New York, and the story there is very interesting. I dropped in on
their office in New York, and they were just about ready to go to
press. They showed me all the proofs. When you print with gravure,
you print on copper sheets and you can't change anything. It's
etched the type, everything. Well, Brower and the other people had
not proofread anything, and on the first three pages I began to see
glaring errors. I ordered a stop to everything, and we went care
fully through it. The errors I caught in that printing cost $780
to correct and re-plate. Brower had passed it, but no one had ever
proofread it. By luck, I just happened to drop in and say, "Let's
see how it's going," because I was on the publications committee.
They had Bill Garnett's name all wrong; they had titles wrong; they
had misspellings. You never saw such a mess in your life, and every
time you changed a detail you had to re-make a whole plate.
Fortunately, in several cases there were corrections on all four
pages on one plate. There were still a few errors that slipped by.
When I did the revised edition of Book One, Camera and Lens , it was
all done with the IBM typesetting machine. The publishers didn't
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have adequate operators. They'd send these terrible galleys to me,
and I'd correct them. Then they'd send them back corrected, but
there were many new errors. Something new would happen! The
first edition of that is full of typos. The second edition is pretty
good I only know about one bad error.
But the best proofreader I ever knew was the man at H.S. Crocker
Company who had a little office and a secretary. He was remote. And
he read every word, every letter, every comma. He'd call you up and
say, "Do you really mean what you said here? I don't think you have
the right verb form here. We noticed this plural at the first part
of the paragraph" that kind of thing, which is just incredibly
helpful. Most of the things that Crocker did in fact, almost
everything were quite perfect. I never found anybody else that
good; he had a kind of creative interest. (I wish I could remember
his name.) But he'd always manage it without sounding critical.
He'd say, "Now, I've just been reading this, and I find that the
first part of the paragraph is in the plural sense, and it becomes
singular further down, and I wish you would look at it and tell me "
Most proofreaders read backwards, you know. Forward and
backwards to see if it's correct in all ways. They seldom read for
the meaning at all. They assume the meaning is all there. This man
took nothing for granted!
Teiser: In this, did you get enough financing to pay the photographers and
the writer? I mean, did everybody involved get reasonably paid?
Adams: Well, of course, the only writer was Nancy. No, she didn't get
anything. I didn't get anything. We paid the other photographers
$25. I think that they all got $25 a print, and that was it. She
got expenses and a few hundred, but it wasn't anything much.
Well, now wait a minute we have to be clear about this. That
was expense; but we got royalties. But the royalty was on a flat
10 percent of invoice, which was really about 5 percent on retail,
which is not exactly kosher.
Teiser: But the Sierra Club must have cashed in?
Adams: I think it came out all right with this book but probably lost a
lot on most of the other books. All our exhibit format books have
averaged out about a dollar loss. Little business sense was applied.
Every book was priced all out of relation to the original cost. I
think I mentioned before that the production cost of a book cannot
exceed 20 percent of its selling price. If you have a $10 book,
you cannot spend more than $2 in producing it. Production includes
the plates and design and typography, printing, paper, binding,
dust jacket, and the container. And that's one-fifth 20 percent.
Now, you look at a book that is sold to the dealer. On a $10
book, we get $6. The cost of distribution is 15 percent, whether
the publisher does it or whether they hire somebody to do it. So
the publisher gets $4.50 back. That's what he hopes to gross from
a $10 book. Out of that, he has to pay a dollar royalty, which
leaves him $3.50; 50c promotion, which leaves him $3; 50c overhead,
which leaves him $2.50 (that's his own office overhead); and 50c
profit or reserve. That leaves him $2. If you sell by mail or have
your own people do it or hire a distribution firm, it costs about
25 percent. And that's the fundamental publisher's arithmetic.
Now, the costs have gone up so much that they are inclined to
include publicity in the first 20 percent because financing costs
more. So if you say, "We spent $3 in producing this book," that
must be a $15 book, or more.
These are some of the realities of publishing, and whether
they relate to a particular book is not the point; it is a general
assumption. The American Earth is a very successful reprint.
Teiser: It's beautifully done.
Adams: Well, that's the trouble. Costs are high and the profit margin
When we did the My Camera series, the big press at Crocker's
was operating at a cost of $75 an hour. Today that same press would
be, I think, over $300 an hour. And that's just the press operation!
Teiser: And you were entirely satisfied with that?
Adams: Oh yes. But letterpress is little used now. It's all offset or
double offset printing. And I think quite satisfactory. If you
look at that little brochure for the show, you'll see where the
letterpress printed through. A picture will be on one page, and
on the back you'll see the imprint of the plate because the
letterpress is like billions of little dots points and requires
a hard impact. And with offset just enough pressure is needed to
transfer the ink. So you don't have this awful thing called "print
through." In the My Camera series, the text that was printed on the
back of the illustration was done with soft rubber type. Then later,
of course, it was done by offset.
Teiser: Does Crocker now do high quality duo-tone offset?
Adams: Yes, they do beautiful work. They did very fine books. They did
the Wynn Bullock book [Wynn Bullock. San Francisco: Scrimshaw
Press, 1971], and they did the Delta West. Their work was a little
contrasty, but they claim that's the way that the artist wanted it.
Teiser: Delta West is too contrasty to my eye.
Adams: But Roger Minick's prints were contrasty. And I think most of that
country is now flooded out, so it is a valuable record.
Well, anyway, [George] Waters has consistently made the best
reproductions I know of. What's the press in New York? (They print
Aperture.) Rappaport they've done some beautiful stuff. I'd like
to have George Waters do all my things, but by the time you print it
out here, at higher costs than in the East, and send it east for
binding, you find the costs are quite high. Binding in the West is
much more expensive. They're trying to equalize it now.
Well, I think the American Earth is a classic and will continue
to be that. But I'd just like to see something new happen volume
two, you know.
[End Tape 19, Side 1]
Work in Progress
[Interview XVI 8 July 1972]
[Begin Tape 19, Side 2]
You've been cataloguing?
Yes, most of my negatives weren't properly organized.
Have you pretty much of a catalogue of your work, then?
Oh yes, in a way. But it's not scholarly because I'm pretty bad
for dates, and all the records I had of earlier work were burned up
in Yosemite, and a lot of names and dates of the early New Mexico
things are missing. I just found all kinds of things today. I
found glass plates I don't know who did them of Yosemite, years
ago very good ones. Also a beautiful set of Bufano sculpture
negatives I'd done. I am trying to "clean up" and be sure I'm not
missing anything when I start printing. I'm just starting to print
for several exhibits and books. I'm also trying to find things for
Portfolio Six. I have a whole series of things, an old collection
of pictures I made of New Mexico forty-five years ago fantastic
Spanish-American types and architecture. It's tricky to know how
to print them, because you can't obtain the paper of earlier days.
They're not the kind of negatives you can print easily. I should
print them fairly small, and tone them fairly strongly, to give them
a different feeling from my contemporary work.
Do you have any prints you made from them originally?
Some old grey prints and proofs. [Laughter]
Mostly terrible I
Well, you're working on about five projects at the same time.
Yes, I have let's see exhibits in San Francisco, Fort Lauderdale,
San Antonio, and the big New York show in '74. That's four
exhibits. Two books. The monograph's done, thank goodness.
A revision of the Polaroid Manual, and the production of Portfolio
Six. Plus a constant influx of print orders, and then more work
Teiser: I have this list of Arizona Highways articles; there was a series
of them over a period of two years. Did you take photographs for
them, or were they photographs you had?
Adams: No, most I did for them. Organ pipe cactus, and Canyon de Chelly
were done for the National Parks Project. Then we did Mission San
Xavier del Bac, which was later turned into a book. That's always
waiting to be reprinted, but nobody's put up the money for it. Not
that it won't sell, but it won't be practical to reprint unless you
have a subsidy. It has an excellent text.
The Pageant of History in Northern California
We haven't talked really about the book for the American
Trust, The Pageant of History in Northern California. How did
that project start?
Well, actually [pauses] the project was thought up by the late
Roland Meyer of H.S. Crocker. He presented the idea to them, they
were interested, then he got hold of me and said, "Would you and
Nancy like to do it?" We said we would. Then, ironically, while
the bank went ahead enthusiastically with it, Crocker didn't get the
printing job! because they had a huge job of making the color
reproductions of the [Miguel] Covarrubias maps for the American
Trust Company. And the bank had to divide the projects between
their two customers, Carlisle and Company and H.S. Crocker. So
really Crocker was set to do the color project, so they switched
the black and white book off to Carlisle.
We have a copy that has two page ones a bonus. [Laughter]
You have? Boy, that's lucky!
Books are printed in signatures, as a rule, in whatever sheet
size the press can take. Then they're folded. Now, when you do a
book of this kind, a big print crossing two pages, you get the ink
for the divided plate; but the parts may be on different signatures.
One of the great difficulties is obtaining a properly balanced
Since Roland Meyer's company didn't do the printing, who planned it
We went to the advertising agency, which was McCann-Erickson, which
were the American Trust agency. (The people involved in it are
retired now.) They took it on. They made all the arrangements.
I worked directly with a man named Ken Jones.
Teiser: Whose concept was it, that a book of that particular character
should be done?
Adams: I think Roland Meyer's. They wanted a good job, and a book of this
format was proposed. They gave us the size we wanted, but they
couldn't give us all the pages we wanted. It was based on trying
to photograph many areas of Northern California, wherever the bank
had a branch. I think the title is terrible; Nancy and I wanted
the title "The Triumph of Enterprise," which seemed to be much more
logical. It is, you know, the whole development of the state. And
one of the vice-presidents was very conventional, thought we were
nuts, wanted this dull title, and that was it. But they didn't
interfere at all with the content; they were very good in that
Teiser: Did you and Mrs. Newhall do an outline of the idea?
Adams: Yes, we picked the subjects where we would work and submitted those,
and the agency thought that was fine. So then Nancy started to
write and I made pictures. Some of these I had, but most of them
were made for the project.
Teiser: Could you go through and tell us a little about some of the
Adams: Well, I did that for them.
Teiser: The Golden Gate title page photograph, showing the bridge, which
goes across two pages.
Adams: Here's an interesting thing we knew how the page would be divided,
and I was down on the beach for a long time watching the waves.
They had made rough, thumbnail sketches which never match reality.
I would feel, "Well, here's a breaker coming in, and that might be
good for the page division," and one worked out perfectly.
Teiser: That really is preconceiving a picture! [Laughter]
Adams: That's unusual. You don't have to do that too much.
Teiser: What time of day was that taken?
Adams: Oh, that was taken pretty close to noon.
Then I had this one of the sunset, "The Pacific at Sundown."
That was a stand-by, an early photograph. I had this one on hand,
"Mount Williamson, East side of the Sierra Nevada, clearing storm."
I also had "Point Sur, Storm." But I did this one, "Fog and Rock,
Mendocino Coast," and I did many others for the book, "North of
Point Reyes" and "Point Lobos, near Monterey."
Teiser: A picture like that, Point Reyes, in which clouds are so important,
how do you get it?
Adams: Oh, you just go out and drive about and all of a sudden you see
something. You recognize it as being possible, and then you
visualize it, and expose the negative.
Teiser: I wonder how many hours of driving you've done in your life for
each photograph you've made.
Adams: I don't know; it's very large. I've driven over a million and a
quarter miles, I know that. Checked it all out, and it's about
This one, "Marin Hills, from across the Golden Gate," was taken
for the book. We wanted to get the Golden Gate hills, and again I
had to wait for clouds. You know, you don't have that very often.
And the San Juan Bautista bell, and the Stevenson house all made
for the book.
Teiser: Those are the first photographs in the book of man-made subjects.
Everything before it is nature as it could have looked at any time.
Adams: Oh yes. Well, it's in theory what was here. Then of course the
city picture, "San Francisco from San Bruno Mountain," the skyline
is hopelessly outdated now. I've got to get up there again, before
they ruin all the foreground.
Fort Ross, and "State Capitol, Sacramento," numbers 11 and 12,
they were done for the book.
Teiser: Where were you when you did the state capitol?
Adams: On top of some bank there; I think a competitor bank. And I used a
very long lens. It's very interesting. It was done with the
Hasselblad. In the book it's impossible to tell what camera the
pictures were made with. And any one that you've seen so far, with
the exception maybe of Point Lobos, when I had to swing the camera
back to get this great depth of field from the foreground, and Mount
Williamson all of these could have been done with a Hasselblad, and
you'd never know the difference except in minute detail.
Another one here, "Vallejo's House, Sonoma," it's made with a
standard 4 by 5 view camera. You see, the camera is very near to
the fence. You have to have your back parallel or else your house
is distorted. You tilt the lens to bring the near and far planes
in focus .
Adams: Then this one, the daguerreotype, "Early San Francisco" this is
quite a difficult thing to do, because it's quite a task to
photograph daguerreotypes. You should have the whole camera and
everything shrouded in black velvet, and there's a little peephole
for the lens; but even then, unless the lens is recessed, back in a
big shadow box, you get a reflection of the lens, because the
daguerreotype Is a metal mirror. So what we do is to have a black
surround, then we have a lens that has a wide field that will cover
a large area, and we put the axis of the lens over the edge of the
picture. That lens is pointing here beyond the edge of the image.
Teiser: Above it. I see.
Adams: The back must be parallel with the image, and everything has to be
absolutely level, and the lens has to have adequate coverage. And
using a lens like a Super-Angulon you could do that. You'd never
get any distortion. With this technique you avoid the reflection
of the lens. Then, this dagguerreotype had a couple of bad
scratches in it which were slightly retouched. We thought it didn't
do any good to leave the scratches in. That could be done on the
Teiser: A Polarizer will not suppress the reflection that way?
Adams: A Polarizer, yes; if you use one on the lights and one on the camera,
you'll get cross-polarization with the camera head on, but it won't
do too well. And one of the reasons for that is that with the
substances which allow the control of the polarized light reflected
from them the light comes on them at random and penetrates to a
certain extent into the substance, like varnished wood or glass or
water, and in its reflection it is polarized at about the 56-degree
angle from the norm. When you want to remove the reflection from a
window you have to set the camera at about 56 from norm. If you
put the polarizing filters over the lights and over the lens at
opposing angles, then you can photograph head-on and kill all
reflections like glare from paintings and glass.
Teiser: Can you use the Polarizer copying an amb retype?
Adams: I think so. I think you could. But that isn't metal.
Teiser: It's glass, isn't it?
Adams: Yes. Then I copied the American River, "Miners at Work." That's
from the Zelda Mackay Collection ,* and that is an actual gold nugget
stuck on the daguerreotype. It's very odd and unusual.
The "Gravel bars, American River" and "Old Cattle Brand and Ear
Notch" at Mariposa, "Redwoods, North Coast Country" I'd done earlier.
I did some redwoods pictures for them, but didn't like them as much
as this one .
*0riginal is in The Bancroft Library.
Adams: "Sierra Dawn" really is a sunrise over Westguard Pass in the Inyo
Range. "Rusted Shutter, Volcano," and "Rolling Hills," Sonoma
County were done in spring, before. (It is not Mendocino County;
it's Sonoma County this is a mistake.) "Moravian Church, Jackson t:
turned out well .
Telser: I was looking at that and trying to decide what this flat surface
is above the church.
Adams: It's a mesa an erosion of an ancient lava flow. It is more what we
call a table mountain. "Fisherman's Wharf" is on early Polaroid
Teiser: It was originally sepia?
Adams: Yes. It came out beautifully in reproduction.
This "Porch Column, Columbia" is 8 by 10. This is going in the
monograph and a portfolio. "Church, Bodega" was made with a wide-
angle lens on A by 5.
Hasn't that been used since very frequently?
Yes, I've used it in many exhibits and lectures.
This is a very old photograph, "Old Statues, Sutro Gardens,*
Land's End, San Francisco." We put this in for historical reasons:
it didn't exist at the time the book was prepared. These cement
replicas went to pieces in the 1930s.
Teiser: You did take a whole series of Sutro Gardens figures, didn't you?
How did you happen to do that?
Adams: The place gave me a very exciting, very strange feeling. These
figures were all cast in cement duplicates of classic figures
which Adolph Sutro set all around the parapet.
Teiser: Was that before you knew Dr. Kennedy?
Adams : Oh yes .
Teiser: Did you just keep going back and back from time to time and taking
Adams: Yes; I also did a tremendous series of images in Laurel Hill Cemetery
and other cemeteries in San Francisco. I have one that is a sphere
in weathered stone, and there's a little angel, perhaps a child,
leaving the earth, leaving this sphere. And it's very abstract,
almost oriental in feeling. I tried to acquire the original stone
*Usually referred to as Sutro Heights.
Adams: when the cemeteries were moved, but they had plowed it under.
There's- a little detail of one of the stones there on the shelf
that I was able to save. But this photograph was done I did a lot
of these things on my own .
"Gilroy Valley' 1 was done very definitely for them. As well as
**Pit Five Power Plant, Pit River."
Teiser: And the Shasta Dam also?
Adams : Yes .
Teiser: That's just amazing!
Adams: Well, I went around. I'd been around the dam for the PG&E Fortune .
magazine essay, but I didn't have anything that was really right
and up to date. Then I had had weather to contend with a forest
Teiser: How did you get Mount Shasta with the dam?
Adams: That was fairly difficult. It was done with a very long-focus lens,
an extreme red filter and prolonged development of the negative.
Then, this is the Delta-Mendota Canal. The new canal is
wonderful. But I had a terrible time with the cotton fields.
Teiser: I thought that cotton blossoms like that were difficult to make
look like cotton.
Adams: They're just terrible, and they're always moving in the wind. And
they have no definite "design." The old man who owned these fields
was a quite famous character he did a great deal for Israel;
showed them how to raise cotton.
Adams: That's it. And he had terrible opinions of the American Trust Company.
I w_ent there to see him, he says to me, "Vat! You vant me to let you
take a picture of my cotton for the American Trust Company?" [Laughter]
Well, then there's a few things I can 1 1 put on here. I said, l: Look,
Mr. Hamburger, I'm stuck." He said, "For you, yes." I think they'd
turned him down at one time in some financial deal.
Then I did "Irrigation, Lettuce Fields" in the Salinas Valley.
And this one is up at Davis.
Teiser: "Graduate Student. t: Was that used again in Fiat Lux?
Adams: Yes. It's an excellent picture of pollenizing alfalfa, and I
tried several others but got no better pictures, so went back to
"Feed Silos and Truck," Petaluma, is exciting, I think.
Teiser: Where were you in a pit or on your stomach, taking that?
Adams: I was right down on the ground, with a wide-angle lens. The truck
was loading up. "Rice harvesting, Woodland-Sacramento area" was in
the Sacramento Valley. The orchard scene is south of San Jose. We
knew we were going to need a "double truck" of that, so I did
several variations. I didn't realize this was going to break up so
much in design.
Teiser: The division is right in the trunk 9f the tree.
Adams: Yes, it might have been a little more off center. "San Francisco
from Twin Peaks," the cloud shadow was just coming on City Hall.
There's a very funny thing about this: Down here, at the west end
of Market Street, is a Bank of America sign, and we had to take
that out. No one would know it had ever been there.' In fact, the
engraver's retoucher put in a couple of extra buildings so you can't
see it. It was a great big sign, "Bank of America." [Laughter]
Perhaps not "purist" photography, but...
"Waterfront, San Francisco" was done from the Bay, with a
Hasselblad. That is also a Hasselblad picture, "Steel Construction,
Richmond-San Rafael Bridge." You see here and there the difference:
the color of the reproductions. The printer wouldn't listen to me.
At Crocker, you used to be able to go in the plant and discuss
details with the man, and we got along fine. But at Carlisle they
just threw me out. They said they knew more about printing than I'd
ever forgotten. They'd forgotten more than I ever knew, to put it
I'd begged them to highly dilute the varnish, otherwise I knew
it would turn yellow. And they said, "No, we know what we're doing,
Adams." And so I figured, "All right." And I reported to the
agency, "You better tell them to use thin varnish or the plates are
going to turn yellow." Well, the agency had the same trouble with
them. And they put on too-thick varnish, and some of the plates
turned very yellow.
Teiser: "Oyster Shells, Cement Plant" did.
Adams: But this one has thinner varnish, and it didn't discolor so much.
Teiser: This pattern of pipes is fascinating.
Adams: That's at Long Wharf, Richmond, at the docks of the big tankers.
And this, "Petroleum refinery, Oleum," is at the Union Oil refinery.
"Rails and Jet Trails, Roseville" is a Hasselblad picture. That's
in the great freight yards. It's really worth your neck to be in