Ansel Adams.

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

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Adams: Yes, as secretary general of the foundation. It's quite a job! Of
course, they have plenty of assistants; but, as I understand it,
the applications come in and are all screened by a prime committee
that weeds out the phonies from the acceptables. Somebody has to do
that. It's perfectly obvious you read something and find it's out
of the question. Then the ones that are selected as possible
entries are divided into different groups and go to different
committees. Then the recommendation of the committees come back
and those recommendations go to the general committee for final
passage. Well, sometimes they've had committees in photography that
didn't know the difference between subject and statement, you know.
It can be very tricky. I think I am correct in describing the

You never know who the committee is. You might learn later on
after several years, but the committees are very quiet. If you're
applying for a fellowship you write in your list of sponsors. You've
already contacted the sponsors "Will you sponsor me?" and if they
say, "We'll be glad to," then you give the foundation their names.
Then Guggenheim sends the sponsor a copy of your project, and your
objective reply is strictly confidential information. The idea is
that it must be objective for both the good of the fellowship and
the person involved.

Say if you were doing something and had asked me to sponsor
you, I would get from them a copy of your project. Then I would
write back on a sheet my objective analysis of it. Of course, if I
find there was something wrong with it, I'd be morally bound to say
it. I've had to do that sometimes. It's painful with people you
know well when they want to do something and you know they can't do
it. Well, if you gloss that over and say, "I think they're just
great," and you know they're not, it's just hurting everything.
Well, those papers are then judged; your name is cut off. You have
to sign it, and it's passed as authentic, and then before it goes
to the committee, the identification is removed, and there's just
a note saying these five sponsors were all acceptable to the main
committee, authorities in their field. So it's actually quite im
personal, you see, in the end.


Adams: I always claim that in applying the best thing to do is to make a
very simple statement, keeping within one page, and then adding an
appendix with all the details, which, if the committee is
interested in it, supplies the information. But a ten-page-long
project description is a very wearying thing for the committee.
Enthusiasm can wane pretty quickly when you have some detailed,
long-winded discussion.

Brett Weston asked for a fellowship. He said, "I wish to
photograph Alaska." Well, all right, but what happens? Book?
Portfolio? "I just want to photograph Alaska" isn't enough
according to their standards. They would like to find out what
you're going to do, not just get a collection of negatives and sit
on them. Now if you say, "I want to do a book on Alaska," or you
say, "I just wish to do creative work with the hope of a portfolio
and exhibits and publication," that's enough.

But the painters and sculptors just do creative work. They
may ask for an exploration for work with casts for example, a
certain kind of modern cast stone or work with welded metals, etc.
But I suppose now they would accept something as simple in the other
arts as well. You see creative writing and poetry, but very often
creative writing of texts, usually directed to some purpose either
a novel or a series of critical essays on covered bridges, etc.
There was one photographic project that came through with an essay
on covered bridges, and I said as far as I was concerned this
wasn't photography, this was architecture. I'd never heard of the
man before, but he wanted to go out and make snapshots of covered
bridges. That wasn't photography. And I don't know anything about
covered bridges, but I know something about photography. So if I'd
seen some of his work or knew him, I could talk about him, but

Teiser: When you applied you didn't say you had one specific project in
mind, then you just wanted to make photographs of the national

Adams: Yes, and I hoped for exhibits and books.
Teiser: You certainly made good use of your work.
Adams: Oh yes, it had good results.

Teiser: The next year June '47 was the Fortune article which De Voto wrote
and was illustrated with your photographs of national parks.

Adams: And also by some painters.

Teiser: And some painters too? I see. Did that start with De Veto's essay?


Adams: No. A very nice lady, who was the picture editor oh dear, I

think she's dead now. She was a charming person, Deborah Calkins
used to live near San Rafael. She would conceive articles of this
kind, and she asked me, "Would you be interested in participating
in a portfolio on the national parks? We've got Bernie De Voto to
write the text." Whether she initiated it, or whether some Fortune
committee did it, or whether she sort of spurred the "idea"
committee it's awfully hard to know just where those things

Teiser: But you didn't initiate it

Adams: No, not directly. I mean, you never know maybe somebody saw a
picture or you talked to somebody, and they passed it on. You
never know that. But as I said, I didn't directly initiate it.

Morgan & Lester, Morgan & Morgan

Teiser: In 1940 you did the essay on printing for Graphic Graflex Photography
that was published by Morgan & Lester. At least it was published
that year.

Adams: Yes.

Teiser: Was that your first publication for Morgan?

Adams: Yes, that was the first one. Then I did some articles for the
Zeiss Magazine, which was a little commercial journal, but very
well done. Morgan edited the Leica Manual. There's a new copy
[edition] of the Leica Manual coming out, and I have an article in
there. The trouble is, cameras advance and change so tremendously
fast, by the time you write about them or a process you are passe.
It's like Polaroid; you get the revision of an article or book
pretty well blocked out and along comes a new camera or process!

Teiser: What chapter did you write for the Leica Manual?
Adams: It was on exposure, I think.

Teiser: They've just finally brought out a range finder camera with an
interior meter.

Adams: Those interior meters are very tricky. The single-lens reflex is
the only "safe" thing today. You really see what you're getting.
In the old rangefinder ones, the finder's off-center, and as you
get working close you don't get things really centered or in correct


Teiser: What was the rest of Lester's name?

Adams: Henry Lester.

Teiser: He, after separating from Willard D. Morgan, did other things?

Adams: Yes. He was more the technical man, and he was I think relatively

insensitive to creativity. He wanted to make things more commercial
and tied in with products, and Morgan felt, I think, that they had
enough of that. And there were some serious differences between
them. The only thing Morgan could do was to buy him out, and that
practically wrecked them because Lester's share of interest in the
firm was large. It was a lot of money and Morgan needed cash, and
so there was a bad financing problem there, and they brought this
problem to their authors and asked them to postpone royalties for
a few years. But he came out all right in the end. Then he died.
So the boys have taken it over now. It's Morgan & Morgan Doug
Morgan and Lloyd Morgan. I think Mama (Barbara Morgan) controls it
in a way, but she has no business sense whatever. She's a very
fine artist and person, but just doesn't know the business world.

Teiser: They published the Photo-Lab Index, didn't they?

Adams: That was a very important thing. It's still going. That was
Morgan & Lester; now it's Morgan & Morgan. It's expanding and
very fine. And they have a special editor for that.

Teiser: That seems to be one of the great feats of collecting technical

Adams: Well, it's a strange thing. It's like an engineer's handbook.
It's got everything in it that you can think of that's already
been published. And then it has what they call "time-gamma tables"
for different film and different developers, but they're all done
on a theoretical basis, which is the only way you could do them in
a work of that type. But there are no comparisons; in other words,
if you asked, "What is the difference between Rodinal and D76 with
this film?" Well, you look at the time-gamma charts and don't
find anything there. You see, gamma is the measure of contrast
(the steepness of the curve). It shows the shape of the curve
with different times of development or different concentrations.
But there's many more things than that involved. But if you want
to find out a certain film what the time-gamma chart is or what
D76 at a 1:1 dilution does, there it is, stated in a graph. If
it's ten minutes, you may get a gamma of .7, etc.

Kodak doesn't use gamma; they use a more complex and stupid
thing called a "contrast index." And they just draw a straight
line from the lowest recognizable textural value to the highest


Adams: recognizable textural value in the scale. And it's a straight line,
and they measure its angle from base. But it doesn't show the
shape of the curve under it. So, for myself, I like to see the
shape of the toe and when the shoulder starts to flatten, and so on.
But the "c.i." doesn't show these it's just the straight line
between two points.

Teiser: Why'd they do that?

Adams: I don't know. They're not photographers. They thought it meant
more than gamma. Well, with gamma, all those values have to be
related to a known sequence of values of light. And in a
sensitometry machine, you give exposures of geometric increments
at times based on log^Q progressions, and there's no image; it's
just a flash of light. The film is exposed at the same time for
different intensities of light. Because the time factor is what
controls the real reciprocity effect. And the film doesn't know
what it's seeing. But, say if you go over a second, where you
have to give a second and a half, two seconds, or more; to get the
same density in relation to light and to exposure, you have to give
more time. The "failure of the reciprocity effect" varies with
different films. And it can be very disconcerting. It can be
figured, but the formula for it doesn't mean much or anything to
the practical photographer.

Edward Weston used to say, "I don't know why it is; with
perfectly beautiful soft evening light, I go out and make a
picture, give ample exposure, but it turns out very contrasty, and
I can't print the thing. So I have to give four, five, or six
times the meter-measured exposure, and give it underdevelopment."
He found all that out empirically. He was suffering with the
"failure of the reciprocity law," which affected the low values
first, and did not affect the high values. So therefore when you
expose for the low values, you're overexposing for the high values,
and you had to hold those back by reduced development.

If you understood the quantum laws, you probably could
understand reciprocity. But so few people understand the quantum
laws that all you can do is to try to explain them in general
terms. I do not understand the quantum physics. It's really
quite beyond me, but I can see how it applies.

Teiser: The first volumes of your Basic Photo Books
Adams: Basic Photo series, yes.

Teiser: were published in '48 by Morgan & Lester. The first was Camera

and Lens ; the second was The Negative. Did you work on them at the
same time?





Adams :

Oh, they followed along. Then number three, The Print

I think you mentioned them before. Did you say they were suggested
to you by the publisher?

No, I suggested them. I just felt that we should do some books
that would support the new approach to teaching. I've revised
Camera and Lens, which is in the second printing, and it's pretty
good. Now I have to do the same thing with books two and three and
the Polaroid [Land Photography] Manual. You see, they go so fast,
and by the time the thing is in print and at the press there's
something new on the horizon.

Mr. McGraw said that he couldn't understand the Basic books.
[Laughs] I think he was exaggerating; I think he meant he couldn't
understand some things in them.

No, you have to look at him psychologically, and the fact that he
could understand them perfectly well. But it's easy to say you
don't understand, and he could understand them. But he just
worked with a little different idea of photography. He goes out
with a camera and a meter and reads it in the most offhand way.
He gets an amazing series of adequate exposures. But he's not
quite sensitive enough to know the difference between the adequate
exposure and the really meaningful exposure, you see. And those
are things you can't really explain to people. I'm talking about
things that relate to very subtle controls, and he isn't interested
in those controls. He has a very factual mind, and he's done some
perfectly beautiful things, but he throws those out because he
thinks they're too "moody." He wants kind of a nice Norman
Rockwell interpretation of nature. And there is a strange thing
you can make color pictures , and you can get them all to be very
adequate, but they just don't contain any magic. Now, that's one
of his affectations. He can understand those books perfectly
well. [Laughter] But he never reads anything for content, you
know. He looks through it for mistakes. He says, "This isn't
the right word," or, "You left a comma out here." Or, I'll be
talking about something, and he'll come right in the middle of a
thought and correct the pronunciation. And I say, "Dick, you know
what I mean." I said "advertisement" and he said, "That's wrong.

It's 'advertisement'

I said, "I'm sorry, 'advertisement' is

correct." He said, "I know my language. That's been my specialty. 1
So he went to the dictionary and found that both ways are perfectly
all right, and he was very chastened. [Laughter]

But his mind is very strange; he's always complaining about
something. We call him "F.F. McGraw," "Find-fault McGraw," because
the poor man is always looking for something wrong. If he gets a
record, he can't play it for anything musical if he finds something


Adams: wrong with it. If there's a small defect you say, "Well, don't
you ever listen to the music?" "Of -course, but I can't listen to
the music if the thing's imperfect." [Laughter] If someone sneezes
during a concert, you don't walk out, the concert isn't ruined.
But to him a thing like that would be just a great distraction. It
would take him quite a few seconds to adjust to it, you see.

Color in Photography

Teiser: He said that when he found out about color photography, that that
was what his interest had been searching for all the time. This
is an entirely different world, isn't it?

Adams: He did very good black and whites very sensitive things and so
did Eliot Porter. But then, color photography tends toward the
literal. But what is "literal"? You can't go out and compare dye
color with nature color. You just simulate color. He will reject
most reproduction in books because the reproductions are off-color
or the "masking" is off. He's right if you want to talk about
perfection, but you just can't get these things perfect. All the
Skira art books, for instance, which are really quite magnificent,
reveal that the Originals are not as brilliant as the reproductions.
There's a very good reason for that. You remember, well, say the
Birth of Venus, which has a powerful emotional effect; when you see
it in the Skira books, it's more intense in color value, but you're
not conscious of that. And when the Birth of Venus came to San
Francisco, I remember taking down an art book (I think it was
Skira) and looking at the reproduction, which was far more
brilliant compared to the original. But when you looked at the
book alone, that recreated the spirit of the original for you. It's
a very complicated thing, in a sense a transcription. They were all
there; the colors were amazingly accurate; but it was of just a
little higher vigor.

Teiser: Does this go back to, in a sense does this echo the Stieglitz
idea of "equivalents"?

Adams: Oh well, no. If you're reproducing a work of art, you try to get
something that gives you the simulation of the total effect. I
guess you could say that you're producing an equivalent, although
his was different; his was the creative equivalent, the mood
something you had to say about the subject which wasn't anything
like copying a painting.

Teiser: I meant the literalness of color photography in general.


Adams: It would be very difficult to do that. There's two ways of

achieving exciting color: one is to set up a studio where you've
picked your color and controlled your lighting. You can create
fine color compositions and record them because the film is
capable of very wonderful results. But in nature, in natural
lighting, you have terrible things happen because the eye adjusts
for variations and the film can't.

In this room, for instance, observe that white paper. It
would seem white out in the sun and it would seem white in the
shade and it would seem white under tungsten light, because the
eye can adjust for color temperature. That same paper held out
in the sun and then carried back in a cave for as long as you
could see it, it would be a white paper or green paper or red
paper, whatever it was originally. But it might change thousands
of times in intensity. But the film doesn't work that way. Color
film is sensitized and balanced to a certain degree Kelvin. Kelvin
temperature is called degrees K (K) , and 273K is absolute zero
Centigrade, and that's around 460 Fahrenheit. Then as you go on
up the scale, iron begins to glow at 400K, producing a reddish
color. Now, the sunlight out here now in the evening would
probably be 5000K or less, and ordinary color film would give a
reddish, warmish cast to the image. If the light's coming from
the blue sky, it would probably be around 12,000K, and your
foliage in shade would take on a cyan color. When you see a lot
of Eliot Porter's pictures in the woods of the Southwest, the
leaves in the shade are a cyan green, because they're picking up
the blue light from the sky, whereas out in the sunlight they
might be a warm yellow-green. You can correct one or the other.
If it was too warm a light, you use a bluish correction filter.
If it's too cyan a light, you'd use a magenta and blue correction
and get a more normal effect. What you think the eye sees is
normal, but you can't correct them both together in the filml The
miracle is, we're getting light from the sky, and this light in
here is really very blue, which a color temperature meter would

The theory in Dr. Land's Retinex concept, where the eye and
brain "compute" the color, takes care of the variations. That's
why with the tungsten light, a piece of paper appears white; you
accept it as white. When you divide the tungsten light and
daylight they have an experiment. You use a dividing panel so
that one side is receiving only daylight and the other side only
tungsten light; then you see the two values separately. When you
"cross over" and see both together, the one under daylight looks
bluish and the one under tungsten light looks golden. It's a
pretty fascinating business.


Adams: But if I take my color camera and take photographs in this room
with Polaroid color the effect would be greenish. And that's
because there's a certain amount of blue light coming through
those skylights well, it's extreme violet that affects the green
layer of the film. If I put on an ultra-violet light, then I'll
get a more normal color. But you never see such subtleties with
your eye.

But the reason I don't like color photography much myself is
that you don't have the aesthetic control, the imaginative control
you can't control your color like a painter can his pigments. I
think I've repeated it before that the average color print looks
to me like a piano sounds when it's out of tune. There's something
just very unpleasant about it. Marie Cosindas uses the Polaroid
color, which is a very beautiful smooth color more "pigment"
value than otherwise. She's achieved some perfectly beautiful
effects. But she does certain things in a rather abstract way,
and will use mixtures of tungsten and daylight, will actually
arrange and compose in color. A tungsten image is bound to be
yellow, because the film is adjusted to daylight. But she uses it
creatively that way.

Harroun: I have rarely seen a color picture that I can respond to at all.
And I don't know why it is.

Adams: Well, you can see color images to better advantage in printing-press
reproductions, because they can control the inks and they're not
dyes, they're more like pigments. But the color print is usually
a dye image. McGraw has what is called the carbro process, which
is more lasting than dye prints. I don't tell him, although I've
mentioned it they're supposed to be very beautiful, but to me
they often become very dilute in color. And I don't feel they
have any real quality well, I've seen a few that have. I guess
I don't like color prints!

When you transfer that image to the printing press, then
you're using inks instead of dyes, so you've got a totally
different feeling. Then if you're working with three or four
colors, you can adjust your colors. A fine engraver will be able
to balance out many colors that go wrong or are offbeat in the
original. He can do this by filtering his plate exposures.

Reproductions of Eliot Porter's prints are mostly much better
than his actual prints.

Harroun: I still don't like to look at even a book of color
Adams: They're usually garish.
Harroun: Yes.





Adams :


I don't know why, but people's color slides, amateur color slides,
are more acceptable. They're almost like a folk art like a letter
from somebody, a personal letter.

Well, you have something different there. With a color slide, you
are seeing light. The light is going through the dyes and becomes
colored light and is reflected from the white screen as colored
light. And it has a very great range of brightness, much greater
than any ordinary print. A color print cannot show such range.
Well, I suppose if you include the black, you can go up to one-to-
eighty or one-to-ninety reflection density; one-to-sixty-four is
usually the print color range. But a transparency can easily be
one to a thousand and more. And then you project this on the wall,
you're getting back a brilliant light composition, much more valid
and much more rational than in the print. All the values are
revealed. But you make a color print, the images overlap, so you
have to have the dyes very intense so that they don't become sub
merged. In press printing a color plate, the dots are "rotated."
You look through a magnifying glass at a color reproduction, you'll
see it's a kind of a mosaic of the colors. One doesn't overlap and
hide the other. The angle of the screen is very carefully worked
out. It's quite a complex technique.

I think Look magazine had the finest color reproductions of
any magazine. They were really beautiful. They were smooth and
they were full of light. That was color gravure, which had a very
fine screen. But just look at these things through a high-power
magnifying glass some time a twelve-power glass, not a microscope
and observe the grain structure. You'll see that in a good plate
every color is separate.

When you project black and white positives, do you have also there
an increase in range?

Yes, but the trouble is with that, it's awfully hard to get reversal
film to give a proper scale. Using Kodachrome film, the images are
too contrasty, because the average print now runs up to one-to-
eighty or one-to-ninety and the film can only take a one-to-twenty-
five range. So some of the best reproductions have been from
moderate-contrast prints on Kodachrome A. And black and whites on
that are sometimes quite beautiful. But the values will tend to
favor the whites or the blacks. The blacks block up and/or the
whites block up if the range is too great.

Isn't there a Polaroid Land black and white transparency material?

Yes, a wonderful material, and some of the sharpest made. You can
control the contrast, which is really fantastic. When you process