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

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therapeutic and implies you're sick, and the danger is that if
someone's really sick and you're not a trained psychiatrist you
can do a hell of a lot of harm, if I may use the term. It's been
known to have happened; people just go off the deep end. If you
really need therapy you should go to a psychiatrist.


Adams: It would be a form of malpractice for me to take somebody who's
psychologically distraught and try, through photography or any
other means, to heal them. I believe that's very dangerous. I
wonder what is the sum total of the Esalen experiences, down here
in the Big Sur. Because sometimes there are people that really
aren't qualified doing important things to other people, and
that bothers me.

Well, Aperture is continuing. They're taking little
advertisements of the photographic trade now. I think they're
doing fine; more power to them. Mike Hoffman is publishing it.

Teiser: Who is he?

Adams: He's a dedicated person and making a great contribution.

Teiser: It's interesting, and I suppose it was only by chance, that it

went from west to east. It's one of the few magazines, I suppose,
of any kind that started in the West and been published
successfully for a period, then gone east.

Adams: It went east because Minor went east. There's all kinds of

little magazines that start, and people don't realize what it
means to publish a magazine financially and otherwise and most
of them collapse.

Teiser: When Aperture went east, did it change character at all?

Adams: No. It always had fine reproductions

Teiser: I mean, it didn't change editorial character or

Adams: Not to any extent. It's been very consistent.

Teiser: When did you first know Minor White?

Adams: Minor White came back from the war, came to San Francisco, and

attended one term at the California School of Fine Arts. He was
pretty well shot up I mean psychologically I think he was sick.
He'd had some fever; he wasn't well at all. But he became very
interested of course, he had done excellent work in the Pacific
Northwest. I've known of him for a long time, but I don't think
I'd met him before. He was so interested that he assisted
admirably in the teaching. Then the next year, I said, "Here, if
you want to take it over, it's yours." Because I had work to do,
and it seemed to be right for him. He'd rented our old house in
San Francisco, and we lived in our new house next door. It was a
nice arrangement. I'm very fond of Minor; he's really a remarkable
person. I get mad at him, in a genteel way, and he gets mad at me
ditto, but it's kind of an affectionate madness.


Teiser: He had been a photographer before the war, then.

Adams: Oh yes, and he'd worked with the P.W.A. [Public Works Administra
tion] at the time of the Depression. He was a very fine

Beaumont and Nancy Newhall

Teiser: We thought perhaps now we might go on to pick up the stream of
your work with Mrs. Newhall. Someone said that in the books in
which you collaborated the sum of your pictures and her text was
greater than one plus one.

Adams: That's an interesting point. I use the word "synesthesia," and
Beaumont says it should be "synergistic." But the word
"synesthetic" might be a better word. "Synesthetic" means for me
that there are two aesthetic-emotional qualities coming together.
Well, the word as I use it means that the pictures do not illustrate
the text and the text does not describe the picture, but they are
two separate creative entities which have almost a symbiotic
relationship. In other words, they produce a third entity of
expression. And it's a very important thing. Some people have
worked along those lines Nancy worked with Paul Strand in Time in
New England, and Wright Morris has attempted it as a single
personal expression. But of course it can also become highly
esoteric and vague. I mean if you have things together that do
not "communicate," then you have a very peculiar combination of
"happenings," which is sometimes very hard to understand.

Minor White, I think, has a tendency to combine pictures and
words in a way which has great meaning to him, and probably to his
coterie, but it's terribly hard for other people to understand such
poetic license in the use of words. It's something which has to
be handled very, very delicately.

Getting back to Nancy and her approach, she was a fine painter,
and I think I told you she majored in Chaucer at Smith College.
She writes what contemporaries call "very flamboyantly," and some
people go nuts about it; but some don't like that kind of writing.
So many people are afraid of emotions. It's always been an
interesting thing to me that if a thing has a slightest bit of
emotion in it, they're afraid of it; it has to be very aloof. A
lot of people think The American Earth is a great poem; they quote
it everywhere and a lot of people think it's just terrible and
unbelievably bad writing. And of course I don't think so at all;
I think it's quite magical, and I think that she sometimes does


Adams: carry a pace that is hard to follow. But it has style, and she
can make the most mundane statement come to life. But many
professional writers, not being able to do that, are jealous,
which is interesting. I've seen it happen many times.

Teiser: Some weeks ago, you left us cliff-hanging with the story of
Beaumont Newhall. He had just got fired, or replaced at the
Museum of Modern Art by Steichen. What happened next?

Adams: Well, I don't know whether Steichen or Maloney or who had a

little conscience. But it seems that George Eastman House had
been given by Eastman's will to the University of Rochester as a
home for the president, and the president just simply couldn't
take it, living in such a huge mansion, so it reverted to the
estate and Eastman Kodak Company took it over and developed it as
a museum to George Eastman. Well, that was the plan. It was
called George Eastman House, and I think they gave a big sum of
money, which they have supplemented quite a number of times since
then; enough to make it a tax-free foundation. They put a General
Sobert in as director, and then they had to have a curator, and
Beaumont was offered this job and needed it. He went to Rochester
and investigated the matter, and while he wasn't happy with many
of the things he saw, he figured he might be able to do something
with it, so he took the job.

And I remember I think it was the day Truman came to New
York, and I was staying in Beekman Place with the Marshalls. I
had Nancy's car, and I was taking it over to their East Fifty-sixth
Street apartment. I was supposed to come early in the morning and
finish packing almost everything had gone up to Rochester by
truck except what amounted to a little more than a car full,
including the cat. And here was a parade on Fifth Avenue, and I
was two hours late. In the meantime stuff was piling up on the
sidewalk. We found a man who wanted a job, and he helped us pack,
fitting things in the car like a Chinese puzzle, and the last
thing to go in was the cat in its basket under the dome light.

So we started out in the afternoon. That was before the
throughway was built. And as soon as we got up the Hudson Valley
a little way, a terrible fog settled in. So we kept calling
Beaumont saying, "We don't know what time we'll be there."
Finally we passed Albany, and I think we got to Rochester at about
3:30 a.m. The only place he could get was a small apartment in
the Normandy Inn. It was the most frightening, dull, overstuffed
place I've ever seen. And of course, no pets. The cat knew that,
so it immediately chewed up the davenport. [Laughter] Total wreck.
They found a room for me in the basement, and I went to a motel
the next day.


Adams: Then Beaumont had a quite difficult time, because he found out that
Kodak wasn't the least bit interested in creative photography, which
had always been the truth. They're interested primarily in business
and perhaps historic material. So this museum was not going to have
any pictures except of George Eastman or by George Eastman or George
Eastman's toothbrush and elephant tusks and big-game stuff. Well!
And an endless amount of early movie equipment. Sobert was
interested in the movies, strangely enough, and Mary Pickford and
others were helping to get a collection together. Beaumont used
extraordinary tact, really extraordinary put on a few shows of
early work and finally he had a contemporary, and Sobert thought
that was pretty good. People came to see the exhibits.

But Sobert was the kind of a man who'd sit at a desk and say,
"Mr. Adams, the only way to avoid war is to prevent it." I'd say,
"Yes, General, I can understand that exactly." Well, he made
things tough, in a way, for Beaumont, but Beaumont persevered.
People became very fond of him in Rochester, and he developed the
House into a real museum of photography. Sobert remained skeptical,
but Kodak backed Beaumont up. It's interesting! They asked him for
a report, which he wrote. Sobert approved of it; he thought it was
fine! Sobert had a heart attack and left this military and
organizational world. Beaumont was appointed director and then
made the House into the finest museum of photography in the world.

The man who succeeded him, for sound legal reasons, had the
name changed to "An International Museum of Photography at George
Eastman House." Well, of course, it was always an international
museum of photography.

The museum world is not for me. There's just too many people
in it not having enough to do.

Teiser: Traditionally everybody in any museum is at everybody else's throat.
Adams: Yes, it's unbelievable!

I think of a man like Mitch Wilder at the Amon Carter Museum
people seem to be very fond of him. They were very fond of Grace
Morley in San Francisco. But the Museum of Modern Art is just
"yeow," like a cat kennel. And I don't think the Metropolitan is
much better; but of course that's a city museum and it has a
tremendous staff.

But, you see, a museum is often a machine for paperwork. There
are certain things that have to be done. There has to be a registrar
and a curator there's got to be things taken care of and acknowledged
and receipted, and so on down the line. It usually has a library
where everything has to be double cross-referenced and related to the
collection. The assistant curator really watches the physical
condition, keeps the ants out of the print boxes and so on.


Adams: I don't know whether it's different from anything else, though.

The government, of course, has that, but until you get very high up
that's pretty much under civil service and "tenure." The
superintendent we have in Yosemite now is the best we ever had. He
still has four points in the rating less than he needs, theoretically,
to be a superintendent. But for some special reason, thank God, they
put this over. They had been taking the people with the highest
rating and moving them in for retirement: "Just take your last
years of your government life here in Yosemite as an honor for what
you've done." Well, most are old fogies; they're not up with the
times .

Well, anyway, Beaumont has since left Eastman House retired.
He wants to do writing, lecturing, and teaching, and he retired a
few years earlier than he had to, but he felt he'd done his job.
He was offered a very fine position at the University of New Mexico,
and he's apparently getting along fine and much beloved by faculty
and students alike. He's the top man in his field.

Now, for this monograph [Ansel Adams] that I'm doing Minor
White, not Nancy, is writing the foreword. The consensus of many
people, and I agreed, was that the Newhalls shouldn't be my only
spokesmen. They said so too, and I agreed. It just gets to the
point where we're a "combine," and then it loses critical value.

Teiser: She's written very definitively

Adams: Well, while she's given me more praise than deserved, she's always
been accurate. She has a wonderful degree of scholarship. Several
people wrote in on the Teton book* and pointed out "glaring" errors.
And she could answer them right back, chapter and verse, about
where to go and look in a certain book on page such-and-such and
find the authority for her statement. Nothing was written but what
was doubly and triply researched.

Traveling Exhibits

Teiser: You had in 1952 a one-man exhibit at George Eastman House. Do you
remember that?

Adams: I don't remember very much about it. I think it was from the
collection they had of my work.

Teiser: I see not got up by you.
Adams: I just don't remember.

*The Tetons and the Yellowstone.


Teiser: Then there was an exhibit circulated by the Smithsonian Institution
later. How does it happen that the Smithsonian Institution has
circulated a number of photographic exhibits?

Adams: They're part of the National Gallery of Art, and for years they've
been trying to get into the photographic field. And they've got a
man named Eugene Ostroff , who is extremely capable a very nice,
quiet person. He's more in the scientific-technical fields, which
is probably a very good thing because he does take advice on
aesthetics from outside.

They have quite a collection. We were down there one time,
and this collection was on the top floor, with the sun coming
through skylights and falling on ordinary glass cases, and in them
were priceless things Fox Talbot prints, for example. These were
under the sunlight with no protection at all, and I blew my top.
I said, "Beaumont, why don't you say- something?" Beaumont said,
"You don't realize that the curator is the director of photography
here. I couldn't do that. It would be like one admiral telling
off another one." So I wrote a hot letter. Then Ostroff came on
the scene, and he nearly died with fright and put minus-blue filters
over all the cases. Now I don't know; I think the prints have been
properly protected.

Teiser: Well, they seem to have circulated several of your exhibits.

Adams: I think I had a show at the Smithsonian and then they circulated it.

Nancy Kefauver's fine project of Art in the Embassies Program
I had a photographic show going around with that. Well, it wasn't
a show prints were sent at random all over, and they came back the
other day in a big case. And I thought, "Well, I can just guess
what's there!" Every one was framed; every one was thoroughly taped;
every one was in 100 percent fine condition. I've never seen such
magnificent protection, and after all these years! It's been to
Nigeria and Tunis and Turkey and Norway I mean really moved around
to the embassies. And they came back in such fabulous condition!

Teiser: Who chose the prints?

Adams: Nancy Kefauver.

Teiser: She chose them herself from among your prints?

Adams: Yes.

Teiser: How big a show was it?


Adams: Oh, I think there were twenty-five prints of mine. They mixed all

the art media; they had woodcuts, etchings, paintings, and sculpture.
I think it was one of the great projects, and I've often thought I
would suggest a revival of it. Of course, she was a remarkable
woman. (I think he was too, Estes Kefauver.) You know, some people
have a spark; they constantly think up great schemes. It's automatic;
it just comes to mind and heart, and they do it. She was one of
those people you never had the slightest trouble with. Everything
was perfectly clear; everything was carefully listed. You understood
exactly where you stood, and there was a clause in case of some
disaster; the government's responsibility was clear. It was noted
that these works would be available for purchase from the artist.

Teiser: Back to Mrs. Newhall again when did you start working with her? I
know you worked with her when she was at the Museum of Modern Art,
standing in for her husband

Adams: Yes, I helped there, because I was on the photography committee.
Teiser: When did you start working on publications and on exhibits with her?
Adams: It was around that time. I am very poor remembering dates!

Teiser: The first thing that I noticed was a series of articles (I don't

know if it was a real series) in Arizona Highways that begin in 1952,
in which she wrote the text and your photographs were used. That's
the earliest association of your work that I've seen.

Adams: Yes. She wrote the definitive text on "Canyon de Chelly" [Arizona
Highways , June 1952] (but never saw it). Everybody said, "My gosh,
this is perfect. She's got everything right!" Then she did "Mission
San Xavier del Bac" [Arizona Highways, April 1954] and then, of

course, the exhibit, "This is the American Earth."

Teiser: Before you get to that, let me ask about some others in between:

the book for the University of Rochester says it was done with the
help of Beaumont Newhall, not Nancy

Adams: Yes, Creative Change that was the name they used. The Newhalls
went to Europe, and I lived in their house for six weeks while
making the pictures. It was a "take out" of the university and
quite successful. Succeeded in raising the money, anyway, that they
wanted. Beaumont planned and coordinated it. I was paid a pretty
good fee for the project I was surprised.


"This is the American Earth"

Teiser: You were about to talk about the "This is the American Earth"
exhibit. How long did you work on that?

Adams: We did it fairly fast. It was supposed to take two weeks, and it
took nearly two months! And then there were dupes made for U.S.A.
circulation, and the government wanted more copies for overseas

Teiser: Whose idea was it? It was apparently a landmark exhibit.
Adams: This is rather important. [Interruption]

Well, the LeConte Lodge had become moribund; the museum had
nothing but a crummy library and a few dried plants under isinglass.
The government said, "We see no reason for this" (which was quite
true); "we'd like it for a geological museum." I said I felt that
the Sierra Club and their conservation principle should be
represented to the public. The lodge was something they'd built for
the benefit of the public, so why don't we do an exhibit for it
which will represent the Sierra Club point of view, and then make
the Lodge a living thing?

That was approved. Those were the days when a thousand dollars
expense to the Sierra Club was really catastrophic. But we finally
got approved for the exhibit, and it was quite a success and quite a
handsome exhibit, and the duplicates were shown extensively. . Then
in the winter this one was sent around to different colleges, etc.,
in the country. Then our thought was, "Well, why not do a book on

Teiser: What was the inception of the idea?

Adams: The inception of the idea that this should be an exhibit was I guess
mine. The development of the idea as a composition was Nancy's. I
asked her, "Wouldn't you like to do something that would incorporate
photography and conservation? With all the resources we have we
could really do something." So she fell for it like a ton of bricks,
as we say, and did a very beautiful job.

Teiser: Nothing had ever been done with quite this focus this way before,
had it?

Adams: Never that we knew of, no. Not even approaching it. That is,

trying to relate conservation to world concepts. The Sierra Club,
up to that time, was scenery conscious and interested in taking hikes
and outings and preserving the Sierra Nevada pretty much for personal
enjoyment, although, of course, the prime idea was "to preserve,




Adams :




Adams :

explore, and render accessible the Sierra Nevada." Well, as soon as
a real awareness developed, we had to change that. So this "render
accessible" was deleted. But up until that time we had little
general conservation interest we were known as the Sierra Club and
it related to the Sierra Nevada, period.

But this had been, of course, part of your approach to photography,
and so I suppose it was perfectly reasonable and logical for you to
conceive this idea.

Yes, but I didn't feel capable of designing an exhibit.
Nancy's peculiar province she could do that.

That was in

She had designed exhibits at the Museum of Modern Art, for example?

Oh yes, and elsewhere; all were beautiful. But, you see, it isn't
only designing an exhibit you have to make this clear. An exhibit
designer is given material and he does the best he can with it. But
who organizes the material? That's what Nancy did. She researched
and planned the basic concept and the development of the whole idea
as well as the design of the exhibit itself.

She and David Brower of the Sierra Club worked together. She
had the basic ideas and Brower contributed a lot. She very
generously gave him the codes igner part and he's been copying the
style ever since. "This is the American Earth" is Nancy's design

The book too?

The book as well as the exhibit. And it's her layout, and then a
fine typographer did the mechanicals, as we call them the actual
spacing and all the details for the printer, which is a field in

Then when they wanted to put the paperback edition out, I
insisted that Nancy be consulted on it. We had to make some changes,
but I felt that these changes should be approved by her, seeing that
it was her book.

Did the original edition coincide in text as well as photographs
with the exhibit? They were precisely the same material?

Quite close. There were a few things which were repetitive (which
worked in the exhibit), that were not used in the book. But I'd
say that it's very close, except that the text is expanded in the
book. There was some poetic text in the exhibit, but nothing
comparable to that of the book.

Teiser: Did you scan the photographs for selection?


Adams: Oh yes. You see, it was, in a way, unfortunate that the available
resource of photographs were mine. I had to go elsewhere for
adequate varied material. Well, who was there? Eliot Porter had
some that fitted; Philip Hyde, William Garnett, and others. We
worked hard to find things that related to our project without
spending tremendous amounts of money and going all over the country
in search of images. If we ever do a new version, we'll have to
consider a much wider scope. Since the book first appeared, many
new conservation problems have appeared and many new photographers
have come upon the scene.

Teiser: Well, weren't most images to be found in the West?

Adams: We went all over the country as best we could. It costs a lot of

money to collect photographs. And they're perfectly right in saying,
"Never write an artist for an exhibit; go and pick it out." That's
the only criticism of our Friends of Photography shows, that we had
to rely on what the photographers sent us because we didn't have
the money to hire a director to travel and choose. They would
always be asked to send a lot of pictures, and we'd make the best
exhibit out of them we could. But there is a very subtle difference
there. If you write a photographer and say, "We want a show," he
sends you what he thinks is his best, but that doesn't mean [you'll
get a good selection]. With someone like Brett Weston you can't
possibly trust him to pick his best work. He's got the most
incomplete, screwy attitude about his own work of anybody I've ever
heard of. I mean it's just what at the moment interests him, and
he says he's going to burn up everything else. God knows what he's
already burned up because he's lost interest in it. He does
beautiful work.

When you make a work of art it belongs to the world. You don't
burn it up; you let somebody with experience decide, such as an art
historian or a curator or a person who really knows on an objective
basis, and trust their decisions. That's what you have to do;
otherwise things are uncertain! There are many periods in art
where painters and others have burned their work because they would
become psychologically depressed about it or bored with it. They
think it's not good, so they burn it.

Teiser: Well, you were burning what you considered imperfect prints one day
when we were here.

Adams: Yes, but that's a different thing because I had better prints, and
I'm still alive and I can make new prints. But burning negatives,
that would be another thing.


Adams: I have a lot of "junk" prints; I think anybody in the world would
agree they're just poor prints. I have good prints of them from
the same negatives. Let's get rid of the poor ones because they're
not doing me or anybody any good. On the other hand, if I had
something that was irreplaceable, even if it weren't a perfect print

Online LibraryAnsel AdamsConversations with Ansel Adams : oral history transcript / 1972-1975 → online text (page 46 of 76)