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

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be allowed to. It's a very good thing that the security is that
tight. The bank can't loan a cent on anything that isn't secured.

Teiser: But it puts the concession owner in a peculiar position in between

Adams: Very bad position. The Yosemite Company had to raise $6 million
over a certain period of years, but stock values were put up,
because that way you can have certain guarantees spread over a
considerable time, or you can designate your inventory or your
supplies or your equipment. They've raised some money in the banks.
Most of it was raised on personal collateral.

Richard McGraw

[Interview XIV 2 July 1972]

Teiser: We were talking to Richard McGraw
Adams: Dick McGraw, yes.

Teiser: this morning, and he said he had first met you in 1950 when you
brought a group of students to see Edward Weston and look at his
photographs. Catherine and I were talking about this afterwards
and saying it was as if one well-known author brought a group of
young writers to see another well-known author. Well, authors
wouldn't do that, but photographers will. I can't imagine someone
taking a class to see William Faulkner, for instance.

Harroun: I said Robinson Jeffers. I don't know how Robinson Jeffers was, but


Adams: He was very kind when he wanted to be, and he could be very cold

and forbidding when he wanted to be. He used to have a sign. One
side said, "Not at home," and the other side said, "Not at home
before 4:00 p.m." [Laughter]

But, Dick says that he met me first in 1950, but I'm sure it
was before that. He doesn't remember, but I know I'd known him at
the Art Center School.

Teiser: He said he was there in 1941.

Adams: Yes, I met him there, and link Adams, the director, E.H. Adams,
talked about his work.

Teiser: He didn't talk much about his own work, really, but he did finally
show us some of his carbro prints, which were perfectly fascinating.

Adams: Oh yes, he's quite a gifted character.

Teiser: His interest in photography is avocational, I gather not

Adams: Well, no. His father [Max McGraw] set him up in what's called the
McGraw Colorgraph Company, and they put together one-shot color
cameras and made carbro supplies. I think it went along for quite
a while, but he just wasn't cut out for business.

Teiser: I gather he'd done other things earlier than that.

Adams: He'd done a lot of work in music. He's probably got the greatest
collection of records and tapes in the West. He's a great music
student. He knows all the dates and all the performers and all the
conductors. And he has sets of comparison recordings and gives
concerts for his friends. Monday nights he usually has a musical
open house. He has people in for Bach you can't tell what it's
going to be. It's always very special music, things you seldom
hear. And the sound effects are magnificent in that big room. You
went into the big room, didn't you? The big music room with a piano,
harpsichord, and clavichord?

Teiser: No, we sat in the long gallery room.

Adams: Oh, it's a room about as big as this whole house, with the speakers
at the end behind a screen. It's really something. Maybe he had it
mixed up because the sound man was supposed to be adding the extra
1/10 to 1 percent to his equipment; he's such a perfectionist that
he never really gets anything completed. He starts out strong, and
nothing is ever really finished. "The perfect is the enemy of the
good." [Laughter] And he has this incredibly perfect machine, but


Adams: there's always some little thing that's not quite right, you know.
But that perfectionism, I suppose it has its merits perhaps!!



Adams :
Adams :



Adams :



We wanted to ask you about your major publications since 1935.
Many of these we have discussed. Making a Photograph, published in
1935 in London, for one. And I think you mentioned that in 1936
you did a booklet for the Dominican College in San Rafael. We
haven't seen it.

Oh yes, a Dominican College brochure.

Did you take pictures of the buildings and classes

I took pictures of the buildings and the place and the girls,
wasn't very inspired.


I think we've talked about the 1938 Sierra Nevada; The John Muir
Trail that the Archtype Press published. Then, in 1940 you
published and published and published. One thing in 1940 that
you've probably forgotten all about, though, is an article in
Liberty magazine. It was called "A Chapter in the Life of San
Francisco," which had "photographs especially taken for Liberty
magazine by Ansel Adams," it says.

No, "Nel cor piu non mi sento." [Laughter] I distrust that
"especially taken." That happens very often. People add that in
when they're not sure of dates and purposes, so I wouldn't really
remember. I wouldn't know.

I imagine if this had been an assignment, you would have.

Well, you did a lot of things. You did them as well as you could
but didn't think highly about most of them.

It was in 1940 that there was the U.S. Camera Yosemite Photographic
Forum, "under the personal direction of Ansel Adams," June and
September, and that was the one you discussed earlier. Weston had
taken part?

Weston, Dorothea Lange, Rex Hardy, etc. And that's the time we
had a big enrollment. But Hitler had started the invasion, and the
war was really beginning and people in the East were scared and a
lot of them withdrew. We had a big eastern enrollment, but the
world situation was increasingly bad and that caused a withdrawal
of clientele, I guess you'd say. So it dropped down from a
registered sixty to a little over thirty.


Teiser: Tom Maloney was the

Adams: Tom Maloney was the promoter.

Teiser: Was he the instigator of that workshop? Whose idea was it?

Adams: Well, I think the idea was mine. I said, "Let's have a seminar in
Yosemite." He thought it was a great idea, so he put a big splurge
in the old U.S. Camera magazine about it and promoted it with
typical Irish gusto. Very kind man.

Teiser: He wrote later, in a kind of reminiscent article in a U.S. Camera
yearbook, that he and Steichen had put over the idea of a
Guggenheim for Edward Weston. Was that right?

Adams: That's right. It could be.

Teiser: He wrote that after Weston's Guggenheim year work was completed,
he had come out here, and you brought him from San Francisco down
to see Weston, which was his first meeting with him. And that you
and he suggested that the book, California and the West, be put
together. Is that right?

Adams: That's almost right. Let's see, who published California and the
West? I've forgotten.

Teiser: Duell, Sloan & Pearce.

Adams: Well, Tom Maloney was at a convention, and apparently had had a big
night on the town, and I was supposed to pick him up at eight. We
had to get him in the shower bath, the cold bath, for about half an
hour, and he finally came to and didn't feel very well until he got
down here, and had some coffee and then perked up. He and Edward
became very close friends. So I think what he did was to encourage
this book, and I don't know why he didn't publish it. I guess it
was the type of book he wasn't publishing. I guess he just found a

I think the reproductions were mediocre.

All these things have ramifications which you do or you don't
do what a publisher can do; or he can't make decent financial
arrangements because he isn't set up for certain kinds of books.
It gets very complex indeed.

Teiser: That book sold and sold; it should have brought Edward Weston
decent royalties.

Adams : I think they divided up the royalties between Edward and Charis
[Weston, who wrote the text].


Adams: You see, it's so tricky, unless you know and have an agent or a

lawyer or somebody, because basic royalties are usually 10 percent
of retail. Under all normal conditions, that's what it should be.
A book sells for ten dollars, the author gets one dollar. A lot of
the books cost a great deal of money because they're full of
pictures, or other problems of production. And those books very
often yield royalties on what they call 10 percent of invoice, which
means that the author gets 10 percent of what the publisher takes
in, which means anywhere from 40 to 55 percent off, depending on
distribution and/or direct retail, and so on. It usually adds up
to around 50 percent or 5 percent of retail. Now, if you can sit
right down ahead of time, you'd say, "No, I want 10 percent of
retail." That means then that they have to increase the cost of
the book. It can be a very tight situation. Publishing is based
usually on the principle that you can't spend more than one-fifth
or 20 percent of the retail price of the book in producing it.
That means paper and ink and printing and plates and binding and
jacket all the things that go into the physical completion of the
book and royalties! It should never exceed 20 percent.

One of the reasons why the Sierra Club books were such an
awful loss was that we went up from five dollars cost, which is
20 percent of a $25 book, to eight and nine, and instead of 5
percent on promotion it was 10 or 15 percent. It's just that every
book cost us about one dollar loss. It was a terrible financial

Well, such things have to be watched. The club paid Dave
Bohn to go to Alaska and do his book on Glacier Bay, and they
advanced him $7500 for expenses. Now, several trips up there cost
a little more than that, actually, but he made out. That should
have gone into production costs of the book. But when Bohn comes
back he asks, "Well, what about my royalties now?" They say, "Oh,
you got $7500 advance royalties." Well, he didn't; he got $7500
advance expenses. So you see, if you took, then, $7500 extra cost
and printed seventy-five hundred books, it would add one dollar
to the cost of the book and five dollars to the retail price. Now,
if you do fifteen thousand books, it might add 50C to the cost or
2 l/2c to the retail price. That's one of the things that's very
hard for people who do not run publishing businesses to understand.
A person who isn't careful can get an advance on royalties to do a
book, and all he gets in the end amounts to expenses. His royalties
should relate to his time.

You see, if I have my pictures and I take them over to the
Sierra Club and they do a book, well, I'm perfectly content to have
the standard royalty because I'm not out of pocket for anything
but making the prints. But if they say, "Now, go down to Baja
California and do us a book," well then, I have a real expense, and


Adams: such may very easily match all the royalties I'm going to get out
of it. Publication theory is very important. I mean, you add a
dollar for royalties to producing a book that means you might have
to reduce the size of the pages, you might have to reduce the number
of illustrations in order to bring it within line. So they usually
start out by saying, "Is this a $25 book, or a $30 book, or a $20
book?" and then work back from there. But you see, the dealers get
40 percent off, and then distributing the book is another 15 percent,
no matter how you look at it. Whether you have your own distribution
office or whether you hire a distribution firm, it's going to come
up to about 15 percent, because the distributors have to travel, add
their time, and make their profit.

If you do it yourself, like Houghton Mifflin, you have to
employ a staff and have big central offices, and that means travel
ing around to all the bookstores with a little briefcase with all
kinds of lists of what the new books are and how they're going to
sell. So the dealer then orders. It's very different from mail
orders unless you're very well known and have a select group,
because the number of books published today is absolutely

In the old days a bookseller like Paul Elder would have what
amounted to a small library. When you'd ask for Muir or a copy of
Thoreau or LeConte's geology, he'd probably have one or two copies
out on his shelves and, on a sale, he'd immediately order another

Now, if you'd have all the modern books on hand, you'd have
to have a large warehouse. So the book publishing business is one
of producing, promoting, selling, and remaindering. "Remaindering"
means after you get to a certain point of inventory and sales drop
off, you just get rid of them at cost or less. And there are
remaindering houses, like Marlborough and such people, who take over
remaining copies and sell at a very low figure.

Teiser: I have a lot of photography books which I bought as remainders that
are now worth more than the original prices.

Adams: Surely. Yes, if they're out of print, then they're increased in

Teiser: But so many still are remaindered.

Adams: Well, you print ten thousand copies and if you have an audience of

eight thousand, you're out two thousand; so all you try to do is get
back the basic cost.


Adams: Now, the My Camera in Point Lob os* did not sell. It was only a $10
book. That was remaindered by Houghton Mifflin and it was sold for
$3.80. I think they paid $1.45 for the book, which was less than
cost. Theoretically, it would be a $2 book at cost. But Houghton
figured out the interest and the storage space cost, a whole
technique to keep a flow of books going.

If we had been sensible in the Sierra Club and printed twenty-
five thousand copies on many of the books, we'd have come out all
right. But, you never know in advance. You could do twenty-five
thousand for a certain book and it will be a dull thud like the
Galapagos book. They put it out in two volumes, against everybody's
advice. That's been the sourest dull thud lemon that anybody could
imagine a $55 book for the two volumes. I haven't seen the recent
list, but they didn't even get their cost back on it. And they
never will it's just too expensive. It'll be remaindered for maybe
$5, and somebody will sell it for $2, and then it'll be all out of
print and unobtainable, and then it will become valuable, but not at
any benefit to [Eliot] Porter or to the Sierra Club!

It's something like the history of motels. Somebody puts out
a lot of money and builds a motel, which may fail in two or three
years because it can't keep up its mortgage payments. The bank
takes it over and sells it to another party, and they assume the
mortgage and they try to run it and it doesn't work, so they sell
it. By the time it sells about three times, it's down to a value
in which the income may carry it.

And of course one very sad trick I've heard a lot about is
that a lot of people, with really very considerable means, will put
their money into things they know are going to be failures and take
an income-tax loss. Some think it's the best way to reduce your
income taxes to take a major loss. Then somebody else comes in.
The thing cost a million; they buy it for $600,000. They can't make
it go and they sell it. Finally somebody gets it for $250,000, and
it's all right; they can pay. The whole finance structure is just

Teiser: Are books ever published with the idea of remaindering some? Is
that ever in the plans?

Adams: I don't think so. But I think the chances are always there. You

see, if you reduce the number of the edition, your unit costs go up.
So there's no sense in printing five thousand books, we'll say, if
the unit cost might be $4 a book. That would be a $20 book. If you
print ten thousand, it might be a $12.50 to $15 book. Now, if you
knew who was going to buy it, then you know that remaindering cannot
make money. The only thing is that if you print a large number, you
might remainder for almost cost, and then you'd be all right in a way.
You still wouldn't make anything. It's a pretty cut-throat business,
and it's very carefully calculated.

*By Edward Weston.


Teiser: Have you had other books remaindered?

Adams: Yes, The Land of Little Rain was remaindered. And that was a

breach of contract, because the author always has the first right
to acquire remaining copies. They offer you that and if you don't
take it, then they remainder. That was in the contract. At
Houghton Mifflin they slipped, and they remaindered it. We could
have sued them, but we knew it was an accident. But I wish I'd
gotten those five hundred copies because I would have gotten them
for remainder price and could have hung onto them to our advantage.

Teiser: Have there been others?

Adams : I think the John Muir Yosemite and the High Sierra a few copies
were. And Weston's My Camera in Point Lobos. The other books
Yosemite [My Camera in Yosemite] and the national parks [My Camera
in the National Parks] weren't. Well, I can't think of any others.

Teiser: To go back again to an earlier publication of yours, the Complete
Photographer was published by the New York National Educational

Adams: That was Willard Morgan a kind of an encyclopedia. I had some

articles in that, and in several other things of that kind. I just
can't remember them. You probably have them.

Teiser: Yes, there were four in the Complete Photographer; "Architectural
Photography," "Geometrical Approach to Composition," "Mountain
Photography,' and "Printing." They were like encyclopedia articles,
were they?

Adams: I'd say just moderate length. I haven't thought of them for years.

Teiser: In 1940 you did the first Illustrated Guide to Yosemite Valley.

Adams: Yes, with Virginia.

Teiser: How did you happen to do that?

Adams: Well, we thought we needed a guide, and it was a matter of just

putting it together. Of course, we had the knowledge and the facts,
but what really took time was the actual mileage checks, and checking
back and forth with the government, and then the checks of the fauna
and flora with naturalists. I liked the maps we had. They were
very stylized, simple maps.

It was originally published by H.S. Crocker in 1940. Then when
the Stanford Press published it, they took all those out. Somebody
said they weren't easy to read but they were far easier than the


Adams: awful maps they put in! They just couldn't understand a stylized
diagram, which really can be very simple.

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

Well, after the Illustrated Guide to Yosemite Valley was taken over
by Stanford it was then taken up by the Sierra Club.

Do you like that edition?

I don't know how up-to-date it is. We had to correct some things in
it, but that always happens with new editions. That's not criticism
of a book of that kind. You have to update constantly.

Has it been updated in each edition?

I don't know. We haven't done it. I ought to look it over. There's
just so much to do!

Teiser: Then, the next book of yours was Born Free and Equal, which we have

Adams: Tom Maloney, yes.

Adams :


Adams :

Guggenheim Fellowships

Teiser: Then came your first Guggenheim fellowship. Had many photographers
had them between Weston and you?

Adams: I think I was the third. I think Dorothea Lange got number two,
and then I did.

Teiser: Did someone suggest it to you, or did you just decide it was a good
time for you to apply?

Adams: I just applied for it. The idea of the country's national parks

and monuments. Then the second one was a continuation of that, and
the third one was for printing from the negatives, and out of that
came the big 1963 exhibit. Then many photographers have received
them since then. Liliane De Cock got it one week after she got
married; after five years of applications it finally came through!
It's really very interesting how things come to pass sooner or

Teiser: Did you get it the first time you applied?


Adams: Yes, I got mine all the times I applied. But then, I was pretty

well known. It's when a person is not known that they gravitate to
somebody they know about or who has big sponsors.

Teiser: Do you have to spend a full year on that?

Adams: It's all very indefinite. I asked for each one to be two years
because of a seasonal problem with the parks, and that was okay.

Teiser: So in fact it was six months of the year for two years?

Adams: Yes, but all they're interested in is results. They don't watch
the clock.

Teiser: Does the fellow feel that he must give a year's time to the project?

Adams: Well, the major part of the time. If you're a professional, you

have to continue your own work. If you're a professor at a college,
you usually try to fit it into a sabbatical, or just do it part-time.
Just tell them, "I've only done half of it. I'll continue next
year." There's just so much money for it.

Teiser: So actually, since you were awarded one in '46 and one in '48, you
were working right straight along?

Adams: Yes. Sometimes you work terribly hard for an intensive period, and
other times you go along for weeks when nothing happens. It's not
the kind of thing you can put on an hourly basis.

Writers always tell me they write four hours a day. I have my
doubts. I understand a musician practicing many hours, but I don't
know whether a musician could compose four hours a day, day in and
day out.

Teiser: Some of a writer's time is spent cleaning the typewriter. [Laughter]
I mean there's lots of little things you can do.

Adams: Looking up funny words in the dictionary. [Laughter]

Teiser: What was the project? Would you explain a little more about it?

Adams: Just photography of the natural scene in the national parks and
monuments. A continuation of the photo-mural project, which the
war terminated and which wasn't revived after the war. They didn't
have the money and they weren't interested.

Teiser: Did that take you to Hawaii and Alaska then?
Adams: Yes, I was all around.


Teiser: Did you get to every park and monument?

Adams: Well, I missed the Everglades and Isle Royale. I didn't want to go
there. I missed Hot Springs that's an awful place! And I missed
quite a few national monuments. But I hit all the major parks and
all the major monuments. I missed Devil's Tower and a few
historical places. I didn't do so bad.

Teiser: You had tremendous travel expenses I

Adams: Yes, and I got a little more for that you write that out and make
the request for them. They're very generous that way. Writers
usually get it if they have to travel. They go to Europe or
England and do research on Henry VIII or somebody, you know. But
their other expenses are just primarily ribbon and paper and so on.
But a photographer's different. And a lot of scientific work is
different because you've got to go to so many institutions and
study apparatus and methods. But painting isn't too expensive. I
guess photography could be about the most expensive of all: equip
ment, insurance, and materials cost.

Sculpture could be expensive, if you wanted new materials. Of
course, whether or not if you're a student, doing heavy research in
medicine, whether you can go to institutions without a fee that's
another thing. So as a rule applicants write in and state, "My
expenses will be so much" an itemized approximation. Liliane
De Cock put down a guess of how many miles she'd travel, and so
much per diem in the field. Otherwise you could go broke, if you
got just what they gave you as a stipend.

Really, it started out as a system for scholars to do work that
they couldn't be paid for otherwise. It was often directed to the
sabbatical year or to a leave of absence something like the Ford
Foundation project, the institute of [Center for the Study of the]
Behavioral Sciences. A university will give their people a year's
leave of absence to come and live and work for a time with this
group. It isn't exactly a sabbatical. I think they still pay the
professors. Then the institute pays the expenses. The theory is
that they get a very intensive training and experience in the field
and that the parent institution will benefit. A professor comes
back with vastly expanded knowledge in his field. I would say it's
all very flexible.

Teiser: You dealt with Henry A. Moe?
Adams: Yes, a wonderful man.

Teiser: He must have been a very influential man, over the years, in the
cultural development of the country.


Adams: He really was.
Teiser: What was he like?

Adams: Well, he was I remember, he was not very large, a little rotund,
a very quick, very gracious man, always gave you a very positive
impression. I mean he was a past master at saying no to people and
making them feel good I And Gordon Ray, now president of the
Guggenheim Foundation, was trained by Moe, and he's a very fine

Teiser: Has he succeeded Moe?

Online LibraryAnsel AdamsConversations with Ansel Adams : oral history transcript / 1972-1975 → online text (page 43 of 76)