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

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or if it were a damaged print, I would have no right to burn it.
I've burned up a lot of stuff, but that was real garbage. That was
throwing out the burnt souffle, not burning the recipe. [Laughter]

Teiser: By the time you and Mrs. Newhall got to work on this book, of course,
you knew that your ideas pretty well coincided, so I don't imagine
that you had much censoring of each other's.

Adams: Yes, it's unusual; there probably should have been more. I can't

really say that. I think that we're basically very sympathetic. I
would sometimes pick one that I thought was better and which I could
prove I had a better image of; that was all. Nancy was always very
flexible. When she did the big show in San Francisco in 1963, she
didn't agree with some of the things I wanted to have in it, and I
would go around pouting, "Oh, I wanted " But when I saw the show
installed I realized she was absolutely right. It was too big and
too repetitious anyway, but it still was an amazing job of selection.

Teiser: So she has a good eye as well as a good knowledge of what you're
attempting to say. I suppose balancing it to present a unified
impression was her real contribution.

Adams: Yes. And she used natural objects as gallery decoration. Then,
of course, the matter of scale, the problem of what they call
"vista." She used big standing screens and many things which
enhanced the visual design. It was a stunning show, and of course
it never looked the same anywhere else.

Teiser: Where was "This is the American Earth" shown?

Adams: The "American Earth" was originally in the LeConte Lodge. Later it
was even shown at the John Bolles Gallery in San Francisco. I
forget did we have it at the museum? I think we did have it at
the San Francisco Museum. It was at Los Angeles and the Museum of
Science in Boston. But it primarily went to universities. And it
went to some libraries, because it was organized in panels. It was
sixteen panels, you see.

Teiser: It was planned to be a traveling show from the beginning?

Adams: Yes, and all crated. It was originally arranged, at Yosemite, to be
stored, and we had on the panels certain hanging units that would go
into hooks on pipes. That made it a little difficult to move to
different places, but we just had to let those devices stay. Then
when it came back to Yosemite for the summer it was set between the
vertical pipe supports.


Teiser: I presume you did the actual printing for the exhibit and the book.

Adams: Yes, I did all the printing. I made a print from an Edward Weston
negative, which was perfectly a God-awful job, to simulate his
beautiful quality. I made prints from a few photographers'
negatives as we had to keep the paper surface and tone consistent.
If the paper and the print quality is not consistent, the show may
look terrible. I would say, "I'll try to make this print from your
negative, and you'll have to trust me." I think people knew me
well enough, and knew that my technique was adequate to do it. But,
oh, we had some troubles with that big exhibit, "I Hear America
Singing. " We got negatives from all over the country, and some of
them were so terrible you wouldn't believe it!

[End Tape 18, Side 2]
[Begin Tape 19, Side 1]

Teiser: I had not realized that the exhibit, "This is the American Earth,"
went to a lot of colleges, but I know it had great impact upon
young people. Were you aware that it appealed especially to the

Adams: Well, I don't know whether we consciously set out for that. You see,
the young people "syndrome" today is a very complicated thing. It's
a thing which a lot of people are capitalizing on, and I don't think
it's entirely, in many cases, valid. The really intelligent young
person is a person that you really have to pay attention to. And I
think that the response to "This is the American Earth" was partly
from old-timers who had a nostalgic feeling about the historic
aspects and were a little annoyed the Sierra Club was getting into
population control and why should we have a picture of a famine in
India, for instance, by Werner Bischoff? Then the young people
suddenly realized that conservation did relate to the world. The
Sierra Club never did anything for young people up until at least
that time and even beyond. Young people climbed and hiked and
enjoyed themselves. They were a very elitest group. But it wasn't
really the young group as we know it today. Now the young people
express a human emphasis, and while the groups that come to Yosemite
climb and hike and camp and I think it's wonderful that they do
this the whole wilderness mystique that we've been trained to think
is important is not fully understood. It has changed; it's difficult
to believe that no stream in the Sierra is safe to drink out of now.
You see, it's just because of the over- occupation. Even if the
population balance was ideal, it still wouldn't be safe. We must
adjust to the present!


Adams: Some of my dear friends in the East scientists believe I'm just
a little bit fey to think that a bunch of rocks has any human
quality to it at all. They're interested in the human condition.
They accuse me of supporting the pathetic fallacy. Then we have
the millions of people, in the ghettos and in suburbia and on farms;
wilderness to them doesn't exist except the farmer likes to go
hunting, or boating on some lake. And this experience which Colby
and Muir represented, of getting people into the mountains to show
how beautiful they are and how they must be protected for the future,
was important indeed. My big argument for appropriate human use is
supported by what Muir said to Colby at Glacier Point I think it
was in 1908 he said, "Will, won't it be wonderful when a million
people can see what we're seeing today?"

But the purists in the Sierra Club and conservation groups are
fighting that reasonable human approach. Some want to close
everything off and limit its use to the very select few who can walk
many miles and carry a heavy pack. There are people right on the
board of directors of the Sierra Club today who'd like to close off
Yosemite and El Portal and make everybody walk in with their pack,
which of course is all right if you want to do it nobody's stopping
you from doing it. But they're so politically and humanly
unrealistic that it's a very disturbing matter.

Teiser: I suppose the book, This is the American Earth, and the exhibit
["This is the American Earth"] simply intensified that conflict,
didn't it brought more people into awareness of the wilderness?

Adams: Yes, it did. It does two things: you notice there's pictures in
the book there that are more factual than otherwise, and there are
pictures in there that are entirely poetic. I'm very glad it was
that mixture, because people could see and feel a related meaning.
The last picture in the book has become a symbol of tenderness and
appreciation of nature. You sometimes wonder how and why a certain
image has such a tremendous impact.

Teiser: It is "Aspens, New Mexico." It was originally a Polaroid?

Adams: No, it's courtesy of the Polaroid Corporation. It is not a

Polaroid photograph, but they bought the big print of it for their
collection, and I gave them credit for it. It's not a Polaroid, but
it could have been.

There are pictures such as Bill Garnett's aerial view of Los
Angeles, and there's a prologue leaves and lakes, natural scenes,
which lead to the title page. Now, this was Nancy's idea. It is
very unorthodox and very effective.

Teiser: Yes, how did you get away with putting so much before the title page?


Adams: We just asked, "Why not?" You begin with the prologue, then come
to the title, then the astronomical image, then Minor White's
"Rock Pool." This is where Nancy is absolutely superb in putting
images together and making them "work." You can't verbalize about
the effect. The prehistoric image, the Petroglyph in Hawaii, the
historical image of the Colossi in the Nubia area, and James
Robertson's "Athens" (from the George Eastman House collection).
You see, we drew on many sources such as George Eastman House. It
was very interesting that the text relating to this sequence, or at
least heading the Acropolis photograph, was left out entirely, by
accident, in the first printing of the main book. It didn't make
much difference; the concept was clear.

Then there's the Werner Bischoff image of India, which is a
terrific photograph. Then one of Clarence Kennedy's photographs
of sculpture suggesting the Renaissance. That's a very subtle image,
Then there are several of'mine, then one of Cedric Wright's, which
is a magnificent photograph of a stump in a thunderstorm one of his
great pictures. Then you come to the cross at Truchas, which is a
small image, but emotional.

Teiser: Was it on that comparative scale in the exhibit itself?
Adams: We tried to achieve a balance.

Then we come to the historic picture of the pioneer farm
clearing and the Boorne and Sarcee Indians. And then Jacob Riis
and many others.

Teiser: The ones that you said were not necessarily great prints were there
because they expressed

Adams: The development of the concept. Whether they are great photographs
or not, they are important in a sociological sense. The Riis
picture may seem inferior if you compare it to Arnold Genthe's
"Chinatown," but it is still important because it is a vital
document. A lot of people still believe that the whole function
of photography is nothing but documentation, not related to what
we call "print quality." For them, the "mystical image" is all an

Then we have two more landscapes, then Minor White's beautiful
"Ax and Plowed Field," which is an intensely symbolic image; a
wonderful photograph. And of course this is the kind of photograph
that the average person doesn't see. People may not get the magic
of this at first glance.

Then there *s two old stereos that are purely historic. Then
Bill Sears 's "Cattle Driving," which is a good document; Ray
Atkeson's "Log Pond" very good, again. But they're not on the
spiritual level of Minor's photograph. There again, you can't
verbalize it.


Adams: You will see Bourke-White' s ploughed field, which is a terribly good
photograph. If that had been done by Brett Weston, you might
consider it an "abstract." If it's done by Bourke-White, it may be
considered a journalistic record! [Laughter] But it remains a fine
photograph. If you held your finger over the title, there's four
or five photographers you could say it's by, and all with different
intentions. And the moon and the television mast in Hawaii, which
is more prophetic than I knew. A good Cedric Wright picture again
"Thundercloud" no, that's mine; my gosh, I forgot! And this one,
the "Trailer camp children," Richmond, California, has become one
of my very important pictures. People can't believe I ever did it;
it's out of my style.

Teiser: Who buys it?

Adams: Oh, collectors. They buy them from galleries.

Teiser: For publication too? Or just to have.

Adams: As fine prints. I sold two of these at $150; they are beautiful
prints. It's different from the expected Ansel Adams. You see,

they think Ansel Adams is just thunderclouds! This is a very

interesting thing I've got a gold mine out there if I just get
out the pictures that aren't in my traditional mode.

William Garnett did this this is a good impression of smog,
and then he has a whole series, from the air, of a housing
development. We wanted to use the six pictures and didn't have
space. It starts with an orchard, then the orchard is cut down;
it ends with row houses. Then there's this incredible picture of
his which is now, you're shaking your head, and you're saying this
is wonderful. Now, are you thinking of it as a photograph or as a
subject? You see, this is the catch. You see that; it's Los
Angeles. And the thing is so overpowering, you don't ask whether
it's a fine photograph or not. It happens to be a very extraordinary
aerial photograph, but what really gets you is the subject. And 95
percent of the "substance" of the photograph is the subject itself.

Then Wynn Bullock and Henri Car tier-Bresson. This one, I'm
sure there's hundreds of pictures like this Ferenc Berko's of the
Ganges. But because this picture was in this particular location
in the book, it becomes important.

And Dick McGraw's "Smog and Mountains from Mount Wilson" this
is a very important picture. Then Nancy decided we wanted the
exploding nebula, you know the Crab nebula, which was a supernova.
And the implications there are magical. You can't quite put them
together at a logical level.


Adams: This is the one that I made an enlargement from an Edward Weston
negative. To simulate the quality of his original print for the
exhibit was very difficult.

Teiser: Which is that?

Adams: "Cypress and stonecrop, Point Lobos." Nancy's text works well with
this one. Then my own grass and burnt stump carries the mood. Bill
Garnett's gorgeous picture of the flight of snow geese is one of the
greatest. He said it should have been this way!

Teiser: You have it upside down!?

Adams: It may not seem right. I think it's because of the position of the
sun. That's one of the great photographs. So then there's two more
landscapes, semif actual, of San Francisco

Teiser: That's your cultivated field with the irrigation?
Adams: Yes. That was part of the American Trust Company book.
Teiser: Do you consider that characteristic of your work?

Adams: It would be in the sense that it's a "near/far." It is very sharp
in the foreground; also very sharp in the distance. It's not an
extreme example. And this one of Shasta Dam with Mount Shasta in
the distance that again was done with a long focus (23-inch) lens
perfectly hideous to print because of the haze and smoke from forest
fires. I can think out all kinds of design relationships. But the
picture still has to have a certain amount of information and tonal
beauty. This "San Francisco from TV Hill" gives the idea that right
next to San Francisco is beautiful wild country which may be ruined
very soon by developments. The skyline is completely outdated now.

Teiser: That was one for the American Trust book, too, wasn't it?

Adams: Yes. We have Edward's beautiful picture, the grasses; Pirkle-Jones's
sun and wave; and Gerry Sharpe's fine image of the boy with the horn,
the little kid at the jazz performance, which has really quite a
poetic impact. Again, you can't possibly verbalize on these things.
Here's a kid surrounded with lights and horns an artificial
environment but there's something in the face that has the
continuing human quality. Nancy's poem with that picture is
beautifully related. When you read it, you see how it fits with it.

Another landscape, probably superfluous; then the book ends
with good old Sierra Club nature. [Laughs] Mount McKinley and the
northern New Mexico aspen grove.


Adams: So it's a cross section of the factual and the emotional. The book
had a terrific impact. But I'd like to see a whole new exhibit
"This is the American Earth, 1973." It would have to be a totally
different thing; it might not have that particular poetic
significance. There may not be enough suitable pictures easily
available. It would have to be something different. There are
many gorgeous pictures done in color, if we can find them. You
can't put a color print up on the wall because it may fade, so you
have to settle for fine reproductions. The Audubon magazine is just
marvelous. We should go to the extreme, first show the beauty of
nature, great things in grandeur and in the detail, and then make
a sudden shift to the damage man has done.

I think now you must show the damage. But the point is, just
showing a garbage dump is not really effective. For instance, I
have a picture of a garbage dump outside of Lone Pine. I used a
wide-angle lens, with disturbing effect. It was a very small,
inconsequential area. There has to be a garbage dump somewhere.
People make movies in Yosemite with wide-angle lenses in the parking
lots, giving the impression the whole valley is nothing but packed
automobiles, and that's also wrong because it's only a very small
part of the total area. So how do you imply damage?

Ecology and Rationality

Adams: You have a certain number of people like well, one of the sensible
ones is Barry Commoner. But many other people who are continuously
yakking about pollution they give the impression that every fish is
dripping mercury and every pelican is full of DDT. Of course, this
is completely wrong. The alternative to that would be that if you
cut out DDT, there would be twenty million people dead of malaria
and we'd be guilty of genocide. It seems to me that if you get
emotional enough the facts automatically disappear! This has
probably happened in most religions. In fact, my old Greek teacher,
who was a fundamentalist and criticized me because I was reading
Shelley (who he considered to be an atheist) was following the
fundamentalist dogma. I think there are people today talking about
ecology and pollution and conservation that are following an equally
spurious dogma. And I'd like that to go on record, because I think
it is a very dangerous situation.

I think I should say here that even some of Nancy's pronounce
ments have been very severely criticized by scientists. And one of
my dear friends is Tom Jukes, who's a very great humanist, but he's
also a great realist, and he felt that she overdid it in what he
called the "Rachel Carson manner." Many scientists objected to


Adams: Carson's book, because she did not have the inclusive scientific

backlog; they criticized her especially because she was a biologist
and she should have been a little more precise: "Give us the proof."
Silent Spring is, I think, one of the great, really great books,
because of what it indicates and I think she's absolutely right on
principle. But the scientists said it loses strength because she
doesn't sufficiently document her facts.

But the truth is that the pelicans are not as affected by DDT
as people said, and fish are not as affected by mercury, and there
is no known cancerous development in a human being by many heretofore
suspect substances.

People like Brower and a few others are, in their way, blind
fundamentalists. They can make terrible errors. And a person like
Tom Jukes will say, "Well, I know DDT is poisonous and has done a
lot of harm, but why aren't we spending a billion dollars developing
a safe control of pesticides, instead of going up and finding some
dust on the moon." He is a fine scientist, and he's been working
very hard in his field. The government doesn't think that way. If
we spent that amount, we could very well find a "safe" pesticide.
They have one now that they claim has got a great future, only it
disappears in twenty-four hours; but it does its job. The great
tragedy is, if it does kill off insects, it breaks the biologic
chain of life.

A man like Dr. Land is extremely concerned with the larger
picture, and instead of going out and getting emotional about it
and saying how terrible this is and how terrible that is, he will
say, "You've got to make up your mind, now. You want to reduce the
population by 50 percent? Because if you did that right now, by
shooting every other person, you think the world would be a better
place it would not!" Certain moral codes, legal and ethical codes
do not give us the power to eliminate every other person. We have
to leave that to an epidemic or a meteor even a hydrogen war or,
better, to world-wide education on birth control.

Dinosaur bones are fixed in deep strata that give information
on an approximate time of the demise of the species. We have found
certain places where apparently thousands and thousands of mammoths
had grouped together and died. What was it? Was it a drought, a
flood, a great tidal wave, or a meteorite? Something happened which
produced the extinction of these "people." (We say "people;" at
that time they were "people.") What happened at the time of the
dinosaur? Why did they die? Nobody's answered it. They were a
reptilian group. They were cold-blooded, and we either had a
tremendously cold or tremendously hot episode on earth, because the
sexual apparatus (whatever you want to call it) would disintegrate
under either condition. We have temperature control, so we can


Adams: survive extremes of heat or cold, but the reptilian world couldn't.

Perhaps something happened in the sun causing temperature variations.
We are living in a blissful period of combined national and human
affluence the like of which has never been known, at least in our

Teiser: This picture, "Bathers on the Ganges," in This is the American Earth-
I look at that and I think that people will flourish in spite of
anything. They have very few temperature controls for those people.
They have very little shelter, very little food

Adams: The fortunate thing is they live in a hot country. There must be

terrible disease, but they do not suffer cold. Sometimes, but most
of India is apparently very hot; people sleep on the streets, the
roads, and they die of malnutrition or get all kinds of terrible
diseases. That picture was taken probably fifteen years ago, and
chances are that now everyone in the picture is dead.

You have a nostalgic thing you look at a crowd listening to
the Gettysburg Address or a photograph of individuals or groups from
the 1880s, and you think, "Everybody there is dead now, even the
little kids all are completely gone."

Book Publishing

Teiser: When did the idea of making This is the American Earth into a book
come to you?

Adams: About a year before we did it.

Teiser: You hadn't intended to make it a book all the time?

Adams: No. Not until we had the exhibit completed.

Teiser: I see the year before you actually made the book.

Adams: The exhibit was so successful, everybody said, "Why not make a book?"

Teiser: It's gone into many editions.

Adams: Oh yes. The first printing '59, '60

Teiser: The introduction is dated August 1959, and it's copyrighted 1960.

Adams: Well, that's all right. Yes.


Teiser: And the first edition was hard cover?

Adams: Yes. To do this book we needed money. I knew Dick McGraw very well
(he's a dear friend and a neighbor over the hill) and his father,
Max McGraw, of Chicago. Thanks to Dick's efforts we got a $15,000
grant from the McGraw Foundation, and that started us off, and we got
the book ready for the press. Then we said we needed $12,000 more to
print it properly. We borrowed $12,000 from the foundation and paid
them back from the first proceeds after we paid off the printing
bill. As soon as the proceeds came in this is one of the few really
solid financial things the Sierra Club's done for twelve years we
paid back the McGraw Foundation every cent. Of course, they gave
us the $15,000, but it cost about $25,000 to do it. And it was
quite a success.

It was about that time that Brower began to get enthusiastic
ideas on printing. And we did the Cedric Wright book, which I think
is very fine, and that's been going through several reprints. That
was in black and white, so it doesn't cost so much. Then Eliot
Porter's book, In Wildness, our first venture in color, has been a
great success, although it cost a great amount of money because it
was printed in small numbers. You see, that raises the unit cost,
but again, one can't take too much of a chance. In other words, if
you have a book that costs $7 cash to produce, and you print ten
thousand copies, it adds up to $70,000. Now, if you print twenty-
five thousand at $5 it's $125,000. If you printed whatever the
number of copies were that would come to $25,000 if you did that,
you might come out financially "on top." But there's no way of
knowing this in advance.

Of course, the actual first printing is always a costly one,
because that has all the plates and the "mechanicals" and the
typography. One hopes to really make money on subsequent printings,
but if you don't print enough you only print two or three thousand
it still costs a lot of money to get it on and off the press I

Teiser: In the introduction there's also an indication that there was
financial help given by the late Marion Randall Parsons.

Adams: That was to the exhibit, not to the book.

Teiser: Then in 1968 there's a copyright "Sierra Club and Ballantine Books,"
so that was when it went into paperback, was it?

Adams : Yes .

Teiser: The original volume was not produced in the West, was it?


Adams: Well, it was printed by the Photogravure and Color Corporation in

Online LibraryAnsel AdamsConversations with Ansel Adams : oral history transcript / 1972-1975 → online text (page 47 of 76)