all in separate
envelopes and dry no humidity problems so they are safe.

Teiser: When you had the fire at Yosemite, was that ?

Adams: Yes, we lost a lot of negatives they were on nitrate film. But
there wasn't enough of them to explode. And they were all in
separate envelopes. It's when they are packed together without
separating sheets they are dangerous. I went in to see Clarence
Kennedy in his office at Smith College, and he said, "You know, I've
lost some of my best negatives. I've got them here in the drawer."
And he opened it up, and here was a single envelope full of negatives,
without anything between them at all, that had all become semi-
liquefied. If anybody 'd been in there with a cigarette, the whole
top of the building would have gone up. I remember picking those
out and saying, "If you don't mind, let's get this out of the
building." And he was so surprised to find that it was really
nitroglycerin. Well, not in a very pure form, but enough to really
do a lot of damage. Nothing you could do to save them at all; they
were absolutely ruined.

Teiser: The Carlsbad Caverns photographs, were they made for the Department
of the Interior?

Adams: Yes. I worked out these two things together the mines and the

caverns photographs. I was down there for six weeks. That's where
I met a lady whose husband was one of the executives of the company.
She was a very fine musician. They'd been at Williamsburg it was
all Rockefeller business. He was sent out to analyze the finances
of the Potash Company. She had a Broadwood piano, an English piano,

Online LibraryAnsel AdamsConversations with Ansel Adams : oral history transcript / 1972-1975 → online text (page 38 of 76)