Ansel Adams.

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

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Adams: Yes, it is. Well, it's anti-art too, because many of these people

revel in what they call non-art. They think that the great curse of
photography has been its association with art. And Edward Weston got
out of that; he said, "I don't care whether you call it art or not.
It is, for me, what it is." But that doesn't help the outside person
very much. Is it an art or isn't it? It's a craft, it's a business,
it's everything it's a language. But the poetic expression of
photography is remarkable. I associate it with going to the Mission
San Xavier and hearing the mass; a most spectacular effect and
beautifully done, and with very good music. It's all in Latin
don't understand a word of it. But you go out with much magic in
mind and heart.

Then you hear a mass done in English, which turns out to be
nothing but doggerel, and it's dreadful. The same terms are there,
the same meanings, but it just completely loses to me, at least its
magical impact. People are always trying to change the King James
Bible, but there's some very noble language in it. It really has
sublime poetic quality in it. And they want to make it factual.
They take away this one saving quality of magic, and it becomes
nothing but a poorly-stated myth.

Teiser: It seems to me "The Family of Man" reduced man to its lowest
biological denominator.

Adams: That's a very interesting point. As Dr. Land said, "It took
photography back twenty-five years," if you're talking about
creative photography. But you see, that same thing could have been
given under the auspices of the United Nations for people talking
about human beings, but not saying it is great creative work,
because there were very few fine photographs in it. So when you said
it brings man to his lowest denominator, that's a very good point.


Adams: That's the first time I've heard that phrase, and I think it's right.
They didn't really degrade him, but it didn't give the exultation
possible. It showed everybody the good folksy character that could
be in, you know, advertisements.

[End Tape 16, Side 1]

Nancy Newhall

[Begin Tape 16, Side 2]

Teiser: I'd like to go back to your association with the Newhalls, which I
suppose has been one of your most productive associations.

Adams: And they're my closest friends.*

Teiser: Mrs. Newhall was she an art historian? Is that her background?

Adams: Oh no, she was a painter, a very fine painter. She graduated as a
specialist in Chaucer from Smith. She painted. Some of her
paintings are really quite beautiful. She made some photographs
that were really very fine. Then she married Beaumont and dedicated
herself to him and his career, and has extensively written on
photography. She writes in a very intense, florid style which most
people really love because it's got a certain definite spiritual
quality. Most literary people can't stand it because it is
"emotional." Somebody said to me, "Her writing is absolutely
impossible. It's just emotional writing." I said, "Well, all right,
it's emotional writing. Thank God for it." I mean, for a person of
that type, who is creative and inspired in many ways, she is an
extremely fine and precise scholar. She'd be about as good as
Beaumont. She wouldn't go into the historic fields with his devotion
to detail, but when she states something, she has really researched
it. Several people wrote letters condemning things she said in the
Teton book [The Tetons and the Yellowstone] as inaccurate, and she
could answer every one of them: they were inaccurate; they'd gone
to the wrong source. But she'd gone back and back and back and back,
and went to Washington and went to many sources and found original
documents and the letters. But you see, in history, especially of
the West, someone's made inaccurate statements that are perpetuated
in edition after edition of books.

*She died as a result of an accident in Teton National Park.


Adams: Same thing with photography. Statements of technique have been
perpetuated for fifty years, and many are wrong. I've done my
part in perpetuating, because we just took certain things for

Teiser: We've been using, throughout, this catalogue for your 1963 de Young
Museum exhibit in these interviews. There's a chronology and a
bibliography at the back of it, prepared by Mrs. Newhall. In
nothing I've asked you have you said anything that would indicate
that it's not accurate.

Adams: As far as I know, it is very accurate. And now they're expanding
it for the monograph [Ansel Adams] and for the San Francisco show
[of autumn 1973], adding onto it. There's lots of omissions in
there, but they're not of much importance. Oh no, Nancy would be
accurate and she'll scold me about dates, you know. I admit I'm
a total failure for getting dates accurate, or getting them at all!
You can't trust me at all for that. She'll trace right back from
the first of a period, and look in a book, and find that I went on
this trip and this is where I was, and that must have been the date
because it was published a year after that, not before. I had a
very big bibliography bigger than I'd thought of. A lot of stuff
you write, and you never remember it. Of course, maybe a lot of it
I shouldn't have written!

Teiser: That'll be in the monograph?

Adams: They'll all be listed, brought up to date. But the monograph it's

a strange term to use, but it's nothing but a collection of pictures.
A monograph is about one subject doesn't it mean that? And as I am
a photographer, the subject is photography. But it's not a text.
Doesn't have to be text. You can have a monograph on art, sculpture-
on an artist usually. But you can have a monograph, though, on style.
You could have a monograph on Gothic windows. It's just it's limited
to one subject, one artist, one interpretation.

Various Exhibitions

Teiser: I noticed in the 1963 catalogue that you had had a one-man show at
the University of California in 1938.

Adams: Yes.

Teiser: Was that a big show?

Adams: No; it was in the old brick building. It wasn't a very good show.
I printed everything too dark. I remember that.


Adams: But then I did have a show at Alma Reed's place, before the one at
Stieglitz's, in New York.

Teiser: Yes, and I think you mentioned that as being not quite satisfactory.

Adams: That wasn't very good at all. She was a person that would make you
pay to show and make you pay for the catalogue, and if she sold
enough, that was all right. But on the other hand, I guess she was
right in doing it, because there was no assurance there would be
any sales, and she was a commercial gallery. But she had Orozco
and quite a number of very fine painters on her list, many I think
related to Mexico in some way. So I never held it against her.
Turnage, my manager, won't let any of my prints out now to a show at
any gallery without a good juicy guarantee. If they sell, that's
fine we always protect them on that. But why should I spend two
weeks putting a show together and sending it, and having some prints
come back damaged, with maybe only one print sold? Now, that
doesn't apply to a top gallery, you see, or to a good agent or a
museum. Some of the museum shows they plan now are on the basis of
the museum buying the show

Teiser: Oh, really?

Adams: Of course, you then give the museum a pretty good discount about
50 percent. They should buy the whole show. They also hold the
privilege of selling prints, not from the wall, but on order.

When I had the big "Eloquent Light" show in Boston under
Director [Perry] Rathbone at the museum in Boston, there were many
things sold through the Carl Siembab Gallery. Even the taxi cabs
carried signs, "The Eloquent Light Show at the Boston Museum."
I was all over the map. To get into one taxi cab and see one in
front of you with your name on it gives you a strange feeling.
Rathbone arranged with Carl Siembab to handle the sales. There was
a little note that anybody interested in acquiring these were
referred to the Carl Siembab Gallery, Mr. Adams's agents. There was
several thousand dollars worth of prints sold in a very short time.
But it's difficult for a big museum to handle it; they're not set up
for that, you see. They should, maybe, for their own financial good.

Teiser: You had photographs in "Seven American Photographers" at the Museum
of Modern art in 1939?

Adams: Yes. I think that was one of the first experiments in the Department
of Photography, if I remember right. You see, it took a couple of
years to get this thing going. Beaumont had arranged that. And
then I had another exhibit at Yale.


Teiser: During the first trip east in 1933, we had a letter to Yale Dean
Meeks. Dean Meeks was a very charming man, rather corpulent
greeted us, took us around the galleries and then looked at my
photographs. And I didn't realize it I was so naive at the time
that he didn't know what a photograph was. I mean, to him a
photograph was a picture of some work of art, or some abbey, or
something. But the idea of a photograph being creative, a thing
that's expressive, was totally beyond him.

So I had this picture which just happens to be the one on my
screen [in the studio]. And he said, "That is absolutely beautiful.
What is that of?" I said, "Well, it's taken at Mills College. Just
a little natural detail." He said, "Well, that's impossible." Then
I showed him some other photographs, and he came around to the fact
that you could make a picture of something. But talk about being
opaque to realize that somebody would see an organized photographic
composition and couldn't accept it. It must be a photograph of some
work of art that somebody had done it some way and you made a
handsome reproduction of it I

Well, then he got excited, and I had a show at Yale, and
confounded a lot of the staff because it was the first time they
ever saw photographs!

Then I got them a show of Edward Weston's, and Yale rapidly
became a pretty good photographic center, and now it's very important
in that field. I don't say I did it, but it's now got the Stieglitz
archives and all kinds of valuable items in photography.

Teiser: Oh, does it have them?

Adams: Oh yes, a big collection. Turnage was assistant to the master of
Timothy Dwight College; he was administering the Chubb fellowship.
People of many different persuasions were invited to come to Yale
for several days and be with the students it was quite an
experience. It was exhausting; phew, you really kept a pace!

Teiser: You were one of the Chubb fellows?

Adams: Yes, a couple of years ago I was. And Turnage wrote the program out
about three pages long. The final thing was a cocktail party, and
underneath it said, "You are now a Chubb fellow emeritus." [Laughter]
Oh, they had everybody from Bobby Seale to Ronald Reagan to women's
lib to Jess Unruh to literary and poetic and scientific figures.
The only restriction on the Chubb fellowship is that it must be
somebody who relates in some way to public life and affairs. In
other words, because of my conservation work and external activity,
I qualified. Now, Weston wouldn't. Wallace Stegner would, as a
writer but also because of his interest in history and conservation


Adams: and people. I mean, if you're out in the public and people know about
you, then you are invited and you're taken over the coals by the
students. Pretty brilliant group, you know, and you have to be on
your toes from morning to night. They're merciless, and that's the
way it should be. They said they just took poor old Ronnie [Reagan]
to pieces, but I understand he held his own pretty well

Teiser: I read about Unruh. He apparently did very well.

Adams: Extremely well. Wonderfully. They should have had Paul Taylor in

economics, but it doesn't make any difference whether you're socialist
or fascist or communist; they want your point of view, and they'll
dissect you.

Teiser: So by the time you started exhibiting at the Museum of Modern Art,
you'd had many an exhibit

Adams: Oh yes, I'd had Yale, and then I had an exhibit at the Camera Club
in Boston, and I'd had Alma Reed's and then the Stieglitz exhibit,
the San Francisco Museum, the de Young Museum. And then the f/64
and another exhibit at the de Young Museum. I can't remember all of

Teiser: Was Grace McCann Morley director of the San Francisco Museum of Art
in '39?

Adams: Yes, she was. And the museum actually ran the department of art at
the Exposition. Tim Pfleuger directed that.

Teiser: Your one-man show there at the Exposition

Adams: It was just a one-man show; they insisted on it. I thought I

shouldn't show, except maybe in a group show, and they said, "No,
you have to show."

Teiser: Do you remember anything special about your show in 1939 at the
San Francisco Museum?

Adams: Oh no, that was just a nice show. I remember I had a little
argument with the curator I wanted a Stieglitz quotation,
"Wherever there is light, one can photograph," and they didn't want
it up for some reason. I got mad it was such a beautiful statement-
"Wherever there is light, one can photograph." I can't imagine any
more beautiful statement. I'd like to have it over my new show.

They informed me I was to be in the corridor [for the new
show] and I insisted on a gallery. They wanted this for a major
photographic show, along with the reopening of the museum, and I
said, "I'm not going to be in the corridor." I wouldn't mind being


Adams: in the corridor with a group, if you want to show ten prints along
with other people, but if they wanted a one-nan show I'm not going
to be shown in that corridor. So I got a nice gallery. Oh, it's
tough sometimes. It was more for photography than it was for me,
because I don't really worry about those things too much for myself.
Sometimes in the corridor you can get more even light and you can
see the photographs better, but they're always putting photography
in the corridor, in the back corner, or in a minor gallery, and
phootgraphy must be considered a very important thing.

The Metropolitan was very wonderful they showed me the space
and everything [before the exhibit was put together]. They wanted
to give it a real impact. The big Blumenthal Court will have the
standing panels with the big prints. The intimate things will be
in the gallery above, and then a great big gallery, which will have
"wings" inside.

Teiser: When is that going to be?
Adams: Spring of '74.

Teiser: To go on with the later New York exhibits in 1940 then, at the

Museum of Modern Art, you helped organize an exhibit called "Sixty

Adams: Yes. That was really my show. I proposed it. I thought it would
be a good thing to just take an arbitrary number we figured the
gallery space we had and figured we'd show sixty photographs, which
would go from the very beginning of photography to the most recent.
It turned out to be sixty photographers. We started with what we
thought was just the cream the daguerreotype, the ambrotype, the
calotype. There were really some gorgeous things in it. I think
we had an original Stieglitz, original Strand, original Weston. As
it got into the contemporaries like Man Ray and Moholy-Nagy, the wall
ended, and there was a bay about twelve feet long and six feet deep.
We painted that wall deep blue and put a light on it and hung the
pictures on piano wire in space along the plane of the gallery wall.
It was very nice; I was very happy about that.

Geraldine McAgy and Lisette Model

Adams: Gerrie [Geraldine] McAgy, who was the wife of Douglas McAgy (who was
the director of the California School of Fine Arts) , was co-director
of the California Palace of the Legion of Honor. She wanted to have
a show of Lisette Model's. Now, Lisette Model was a Frenchwoman a
very intense documentarist .


Adams: She photographed all the weirdies the strange people at Nice, the
gamblers, the prostitutes, the bums, the characters. Nobody has
done anything comparable to her work incredible! Her prints are
absolutely brutal and grainy and hard, and they couldn't be anything
else. I mean, when you see this, you get really a super-Daumier

Well, I introduced her to McAgy and, gee, she just went nuts
over her. She said, "We have to have a show." Then she got all
her photographs sent out, and she couldn't show them as they were
because the California Palace of the Legion of Honor was very
staid. Put these pictures up on the wall and you know the
probable opposition!

So she used some of these small galleries that are around the
central area. And it was an absolutely inspired exhibit. She
covered the walls with the want-ad sections of newspapers just
plastered them on at random and covered the entire walls. You can
imagine the texture. Then they were varnished, and they took on a
strange yellow color. Model's pictures were mounted against this
background, and the light on them was slightly bluish. She might
have gotten that idea a little from the O'Keef fe-Marin show years
earlier, but it was a natural thing to do, to bring the images into
space. That was one of the most effective shows I've ever seen
because the pictures carried all the harshness and the brutality,
and the grain was "supported" by this very small tiny type of the
want-ad paper. It's that kind of showmanship that sometimes can be
absolutely gorgeous. It can slip; it can be a tragedy. But in this
case it was just absolutely incredible.

Teiser: I remember some people saying they used to have to take flashlights
to see some of Geraldine McAgy 's shows.

Adams: We had to light matches one time to see the Paul Strand show at the
San Francisco Museum. [Laughter] And the Legion did have one show
of South American art or something, and the lighting was really
overdone. They put spotlights on the figures, and you couldn't see
into the shadows. It was just too much! When you can't see
anything in the shadow areas you are treating the objects unfairly.

Teiser: She did do some inspired shows, though, I thought. Many of them.

Adams: Oh yes, I agree just great. And they were all different, they were
truly individual. You go to New York now and to the Whitney Museum
and you see things, in this terrible building, that all look alike.


Frank Lloyd Wright

Adams: And then the Guggenheim Museum I think is a total catastrophe the
pictures are set in cramped alcoves. [Frank Lloyd] Wright said,
"We'll put them in; we'll light them." And there's a three- or four-
foot incline to the back wall, so if anybody wants to see them they
may fall flat on their face. People resented that. They had to
install iron supports to bring the paintings forward. Then the
lighting was behind them. A catastrophe!

I'd like to go on record: I think Frank Lloyd Wright is one
of the greatest fakes of all time and did more damage than almost
any single person that I can possibly conceive of in the whole world
of art and architecture. He hated people, and he made things
extremely difficult, and did some hideously ugly things and impossible

Please keep that on the tape. [Laughs] I think that the people
that go around worshipping him are like people who'd go to a black
mass. [Laughter] I knew him, and I've been in lots of his buildings,
and I know the trouble and the disappointments it caused. And compare
him with a man like Maybeck or Saarinen, who were really concerned
for people. But that's a whole section; I don't want to get into
that. Most of the museum people feel that they have to be loyal,
just like the people at the time of the Renaissance had to be loyal
to the church, because they didn't like the look or feel of the
stake! [Laughs]

I've had people come up to me and put their hand on my shoulder
and say, "Thank you very much. I'd never dare say that." And I say,
"Well look, I'm no architect. I've been in some of the architecture,
and I know the poseur and the extreme showman when I see one. He may
have a most imaginative gift for design, but if the building doesn't
work, it's bad architecture."

When the Johnson Wax plant, after the first storm, leaked, they

called him and said, "Mr. Wright, it's leaking all over the place.
We've got buckets everywhere; what are we going to do?" "Well," he
said, "get some larger buckets." [Laughter]

He had built a little house for the editor of Arizona Highways
to prove he could build a house for $14,000 and, boy, it was terrific!
The windows were framed in 1 by 4 fir which warped in the heat. And
the top floor was open space with a chimney a nice chimney, went all
the way up to the top, and they could have barbecues there. It was a
tar paper floor, except around the hearth, and there was absolutely
no pitch to the floor. It's very easy to put a one- or two- inch
pitch in its base. So when they had a thunderstorm it became a
puddle. It can rain considerably at times in Phoenix.


Adams: Oh, another thing he did in this same little house he wanted to have
the wife, when she was working, be able to look out on flowers. So
he sunk the kitchen four feet down with an extended part of the
concrete foundation. Beautiful idea, but they never waterproofed
the concrete! So the water given the flowers would seep through the
concrete, and mold appeared in all the cabinets where pots and pans,
etc., were stored, and they were cleaning out mold all the time.

Then he did the house for two sisters from a very wealthy
family. It was a very elaborate super-expensive house. A wide
staircase went up to the roof no way to close it off. You'd have
a thunderstorm, a cloudburst or a sandstorm, and the house would
simply become filled with water or sandl And you know, this guy's
an architect! How in the world can you condone such a thing? If I
give somebody a print that curls off the mount or fades this is
fundamental bad craft. Well, he just liked to show off, I guess.

There's a little house over on the beach at Carmel he built,
owned by the Van Loben Sels, and two people can't pass in the hall
without squeezing together. [Laughter] They lost their cook because
no cook can work in the kitchen. And the windows are, oh,
incredibly expensive, composed of these bronze casements and they
fill the window spaces and you don't get an adequate view of the sea,
which is remarkable. It's very hard to shut off the sunlight. The
sunlight pours through as well as the shine from the ocean. And the
spray has caused some trouble. It has oxidized the bronze, which
gives it a good color. And these people live in this thing like
they're living in a piece of sculpture! But I couldn't be comfortable
in it, and they're much older than I am. But they bravely stick it
out. The thing is worth half a million dollars now, at least. But
I wouldn't trade any Wright house I've seen all of them together
for this place, which functions. It's just wood but it has no
"manner." Never a leak; not one drop of water has invaded this
place. Except when we had an earthquake and broke the flashing
around the chimney, and a little water came in downstairs. That's
the only thing we've had wrong with the place. It has style and

I think Saarinen is pretty fine. I think the Oakland Museum
is quite beautiful. I don't think they've had many troubles. I
think that's one of the most beautiful buildings in the world.

I think these comments sound a little bitter, and I'm in no
position to talk about architecture. But, as I say, I've been
around considerable I've been in four or five of the Wright
buildings. Probably the most successful was the Marin Civic Center.
It's strange outside, but when you get inside it seems to be very
well planned. One of the most gorgeous buildings I have seen is the
hockey field at Yale like an inverted Viking ship hull. It's a
tremendously effective auditorium. And you know, something happens
there kind of a warmth and vitality.


Civil War and Frontier Photographs

Teiser: Back to the Museum of Modern Art, the 1942 show, "The Civil War and
the American Frontier." You've spoken of your work with the Brady
group's negatives. Was that part of'that project?

Adams: Yes well, again, I'd have to confess that was my idea. One idea
I had didn't come through. That was that since we'd had so much
confusion with what was called pictorial photography, as a museum we
should have a show of pictorial photography such as that sponsored
by the Photographic Society of America. Just once and for all
present it to the public. The museum presents folk art and all kinds
of things that are not necessarily "fine" art rather, crafts. We'd
have this show selected by the P.S.A. , and people then would have