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

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it, you have to give at least two minutes to get the physical


Adams :

Adams :

transfer of the layer over to the receiving film. But you can open
the back at any time, expose the image to light, and stop the silver
transfer. So you can control the contrast in the most amazing
fashion and get beautiful slides. They sometimes have "pinholes."
For some reason they got off to the wrong start because they didn't
have high contrast slide material ready as well.

Thirty-five millimeter slides are excellent,
with Polaroid transparency material, of course.

They can be made

It's used a good deal in science, isn't it, and industry?

All the time, in everything related to visual education; it has
become the standard. I have 3 by 4-inch slides that are done on
Polaroid, and they're really very beautiful. You can control the
light volume and color value with a Variac. There's a possibility
of a new color slide coming, which will be a great step ahead.

[End Tape 17, Side 2]
[Begin Tape 18, Side 1]

Portfolios and Publishing, 1948-1952






In '48 you completed Portfolio One. You hadn't done a portfolio
since the Parmelian Prints, had you?


Portfolio One was in memory of Alfred Stieglitz.
of it do you recall?

What was the origin

Well, I guess I just thought I'd like to try a portfolio. I really
can't think of any other reason. I think we were looking over the
early Parmelian Prints one time, and I thought it might be nice to
do a real portfolio, and it would be natural to dedicate it to
Stieglitz, and I went ahead and did it.

There were twelve prints. Are they varied?

Varied, yes. All kinds of things. No portraits, but I had
Yosemite, and I had Hornitos and Refugio Beach, and Trailside,
Alaska; a variety of images.

How in the world could you select twelve from all your work since


Adams :

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Well, it was rather hard. I think I selected them a little bit on
Stieglitz's reaction to them. Each one meant something in an
intangible way, which I didn't want to verbalize about.

How many copies did you make, do you remember?

Was it seventy-five? It wasn't very ambitious.

When you do a thing like that, do you devote a month or so to it?

Well, once you've made the selection and you know what you can do,
then of course, when you start printing you have to make your first
fine print; you have to completely document it so that you can go
on the next day and duplicate it. Sometimes it takes three days
until you're satisfied with a print, and then you can make the
whole set in a day. That means many would be printed one day and
toned and washed the next day. Maybe it takes more than a day to
make a set of prints. After they are dry they have to be carefully
segregated. We always make more than the final number because we
know we're going to have losses. Then the print is very carefully
trimmed after the dry mounting tissue is attached, mounted and
stamped on the back, and then I sign them on the front, put the
title on the back, and then collate them. It's quite a job!

Did you choose the type for the printed matter, for that, or did
the Grabhorns?

Well, I guess I asked the Grabhorns to do it, and they submitted
a proof and I liked it.

And they had the cases made?

No, a man named Perry Davis made the cases. The Parasol Press
cases were made in New York, and they are quite handsome, a strong
case with linen cover. It was not a cheap case!

And you did another portfolio in 1950?

Then Portfolio Two, which relates to the national parks and
monuments .

Did you choose the best of your work on the subject ?
Yes, things that we all felt were most potent.
Did you make that choice yourself?

Well, I made the final decisions, but I usually show a lot of prints
to friends and colleagues and get their opinions. People's opinions
are valid as long as they don't go against your own basic judgment.


Teiser: What percentage of your negatives have you ever printed, do you

-Vi-i r.1,9









Adams :


I suppose about 25 percent.

Do you make proofs of the others?

Very few.

You don't make proofs ordinarily?

No; I should. That's one of the projects I plan to work on. Of
course, I have to divide the negatives into categories of purely
record and historical subjects, some of which will go to the
National Park Service; and then historical of other than national
park subjects will go to The Bancroft; and then some pictures of
Yosemite, which can be used and, if possible, printed, which will
be very good for the gallery in Yosemite. Then the purely creative
work is going to the Center for Creative Photography of the University
of Arizona, Tucson.

Do you have plans to proof everything?

I don't know how I'm going to do it but someday somebody will.

Can't you have an assistant make proofs?

Oh yes, but I haven't got two darkrooms. And good proofs of course
are creative work.

You can tell as much from a negative, or more, than from a proof,
can't you?

Yes more than from a bad proof.' I've proofed Joseph N. LeConte's
negatives, and made up album after album of the LeConte negatives
for the Sierra Club. That should be done with my early pictures
of Yosemite. Make up a big collection of prints of these
negatives. They were done in the twenties; it's fifty years and
more ago, and there are lots of changes, and students of the park
would like to see what the park looked like. I hope they're going
to try to restore the park to the way it appeared in the past, but
what decade? You see, when the white man came in 1853 and when
the first "civilization" came before the turn of the century,
there were definite qualities of the landscape which have changed
greatly over the years.

What was before the Indian ?

Well, the Indian was there a very long time. I do not think we
know how long. They have evidence of very severe fires in the past.


Adams: But when the Indians actually started burning off the brush, of

course, and lightning fires were not under control, the forest was
stabilized. We had our beautiful big open groves that Muir speaks
about. But they're no longer so open, because the fires have been
controlled. Now the young trees and shrubs have grown up and
they've become a menace in terms of fuel, which if ignited would
burn vast forests. You might have complete devastation of the
great forests. Whereas in the earlier days there would be only a
few scorchings. You can see the big scars of fires on the
sequoias. The fire came through just so often, mostly caused by
lightning. But now we put all fires out, and when we do that it
looks fine for a while, but it drastically changes the whole

This bug infestation in Tuolumne Meadows, I've seen three of
them. That's what kept the Tuolumne Meadows forest as it was for
so many years. I remember the great numbers of dead trees, with
young trees coming up among them. Then they started spraying them
and created a severe change of character. It destroyed a
tremendous number of beneficial insects, as well as bad ones; the
fish left, the flowers didn't bloom

Teiser: Just upset the whole

Adams: Upset the balance of nature. I was fighting to prevent them from

spraying the Sierra Club property. But then it was shown that they
couldn't spray any of the area at all if we had held out (and I
said we should have held out). Now it's admitted we should have
stuck by our guns because spraying made some drastic changes, and
it will probably require a long time to recover. It's not apparent
to the average person, but I'm sure the ecologists are deeply

Teiser: When did they spray?

Adams: Oh, I think about ten years ago. The bug (the pine beetle) has a
very interesting cycle. It goes through another plant. When the
CCC [Civilian Conservation Corps] boys were there, they went over
every square foot of the whole area to cut out this particular
plant (I forget just what it was) which was the secondary host.
And that probably did more than anything to keep the larva stage
quiescent it's a very complicated cycle. In fact, it's so
complicated you wonder how it ever came about. It's like the
famous tapeworm cycle, which is just incredible. How does nature
know how to do all that? [Laughs]

Teiser: Your next book that I have here was in '48, Muir's Yosemite and the
High Sierra, published by Houghton Mifflin.


Adams: Yes, that was selections by Charlotte Mauk of Muir's writings, and
then my pictures terrible reproductions.

Teiser: How did that collaboration with Charlotte Mauk happen to come

Adams: Charlotte Mauk was the editorial writer at the Lawrence Radiation
Lab and a director of the Sierra Club, and an old, old friend, and
it just worked out as being a natural development. She did a fine

Teiser: Did you start with the selections, or did you start with pictures?

Adams: Well, she did the selection of the text and I did the pictures, and
she and I selected the short lines that went with the pictures.
But I left the text entirely to her. Obviously she was doing a
swell job and right in sympathy with what I had in mind, so

Teiser: And in '49 came My Camera in Yosemite Valley, which was copublished
by Virginia Adams and Houghton Mifflin. How did that arrangement
come about?

Adams: Well, I thought we could do these books, the My Camera series, and
we got thinking, "We are not actual publishers." We would be
limited to purchasers in Yosemite Valley and close friends in San
Francisco, and a few dealers. Houghton Mifflin could take
national distribution. So we reserved certain areas and they took
the rest, and we divided up the books. They took five thousand
copies at $2 apiece, and that practically paid for the production.
Then we were paid royalties on top of that, and then we sold the
rest of them and made some money.

Then we did My Camera in the National Parks on the same basis.
Then My Camera at Point Lobos by Edward Weston, and Virginia lost
everything she'd made on the other two books. [Laughs] Although it
was a beautiful book and is now very valuable! The first printing
is almost unobtainable, and yet it was remaindered.

Teiser: That was copublished by Houghton Mifflin also?
Adams : Yes .

Teiser: Then you finally got around to the third book of the Basic Photo
series, The Print, published in 1950. Incidentally, had you
plotted this out when you started that series?

Adams: Yes, it was pretty well thought out. The Negative, The Print, then
photography in natural light [Natural-Light Photography] , then
artificial light [Artificial-Light Photography] . Book Six was


Adams: supposed to be a book that would answer a lot of photographic

problems twelve photograpic problems and then I got to worrying
about that. There's a million photographic problems, so solving
one problem in detail really wouldn't be significant. So then I
did the Polaroid Manual, which is now known as Book Six of the

Teiser: Then The Land of Little Rain we discussed earlier. That was 1950.

Adams: Yes, and I had the plates for that made at Walter Mann's, and

proofed. That was a much better job than the Muir book; it was
on better paper, and superior engravings.

Teiser: Had you very closely controlled the Crocker reproductions in the
Yosemite books?

Adams: Oh yes, they were very good that way. They allowed me to work with
them, and we controlled the engravings by the Walter [J.] Mann
Company. Peterson, who was a superb technician, did a wonderful
job. It was done in letterpress, which is obsolete now; they
don't use letterpress except for type. Everything now is offset
or double offset. Even gravure isn't very good compared to the
fine offset techniques. With the Yosemite book and the other books,
we had to print the title in rubber type on the other side of the
picture page, so there 'd be no "printing through," the impact. In
the little catalogue for the 1963 show, you'll see where the plates
"printed through." You'll get a strong picture but there will be
an impression of the plate on the other side.

Teiser: Did Lawton Kennedy print that?

Adams: No, that was H.S. Crocker Company. The last book they printed was
very badly done; it was printed very fast in the press. And when
you print fast, you have to thin the ink, and then the ink puddles.

Teiser: Natural-Light Photography came next, then, in the Basic Photo

Adams: I've got to revise them all of them to keep up to date.

Aperture Edited by Minor White

Teiser: Then the next thing to discuss is Aperture , which was started in


Adams: That's a great magazine. Minor White really started an important
concept. I thought it was a wonderful thing to do and helped
raise some money for this magazine. I proposed the title and it
was accepted. Some people thought it would be not liked, but it
seemed to have carried off well.

All kinds of funny magazines started after that. Some of them
started with good intentions and then would "blow up." People don't
realize what publications cost. We got some good subscriptions for
Aperture, and I got back-page advertisements from Polaroid. Then
it took a very definite direction, a quasi-mystical direction one
that I really wasn't interested in but felt obligated to support.
You can't demand, "I want my thing," but they had some very fine
photographers represented, and I went along. Some of the issues
have been extremely "far out" and some have been extremely rich
and varied. It's probably one of the most valuable contributions
to the record of creative photography there is. And, of course,
there's all kinds of second- and third-rate publications now
little things by different colleges, portfolios, etc. You just
can't possibly keep up with them, and many are not worth keeping
up with. Some, however, are remarkable.

Now the Friends of Photography are going to do the Untitled
journal, and that probably will be very important. I don't think
they're going to stress fine reproduction, because so much of
contemporary work doesn't relate to fine reproduction quality; it's
just the image. Of course in many cases the images don't deserve
it, but after all, the photographic image is quite a beautiful
thing, and it would be like performing on a lousy piano, you know,
to print something good in an inferior way. If it's bad enough
done, then you know it's just a record. But when it's just in
between and doesn't convey the quality and yet presumes to be good
photography, it is sadl

Teiser: There was a magazine published a year or so ago in San Francisco,
reproduced by the least expensive lithography, most contrasty; it
looked to me as if the photographs had been taken with just this
reproduction in mind. Has there been a trend of photographers
working toward this very contrasty, harsh reproduction?

Adams: It could have been. Well, there are some very contrasty, harsh

techniques, but I think that most of them Just don't give a darn,
and they get them reproduced, and there's no differentiation
between one that is consciously made contrasty and one that just
happens to reproduce that way. Infinity magazine is another one.
Sometimes they're just dreadful, and other times they're very

Teiser: Did you think that the reproduction of your photograph of Half Dome*
on the cover of the last but one issue of Infinity

*"Moon and Half Dome," May, 1972.


Adams: That wasn't so bad, wasn't so good! It wasn't so bad because they
didn't presume anything. The Wolverine people used it. The
reproduction in Life was simply terrible a big full-page
advertisement; that was much worse. They had all those prints
made for the catalogue, and then for advertising, and then special
copy negatives made, and all scaled to the requirements, but that
doesn't mean they're printed to the requirements. You do what you
can, then hope!

Teiser: I sent Wolverine a dollar for a big reproduction of one ad. They
had made a horizontal into a vertical in the ad, but the reproduc
tion that came is the full print.

Adams: Oh, they've had thousands and thousands of applications for that.
The advertising man has now been elevated to vice-president in
charge of sales. He's still in "advertising." But it's been a
very great success.

Teiser: Well, I should think so. I don't know where else you can get that
much good photography for a dollar.

Adams: Well, it isn't good reproduction, but at least it doesn't presume

Teiser: Back to Aperture the founders, which I presume were the people

that put up some money for it were you and Dorothea Lange, Minor
White, Nancy Newhall, Barbara Morgan

Adams: A good man in the East put up more money than we could. None of us,
up to that time, could put up much money. We all gave a little
$25 or so.

Teiser: Ernest Louie

Adams: I don't know him at all.

Teiser: He was the designer of the magazine. Melton Ferris?

Adams: Yes, he's a San Francisco designer and head of the Northern

California chapter of the A. I. A. [American Institute of Architects].

Teiser: And Dody Warren.

Adams: Dody Warren was Edward's assistant, and then married Brett. Now
she's married to a writer in Hollywood Thompson. She's a great

Teiser: At one time was it she who simply signed articles "Dody" without
a last name?


Adams: Yes, that was the name she used.

Teiser: Was she at one time also assistant to you?

Adams: No. She helped with the books. She was a very sensitive

photographer. Everything went well until she married Brett, then
Brett insisted she photograph like he does, so that didn't last
too long. Too bad, because it could have been very good.

But Aperture had some angels, like Shirley Burden. Shirley
Burden comes from an exceedingly wealthy family. I think it's
Standard Oil. But he's a photographer that went into color
photography because he felt he had to do something. Doesn't have
to do anything. And he's been very generous to photography and
photographers. He has helped out the Friends of Photography in
their new venture here to a commendable extent. He's not too
different from Dick McGraw. He doesn't really have to do anything,
so he's always procrastinating. That's one of these things about
so many well-to-do people; it takes a certain kind of well-to-do
people to overcome that. Now, David McAlpin is a tremendously
wealthy man but has always leaned over backwards to keep active
and do things and contribute. In fact, the whole Rockefeller
clan are trained to do that. The Stern-Haas family in San
Francisco are the same.

Then there's that in-between group who I guess are
dilettantes in a sense, because they never achieve enough to
really be called a creative amateur. But they have more money
than they need. Dr. Land says about these people, "They never
want to meet the challenge." Or if the challenge asserts itself,
then they sidestep because they don't have to do anything. But
people like Eliot Porter, who is very well off, and Strand they
all met the challenge and won!

But there are so many people in this world who have so much
means and are well trained; they could do anything they wanted to
do, but never quite achieve it. It's a very interesting
psychological situation.

Teiser: And in contrast is a man like Gilpin, who apparently must work a
long day

Adams: Henry Gilpin. Oh yes, he's a hard-working deputy sheriff, and yet
he does very fine work in photography. The only thing I'm worried
about is that those people the same with Richard Garrod, who's
the city planner of Monterey is that they get the idea that they
might give up their work and make a living out of photography. And
their kind of photography you don't make a living at I But they
can get much more satisfaction out of it than they would if they
had to be professional photographers.


Adams: But then again, you go out and you do the photographs you want to
do and you acquire a beautiful collection, and then somebody comes
along and says, "I want something like that done of my area, or my
business, or my family." You go and try to do it and it doesn't
work that way, because the stimulations do not come from within.
Like Cartier-Bresson's first book, The Decisive Moment, was just
wonderful twenty years work. Then he did a book on Russia and
one on China, and they don't come up to the first book in quality.

And of course I've had the same things occur in my work. I've
done a book on Mission San Xavier in Tucson, Arizona,* with Nancy
Newhall, and it's good enough, but it's not like a portfolio of
fine prints.

Teiser: I like it.

Adams: Well, but it's still not really good. It's no criticism of a
photographer, it's just an "adjustment" to publishing reality.

Teiser: Well, does any creative person work evenly ever?

Adams: No, very few. Robinson Jeffers said, "I just can't write

occasional poetry. If there's anything I've got that you can use,
why, that's fine."

[End Tape 18, Side 1]
[Begin Tape 18, Side 2]

[Interview XV 7 July 1972]

Adams: Did we actually get the foundation of Aperture? Several of us were
hoping that there would be a publication of creative photography.
Minor White had apparently interested some people in it and was
looking for a title, and several titles were suggested, all of them
quite corny "New Camera Work," etc. I thought the aperture of the
lens is really what you see through, so I suggested Aperture and
they took it. No matter what you say it has connotations, but it
seems to have been a very good title and has lasted all these
years. So I'm very happy about it. I think I'm on the board of
directors or something; I don't have very much to do directly with
it. It has gone into very esoteric and rather complex directions,
more or less exploring fresh work, but at the same time, they will
bring in some older people of renown.

Teiser: They've done some whole issues devoted to single photographers;
have you approved of that?

Adams: Yes, I think so. I think it's all right, although some people have
been left out that didn't quite follow the dogma.

*Mission San Xavier del Bac.


Teiser: Like who?

Adams: [Laughs] Me, and a few others. Well, I'm sort of an establishment
character, and I'm perfectly happy. But there are people, pretty
much in my style of work and my approach, who have not been
accepted because they're not considered either esoteric or
mystical enough or experimental enough, and they haven't been
dead long enough [laughter] for somebody to unravel their
aesthetic meanings.

Teiser: Maybe one point is that the sort of thing you've done, you've done
so well that it's a difficult act to follow.

Adams: I think probably I'm very well known, and there isn't any need to
imitate. I think that's one of the theories back of it, which I
may agree with. I'm probably among the most well known creative
photographers, certainly, just from the amount of work I have
done. I don't have any feeling about it really; I don't want to
sound as though I am concerned. I am interested that many
photographers who are not in that extra-dimensional, contemporary
"mystical fold" are not considered. And of course that's all
right too, maybe!

Teiser: Does Minor White have the whole control of the editorial policy?

Adams: Well, it's what he represents; he's really a kind of guru and has
tremendous influence. He's a remarkable teacher. He's an
influential teacher; the student becomes a disciple. There I think
we have a basic antagonism, on that point of view, because I've
tried terribly hard to avoid that in my own work. He's trained
people who photograph like him, and they in turn train other people
who photograph like him developing a kind of cult in the true
sense of the word. Some have graduated and gone on to quite
individual functions. But it's a peculiar thing the power of the
individual in teaching. It can take hold of a person, especially
in photography. Part of Minor's philosophy was that photography
is therapy. An interesting observation: he almost invariably has
inferior surrounding people who he is controlling or experimenting
upon, with good intent I don't want to be misquoted in that
fundamentally good intent. But the point is, you have a
personality, the inner spirit a la Zen or Gurdjieff ; quite a
variety of mystical derivations. Photography, then, becomes

Online LibraryAnsel AdamsConversations with Ansel Adams : oral history transcript / 1972-1975 → online text (page 45 of 76)