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

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there, because these cars are being shunted magnetically about. I
was surprised they let me in there. They shouldn't have; it was
dangerous! I saw this jet trail, and it was perfectly beautiful in
relation to the rails. But just as I photographed it a freight car
came zooming down upon me. I had to jump fast!

This is of the telephone microwave horns in the Berkeley hills.

Teiser: Yes, that's a fascinating contrast to the picture of putting
together the miniature component on the opposite page.

Adams: At Varian Associates. Yes both relate to the same field of

electronics. I don't think these original horns are there any more;
these square metal "tubes" are what guide the waves into the
amplifiers. The waves are amplified and are beamed directionally
to the next receiving "horn" or antenna.

Teiser: Oh, that is the San Francisco telephone building in the distance.

Adams: In Yosemite the telephone lines go west to a point above the Wawona
Tunnel, then to Merced by microwave. We have a telephone in the
kitchen and a telephone in the bedroom in our Yosemite home. We had
the kitchen as a studio phone. If you want to call the studio from
the bedroom, it has to go through the regular circuit all the way
to Merced and back. [Laughter] Then they have the pick-up from the
High Sierra outposts, which is up near Sentinel Dome. It's really
a marvelous thing no wires! They have to be in the "line of sight."
From Berkeley the waves go all the way to Cisco Buttes. And from
Cisco Buttes to Mount Rose, Nevada, and from Mount Rose way over
into Utah. In the receiving station rooms, the currents come in
very weak and they're powerfully amplified for the next transmission.
In one station there were six television shows and six hundred
conversations at one time going through in different frequencies.
And there were small monitoring television screens on the wall

Teiser: Were men monitoring them?

Adams: Hardly anybody's ever there. I know at Cisco they gave me a key

and let me go alone and take the pictures. I thought, "Of all the
crazy things to do." I said, "Is somebody going with me?" "Oh no,
you can be trusted." Gee, I could have thrown out the whole
system. [Laughs] When I went in this room I made my pictures and
got out of there fast. I didn't want to be around in case something
happened. I made some pictures outside. But it was a kind of
responsibility. I wouldn't touch anything, but suppose something
had happened! They wouldn't be so casual now. [Laughter]


Adams: In the "San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge" we see the last ferry boat.
And you can tell the date by the two-way lanes and the style of cars.
That is taken from right over the west arch of the tunnel.

Teiser: Oh, on Goat Island.

Adams: Yes. I had quite a job there. I had a tripod that locked in

maximum spread, and I had shortened one to the limit and lengthened
the others to get the thing set, and then stood on the camera case
(which was placed on end) to be able to focus and get the picture.
I was right at the edge. Of course, had I ever fallen off that
thing, I'd be finished. I tried to get up in the tower, and I
couldn't even arrange that through Sacramento. They wouldn't give
me permission for safety reasons.

This picture of the University of California was done for this
book. I had a different problem two dull pieces of architecture
to contend with. By stylizing them with convergence they may be
improved, as with this picture at LeConte Hall and the Academy of
Sciences Building in San Francisco. That black cloud reflected in
the glass of the Morrison Planetarium door is very much like the
black cloud in the Orion nebula, by coincidence! Several
astronomers have noted that. They say, "You know what that looks
like?" I say, "Sure, it looks like the Horse's Head Nebula in
Orion." [Laughs] But this is such dull architecture that if you
just do it "head on" and unimaginatively, it's nothing.

This final one of Yosemite ends the book.

Teiser: Who took that photograph of you at the back there?

Adams: J. Malcolm Greany up in Alaska. It is one of the best ones I've had,
Teiser: Where was that taken?
Adams: In Juneau. I didn't give him credit for it. I apologized.

The book cover was also done directly for it. We wanted to
show the ocean.

You take many, many pictures you don't use, but this was very
efficient, really.

Teiser: Over how long a period did you work?

Adams: Two years. And right after that I had the job to do in 1958 for
the Bishop National Bank in Hawaii went over there several times
for that. I tried to get Nancy for the next, but Ed Joesting, who
was in the bank and thought up the idea, wanted to do the writing.
And he's a very nice man but his style of writing is what you might


Adams: call "Hawaiian pedestrian." [Laughter] And he couldn't stand

Nancy's writing because, of course, it was emotional. I said to
him, "What is the purpose of communication, to excite you or just "
I didn't want to say "put you to sleep."

Teiser: The American Trust book was not done in a very large edition, was it?

Adams: I got one the other day. Had to trade a print for it! I've got one
now for each of the kids. There were ten thousand of them, I think.
A pretty good edition. They gave them away. They still have a
little pile of them in the cellar, I am told.

Teiser: Is there any possibility that they'll ever reprint it?

Adams: No, it's obsolete except for the general scenes of California.

Making Photographs, 1972

Teiser: Is there any possibility that they'd bring it up to date?

Adams: Well, things are done so differently today. If you did something

like it today, it would have to include color. The revisions of my
Basic Photo series would, of course, be in black and white, but they
represent specific techniques. You know, I'm just beginning to
realize the possibility now what's the term? "You've shot your
bolt." In other words, I go out with a camera now and I find
myself wanting to make photographs. I'm all excited. And I set the
camera up and I look in the ground glass, and I realize I have done
it before and better! I suppose if I went to Europe or North Africa
I'd see different pictures. But I don't really think that I can see
things different. I've got to share a kind of revolution a new
technique, something. I have this burden of all these negatives I
haven't printed. So, after all, you come to a point where you start
potboiling, and that's the curse of many artists. I would probably
be very smart if I got rid of every camera I had and just said, "No
more photographs," because I haven't made any good ones lately. I
just keep duplicating pictures and making tests. Because literally
every time I look in the ground glass I see something, and I say,
"Gee, that looks nice." But, as I said, I've done it better; I've
done it before. It's a copy; it isn't just the same scene, but it
would be awfully hard to do anything like the moonrise in Hernandez ,
New Mexico. Something might happen tomorrow, something magnificent,
and I might capture it; I don't know. But the chances are pretty
much, having done it, I could do many things like it, but would they
be better?


Adams: One thing I keep thinking about is I'd like to do more with

portraits, because I always have had a certain sympathy with that
field. It is a challenge, because you have a person to work with
that might be a totally new world. Each person is something. It's
not like nature. Nature has different aspects, but people have
different personalities; each is really a problem.

Now, we have a situation right in this house which is absolutely
wonderful for portraits, which is low sunlight, reflected in the
window. And it casts certain qualities of light like you find in
the works of Lerski.* (I think he was Lithuanian or Czech.) And he
did mostly peasant types by "filling in" sunlight with mirrors. I
did the portrait of Annette Rosenshine that way. You know her? A
sculptress marvelous old lady. We met her in her old apartment in
Berkeley, which was stuffy and dark, and she wasn't the kind of person
you'd take out into bright sunlight. But she was pretty chipper.
She had a marvelous face slight harelip, a slight distortion. When
I did her as a younger woman, we sort of avoided that, but she said
for this new picture, "No. I want it honest." I sat there
(Virginia was with me) and I thought, "What in the world do I do?"
Moved over to the window, and it was terrible. Then I had a bright
idea. I saw a big brass plate. We got it down, and we placed it
in sunlight, and we directed the reflection from it into her eyes.
Incredible picture the luminous quality that appeared in the eyes.
That's one of the best things I've done for a long time.

Teiser: We saw the photograph you'd done of Sandor Salgo?

Adams: Yes, that was nice. Made at Point Lobos, with the rock behind him
in a gray, silvery light. Yes, that was pretty good.

Teiser: That was quite recent?

Adams: Very recent. Yes, just this year.

Teiser: You still enjoy darkroom work and find it challenging?

Adams: Oh yes, I love darkroom work. And I have a great program ahead
for it.

[End Tape 19, Side 2]

*Helmar Lerski.


Adams: Reproduction Rights

[Begin Tape 20, Side 1]


Adams :

Adams :


Adams :

When you make portraits or other pictures on commission, what do
you do with those negatives? Do you feel free to use them again?

Well, the portraits I do relatively few of them. Each one is a
special case. For instance, the one of Salgo I did was a donation
to the Carmel Bach Festival. Of course, he's a pretty sharp
Hungarian. He'd like to get a dozen prints, but he has to pay for
those prints if he's going to get them!

But the point is that what you usually do you charge for a
sitting, and if nothing comes out, you have another sitting. If
it's your fault, you don't charge for that. Then you charge so
much a print. And then you keep the negative, but you can't use it
without permission.

So if you wanted to use it in an exhibit, for instance?

I would ask, "Can I use your portrait in an exhibit?" He could
agree or refuse. Fortunately he said, "Sure, fine."

Most people would not object, but people are funny, and of
course the portrait is a complicated personal thing. The negative
belongs to me unless it ' s especially controlled in the agreement .
It is the same in advertising too. The ASMP is trying to get the
one-use clause, where you do a picture for one use only. Then if
they want another use, you charge again. Sometimes that's rather
difficult. The Paul Masson people have been wonderful to work with.
I've done a lot of pictures, and I don't care how many times they
use them. I was paid quite well for making the original pictures,
and you're always paid for making the prints. But to charge them
a minimum fee every time it appears in an industry journal or
advertisement would be excessive. Of course, a lot of the
photographers have been really walked on. The good photographers
never seem to have too much trouble. But the poor ones are "done in"
time and again.

Well, once somebody makes a glossy 8 by 10, it can appear and appear
and appear, and you'll never know.

Yes, unless you say reproduction restricted. But even then you
can't be positive. You say it is copyrighted. Is it really
copyrighted? That's the trouble. You have to prove that somebody
else wasn't there and did the same thing at the same time. It's
very difficult. But we had a case, though, in which I gave a
deposition on principle. A photographer named Wright in San


Adams: Francisco did a picture of the Golden Gate at sunset. It was a
very corny picture, but he sold hundreds of dollars worth of it.
He had everything in it, including a seagull, I think. He'd done
work for the Boat Show, and the man who'd managed it said, "Oh, I'd
just love a print of that." He said, "Well, you've given me a lot
of work. I'll give you a print for $25." And he put on the back of
the print, "Reproduction rights reserved. Must not be used without
permission of the photographer."

One day he's driving into town and he sees this picture on a
billboard, and he also gets a brochure with the picture on it. And
the brochure came with a letterhead with the picture on it. So he
calls up this man and said, "Now look, I gave you that picture for
display in your office." The man said, "Well, I own it. I guess I
can do what I want, with it." So the photographer sued him for
$10,000. The lawyers came down to see me, and we took a deposition
on ethics. All I could say was that in reviewing the facts of the
case, this man's photograph, of which he sold quite a number, has now
been ruined for sale because it's become commonplace. He gave no
permission whatsoever for reproduction. He gave this print to this
man for a very low figure, $25, for his personal enjoyment, the cost
including the frame, I think. And as a picture to hang in his
office. Otherwise he naturally would have expected and deserved an
appropriate reproduction right fee.

But this man, without any word to him whatsoever, used this
picture in several important commercial directions. And therefore,
I must say that ethically the photographer deserved punitive damages.

He was awarded $5000. He knew he wouldn't get the ten. We
didn't realize it, but it was a legal photographic landmark. It was
the first time that anything like that had really happened in local
law. For a photograph that was not a news event the burning of the
Graf Zepplin or the shooting of Mayor Gainer of New York, or an
assassination, etc., these are events, are pictures which could not
be duplicated as events and would be safer in copyright.

You could take many pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge, but the
judge said, "This is a unique picture." The award of $5000 I thought
was very fair adjustment. The defendant actually misused this
photograph for his personal advantage.

Teiser: When you make photographs for reproduction, do you ask for the
return of the original? So that it won't be reproduced again?

Adams: In the first place, there's a reproduction fee, and for small outfits
and educational things I just say, "As much as your budget will
stand," and I often get more than I would ever have the nerve to bill
them for. People are very good about it. Because it might be some


Adams: little college somewhere, and they send me $25. Somebody else

sends $250, and an advertising picture is $500 to $1000. But it's
for one use only. I request they send the print back carefully
packed. Now if the print comes back damaged, there is an extra fee
of $25 for just the physical damage requiring additional darkroom
work. I'm raising it to $50, because you have to go in the darkroom
and set up, and some of these prints you make for reproduction are
sometimes more complicated than your fine print because you've got
to balance the values for the engraver.

I remember the Ladies' Home Journal wanted a picture, and I
wrote to them and said please return and pack most carefully and gave
them this notice. It came back with one flimsy piece of cardboard,
and it was ruined. So I just wrapped the whole thing up, same
wrapping, same print, the letter in it, showing this was the way it
was received, signed and witnessed to the effect that I'd await a
letter of apology and a check. Fortunately, I got both! The way
people treat things is terrible.

I remember getting twenty-four 11 by 14 pictures back from U.S.
Camera. They were really very good reproduction prints. They packed
them in two sheets of 8 by 10 cardboard in an ordinary envelope. You
can imagine what they looked like. But, you see, people don't care.
They think, "Oh, a photograph. Just press a button and there's
another one."

Teiser: What do you do if you don't get one back?

Adams: Well, we write them. Usually they are returned. I'm not a

commercial photographer, so I don't have that problem too much.

Teiser: But I know you must have requests for reproduction prints very, very

Adams: Oh yes. They're not too much trouble. I really can't complain.

One tragic thing I recall. There was a big show at the
Museum of Modern Art of European work. The Europeans were noted
for their perfectly lousy print quality. They were only interested
in reproduction potentials. These photographs (glossy prints) by
leading German and Austrian and Italian photographers come in. And
the registrar thought they were just proofs of what was coming, so
she wrote the number in red felt pen on the face of the prints.
Willard Van Dyke was working with them one day, and he came across
this red crimson inking. He said, "We did everything we could
chemically to save them. Our registrar is so used to receiving a
glossy print of a painting or a sculpture, and of them as record
prints, and she writes the accession number on it." These were such
lousy prints they thought they were copies instead of the original
photographs! [Laughter] All kinds of things happen in the museum

More Books


Teiser: The next book I have here that you and Mrs. Newhall did was the

Death Valley. I see that it's gone through at least four editions

Adams: That was first an article for Arizona Highways. Arizona Highways
let us use the color plates, which were printed in Milwaukee, and
we had the insert put in the expanded book. Well, it was pretty sad
color. Some of it was all right; the "other side of the sheet," as
they say, was terrible. But it is a monumentally good article on
Death Valley.

Then, Edwin Corle did a book on Death Valley with the Ward
Ritchie people, and many of those black and white pictures were used.

Well, remind me to find you a copy of the Death Valley. It's
one of the things that I'm very much ashamed of in the sense that
for expediency (the idea we have to get the book out in a rush) we
haven't adhered to the superior quality that, as an artist, I should
have strived for. Then the book wouldn't have appeared at all!
There's nothing undignified about the book, but it just doesn't do
the photographs justice. And a lot of the photographs are also there
on an informative basis, which is something you have to think about
in publishing. When you do a book, say, for instance, Cartier-
Bresson's Decisive Moment which was a highly selected collection of
more than twenty years' creative work it makes a big splash. Then
he's commissioned to do a book on Russia or on China, and of course
he finds he can't possibly do in one year what he did in twenty.
You can make more photographs, but the high intensity and quality
would be difficult to achieve.

So I could do a book like the Sierra Nevada (the "white
elephant") which was a result of quite a few years' photographing
in the Sierra, and we could do another book right away or within a
year, but it would not be of equal intensity.

Teiser: The Death Valley book must go on and on selling.

Adams: Well, people buy it. But everything is coming out in new forms.
There's a whole raft of new color photographers David Muench is
doing beautiful stuff. It's time something new is done,
instead of keeping it in an embalmed state. [Laughter]

A very strange thing is happening. Books are coming out which
are perfectly beautiful pictures of nature detail, rocks, roots,
trees, flowers, moonrise pictures, and so on and most photographers
are repeating themselves. This little book that came out, It's Just
a Little Planet, has some pictures that are perfectly charming. But


Adams: you finally say, "So what." I mean, this book is directed to

dogmatic conservation, and not all the images are fine. People
begin to take everything for granted "Oh gosh, another color
picture book!" It might be perfectly beautiful color images in
some cases, but it gets to the point where it can be deadly boring.
I think we have to have something like This is the American Earth
again to revolutionize the concepts.

Teiser: Well, again, that's a hard act to follow.

Adams: Yes, it would have to be something different. Now, whether the
medium must be photography is a question because most of the
documentary photography is just terribly bad. Now, I've seen in my
"eye" about twenty-five pictures of both of you ladies, right now,
all snapshots and perhaps interesting caricatures of you. But
there wasn't one worth doing. However, her face right now, with this
reflected light on it, is quite beautiful. I think I could really
do something with it. But I just wouldn't go "click;" that is the
point. Now you have "click, click, click garbage, click; people,
click; freeways, click." [Laughter] Gosh, even the surface of Mars,

Well, there are other art forms. Polaroid gives you something
new it's a very interesting development. Polaroid, if used
properly, and with the "immediate" subject, gives a feedback that
we don't have with conventional work. The Polaroid A by 5 material
is simply spectacular in what it can do. But Dr. Land and I have
kind of a fundamental but kindly disagreement. He claims that
everybody could be an artist if they had the medium to make it
possible, and I say everybody can be an artist in any medium if
they're an artist to begin with. It's really complicated. But he's
a great humanist. And he has an idea of the diary approach: the
recording of the human scene. When you back into painting you see
that Daumier's work is terribly important as a record of his times,
but I've never been very excited about the images as such. But many
people are, to a tremendous degree. I am being perfectly honest in
saying most old masters bore me to tears. I've seen a surfeit of
annunciations and crucifixions, and it's the same story. It's almost
like the Soviet demand that art reflect the Marxian doctrine.

I had a wonderful example with that fossil from Utah, which I
think is one of the most beautiful objects I've ever seen. It's a
fossil shell in a section of a round geoid, and the seller wanted
to cut the rock base off because he thought it was "in the way."
It's a perfectly beautiful design. I had it on the table at
Yosemite. Two very well known artists from San Francisco, whom I
will not embarrass by including their names in this story, came and


Adams: their eyes practically fell out of their sockets. "Who in the
world did that? It's absolutely incredible!" I said, "I've no
idea; it's fifty-five million years old." Immediately they lost
interest. [Laughter] You see, they looked at it as something
sculptured or formed, but it was just a shape of nature. Gerry
Sharpe did a beautiful picture of it which was on the cover of
Science magazine. It was done with Polaroid 4 by 5 film and was
a perfectly beautiful photograph.

Teiser: You did a book on Yosemite Valley with Mrs. Newhall titled Yosemite

Adams: Yes. Nancy edited the book. I did the text, whatever small writing
that was in it. It was published by 5 Associates who produced Death
Valley, Mission San Xavier del Bac, and The Tetons and the Yellowstone
as well. But I'd like to do a new book, really sum up the Yosemite
Valley, which would be very different from anything I have done

Teiser: Do you enjoy writing?

Adams: Yes, I enjoy it very much. I have a hard time with quasi-technical

books because you have one person saying it's too complex and another
person saying it's too simple. And, as Dick McGraw said, "I can't
possibly understand it." Well, he didn't read it slowly and carefully;
those books could have been padded out to four times their length just
by using "simple" language. I just now got a chapter on photographic
chemistry for Book Two of the projected Basic Photo series revision.
I'm not a chemist, and I asked a man who's a very good chemist to do
it. But the writing is simply atrocious! I've got to cut it down to
at least one-half. I don't know if I can do it; it's just a terrible
job. Everything he says is right, but he says it in a way that is
almost incomprehensible (I'm accused of the same thing!). I've done
several things that I'm happy about. I gave the Chubb Fellowship talk
at Yale and another at Occidental College. I'm inclined to be a little
florid, maybe a little didactic in tone. I don't have quite the style
of the professional writer. I certainly don't have Nancy's peculiar,
highly "decorative" and emotional writing style. I find if I dictate,
it's terrible. I have to pound it out rapidly on the typewriter with
all my arthritic errors. It's a race between me and the IBM for speed,
and the IBM wins. [Laughter] And then I have it cut down and polish

Charlotte Mauk was a very good editor. I just remembered some

Online LibraryAnsel AdamsConversations with Ansel Adams : oral history transcript / 1972-1975 → online text (page 49 of 76)