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

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friends. I called her "Mommy" and she called me "Sonny Boy" and
still does. [Laughter]



She never photographed?

Yes, she did. She made a beautiful picture of Stieglitz.
I have a small one somewhere beautiful little head.



In fact,



Teiser: And she wrote.



Adams: She wrote a great deal. She did Heroic Encounter. It was at a very
strange mystical level which is terribly hard to understand. But,
like something that Barbara Morgan does, it is a kind of self-
induced mysticism, which if you accept it, you go into euphoria. If
you don't accept, then you just don't get it at all!

Dorothy Norman put America and Alfred Stieglitz together and
did a Stieglitz portfolio. I believe she probably made a great
contribution. Just doing a work on Stieglitz in which she omitted
all other photographers, because she said they weren't important,
seemed questionable. Beaumont Newhall was trying to tell her that
Strand and Porter and Adams were part of Stieglitz 's life. And she
loved them, but she thought that his contribution was just
introducing contemporary art to America. And she didn't accept the
fact or didn't at one time that Steichen had anything to do with
it.

Steichen was the one who would meet all these people in Europe
and get their work over to Stieglitz. Stieglitz would accept and
show them. So while I have no particular admiration for Steichen,
I have to admit that he made a great contribution in doing that.
Nobody knew what they were doing, really, at the time.

Primitive African artists were shown [at An American Place] and
early Picassos and Picabia, etc. I can think of any number of the
cubists and futurists shown, but I cannot recall their names. In
fact, Stieglitz gave the first showing of the new wave in art in
this country. Then it moved on to the Albright Art Gallery, then the
Photo-Secession. And what is that great show at the Armory in New
York? It was monumental. The Armory Show.



394



A Pageant of Photography , Continued



Adams: Going on [in the catalogue], we had the Coburns and platinum and gum
prints by Frank Eugene, Gertrude Kasebier, [Joseph T.] Keiley,
[Heinrich] Kuehn, Steichen, Clarence White. Actually, there never
had been anything shown like this out here before that time.

Teiser: I thought about people who might be left out, and Ben Shahn was the
only one I can think of of any significance who might not have

Adams: I tried to get him and couldn't. For some reason or other he
wouldn't send anything. I had his name. There were several.

Teiser: Who were the others?

Adams: Well, Stieglitz wouldn't send anything. I had Hansel Meith and
[Otto] Hagel. They were very prominent in Life. Gjon Mili,
Moholy-Nagy, Man Ray, Sheeler.

Teiser: I assume you had reservations about many of those you asked to show.

Adams: Well, I had to make that decision very early, to go into two pairs
of shoes. One is the museum curator and gallery person, who has to
be objective, and the other's my own. Edward used to scold me for
it. He said, "You shouldn't be involved in anything but your own
work." I always say that no photographer should be a curator or a
gallery director because he can't help but be subjective. I mean,
now it would be quite difficult for me to show a great deal of
contemporary work. And I know that Todd Walker is superb and some
of the stuff that Fred Parker is collecting and displaying. But
much is so absolutely out of my field that I really couldn't trust
my reaction. But there's some of these I'd have an awfully hard
time selecting, but I know if I were a museum man I'd have to.

I think [Robert E.] Heinecken could drive me nuts in time.
But still, he's made a very important contribution in certain fields.
It's awfully hard for a photographer to accept something that he
would never think of doing or have anything to do with himself.

Now, Brett Weston is perfectly obstinate about it. The only
photography he likes is his own and the people who look like him.
Everything by anybody else is just sick he wouldn't think of it.
It looks like painting, or it just isn't good photography, according
to him. Well, he's not running a gallery. I mean, he has a perfect
right to feel as he does.

Edward was very catholic.



395



Adams:



Teiser:
Adams :



Teiser:



Adams:



Teiser:
Adams :
Teiser:

Adams :
Teiser:
Adams :

Teiser:



Of course, I got a lot of diverse pictures in the exhibit. Some
people said I had too many, and I should have had a one-man exhibit.
But a lot of other people had a one-man exhibit. [Reading from list]
"Dassonville, Hardy, Lange, Stackpole, Weston" is Morgan in here?

I don't think so.

I don't think I had Barbara Morgan, no. And I was criticized
because 1 didn't have her.

Then we had some beautiful astronomical photographs and
mountain photography by Bradford Washburn.

I think it was a very good show, all in all.

It must be the closest thing there is to a definitive view of
photography in America at that period.

I would say that it probably was and this is not being conceited
but it probably was the most inclusive show that has ever been given.
And that doesn't seem to make sense, actually, because I know there's
been many shows of different kinds of photography. But to put this
whole thing together everything from photomicrographs to high speed
photographs, to x-ray, to color, which was very rare then historical
examples of color prints was exciting. (We got those from the
Newark Museum.)

And then we had the well-known men photographers and the women
photographers of the time, Sibyl Anakeef and Alma Lavenson and Sonia
Noskowiak and Marion Partridge

Who was Marion Partridge?

I think she was Roi Partridge's second wife.

You have some photographs by Roi Partridge in there. I didn't
realize he took photographs, as well as

Well, Ron Partridge
Aren't there some by Roi?

My God, there are. He did some. They weren't very good. He
recognized that fact himself; he is a fine etcher. That's right.
But of course Ron Partridge is very fine; he's exceptional.

There are essays in it that are interesting, that you must have
spent a lot of effort getting people to write



396



Adams: I did, and I must tell you the really funny thing. Beaumont

[Newhall] wrote this article, and to him it was very important
"Photography as an Art." You see this picture? Well, that was
first reproduced small.

Teiser: What is the picture?

Adams: Clarence White, "Lady in Black with Statuette." And that was to be
reproduced fairly small to allow space for text. This sheet was
going through the night shift [at the printing plant], and one of the
printers dropped a monkey wrench or something on the plate and
ruined it. So he had to get the engraver out of bed and rush through
a plate. He gave them the wrong dimensions, you see. The plate came
down this size. Well, there wasn't enough room for several lines of
type. So the real meaning [reading from text] "Alfred Stieglitz
received his first medal from Emerson. He too discovered that
photography has its limitations." Then he went on, "Instead of
accepting them as defeat, he has for over fifty years been promoting
photography, trying to understand it..." and goes on and on and on,
"and then overcoming the problems of photographic reproduction."
Several lines of the type were left out, so it reads as follows:
"Instead of accepting them as defeat, he has for over fifty years
been overcoming reproduction." [Laughter]

Well, I had proofread every comma and period, and the book was
released and I didn't know about this accident. Beaumont called me
"My God, what happened?" I said, "What did happen?" He said, "I'm
embarrassed, I won't be able to hold my head up. I'll never be able
to see Stieglitz." I said, "What are you talking about?" He said,
"Well, look at page (whatever it is) in my article, right down
towards the end. Just look at that." And I read it, and it suddenly
dawned on me, and I called up the printer and traced it through.

Beaumont steeled himself, went over to Stieglitz and said, "A
colossal mistake has been made. I can't blame Adams, although he
was responsible for the book and the printer. But look, I want to
show it to you before you find it." Stieglitz read it and said,
"You know, I think that's a very fine statement. Perfectly true,"
he said, "perfectly true." [Laughter]

So then, instead of reprinting it, they made a slip they pasted
in the correction right here on the page. And that's a faulty
method because the addendum should have been up here in front,
according to the rules of book making. So it was just tipped in.
"He has for over fifty years been overcoming reproduction." So this
is a rare book, because it doesn't have the slip in it!

It's as bad as the first catalogue of the fair that they did
about the part relating to the Brazilian Pavilion. It read, "Go into
the patio and enjoy coffee and mate" they left the accent off [mate],
you know. [Laughter] That became a collector's item in no time at all,
They had to reprint that one.



397



Adams :



Teiser :



Adams :



Teiser:



Adams :



Teiser:
Adams:



Teiser;
Adams:



Teiser:



Adams:



Well, anyway, I'm glad you found this. I think this was important
and I think it did have well, anything I say about how important
or unique it was cannot be substantiated, but as far as I know,
there was never a collection more effective for so many people.



There is a list in the back there of one-man shows,
consist of? Did they go on in a series?



What did they



Well, you see, I had six galleries, two of which were permanent. So
there were four galleries which were constantly changing either one-
man shows or group shows.

The one-man shows, you might comment on some of them. I was
interested that you gave Rex Hardy, for instance, a whole one-man
show. I didn't realize he'd done that much work by then.

Well, he'd done a lot for Life. Pretty fine exhibit of journalistic
photography. [Paul] Outerbridge a great color man; Charles Sheeler,
of course, had beautiful stuff; [Peter] Stackpole the building of
the San Francisco Bay Bridge pictures marvelous. And Paul Strand
had a one-man show; it wasn't very big and we had to space it out,
but some of them were pretty beautiful. And we had to raise an
extra $25,000 insurance.

Will Connell?

Will Connell. He was a "California men" photographer. Will was a
teacher and advertising photographer at the Art Center School. Fred
Archer was interested primarily in portraiture, at the Art Center
School. And they were the leading photographers of their group.
Edgar Bissantz, who lives in Camel now a retired architect did
some very interesting things of the period. He never advanced
beyond the period.

We didn't have a Group f/64 show didn't pull them together.
But we had let's see, what did we do with Van Dyke?

There was a picture of his in the main exhibit.

[Reading from list] "Willard Van Dyke, 'Old Buildings, Oakland,
California'" yes. Now, these prints were more or less permanent,
you see. These were typical of the group. And we kept these up.
And then it's hard for me to remember just exactly what was changed.

Were Bourke-White' s photographs those she'd taken for Life and
Fortune?



Yes.



398



Adams: We had [G.E.] Kidder-Smith; architectural pictures, which were

beautiful. Moholy-Nagy had a whole gallery of photomontage. That
made quite an effect.

In a sense, looking through this, there were many things that
were extremely advanced for their time. I could point out a
thousand things I missed. I didn't have [Albert] Renger-Patzsch.
I wanted to get him but couldn't get them from Germany. He was the
antecedent of Edward Weston, in a way. No, I tried hard to get him.
He was a straight photographer, and lived in Germany, and preceded
Weston in landscape and natural detail. Nothing with Weston' s power,
but still, some were very beautiful.



Aspects of Edward Weston



Teiser: You say he preceded Weston. Did Weston know his work?
Adams: I don't think Weston knew anything about him.
Teiser: No influence, just

Adams: Weston didn't respond to influence much. Weston went to Stieglitz.
Stieglitz apparently didn't like his work. He thought it was very
cold and calculated and did not have the "spirit." But Weston felt
that he did have the spirit a different kind of spirit. But they
didn't get along. And I don't understand why, because Weston was
such an even-tempered and gentle person. But maybe Stieglitz just
saw something he couldn't handle.

Teiser: We've just seen the exhibit of Weston' s at the Friends of

Photography gallery, and I can understand how someone might have.
That was my reaction today. I had to get out of there after a while.

Adams: Well, it's a funny philosophy. The donor of that exhibit said, "We
want a show of Weston' s, both good and bad; everything he did wasn't
good." I said, "We all know that. But the artist doesn't
consciously show his best work." A lot of these things are just
from Edward's collection. Edward might never have picked them for
exhibit.

Weston' s work is very dominating. And then, much depends upon
the way it's hung. And trying to get these natural forms together,
you do get into certain anatomical and erotic feelings, which has
always bothered me a little not because of itself, because I think
it's a kind of tongue-in-cheek attitude sometimes.



399



Teiser: I was thinking as I looked at that exhibit that I can't associate
that whole body of work with what I'd heard of Edward Weston as a
man. Did you feel there was a difference, or did you know him so
well that you couldn't tell?

Adams: Well, he always was an enigma. He was a very close friend, and a
remarkable person. But I have to confess there was an enigmatic
quality there and a certain amount of showmanship, and his finger
was on the pulse of interest. The Daybook* gives the impression
that he did everything under great inspiration, and I know some
things were done under great calculation. You can say that of any
artist. But the Daybook was a meandering sort of, I think, a
therapeutic release in putting things down. My private feeling is
he never intended to have it published. And then it was edited,
and Nancy Newhall did a fine job of it, there's no doubt of that.
It has become a kind of young person's bible now. And they see
philosophy in there that they'd like to live by, and they don't know
how to live by it, or maybe they can't. It's bothered me to see it
in print I hate to say that. But I think it should have been
something to have gone to The Bancroft and been for scholars. There
are some very wise statements. But it has a peculiar invert-
pontifical quality that I never can quite accept. You may know what
I mean by that I am just using words as they come.

Teiser: It seems to me I see something of that in the photographs a great
sureness, a great certainty of himself.

Adams: But in one sense, he was very modest, and he was very liberal to

other people. He used to say, "I don't care if you make a print on
a bath mat, so long as it's a good print." But he never got involved
in anything other than his own work. He did get a little involved
politically thought FDR was wonderful. [Telephone rings]

Teiser: Before we put this catalogue to the fair exhibit aside it's really

a good deal more than just a catalogue you wrote in your introduction,
"Color photography is rapidly coming into its own. While, as yet, it
does not admit extensive creative control, the technique being both
complex and rigid, we may assume that in the future we will witness
exciting developments and perfections." That's thirty-two years ago.

Adams: Well, nobody's made better color pictures than Anton Bruehl or Paul
Outerbridge. [Eliot] Porter is the only one of real stature. And of
course they have to be well reproduced.



*Newhall, Nancy, ed.
Rochester, New York:



The Daybooks of Edward Weston. Volume I. Mexico.
The George Eastman House, n.d.



400



Landscape Photography and Taste

Adams: The young person now who's really making pictures in the illustrative
field is David Muench, who is Joseph Muench's son. He has a
magnificent technique I've seen some very beautiful things, and his
reproductions are usually extraordinarily good. I'm trying to promote
him in that field. He doesn't join the creative photography group,
and that's a terribly difficult thing to define. You can't make
comparisons, but it's like putting Rudolf Friml as against
Stravinsky, or Ferde Grofe as against Prokofiev. You know what I
mean there's that other separate level, but the intention is there.
And yet some of these things do contain a magnificent quality, and
I think what most of the early people had and what a great number of
things of mine had an intense interpretation of the external event,
as contrasted to the internal event. There are thousands of pictures
taken of Death Valley, but Edward Weston was able to get something
with a certain formal sense that was a unique way of seeing.

The external event, like a great landscape, can be tremendously
emotional and evoke even spiritual reactions. But it is not
aesthetic it's a matter of semantics. The image of it can suggest
the emotion and the qualities, and the aesthetic element is the thing
that makes it art. Then you get into philosophy and confusion of
words, and the fundamental principle that you cannot legalize taste
or even define good taste in an ultimate sense. I mean, what is good
taste?

We had that terrible trouble when we were having fights over
curios in the national parks perfectly horrible things. But they
sold them and people wanted them and got something out of them. But
I remember I used to write to the director of the National Park
Service, "There must be something that we can do to elevate the taste
of these so-called souvenirs." The answer would come back, "Define
good taste from the legal point of view." You can, perhaps, define
bad taste, but now it's getting very slippery even on that. But you
can say pornography, but you can't Look at that stuff on the table
there that somebody sent from Africa you must [i.e., are expected to]
like it! Those are handcrafts of today; they all came broken, thank
God. But they're not like the original African sculpture, and it's
awfully hard to define the difference. They're clever, you know, and
they're well done, and they're done by hand. But they have absolutely
no clear style. They have a kind of stylization what would you call
it an exaggeration of certain qualities which were not understood.

Teiser: Otherwise known as corruption.

Adams: It is corruption, yes it's a corruption of style. But very few

people know that. These things are just not right. We've got to put
them in a box and hide them somewhere.



401



The Museum of Modern Art



Teiser: Well, to continue with exhibits. That same year that this was on,
you worked with Beaumont Newhall and David McAlpin to start the
Museum of Modern Art department of photography.

Adams: Yes.

Teiser: What was the origin of that?

Adams: Well, Beaumont Newhall had graduated cum laude from Harvard in art
history, and he was appointed which is quite a wonderful thing for
his age associate curator of the Cloisters, which was being built
then. And something happened. The whole thing fell apart, and a
new director was appointed, and Beaumont was out. I don't know the
history of it he'd hardly had a chance to prove himself. They just
cut the staff. And he was associate curator a young guy, not much
actual experience, so he was the one that went.

Then he got the position of librarian at the Museum of Modern
Art in the early days. It didn't pay very much, but he had
extraordinary talent in his field, and I guess Alfred Barr or
somebody knew him and recommended him. He served in that position
for several years, and he'd always had a great interest in photography.
In 1935 an article of mine on photography appeared in the London Studio,
and he liked it. He didn't know me at all. He wrote me a note
saying, "Thanks. I think it's very clear." The book, Making a
Photograph, came out in 1936. He was then very excited and wanted
to meet me. So he and his wife, Nancy, came out west on sabbatical
for a tour and they called me up. The taxi driver had dumped them
in a terrible hotel in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco. I
got them a nice hotel on "the other side of the tracks." We got
together and immediately became very fast friends. I remember we took
a trip up to Point Reyes with Bennie Bufano and, oh, I don't know, the
whole thing was very warm from the beginning.

Then I brought them down to Carmel and introduced them to Edward,
and they stayed here for awhile. Beaumont's interest in photography
then became terribly important, and we both felt there should be a
department of photography. Well, he was in no position to act; he
could recommend it, but he could go just so far.

David McAlpin, who knew Stieglitz and O'Keeffe, and had bought
pictures from the show I had at Stieglitz 's, and I were on a trip
somewhere, I think in Virginia. And I said to him, "It just seems a
department of photography should be started at the Museum of Modern
Art. There's no other institution that has such a thing."



402



Adams: He said, "Well, I talked about it, but the staff are all painters,
and they don't want it." (Everywhere you go, the painting group
always sabotages photography.) I said, "But look, here's a coming
art, and why not take a step in advance? Here we've got Beaumont,
who could be curator of photography in addition to being librarian,
because he has a great devotion to photography. And I'll do
everything I can. I guess you'll have to put up the money," I said.
"I can't and Beaumont can't."

He said, "Well, the trustees won't appropriate it, I know that.
I'm a trustee. But let me think about it." And in a couple of days
he said, "You know, I'll do it. I'll give a minimum of $5000, up to
$10,000, if you'll go ahead and organize it. Now you give me a
plan."

Well, Beaumont and I got together and we organized it quickly.
A two- or three-year plan, and what we could accomplish. McAlpin is
the kind of a man that sensed we could do it; if he didn't trust you,
he'd have nothing to do with you. But he studied this plan, and he
gave wonderful advice in simplifying it and how to present it to the
board of trustees. We agreed that "Adams will get a small stipend
for his time and expenses, but nothing more than that." Otherwise
I couldn't afford to do it. And he said, "Beaumont Newhall for the
first year will take no additional salary. After that, yes." So the
trustees agreed.

We forged ahead and got gallery space. And Alfred Barr was
pretty good to us. A few of the museum people were very good at it
at helping and some were very negative. But it turned out to be an
important department. And then Beaumont went to the war and Nancy
carried it on a whole series of planned exhibits and did a very good
Job.

Steichen, who was a captain in the navy, was bombasting around
with Tom Maloney. When the war was over, Newhall and Steichen came
back. Beaumont was putting things together. Tom Maloney said to the
trustees, "You appoint Captain Steichen as director." Beaumont has
no political force, you know he's just a scholar. The idea was that
Steichen would really put it on its feet. He'd get $100,000 a year
from industry, and "We'll make this the biggest thing that ever
happened to photography." So they fired Beaumont and put in Steichen,
which was pretty much of an ego blow, because Steichen then got twice
as much as Beaumont got, for one-half the time, and was no scholar.'

Steichen didn't get or Maloney $100,000 from industry. They
didn't get anything. So he started putting on spectacular exhibits
like "Power in the Pacific." In fact, he did that before the war;
he started on that idea before the war was over. Great big huge shows,
great ugly blowups, and it was all external event pictures. And of



403



Adams: course the people stood in line to see it. It was very spectacular
imagery, but it wasn't creative photography. It didn't have any
thing to do with art or the museum.



"The Family of Man"



Adams: Then he did "The Family of Man," which is the most overrated thing

which has ever been done. If it had been done for the United Nations,
it would have been swell. But done in the museum, it set the
standard for photography, and we haven't recovered yet! The quality
of the print doesn't mean anything; it's just the "idea." It's been
one of creative photography's betes noires an objective to avoid.

Teiser: I think it's anti-intellectual.



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