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

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But what she did was so intense, and the magic in that is not just
putting somebody up in an iron brace and holding them for fifty
seconds (the poses were very long) , but developing an empathy or a
sympathy between them. So when you see the picture of Carlisle,
Herschel, or even Tennyson, there's something happening there that's
far beyond the ordinary photographs of the time exposures of thirty
seconds or more, with the head gripped by the support. Her photo
graphs had motion, they moved, but that does not bother us. You
are aware of their great intensity.

Stieglitz did the same thing. He took portraits of [John]
Marin, and he'd believe if a person would sit relaxed for a minute
or more, something could come through that would never appear in a
snapshot. That's only a slice of time. That's another thing that
Cartier-Bresson did superbly: the anticipation of the body movements
and facial expression. And you know most candid photographs are
simply horrible, people speaking with their mouths twisted open or
showing incomplete action, etc. You have to study the person, and
you have to be speaking with him if you're doing a portrait of the
speaker. You phrase his passage or sentence, and just as he's ended
the phrase or sentence you may photograph because at that moment his
face may have a moment of logical repose.

And Cartier-Bresson, and, again, Gene [W. Eugene] Smith, and
many other people in that field have that sense. The person-subject
does come through. But the difference between Cameron and the average
professional at the time was not that there was a romantic stage set
involved. I think there was just a very intense personal relation
ship. The subject and photographer knew each other, they were friends,
and they knew what she was trying to do. There's no resistance, and
there's no passivity in evidence.


Adams: Minor White made a big contribution in discussing portraiture in
the sense that it really was a stage play, a dramatic play. One
character was the subject, another character was the photographer, a
third was the camera. The interplay wasn't just between you and me,
but it was between you, the camera, and me. And sometimes this was
very vague for people to understand, but he did some very spectacular
portraits on that philosophy. You're really getting the person to
feel that they're part of the camera. That's what happens when
you're doing what's called "first person photography," when they're
looking into the lens. Most photographs you see, they're not looking
at the lens, they're looking over there or at the photographer. It's
all right to look here or there, but if there's slight indirectness
the effect is disturbing. When I talk to you and look this way at
your collar, why, it'd drive you nuts after a while. You'd think I
was, you know, ashamed, or afraid, or weak. You see the difference?
I don't know whether you can see my eyes, but now you're the camera,
and I'm looking at you. Now I'm going to focus on the tree outside.
Do you see what happens? The eyes diverge.

Teiser: Yes.

Adams: It's an extremely small point, but it's absolutely a dominant factor
in portraiture because it can be so ugly and so unhappy to have a
portrait of a person four feet from the camera whose eyes are focused
on a hundred feet or infinity. I'm talking to you, and if I had my
camera over here, these would all be crazy pictures, because it
wouldn't be far enough away. If I had the camera over there [gesture],
by accident I might get something, but of course, I wouldn't know.
So that's why the camera itself, with its single-lens reflex design,
or just the view-camera ground glass, the image (not the finder image)
is so valid. That's what's so wonderful about the new Land camera
[the SX70], the beautiful accuracy of the finder. You're seeing
exactly what the lens sees.

Teiser: This question of focus, is that a factor in the [Yousuf] Karsh

Adams: Karsh is never very satisfactory when he has a first person. He has

the ability to make everybody look alike, because he uses a very con-
, sistent lighting without much regard for the person. I mean for mood.
The lighting, mechanically, is superb. When he photographs a profile
of somebody looking away from the camera he achieves very impressive
results. But when he has people looking almost at you, then his
portraits may go to pieces, because they're not looking at the lens,
they're looking at him, or looking a little above, or to the side.
The Hemingway picture and several others, the subjects are looking
above his head.

He has a habit he made a picture of me at a stockholders
meeting at Polaroid several years ago, demonstrating a new big


Adams: format that hasn't been developed yet. He was going to take a picture
of me, and it was to be processed right there in the camera, and then
it was to be put in the printing press. This was called Project India.
It's a remarkable thing. It means that you will take a picture, wipe
the developer residue off, put it on an offset press, and you print
a hundred thousand copies. This because the print is a screen plate.

I would have simply said, "All right, take the picture but we'll
rehearse it if you want." He got so nervous we rehearsed it four or
five times. He'd never used this process before, you know, and they
had everything set: they gave him everything he needed. He'd come
in a private jet from Ottawa. I was getting awfully tired, because
I was supposed to be the subject and should look "bright." We had
worked everything out and had everything gauged to a quarter of an
inch. But when Karsh made the picture, he'd take the cable release
and look at you, and then he would do this [lifting eyes], and so
everybody sort of does this "lifting up." And it's a secret.
Everybody in his photographs has almost the same "lifting" expression.
I saw him do it with several people. He just sort of does that and
you go along too. [Laughter] He just sort of transmits a lift.

But of course, his lights are right here: they're blinding.
They glare, you know. Whew! [Laughter] And then after he did this,
here are these two thousand people out in front, and he's just white
with fear. They process this thing and out comes this picture.
"Well, that's pretty good, Karsh," Land says. "It's not your fault.
I know Adams can look better than that. Can't we do it over again?
Sure, the picture came out fine that way, but let's get a better one."
By that time Karsh was just ready to be put down the Disposall, you
know (and so was I). So finally we get the picture. "Well, that's
pretty good." And he turns it over to his assistant who washes it
off. He then puts it on this little press, and there's a print for
everyone in the audience. [Laughter] Very nice offset print. But
the sense of portraiture is that extraordinary moment of understanding
people. And a good professional portraitist is pretty much of a
psychologist. Are you a pompous businessman, are you a slightly timid
housewife, are you a dowager, are you.... And I have failed many
times with all these types!

I remember doing a portrait of Mrs. [James] Rolph, the governor's
wife, and I just expected to do her head, but, no, she had the
inaugural gown on. Well, I didn't have a studio never had a studio
in my life with equipment to handle that, because somebody standing
against a simple wall in an inaugural gown is one of the silliest
things you can imagine. The light was all wrong. She was very
nervous, and she said, "I hope you know, I'm getting a little fleshy,
and I hope you'll do a proper amount of retouching." And I said,
"Good Lord, I never retouch anything." So, I made about ten pictures
of her, and they were perfectly horrible. They were so God-awful,


Adams: but I sent two proofs on. She thought one was simply lovely and

wanted to get retouched prints. So I thought, oh hell, I'd send it
to a retoucher and let somebody do it, and let them have it, because
I was obligated to get them a picture, but I had to cut the thing
down to kind of a panel. The inaugural gown, you know; I had to
print the thing down. If you do a thing like that and if you have
a studio and all kinds of lights, and you simulate a room or some
thing, you might produce an "effect." But imagine somebody in an
inaugural gown standing in front of this fireplace here, not in a
plush San Francisco home it does not work! [Laughter]


Teiser: Your portraits of people in the Japanese relocation camp at Manzanar
have a great immediacy.

Adams: Yes, and that's a very interesting thing. This doesn't belong in
this section, but I'd better tell you about it.

Dorothea Lange and the group*, at the time of the exodus, when
they transported the Nisei to the camps (which was a really tragic
time), made photographs. They had a very grim sociological picture
of this event, which was a very grim event, no question about that.
Then I came along at a much later date. I was up in Yosemite and
was griping that I couldn't get anything to do in the army or navy,
and I wasn't going to just be a sergeant photographer. At first I
thought I'd have the darkroom for Steichen**, and then, well, they
got somebody else. I was just too old to do this and just too
young for something else, and I was really griping.

But Ralph Merritt, who was a great man, was the newly-appointed
director of Manzanar, and he came to see us in Yosemite. And I told
him, "I've got to do something. After all, I'm feeling like not a
traitor but I'm perfectly well, and I have a lot of ability along
certain lines, and I can't get in any photographic thing to do in
the defense picture. They don't want photographers." Brett Weston
was an extremely competent photographer. They put him cleaning film,
which is closer to photography than most photographers were. But if
I were a young man trained as a photographer and had joined, I'd
have been made a cook.

*working under the War Relocation Authority.

**Edward Steichen served as a captain in the navy during the war,

in charge of combat photography.


Adams: But these kids who'd graduated from high school, they had already
enlisted in the Signal Corps, so they were already designated.
Maybe they ended up as cooks, too, I don't know. But when I got to
Manzanar oh, yes, let me go back.

Merritt came to Yosemite and told me, "I've got a great project
for you. Can't pay you a cent. I can put you up. I can get you
gas mileage, and I can get you tires, but I can't pay you a cent of
salary. This is something if you want to do it; we'll do everything
we can." He said, "We think we have something at Manzanar (Hello,
Ernst!* One moment, I'm on a tape!) we think we have something at
Manzanar. We've been able to get these people in all their
destitute, terrible condition to build a new life for themselves.
A whole new culture. They're leaving here with a very good feeling
about America. They know the exodus was a fundamental wrong, but
they said, 'This is the situation make the best of it.' If you can
photograph that, it's a very important part of the record."

So I went down to Manzanar and photographed, oh, hundreds of
people, and practically everyone was positive. They'd rejected the
tragedy because they couldn't do anything about it. The next step
was a positive one. And I had them smiling, and cheerful, and happy,
And the photojournalists raked me up and down over the coals; you
have no idea. "Why do you have these people smiling? That's all
fake I They were oppressed, prisoners." And so I tried to explain
what really happened. Because of this adversity, about which they
could do nothing, they became a marvelous group of positive, forward-
looking people. They were the lighting candles type, you know, and
that's the way you see them. You look at this book** and you see
many who are very pleasant, and very happy, and beautiful kids, and
they really did a magnificent job of establishing a life out of
chaos. And I think that's my most important job. Although,
conventionally I should have shown them downtrodden and unhappy and
dirty which was not true!

Teiser: You wrote the text, too?
Adams: Yes.

Teiser: As I remember, the copy I saw was poorly reproduced because of
wartime paper, and

Adams: Oh, terribly. Tom Maloney, U.S. Camera, just thought this was one

*Ernst Bacon, composer, who had just arrived to spend the weekend.
**Born Free and Equal. New York: U.S. Camera, 1944.


Adams: of the greatest ever. He was so glad to publish this, to

recognize these people, and he thought American citizens would
respond and it would sell. Only about 3 percent of the bookstores
and news stands would carry it, because the Japanese were the
"enemy." They never paid any attention to the philosophy.

I must have had twenty, twenty-five letters. Some were very
touching. One man wrote me. He said, "Well, I've lost three sons
in this war, and you're glorifying our enemy." And I had to write
back and say, "Those in my book are American citizens. They were
born in this country, and their sons who were in the army would come
to see them." But their hurt was so great that there was no
reasonable solution to it. It was really quite a tragic experience
for me.

Adams :

I should think.

I think of what's going on in the South. This [George] Wallace
business, and the fact that "if you're a nigger, you're a nigger
forever," you know. And if he was a "Jap," whether or not he was
born in America, he's still a "Jap." The subtle thing was that the
old man that we had working for us for many years as family companion,
gardener, and cook, Harry, was an Issei, was born in Japan. He was
picked up on the second day of the war because he was a Japanese
national, and we just got a telephone call from a friend, "Harry Oye
has gone to intern camp." Well, that's expected during a war. He
had asthma. The government treated him incredibly well. He went to
hospital after hospital. He finally went to Missoula, which was the

He had the best of food to eat. He was

He would write us letters which would have

best for his asthma,
completely comfortable.

the censor's stamp on it in red: everything is fine. He comes out
to us after the war. He looks fine. He was really extremely well
treated. He immediately applies for citizenship and gets it.

So Harry Oye at the age of seventy- some thing becomes a United
States citizen, treated ten times better than the United States
citizens who were picked up by General DeWitt and moved into the
relocation camps. And that's the story that I tried to tell! We
followed the what do you call it Geneva compact, and prisoners of
war were magnificently treated. And, when he told us about where
he went and the doctors he had, and the care and he was a prisoner
of war I [Laughter] The American citizen who just happened to have a
Japanese grandfather, oh no. He was put right in the internment
camp. And some places were very bad; well, not very bad, but dismal.

Manzanar had a beautiful setting. I always tried to bring in
the environment of the mountains. I knew a great many of the people
would look up at the Sierra Nevada. It was a beautiful place.
Merritt let them go out of the camp and collect rocks and helped
them get shrubs and build a Japanese garden. Just absolutely


Adams: beautiful. They had water running and flowers and shrines. I can
still pick out some remnants; they're still there in the desert.

Teiser: Did you ever show all those photographs?

Adams: They were shown in the Museum of Modern Art and were very severely

Teiser: At the time?

Adams: Yes. People criticized the Museum and criticized me. It was a very
difficult thing. And even some of my liberal friends said, "You
made a mistake that time. You just got yourself in hot water." We
were talking about it. They said, '"It's not the thing to do. Japan
is the enemy and you shouldn't have done it." Nothing could be
further from the truth. So I really think I can go on record as
saying that from the social point of view that's the most important
thing I've done or can do, as far as I know. I don't know what '11
happen tomorrow. But it was a great experience.

Early Days and Scientific Concepts

Adams: Well, I'd like to go back to earlier days and people that I knew.

I'll never forget the doctor for us out there, a little woman called
Dr. [Ida B.] Cameron who lived on Twenty-fifth Avenue and practiced
homeopathy. And she would come over and see me when I was laid up
with a cold or something, and she'd have her little sugar pills
containing one billionth of a gram of something. Of course to my
uncle who was an allopath, this was like what's going on in Ireland
with Protestants and Catholics.

Homeopathy is "like cures like." Strangely enough they've
found out lately that some of this theory may work. [Samuel]
Hahnemann I believe was the man who developed it. But there were
many, many family doctors who were homeopaths, and would give these
tiny little sugar pills in a solution of alcohol with an incredibly
small amount of a certain chemical. But you got over your colds.
And they never would extend into anything serious, appendicitis, or
surgery, or anything no kidding on that. They were really highly
trained doctors with this specific philosophy. It bordered a little
bit on the acceptance of acupuncture. Nobody could quite understand
how it worked, but it's probably the conviction up here [in the head]
that does it. But you still see the Hahnemann Hospital out by the
Children's Hospital, and Hahnemann was the father of homeopathy. It
was just a "school" of medicine. [To Ted Organ] (My friend, I know
that you are busy with prints, but could you remind Jim that I am


Adams: kind of dry and I'm becoming very eloquent, and this tape is very
important. A little vodka, a little ice, and a lot of water.)

Dr. Cameron had a great deal to do. She was the one we would
count on, and she was a very intelligent woman. So I had right in
the immediate neighborhood Miss Marie Butler, my piano teacher, and
Dr. Cameron (I forget her first name, it will come to me).

Then a family, Mr. and Mrs. Sattler, came next door and built a
house and cut out our view. My father when he saw the plans said,
"Can't you arrange this some way so you won't kill our view?" And,
by gosh, they did: my father, who was very broke, got a bill for
twelve thousand dollars. A demand. It was their court order because
they were going to build. Now, there's a strange thing about the
law. They were on a very steep hill. It would have cost twelve
thousand dollars to build the retaining wall, and we didn't have

My father went to a lawyer and he said, "What do I do?" He
said, "How far is your house from the property line?" He said,
"Fourteen feet." "Twelve feet is the limit. They have to hold up
the property." That two feet saved us. [Laughter] So he told Mr.
Sattler, "I'm sorry, I don't have the money and I was very worried,
but I consulted my lawyer and the lawyer says you're beyond twelve
feet." He said, "Well, I tried, but I'll hold it up. But," he said,
"maybe we can get some dirt from your property." My father said,
"Oh, yes." And we got along fine. So everything worked very well.

Teiser: But it did cut off your view?

Adams: Well, it cut off a good part of it, but still he moved back enough,
you see, which is more than most people would do.

The [Matthew A.] Littles built on finally in later years, and
cut it all off. Their name was Sattler, and she was a Christian
Science practitioner, and she tried to influence me in Christian
Science. Really, you talk about missionary work I There was always
something strange about it, because I was interested in astronomy
(through my father) and science generally, and then to be told some
thing totally unscientific was a surprise. I began to develop a
resistance, and argue I remember this as my first experience of
being confronted with a very smart, very good mind, but it was on a
very difficult track for anyone like me to comprehend. But the
words "science" and "Christian," and "there is no such thing as evil"-
well, that was an offense to my kind of thinking in which two times
two does make four. I can remember that we had poison oak. "Poison
oak is a beautiful plant; it will not affect you." Well, I was
tremendously and sadistically impressed one day when this woman came
down with the worst case of poison oak I'd ever seen. And when I
asked her about it, she just said, "Well, I just let evil triumph."


Adams: This was an interesting little phase, one introduction to what I
call reason and anti-reason. That was very important at the
beginning, that I had something to talk about with these people.

Then I met, later on, Orage, A.R. [Alfred Richard] Or age, who
was a disciple of [Georges Ivanovich] Gurdjieff. Gurdjieff was a
great mystical philosopher along with [Petr Dem'ianovich] Ouspensky.
I don't know whether he was related to the Gestalt theory or not.
And Orage was an extremely clever, smart man, and a good friend.
But he was absolutely scientific, you see. There was nothing phony
about him; except that sometimes he'd make some assumptions we'd have
reason to discuss.

The 1915 Fair

Adams: And then another very rewarding thing that comes back to me: the

1915 Fair [the Panama Pacific International Exposition]. My father
was very unorthodox. He took me completely out of school and
bought me a season ticket. I went practically every day to the Fair,
and I went through practically every bit of it. They even let me
demonstrate Dalton adding machines.

They had I didn't realize it at the time one of the greatest,
most significant shows of modern art, contemporary art, cubism and
so on, in the Palace of Fine Arts. A phenomenal show. It's been
written up lately. I do not think people realized what they had in
San Francisco at that time. Here were all kinds of geometric
structures, see, and I remember talking to a man, but I didn't
realize who he was at the time but he was one of the great museum
people in the East; I forget his name. But there were several
people around, and I said, "I don't understand." I was kind of mild,
you know. He said, "What is it that bothers you?" I said, "There
are really no straight lines in nature." (A well-known sculptor had
made a gutter-like figuration.) Several of the people standing
there looked at me brat, you know, talking about straight lines in
nature. Well, he could not give any answer to it . I'll never forget
this awful ten minutes in which he said, "I can't answer you on that
there are straight lines in nature, in some cases." "Yes, I know,
there are some straight lines in crystals, and fracture planes, but
99.9 percent of nature is a fluid thing, which isn't the least bit
concerned with a straight line. There isn't a straight line on the
body." Of course I was embarrassing him because of this audience.

Well, I went over there about two weeks later and he was there,
and he said, "My boy, you put me on a very bad spot, and I've been
doing a lot of thinking. I think I could continue the argument, but


Adams: thank you for putting me on that spot." I'll never forget that.

"Because," he said, "you know, you did bring up something about the
difference between nature and the intellect," and that the mind sees
straight lines, like [Percival] Lowell and [Giovanni V.] Schiaperelli
saw straight lines on Mars, the "canals," which was a visual phenomenon
of disconnected points.

But I can remember these things, and reacting very strongly to
many of the paintings, and reacting very badly to the sculpture. The
paintings were abstract; you could do what you wanted with them in
your mind. But in sculpture you had a tangible thing, like a rock or
a tree. I had a terrible time with some of the sculpture.

Teiser: Have you looked at pictures of any of that art recently?
Adams: Yes. I often recognize a lot of the things I saw.
Teiser: Was there a good deal of Rodin there?

Adams: Yes, but not in this show all this was avant-garde at that time,

early Picassos oh, I can't remember the names. They'll come to me,
but this was largely the Dadaist group, you see.

Teiser: The sculpture of the Fair in general...

Adams: Oh, the sculpture of the Fair was God-awful. Who was the man who
did the firemen saving the child down near the cathedral in North
Beach?* Oh, the Fair itself was just filled with the most God-awful,
bad, romantic and arid sculpture imaginable. "End of the Trail,"
Stella boy, was that daringl That was this nude a terrible
painting, but the most popular. But the avant-garde thought this

Online LibraryAnsel AdamsConversations with Ansel Adams : oral history transcript / 1972-1975 → online text (page 4 of 76)