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

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which was either a piano that Beethoven had played or was a close
serial number. They weren't quite sure. It had been magnificently
restored, and it was a beautiful thing, and it gave the impression
of the way Beethoven heard piano music. It's just amazing; there
was no chance for bass octaves the keyboard wasn't big enough. So
when we play Beethoven now, like the Harmerklavier Sonata, you get
the high octaves as written, but not the lower ones. So you just
wonder what the whole concept of music was, because the instrument
was totally different, and this was really authentic it was in use
around 1812, something like that.

Teiser: It was at Carlsbad?

Adams: Yes, she had it in her home in Carlsbad. They were delightful
people taught me a lot. They returned to Williamsburg later.


Teiser: I think perhaps we should let you off with a short session this
evening .

Adams: Oh no, go ahead. Few more minutes. Sure, anything you want. I

enjoy it. The last few days were hard because I was trying to think
of all the little details and personalities who did this to inhibit


Well, what was your next subject? [Laughter]
things it's very relaxing.

I love these

Preserving Negatives



We mentioned the fire in the darkroom at Yosemite.
negatives and you had some marred.

You lost some

I'd come back from a trip with Edward Weston and Charis. Somebody
came pounding at the door and said, "There's a fire in the darkroom."
So we dashed out and, sure enough, there was a fire. The firemen
were there, and all I could think of, of course, were the negatives.
So I dashed into the center room, with hot water coming down from the
ceiling, and getting soaked, and reaching for and grabbing boxes of
film and pulling them out. I would rush out, throw the negatives on
the ground, and dash back to get more. You know, this hot water
there was an awful lot of steam; you had to hold your breath. I
saved a great many negatives, but many of them were partially charred.
I remember, the last time I was in I saw that the dry mounting press,
which had a porcelain switch on it everything else was just covered
with smoke, but this switch was bare. So this little German
photographer [who had been working in the darkroom] had apparently
left it on when mounting, and the thermostat had failed, and this
started the fire. But he'd gotten in and turned it off, because it
was the only thing that had been wiped off, and it was in the "off"

Well, then I took all the films and put them in the bathtub.
You know, we had a terrific amount of stuff. And some of them were
burned beyond help. This picture of Half Dome had a water mark on
it on the side. We saved quite a number of things, but a lot of the
pictures done for the Yosemite Company had been burned, and most of
my High Sierra stuff in the northern part of the park was gone.

Well, here was this bathtub filled with film, and the insurance
adjuster arrived the next day (the water was fortunately cold I just
kept putting cold water in it), and he took one look and said, "Total
loss." I said, "I do have some left." He said, "Total loss" you
know, he'd realized what had really happened.


Adams :

Adams :

Adams :

Well then, after we got all the negatives safe in the bathtub, we
had nothing to do. We had a few drinks and played Bach. Poor
Edward was just exhausted flopped on the floor and went to sleep.

Nancy's got that story [in The Eloquent Light] . But the point
is, a great many very valuable negatives were destroyed. Of course,
some were saved. A lot that had historic value were saved, but they
were in little albums. And one of the great jobs was getting them
all together and re-enveloping them and retyping the identifications.
There were just thousands of 35 millimeter, and the movie series I'd
done of rushing water they were very special most of that was all

What was the movie?

It was a movie series I did of just moving water, cascades very
specially developed with para-phenyline-diamine.

The Albert Bender insurance company was simply marvelous no
haggling at all. I had about twenty-five film holders that were
damaged by water. I couldn't use them again. Brett Weston said,
"Well, they are salvage 50c apiece I" Made a check out to the
insurance company. You know, he's still using them. [Laughs] They
were damaged, but he dried them out. I would not trust them!

And we had two enlargers.

One was damaged, the other was all

Teiser :
Adams :

Had you built that darkroom long before?

Oh, that had been built by my wife's father when they moved over
from the old village in 1926 or '27 and was done primarily for
photo-finishing. They developed roll films in the east cubicle
and printed in the west cubicle. It was a most terrible place.
But we didn't have any money to do anything, so what we did was
merely reconstruct the interior. That was all burned; the outside
was all right. That's the one in the picture that Edward Weston
has of Ansel Adams's darkroom.* Now you ought to see the new
darkroom. Well, you saw the new one.


Quite a change. Probably could burn up just like anything else.
But this has air conditioning and pure water.

*It is reproduced in Charis and Edward Weston, California and the
West. New York: Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1940.


Teiser: Now you protect your negatives from such

Adams: Oh, they're all out in the vault here fireproof vault, with a
dehumidif ier .

Teiser: What humidity?

Adams: About 45 percent the machine is set for that. It's been running

wonderfully for ten years. I know I have to get another one pretty
soon. The temperature changes so slightly, you see. If the
temperature goes up, the machine automatically compensates. It's
the humidity that does the harm. So we keep it around 45-50 percent
relative humidity. Well, when we get cold weather, down to 55 or
60, the humidity can go up a little. When it gets hot, the humidity
has to drop. People say, "Well, that isn't very low," but if you
have it too low, especially with film, the film gets brittle. We
have no mold and no other problems at all.

But Weston's negatives are in kind of an outhouse construction.
I get mad because I know they're really suffering from the damp. The
humidity here would probably be 70 percent now. You can always tell
by that drum [a large Oriental drum that is suspended above the
fireplace] . The drum sounds "unk" in high humidity. If it sounds
"boing," why, it's low humidity. [Laughter] You can tell.

Teiser: Weston's negatives are still intact?

Adams: Yes. He had a lot of trouble. He put them in manila envelopes,

and the adhesive along the back of the envelope joint is too hygro
scopic it accumulates water, and a transfer of chemicals because
of this dampness along the joining edge caused bluish-purple streaks
down the back of many negatives. Some of his negatives were really
quite damaged in this way, and Kodak tried to figure out ways of
removing it. But the only way they were really able to do it was
to use a very intense blue light, which is actinic to the paper.
It's really a matter of "filtering."

When you have stains on a print that is discolored yellow, you
use a G filter; in copying, the filter passes its own color, it

I haven't had any trouble that way. I've had trouble with
insufficient processing or processing in very cold weather, where
the water was down to 45, 40, and the negatives were insufficiently
washed. Some of those negatives are showing the silver sulfide
effect along the edges.

Teiser: Is that that yellowing?


Adams: It's an iridescence along the edge of the negative strange

iridescent bluish-green. Nothing you can do about it it's basic
oh, I suppose there is, but by the time you did it, you'd probably
ruin the negative. The thing is to get a good print out as quickly
as possible.

But that fire did a lot of damage, and yet did a lot of good
in indicating that we had to protect negatives better. We are very
fire conscious. One day we'd been invited down to El Portal for
dinner at Doug Whiteside's home; and nobody was at our place. I
said, "I'm not going to leave my good negatives alone." I packed
them all in the back of the car had several suitcases full and
went down to El Portal. That was the time that the railroad
station burned up and the whole town was threatened I The fire
could have come up just one more block and burned up the car and
all the negativesl That would have been really fate, you know to
take it out of Yosemite to protect it, and then have this catastrophic
fire. It was really quite a fire. Well, anyway, we got over that
trauma I

I haven't had many other troubles. I once sat on a beautiful
glass plate. One I worked terribly hard for Tenaya Canyon, Half
Dome from the east a beautiful thing, and I sat on it. Believe me,
that crunch of a glass platel I I suppose it could have been put
together and printed and all the cracks retouched out, but that was
just beyond me at the time.

The Late Thirties and the Fair

Teiser: I was speaking the other day briefly to Theresa Heyman
Adams: She's at the Oakland Museum.

Teiser: I was telling her that we were interviewing you. She knows about
the oral history program. And she said she didn't have much idea
of the photographic world in San Francisco about 1934 to the
beginning or the build-up of World War II, and suggested we ask if
you could characterize what was going on.

Adams: Well, that was the post-f/64 group work. And I think we were all
developing. I mean, people were working Imogen [Cunningham]
certainly was working. Imogen could tell you much more about these
things. Do you have an oral record of her?


Teiser: Yes, we do.*

Adams: Because she is really fantastic. She can remember people and
things in the most extraordinary way.

We were doing jobs, and I was doing stories for Fortune.
Roger Sturtevant was doing architecture, and Imogen was doing
portraits. There were lots of things going on. I think it was a
pretty constructive period. But I can't point out any one
particular thing. The Exposition** was in 1939, and I objected
strongly to the fact that the arts division had nothing of
photography. There was nothing but a P.S.A. [Photographic Society
of America] camera club debacle. And I told Tim Pfleuger, "For
God's sake, do something about photography next year," 1940.

So they called me up and challenged me and said, "All right,
we will. We'll give you space and a secretary, but not fee, and
it's a hell of a job, but if you want to do it, you can take it
over." Well, what could I do? I took it over.

That was a very important collective exhibit at that time.

Teiser: We brought with us the catalogue to that show, and perhaps tomorrow
you would go over it and talk about it.

Adams: Oh yes, the A Pageant of Photography I'd like to tell you about

that. And the people that helped me, and the people that did not.
I had a dreadful experience with a Kodak vice-president; it was
typical of the photographic industry.

Photographic Industry Attitudes

Adams: But the photographic industry, with the exception of Edwin Land and
Polaroid Corporation, has never been interested in photography.
I'm speaking in a creative sense. The whole philosophy of this
Kodak vice-president was, "What in hell does a photographer know
about a camera?" But that's a whole seoarate story trying to get
them to put a little money up to do a wall for Kodachrome displays.
That'll be tomorrow. That's too long to go into tonight.

*See interview with Imogen Cunningham, Portraits, Ideas, and Design.
Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of
California, Berkeley, 1961.
**Golden Gate International Exposition.


Teiser: I'm sure that what you say about Eastman's right, because when you
look in their manuals for beginning photographers and see the
examples that they're supposed to follow I

Adams: The least common denominator. And yet they are the largest

photographic company in the world. They probably have done more
than anyone to perfect materials. Their stuff is the most
consistent. It's very seldom I ever have a defective sheet of
paper or film very seldom, and they're very embarrassed when it
happens. In the technological field, especially in the graphic
arts, there's nobody in the world who's ever touched them in the
technical developments. But they don't have what Land has, which
is imagination. They have this tremendous laboratory huge
buildings, just teeming with Ph.Ds. But the whole approach of
Land is totally different. There they begin with imagination,
begin with an objective the whole aesthetic setup of Polaroid was
accomplished by art majors at Smith College, guided by Clarence
Kennedy, and Ph.Ds in chemistry and physics were common. One of
these girls, like Meroe Morse, would get stuck on some little
problem; well then, call up an expert from chemistry or physics.'

But in my field I was primarily responsible for the quality
of Polaroid black and white material, especially the 4 by 5. Then
along comes this tremendous new thing the new SX-70 camera,
which has millions of dollars invested already, just to R and D*
the camera and film, even before the camera is produced. The whole
thing is based on a small group, who are passionately dedicated and
work twelve to fifteen hours a day. Kodak works on a very staid
basis what they call the typical laboratory procedure. Somebody
sits there and says, "We will try the reaction of this particular
organic." Two people spend a week doing that. In the meantime,
Land will have three groups doing nine experiments. [Laughter]
The patent for this new process is a folio about two inches thick,
and with sixteen pages of organic formulas, all of which are tied
into the patent, all of which can be used, and many are used. And
then all the other elements of the entire system. He's gotten so
far ahead in so many directions!

Anyway, Eastman ordered two hundred copies of the patent book.
And probably every brain in that organization is ordered to go
home and see if they can find a loophole in it.

Teiser: They all go home and say, "Why didn't we think of that first?" or

Adams: Well, no, it's just the fact is that in order to establish a color
process, they have to avoid so many established patents. And I
don't think there's a chance in the world of coming up with a
totally different physical concept; of course, they might, and Land

*Contemporary slang for research and development.


Adams: would say, "That's fine," if they did it. Nobody's going to

criticize that. But the interesting thing is all of their color,
even the new camera, was all in embryo in the early 1950s. At
Polaroid small groups were working constantly on the problems.
They have so many things that are now in the embryo stage, if you
want to call it that. The instant movie will be announced pretty
soon. It's been announced, but it may be some time before
production. "Project India," which uses a special Polaroid print
as a printing plate already screened wash it off and put it on a
press. That's been announced. Color transparencies they're quite
far ahead with that. They tried a copier, and Land said, "Well,
of course we're not interested in Polaroid trying to compete with
every Tom, Dick, and Xerox." And they have an 8000 ASA speed film,
where you could take a wine bottle and lay it on its side and copy
the whole label; it produced that depth of field. But for some
reason or other, it didn't economically work out (as yet). It was
just too expensive probably 12c a copy instead of 8c. Undoubtedly
another crew is working to bring down the cost.

[End Tape 15, Side 2]

A Pageant of Photography
[Begin Tape 16, Side 1]
[Interview XIII 1 July 1972]

Teiser: This is the catalogue for the Golden Gate International Exposition
exhibit, the University's copy. A Pageant of Photography.

Adams: That's it A Pageant of Photography.

Teiser: You told us about the beginning of the exhibit and why it was done.
It sounds as if you must have done it in a trice, but it looks as if
it were a show that took a long time to get together.

Adams: Well, I griped because there wasn't any photography in the 1939

Fair, and then Tim Pfleuger called me up about three months before
the 1940 Fair was to open and said, "I've got a space for you, and
you can't back out. We're going to go right ahead and set up a
department, and you're going to run it. Period." So there was no
way out of it. They gave me a secretary, and I just started con
tacting everybody I knew. And really, I had quite a series of
names. Of course, I was able to get a lot from my local friends,
but I still had to do a lot of heavy work in the East.

Do you want me to talk about any of the sources of these


Teiser: Yes, if you would.

Adams: [Looking at the photograph of Lola Montez by Southworth and Hawes,
inside cover.] Well, I knew [the work of] Southworth and Hawes; I
knew old Mr. Hawes [the son of the photographer] in Boston, and I
have several daguerreotypes I got from him.

And then Walter Scott Shinn of New York gave me the other
daguerreotypes. Beaumont Newhall helped in the introductions to
these people. The ambrotypes were also from Walter Shinn, who had a
vast collection. Now, I don't think I had the best daguerreotypes
in the world, but I had some pretty good ones. But at that time,
there hadn't been standards of collection of daguerreotypes
established. I think one or two that I have now are even better
than the ones that were in the exhibit. I didn't have the Lincoln
[looking at the Matthew Brady Lincoln], but I made prints of this
long after the fair. European-American photography the David
Octavius Hills shown were printed from the original negatives by
[Alvin Langdon] Coburn. Coburn made very fine copy negatives
because the originals were difficult to obtain. The Coburn prints
are supposed to convey the real feeling of the original Hill images.

Teiser: Where were they?

Adams: The originals were made between 1843 and '48 in England.

Teiser: Where did you find the Coburn prints?

Adams: On loan from the Albright Gallery. And then the photographs of the
Civil War I got from Frederick Meserve of New York City. It's all
in this book.

Now, there were two volumes of photographs of the Civil War
period and after Gardner and 0* Sullivan. But this particular
picture that appears here ["Cliff Ruins, Canon de Chelly, Arizona"]
was in the U.S. government album that Francis Farquhar gave me. I
gave this to the Museum of Modern Art in New York in memory of
Albert Bender. I found another copy later, a slightly inferior
copy. The original was a very beautiful mint copy. Of course
I was very foolish to give it away, but nobody realized their
potential value. I think their pictures were originally one dollar
apiece, or in that range. That book would be worth $6500 to $7500
at least today. And then the Muyb ridge* ["Man Lifting Plank"] I got
from the Stanford University Library. Francis Farquhar helped me
with some

Teiser: There's a listing there of a photograph on leather.

Adams: Yes, it's collodion on leather. Let's see [reading from list in
back], "Unknown photographer. Photograph on Leather, Brewer Camp
near Monterey,, 1861." That was loaned by Francis Farquhar. And

*Eadweard Muybridge.


Adams: then we had one from the Yosemite Museum. And old William [H.]
Jackson loaned me some of his, and Horace Albright and LeConte
so we had very good support in the area of history.

Land, Kennedy, Stieglitz, Norman, and Steichen

Adams: And then stereoscopic photography. That was extraordinary, because
the large polarizing viewing apparatus was developed by Dr. Land
for [Clarence] Kennedy. It's a magnificent system of focussing, and
these pictures were done on 11 by 14 negatives transparencies with
a lens that had a beam splitter in it.

Now, it's hard to describe what that is. The lens was a great
big Schneider Xenon and it had two stops f/22 which were the
same distance apart as the eyes. The lens was at least four inches
in diameter. Now, a lens can have two apertures, and each one can
cast an accurate image, because the lens is spherical. Back of
these images were mirrors. They reflect the images (two mirrors at
right angles) down to the two images. They obtained two 7 by 11
stereo images, which you looked at through a special viewing device.
And it was absolutely incredible. The head of the Birth of Venus,
for instance you would think you were seeing under the paint'. The
illusion of depth was so incredible.

Clarence Kennedy arranged for that device and showed a whole
series of stereo photographs, some of which he had taken at the fair
here; many were taken in Europe. And thousands of people looked
into this device.

Teiser: Did you know Dr. Land at that time?

Adams: Not well, that early. This was still when he was working on the

Teiser: Was it accidental that his interest extended to photogr a phy? Was it
Dr. Kennedy who went to him, or ?

Adams: Kennedy was a professor of art at Smith, and his students were very
advanced, and Land picked several of the leading researchers from
Kennedy's class.

Teiser: That early?

Adams: Well no, not quite that early. They did have one come in early on
the Polarizer development. But he worked with Kennedy on various
projects. I don't know what the connection was, how it worked out.


Adams: But Kennedy when he heard about the polarizing device what it
would do he got in contact with Land and said, "I want to make
photographs of the great classic works of art and really create
them three-dimensionally." Land said, "Well, that's a wonderful
idea," so he designed the system. And then from that time on backed
Kennedy, and Kennedy backed him, and really made a great contribution.
The Vectograph was a very important concept a single image, viewed
through a stereoscope, gave a three-dimension effect.

Well then [back to A Pageant of Photography] , Stieglitz I
couldn't get an original. I got the gravure of "The Steerage" from
Edward Weston. I couldn't get any originals from Stieglitz. They
were unobtainable. But I had two copies of Camera Work, Numbers 25
and 36.

Teiser: Do you now own any original Stieglitz?

Adams: I have one beautiful Stieglitz which just came back from a two years
tour, and I have a Paul Strand.

Teiser: How did you get your Stieglitz?

Adams: O'Keeffe gave it to me after he died. She said Alfred wanted me to
have this .

Teiser: During his lifetime did he sell or give prints?

Adams: Very few. He put impossible prices on prints he'd only make one
or two. I don't know how many prints were sold, but it would be a
very small number. And in a sense it was the same with Strand.
They were very selective. They both had independent means, and
that makes a difference! So Stieglitz would never sell anything
under a thousand dollars, which is absolutely unheard-of for a
photograph. Maybe a few people would get one, or maybe he'd give
one to somebody. And all of these great exhibits he had at An
American Place, 291 Fifth Avenue he never took a cent commission;
checks were always made out to the artist. In my case, I sold $750
worth of prints at the first show, which was extremely good for that
time. But the checks were made out to the artist (me), and then the
buyers had to make out an extra check to the "rent fund" Dorothy
Norman, who was collecting the rent fund for the place as a nonprofit
enterprise. Stieglitz never took a cent for anything.

Teiser: I was trying to remember who Dorothy Norman was.

Adams: Well, she was a very erudite woman she's still living. She has a
beautiful home on Long Island. She married Edward Norman, who was
from one of the big New York families, and I guess, loaded he must
have been very, very wealthy. And he devoted himself to public works



Adams :

New York Port Authority, for example. He was that kind of man,
always active. A very fine man. I have a very striking picture of

And she had an intellectual crush on Stieglitz which
transcended anything I've ever known about. I'm quite sure it was
truly intellectual, but of course it drove O'Keeffe crazy because
O'Keeffe thought Dorothy would get in there and get control. So
that's a very tragic episode. She has a wonderful Stieglitz
collection and John Marin collection. She worked terribly hard to
perpetuate the faith keep the faith going. We became very close

Online LibraryAnsel AdamsConversations with Ansel Adams : oral history transcript / 1972-1975 → online text (page 39 of 76)