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

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seen the relative aesthetic shallowness of this kind of sentimental
expression. It's no more shallow than an awful lot of things that
were shown, in different art forms. But I couldn't get that one by.

So then the idea was to sum up the photography of the Brady
period and what Brady really was, and the people that worked with
him who went on out into the frontier after the Civil War. Brady
was a great promoter. He never made any photographs. There's no
record of him actually making any photograph he had bad eyes. But
he ran a business, and as far as we know, he was very dignified and
paid his people pretty well. His people would photograph General
Grant in front of his tent and such things. He was probably there
with two or three of his photographers and directing it. The only
difference between him and Roy Stryker was that Stryker insisted
went out of his way in naming the photographers and giving them
credit. He lived in a different period of photography.

When a gift of five thousand Brady negatives came to the
National Archives, Beaumont and I went down to look at them and pick
out a few for special attention, and all of their envelopes had
written on them the name of the photographer or the original
signatures of the photographer.

Teiser: They were still in their envelopes from the 1860s?

Adams: Still in their original envelopes as far as we could tell. I

picked out some, and I was allowed to go to Washington and make the
prints for the exhibit. I also selected some Jackson photographs
from the Dearborn museum, made prints of negatives, and some Ben
Witticks from the Laboratory of Anthropology; also selected some
O'Sullivans. We had quite an amazing group of pictures.

I think that was a very fine show, because it was the first time
the public really saw these O'Sullivans and the Witticks and the
Civil War pictures together in some kind of logical relationship.


Teiser: There were several books then done by James D. Horan and others,

Adams: Yes, [F.H. ] Meserve. This show really wasn't a scholarly show

because we only touched the material that was readily available at
that time most of the important images were too widely scattered.
The first books that came out were really about Lincoln and the Civil
War. They collected everything they could about Lincoln as a
personality. The Civil War pictures are relatively dull because they
couldn't do what we call "action" pictures. They'd show a lot of
corpses on the battlefield or they'd show the army lined up but
there was no such thing as true action. It was all very static, and
some well-known images were actually arranged post-mortem! But they
had Lincoln in various and sundry situations. We don't know some of
these pictures may be copies. It's interesting that the glass plate
negatives of the ones that were well known were invariably cracked
put together with scotch tape, which didn't do any good for the
emulsion because they had been used and used and accidents happened
to them. The picture of the woman on Lookout Mountain in Tennessee,
for instance cracked plate. I printed that, and that was difficult.
I asked, "Can't we do something with this?" but I couldn't touch it.
So if I was ever to reproduce that, I would simply have that crack
retouched by the engraver out of the print

Teiser: Some museums have been, as I understand it, trying to make from old

negatives the best possible print and use that as the archival record.

Adams: Well, in the first place, you have to realize most of these old

negatives are extremely contrasty, because they were designed for
printing-out papers. And the printing-out paper was like the solio
proof paper you can get now, but it's of poor quality. Light affects
the silver directly, so as the silver darkens it becomes a mask
prevents further light coming through it. The result is, when you do
get the black and the white values you want, you have what would be
called a linear relationship of tones. In other words, the quality is
very beautiful and luminous because the steps are in linear proportion,
whereas our modern prints that we make with developing-out papers show
a "curve" progression of values. And the eye and mind seem to
perceive this difference. The pictures I've made with Azo-0, with
one-to-fifteen Amidol, did preserve to a certain extent the scale,
and with the selenium toning added, suggested the quality of the old
prints. But it still isn't exactly the same. There are no good
printing-out papers made today that I know of. You would have to
make the collodion or the albumen emulsion paper or whatever they used.
I don't think there's a paper made in the world today that would give
original effect, so we have to simulate it in some way. It could be
done; there could be negatives made from negatives and then propor
tionately reduced and put into modern scale. But I've never seen
anything good come out of it so far.


Adams: I know that my Manzanar negatives may be printed glossy and hard by
the Library of Congress, who now has them. I'm easy to print
compared to the old boys. The pictures that you can buy are legion.
You send a dollar or so to the Library of Congress and you get a
picture of Walt Whitman it's really very "icky." [Laughter] I mean,
it's badly printed; it's just a likeness, it's nothing more.

Teiser: Your Manzanar photographs were shown at the Musem of Modern Art, then,
in 1944

Adams : Yes .

Teiser: And I believe you said that they caused a good deal of controversy.

Adams: Yes. They weren't accepted as works of art, and they were put down

in the basement. And I'd like to say one thing just before that the
people who made the photographs in the time of Brady and the frontier
were undoubtedly not aesthetically conscious. We're reading into
them our aesthetic qualities. The only one that really had the thing
that I would accept today as great seeing was 0' Sullivan. Jackson
had a few, but mostly they were just factual images.

More on the Manzanar Photographs

Adams: My Manzanar project was a documentary series, but there were a few
things in it that were emotionally potent. The Museum put them in
the basement foyer, but they received a terrific amount of attention.
Paul Strand was very impressed was actually weeping. He was again
looking at the subject and the situation. Tom Maloney published the
book* but people refused to buy it. Many wrote letters saying it was
unpatriotic. The newsstands couldn't possibly sell it, because if
they had it on display, they feared they would be boycotted. I
received the most touching letters from people who'd lost sons in the
war "How could you possibly support the enemy?" They'd never read
it; didn't realize it was not about the enemy. The Nisei were
American citizens and their sons were out there fighting along with
the Yanks, but you couldn't get that fact over to them. It was quite

I don't know. I suppose if we'd known more, we could have better
said, "These are Americans," and really made it a potent idea for
people. But it was a fact they thought of them as the enemy.

In Yosemite I was practically ostracized by all the navy people:
"You've been down with the Japs." Well, they'd been over there
fighting the Japanese, and they didn't trust anybody. "Ain't no Jap
to be trusted, no how" that was their basis of opinion.

*Born Free and Equal.


Adams: So I really stuck my neck out on it. And I'm very glad I did it.
But it was awfully hard to explain at the time to the people that
really had the contact with the enemy to expect them to be broad
enough to realize that there could be some good Japanese. Well, you
know how we felt about Nazism there isn't any such thing as a good
Nazi. And there probably isn't because they have a philosophy which
was very open and clear. The Japanese were for the emperor and, of
course, for the war, which was a far more decent and "usual" war than
the one we had with Germany. Then there was the vast racial problem.
It's a big problem; it's awfully hard to define it.

I don't think I was unpatriotic in supporting a loyal American
of Japanese ancestry.

Teiser: I'm only sorry that the book was, as I'm sure you remember, on poor
paper because of wartime restrictions.

Adams: Oh, it was terrible paper awful. It should be reprinted again, and
it could be. The book they did on the Executive Order [Executive
Order 9066. San Francisco: California Historical Society, 1972]
really didn't touch what I had to say on Manzanar. It related chiefly
to the tragic "exodus." That was the disaster of the evacuation, which
was very bad. But I was trying to make the point of how these people
were able to overcome their unfortunate situation and make a beautiful
life for themselves. And I was criticized up and down because I showed
people smiling. "How can they smile in the face of tragedy?" I said,
"The tragedy existed, but they overcame it."

I remember when I was studying Greek with Dr. Harriot; he was an
old fundamentalist minister. He was a fine teacher, but he was a
rabid fundamentalist.

There's still about a hundred people who believe the world is
flat. And thousands of people that think all the moon landings are
television studio things. [Laughter] I've had people tell me, "You're
too naive. Don't you know they can do anything now with studio
effects? All that moon landing that's all fake. That's all
impossible. That was done right in a television studio." Well, I
can't say that they couldn't be. You know, they could simulate that,
and in fact the simulations sometimes are remarkable.

[End Tape 16, Side 2]
[Begin Tape 17, Side 1]

Adams: Another experience I had one man was saying we'd exaggerated every
thing that Hitler was really a great man and the savior of the world
from Jewish barbarianism. And he said, "The idea of these millions
of Jews having been exterminated is ridiculous. There was only
600,000 of them killed."


Adams :

Adams :

So there you go to a point when how do you answer it? If one
person is murdered, that's a crime. There's a book out that I got
from, apparently, some Birchers. There's been four million copies
printed. If you're a Bircher, you're ultra-conservative, you buy a
lot of these and send them to your friends. But they never put the
their name on them. The thing I always object to, there's never any
return address. You just get these nasty tomes on a "secret basis."
And this is one of these insidiously written books you couldn't
possibly believe how bad it is unless you'd read it which proves
that people like Eisenhower and Marshall were all in a Communist
conspiracy. And the Morgans all of the political figures of our
time whom we consider to be conservatives, were still working for a
conspiracy of world Jewish domination. It's a paperback and written
in this style of boring, insistent repetition. You can imagine
somebody who doesn't think at all getting hold of it and, I'm pretty
sure, being hypnotized. I have a friend in San Francisco who said
he considered Eisenhower to be one of the most dangerous Communists
we had totally in sympathy with communism!


But that happens .

What do we do? We just smile and carry on.

Museums and Galleries

Teiser: In 1945 you gave a course in photography at the Museum of Modern
Art. What was that designed for? Who came to that course?

Adams: Anybody interested in photography. All I wanted to do was first to
see their portfolios and know they weren't rank beginners, or that
they had really serious intentions.

Teiser: It was a course for working photographers?

Adams: Anybody who was seriously interested in photography, really. We

apply that system at the workshops at Yosemite we accept not only
professionals, but also a lot of people interested in the
journalistic aspect or just the cultural, "appreciation" aspects, and
as long as they have a real interest we accept them. We did discard
a lot of rank camera club people who had no apparent gift for
thought or imagination. But you must go along and you ask, "Who is
hopeless?" All of a sudden a spark might be kindled in somebody,
and they've got enough mechanics, say, through a camera club, to
suddenly realize, "What have I been doing? I haven't really explored


Adams :







the potentials." They see a good photograph for the first time, a
really creative work and, gee, they just blossom out. It's

There was also a show called "Art in Progress" at the Museum of
Modern Art. Do you remember that?


I think that some of your work was included in it.

Oh, I think yes, it was a kind of survey of the arts,
photographs in it.

I had a few

Then in '46, there was a major exhibit of your work at the Santa
Barbara Museum. Was that of any special significance?

Just a big exhibit well, big for that museum a hundred prints,
sixty prints, something like that. I had many of those nothing
happened; as a rule perhaps only one print's sold. I send the
prints to them; they send them back. Some are damaged; most are in
good shape. It's a thing we all thought at that time we had to do
to just get ourselves in the public eye.

Now we still have to do that, but we do it on a little more
practical basis. I suppose it really enlarges appreciation of

There are more small galleries now, I suppose, than there were then?

Oh, it's a tremendous increase in number. There weren't any small
galleries. It's only in the last ten or fifteen years that there
are this enormous number of small galleries most of which fail in
just a matter of a few months! They have absolutely no concept of
what it means to run a gallery, all the costs and responsibilities.
They have good intentions, and that's why we have to figure all the
time how can we afford to make prints to send to them?

Now, this Limited Image gallery in Chicago had a big
promotion fanfare. They wanted to be Wynn Bullock's agent. They
had this big exhibit. They sold $3700 worth of prints. I was very
excited, and said, "Gee, this is great." Then I received a check
for $500 saying, "Sorry, we're broke. This is all you can possibly
get. And we're sending back the prints." And they didn't do what I
told them to do which was not to sell the prints from the wall, to
sell them on order. They sold the prints from the wall and got the
money from the client about 60 percent and the others were orders
they'd received the money for, and I was expected to make them for
the clients. So they went broke; they went bankrupt. It's a matter


Adams: of fact that when they took the money in they paid the rent, the
assistance cost, and the water bill and all the other things, and
found they had no money left. So it's interesting. You can't
write it off as a bad debt. You hadn't given them anything the
IRS would consider of value. You can only take off the cost of the
materials. We're trying to get that clarified now. It's pretty
important to several people around here that are stuck. But that's
just an example of a fairly big gallery operating on a know-nothing

Others have been simply marvelous. Siembab, after this Boston
Museum exhibit, paid some on account of sales, but came into very
hard times and owed me $3400 and said he couldn't pay more then but
would pay when he could. After about four or five or six years I
forget the time my gosh, I get paid. His credit rating goes up
very high. I suppose I could have if I were selling canned beans
or something demanded some interest over the period, but he just
tried awfully hard and he finally got himself on his feet. Now,
those are people you want to support. But these other people like
the Chicago gallery put wet labels on the back of all the prints
and it showed on the surfaces. (The ordinary ones that you take
apart and are plastic they're all right.) They had no right to do
that on a print, anyway. That's camera club stuff. So this thing
in Chicago was a total disaster.

Teiser: When was that?

Adams: Last year. So that's why we're very careful. If one of these

little galleries wants a show, if it's a business, you'd go to Dun &
Bradstreet or you'd get a credit reference. They want to show your
stuff and they think they can sell some; well, all right, but if I'm
sending twenty prints $4000 worth of photographs, let's say you
hope they sell. They have all the problems of putting the pictures
up, protecting them, repacking them, sending them back, paying the
insurance and they still come back dog-eared or scratched. It's a
very serious matter. Now, I got the Stieglitz print back after two
years of circulation by the Museum of Modern Art; it was absolutely
perfect. I thought they'd lost the frame and raised holy Cain; then
I found that I'd taken the frame off when I sent it!! But they
returned it in such a way, with such a poor label, that it got lost,
and when it arrived here the only reason that Greyhound knew about
it was that they recognized my name on a lot of stuff. "Ansel Adams"
was written in pencil on the box, which the labels go over; it was
the only identification! The whole label was torn off and every bit
of identification.

Teiser: In 1947 there was a show called "National Parks, Paintings and

Photographs," in the Downtown Gallery in New York. Did that contain
some of your material done on the Guggenheim?


Adams: Yes, that was one that also I think it appeared in Fortune

criticism Time or Fortune . There was a portfolio in Fortune , I
think paintings and photographs.

Teiser: That was with a De Voto article?

Adams: Yes, and that had some very fine painters in it too. Max Ernst
I'm awful for names. The portfolio appeared in Fortune.

Teiser: You had nothing to do then with organizing that exhibit?

Adams: No, I didn't organize that.

Teiser: You have also permanent displays, don't you?

Adams: I have a series of photographs in the city hall of Concord,

California quite a display permanent. You can go over and look
at it. It's all right.

I've got the largest single display, I guess, anywhere of an
individual's work in a big law office, O'Melveny and Myers in Los
Angeles. There's six floors in the big Crocker Union Bank building
eighty-six pictures. Now I've gotten three and coming on four floors
with the Fremont Indemnity Company in Los Angeles and their office in
San Francisco. These are just pictures they buy and put up, as
paintings for permanent decor.

Teiser: The law office is in the Crocker Citizen's building?

Adams: Yes, O'Melveny and Myers. I think they're the biggest in the West.
(Next to that is Pillsbury, Sutro and Somebody in San Francisco.)
But this is a tremendously big firm.

It's just to decorate the office, and the pictures were all
framed so they can rotate through different areas, and it's for the
prime benefit of the staff, because very few people get in the

Teiser: Who chose those you?

Adams: Well, I did, yes I suggested them, at least. But it was a Mr.

James Greene who was in charge of this project and he was very good.

Teiser: Was it a variety of subjects?

Adams: Every one was a California scene. So were those the Fremont people
chose. The Fremont offices are very brilliantly colored. The
decorators got there first very good job, very lively. But I
nearly fainted when I saw these walls on which I had to put black
and white pictures.


Adams :

Adams :
Adams :

Adams :


Adams :

Neil Weston made the frames, which were painted one value higher
than the color of the wall. It was an ochre wall, for instance;
the lighter-hued frame blended the wall psychologically into the
print, and they really came out very well.

When was the Concord City Hall group installed?
Oh, that's four or five years ago.
Did they specify what photographs ?

No, no. I showed them proofs; you always do that.
architect, then presented a plan.

I talked to the

Then I did a series of pictures for a little psychiatric office
in Menlo Park. It was a group of psychiatrists working together.
It's an office that is operated without receptionists or secretaries!
You just come in and sit down, and the doctor will come out and say,
"See you in a few minutes." And on the wall are these pictures which
they can contemplate. They were carefully picked for their
psychologically quieting value forest scenes and little leaf
patterns things so people can come in and sit down in this room
and look quietly.

What a good idea.

Wonderful idea, yes. I think it works just fine.

Whose idea was that?

The doctors, along with the architect. The architect thought that
if they had photographs to look at it might lead them to reality.
Rather than, if you're disturbed and you look at a painting and
you have your doubts about interpretation the painting could
dominate. Whereas the photograph would be more related to reality.
They could put themselves into the real leaves and real trees, etc.

That's interesting.

Then I have endless over-mantles in homes, and pictures in
executives' offices.

Yes, we see them every so often.
Well, how we doing?

Well, tomorrow we'll go on to another subject if we may, and that'll
be publications over about this same period.


Adams: It's wonderful working with you, because you have everything so
well organized.

Yosemite Today

Adams: As I say, I was talking to the National Park people, just trying

to recapitulate the personal experiences and the trouble we had in
Yosemite with the company, and the government problems, and they
made a tape but that wouldn't mean anything, although they'd
transcribe it. It's kind of confidential. It brings in names of
people already around. This was a study of traffic situations,
and what's really happened since important traffic changes were
made closed roads, one-way roads, etc.

Teiser: What was the film on that subject made by Ron Partridge called
"Cement it over and color it green," or something?

Adams: Well, that's a terrible thing. People go to Yosemite with a pre
conceived idea that everything stinks, the traffic is all wrong,
and the concessionaires are taking everything over. What they did
was typical: photograph a parking lot with a wide-angle lens and
give the impression the whole valley is covered with cars. There's
no human understanding at all that the American people own Yosemite
and they should be able to come and see it. And instead of a
constructive management as a possibility, they just condemn
everything. It was a very bad film very untruthful. But it was
typical of the general mood and feeling that's now rampant in the
conservation groups, which has influenced me to get out of the
Sierra Club. I didn't want anything to do with that kind of
thinking. It was so irrational and unrealistic.

The way that Yosemite Valley's going now it's just absolutely
marvelous. I never saw so many people who really belong there and
are enjoying it. And it's clean; it's as clean or cleaner than
it's ever been.

There was something about the early days, when everything was
dust, and concessionaires were fighting and providing lousy food and
accommodations. There were animals staked out in the meadows,
camping everywhere. Anybody who was a concessionaire was there just
to make money. Now they've really gotten to the point where they
are getting the larger picture. They know that if the concessionaire
is to be there, if he's necessary to serve the people, he has to
operate on a sound basis. For twenty years I've been saying the
government should buy out all the capital investment and then lease
to the concessionaire under strict control. A lot of the problems they


Adams: have is trying to pay off their investments; you can't amortize a
mortgage through a bank because you don't own the property.

We had to raise $140,000 to fix up our studio, according to
the new fifteen-year contract. And there isn't any bank or building
and loan company that legally could do it. So we had to put all our
personal things up as collateral. Now, if you wanted to build a
motel at El Portal, you'd say, "Well, we've got $20,000 want to
borrow $150,000 twenty-year mortgage." Nothing to it, you see,
because there you'd own the land. In Yosemite you don't own the
land or the building. When the concession ends, in theory you're
finished, although we do have equity rights, and if it was sold to
somebody else the government would see we got our value back. But
there's nothing that any bank could ever take over. They wouldn't

Online LibraryAnsel AdamsConversations with Ansel Adams : oral history transcript / 1972-1975 → online text (page 42 of 76)