Ansel Adams.

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

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was a very special show, one of the most significant shows ever put
together in America.

Teiser: The painting, however, what sort of painting was it?
Adams: Oh, now you've got me on names again Picabia, Picasso
Harroun: "Nude Descending Staircase"?

Adams: Duchamp, yes, he was in that group, I am sure. That was my first
exposure to the nonliteral contemporary art, and it made a great

[End Tape 1, Side 2]

*Haig Patigian.


[While the recording tape reel was being changed, Mr. Adams mentioned
his admiration for his house guest, the pianist Ernst Bacon.]

[Begin Tape 2, Side 1]

Adams: The only person who compared with Ernst Bacon who ever played here
was Victor Babin of Vronsky and Babin, duo-pianists he just died,
you know, two months ago old friends. Last time they were here and
spent the weekend, we had some vodkas and reminisced and he played
Scriabin and you never had such an experience! A beautiful pianist.
I've been very fortunate in my friends.

Now, let's see. Where was I?
Teiser: You were telling about the 1915 Fair.

Adams: The 1915 Fair. Well, I saw a great many things. The organ in the
Festival Hall is the organ that is now in the auditorium in San
Francisco. It was a very good one. They've improved it, but it had
then great power. Being interested deeply in music, every noon I
went to an organ recital. And then I had some friends who managed
to let me play it a little. Then I studied organ after that.

But a very interesting story. You've heard of Tom Mooney and
the bombing?* Well, Rena Mooney was quite a fine musician. I met
her at the time. She wanted me to be her pupil. She was very
aggressive, but I didn't quite I didn't think she was my cup of tea,
although I liked her personally. Tom Mooney worked for the Underwood
Typewriter Company as a technician. They had, I guess, one of the
greatest illusions of its time. The audience would look onto the
stage. There would be old people writing with quills. It would
gradually and beautifully fade into people with pens in their
bookkeeping shop in London. And then the picture would gradually
fade into 1890, 1900, ladies working old typewriters. And then it
would gradually fade into a new place. Well, this illusion just
fooled everybody. It was fantastic. He showed me how it was done
one time. It was a great mirror system and revolving stage. Very
advanced. And the lights would go down and the stage would move, and
the next one would come in and this one would be illuminated and
picked up in the mirrors. The mirror was the biggest glass I'd ever

We were very good friends. And imagine the shock one morning,
seeing in the paper that Thomas Mooney was accused of the bombing,
the Preparedness Day bombing. And there was his picture. This was
the guy I'd known during the Fair, and a very kind, gentle man.

*The Preparedness Day parade bombing, 22 July 1916.


Adams: Well, they were rather politically radical, but they didn't think

I was old enough to understand this, so they didn't talk much. But
this was a trauma. To suddenly see, for the first time in my life,
a picture on the front page of the paper, of a guy that was accused
of perpetrating that bomb outrage it was terrible a man that I'd
had a close association with as a good friend in my rounds of the
Fair. So that was my first brush with "reality."

Teiser: Do you remember the photography that was around the Fair?

Adams: The Camera Club show was so dreadful I looked at part of it and just
left, and the photography of the Fair, the commercial photography,
was, of course, competent but very bad all their guide books and
things terrible stuff. The whole Fair was the most amazing thing.

The Tower of Jewels was a geegaw, the biggest curio ever made.
And yet there were some things that were absolutely beautiful. Of
course the whole thing was a totally traditional plan. You had your
Venetian towers, you had the Alhambra Spanish courts, and the
architects really went all out.

The most impressive thing (the most curious thing I guess I can
think of) was that they had this great locomotive out on a pier,
which would generate steam phsssh! running on, just rotating wheels.
It would put up these tremendous clouds of steam on which colored
lights would play, and then fireworks were released back of it. Well,
the thing was a fantastic spectacle. I mean, Dufy never painted any
thing like that!

And then we knew [Bernard] Maybeck, and of course he did the
Palace of Fine Arts, and when that was lit up at the time of the
Fair, it was an extraordinary experience. A wonderful thing. At
night it was a real fairyland (I mean if you want to use that corny
term now). It was fantastic. And when they didn't take it down
along with the other buildings, Maybeck was disturbed. He said,
"This is not a permanent building I This is a fantasy I This is
supposed to go!" Oh, it was a beautiful building. To let it stand
after the Fair practically broke his heart, because in the cold
light of day, with the city around it you know, it was a bit crazy.
And then a few years ago some guy spent six million dollars repro
ducing it! Maybeck has been rotating in his grave, I am sure.

This is an interesting thing. I wrote a very strong letter to
this man and never got an answer. I said, "You're spending six
million dollars to perpetuate something which the architect was
broken-hearted wasn't terminated at the end of the Fair. The Fair
was a true Renaissance concept. Ninety percent of the Renaissance
was not permanent. It was festivals, sets made, performances. What's


Adams: come down from the Renaissance is mostly a lot of old monuments and

great style, but retaining that structure wasn't in the spirit of the
Renaissance. It was a very alive, transitory thing. I said, "If
you'd just taken that money and turned it over for contemporary art
and architecture, it would have been an infinitely greater balance."
But it's a monument. That guy put six million dollars into
duplicating that building. Can you imagine? It was originally built,
very well done, with a steel frame. Then it was faced with fake
travertine. I forget the name of the man who developed this, but he
could imitate any kind of marble or travertine that you wanted by
mixing clay, plaster, and color, and get the illusion like Mrs.
Spencer* in Yosemite did a stylized fifteenth century glass window
she made of parchment. And people knew it was a derivation from
Sainte-Chapelle; that was her great theme when she was in Europe.
They looked at it and they were astounded. It is a stained glass
window, but it isn't like anything that's ever been done; it's all
parchment. But when you look at it with the lights behind it, you
can't believe that you're not looking at a perfectly gorgeous,
luminous window. That goes up every Christmas, and comes down
afterwards, and nobody wants to perpetuate it through the year.

Religious Concepts and Cemeteries

Teiser: Going back to your immediate surroundings when you were a youngster
you were naming the people who influenced you, and people you had
known. You took Greek lessons?

Adams: I took Greek lessons from a Dr. Harriott, who I think was Canadian.
He was a minister, a total fundamentalist. And he was a terribly
good Greek teacher in the imitative sense. I mean he'd make you
write, go all through your verbs and nouns. And his pronunciation
was, of course, English. I don't think anyone knows how to pronounce
the original Greek, but this was the accepted English pronunciation.
I read a lot. I read Homer, the others, Pindar, etc., and I could
read it, by gosh. But he said, "What do you do? What literature do
you read?" He was a pompous man, very stuffy. His wife was a
little white woman, scared to death of him. He had a bristling
beard. He said, "What do you do? What is your favorite literature?"
I said, "Well, I have to confess, poetry. I just love Shelley."
"Oh heathen]" He said, "You should be concentrating on the word of
God. Do you read the Bible?" "No, but we do have a family Bible."
(We had the births and deaths on the front page.)

*Jeanette Dyer (Mrs. Eldridge T.) Spencer.


Adams: Well, by that time he was just ready to pop a cork, you know. And I
said, "Well, you know, we're not a very religious family. We're
scientists. My father's interested in science, and we can't believe
this fundamental " "Oh," he said, "this is heresy'. The world
began 4004 B.C. and," he said, "every God-fearing person must
accept that. This is the truth." And I said, "I can't " Then,
"Dr. Harriott, how did all these fossils get in the rocks? You know,
four thousand years is not " "Oh," he said, "my dear misguided boy,
God put them in there to tempt our faith." [Laughter] And from that
time on, my whole concept of traditional fundamentalist religion
held to a very low level. I actually heard that mythical "fact"
stated with total conviction. And I can imagine an old man with a
beard, with the kindest intention, running around in millions and
billions of rocks and poking in fossils, to tempt the faith of some
creature he invented in the very last varnish layer of the historic
column. [Laughter] But that actually happened to me! These people
are right around here today who would say the same thing.

Oh, another problem I had was with a man who was a physicist,
and he got talking about what church I belonged to, and I said, "I
don't go to church." He said, "I don't understand it," and I said,
"Well, are you a Catholic?" He said, "Oh, I'm a devout Baptist. I
actually believe in the Bible." I said, "Look, you're a physicist
and a mathematician, and you can't really believe certain things,
can you?" I forget his exact words. (This came along later.) He
said, "My dear boy, you don't understand. Faith is one thing, and
knowledge is another." And you know that was a great shock that
somebody could have all the knowledge in the world and yet have a
faith that denied it. Those things are perhaps formative things in
one's life.

This is probably a good time to say that my very dear friend
Dr. [Edwin H.] Land of Polaroid really, a great genius in science
and technology today, and his heart is as big as his mind he was
talking about problems, solutions, and human directions; we all have
human and political problems. And he said, "The key to the whole
thing is a clinical approach and ability in 'management 1 of any
situation." In other words, if something happens, if something hits
you, you should immediately become "clinical." Don't let your
emotions take the control from you. Just analyze what's happening,
and then when you figure out what's happening, then you may begin to
manage it. You don't deny it, you don't condemn it, you just say,
"Here's the situation, and one parameter is here and another there,"
and you solve it. The instant you become emotional, resentful, or
over-respond you have lost.

Jim Taylor: It's getting time for dinner.

Adams: All right. Tell them to hold it. We're doing fine.


Teiser: We'll stop whenever you like.

Adams: Now, a very interesting thing that really goes back to the twenties.
I'm not a victim of necrophilia or anything to do with death.
Cemeteries have two qualities. One is human in the sense that one
human being is putting up some kind of a stone which relates to
another human being. In many cases on that stone are carvings,
sentiments, indications, which is profoundly human and is, in a
sense, folk art. So I've always had an interest in such things.
I've got a tremendous collection of cemetery stone photographs. Dr.
Land has said, "I see so many pictures of tombstones. You come here,
I give you a new film to try, and you go to work in Laurel Hill
Cemetery!" I say, "Yes, because the stones are static. Some of them
are very beautiful and I can work thoughtfully on them."

This is a theme that affected me and affects a great many
photographers. The early gravestone carvings and sentiments are a
link the closest link I know to the past. And you get that
assurance in New England in the old graveyards; you really sense a
contact with past humanity, and the stones photograph beautifully.

I have one negative here that I've been working on for years.
It was a little thing from Laurel Hill Cemetery. It's gone; it's
part of Bay breakwater now. It's just a sphere, a little spirit, a
little angel leaving, floating off. Probably when it was made it
might have been corny, but it was beautiful with age and erosion.
I'm going to make a print of that if it's the last thing I do, because
it's one of the most beautiful, poignant images, and it relates so
wonderfully to so many themes. Here is the earth, the symbol of the
crescent, and the little spirit leaving it.

So to make these junctions between expression, personal feeling,
history, we can then send tentacles out to other people through art.
The human interpretation of history is just not dates and facts but,
as my friend Newhall says, "We historians don't think of the past or
present, we think of a continuous line." And now a lot of people
want to cut life into periods everyone tries to compartment ize it:
contemporary art, new sculpture, pop art move in in all such
compartments. Any good art historian goes around a great ellipse,
you see, right back to the pre-Egyptians. And we just came across
some pictures today of some Egyptian things in the Boston Museum.
And you look at these pictures, and they have qualities which a lot
of the contemporary artists are really trying to capture in the new

So my interest in cemeteries is not anything to do with death,
or even the fact that the art is "art." It's a kind of a folk art,
but it has a tremendous human significance. It's just a theme which
because I suppose it stays quiet [laughter] I like. So I have a very


Adams: complete set of Laurel Hill Cemetery pictures in the late twenties
and thirties. That little figure see the figure on the urn? that
was the most beautiful gravestone there, and I went over and I
talked to the guard one day and I said, "Where's that going?" And
he said, "Oh, that's going down to the breakwater." I said, "I'd
like that. Tell me how I can buy it, anything; I want it." He
said, "Ahhh! Scram!!" But I went back the next morning and found
it had been broken up, and I pinched just this little part, which I
think remains a perfectly beautiful thing.

Now the contemporary gravestone is a horrible thing. But these
early ones were really carved. There's one stone in Utah, I think
Glendale, that was done in 1890-something by an itinerant sculptor
who went around the country when people were trying to carve
primitive stones. This one could have been done in the middle
thirties; it relates to contemporary sculpture. It's one of the
most beautiful things I've ever seen. I just hope it hasn't been
vandalized. I have several pictures of it.

Teiser: Your photographs of the sculptures in Sutro Heights
Adams: Yes, I've a series of those.
Teiser: Are they

Adams: Well, you see. The whole Sutro thing was a great colossus, a
benign fake. This man [Adolph Sutro] was very wealthy, and he
bought these things made of cast cemental imitations of classic
sculpture. They still had their own nostalgic value. The one I
have of a woman classically draped and looking down on Seal Rocks
is still one of my best pictures. From the point of view of art,
it's an atrocity, you know, but here again is the "nostalgia" thing
(a bad use of the term) . What that meant in history was related to
the concept of the benign ruin. Sutro really wanted to accomplish
something, and could buy anything he wanted. Sutro Baths, you know,
was his private indulgence. So with the idea that "classic" was
the "in" thing at that time, he ringed this parapet with these
statues. I remember them when they were complete. I wish to
goodness that I had been able to photograph them all. They were
of cast cement, and they didn't stand the salt air erosion, so
they weathered within relatively few years and gradually went to
pieces. But I have the torch bearer, a woman, and I had another
one that was burned up in the fire in Yosemite (unfortunately it
was the best one) .


Aesthetics and Ecology

Adams: All those things are so poignant because they meant so much

emotionally to me, as I was at the time exploring several parameters
of thinking and doing into society, into history, aesthetics, and
nature. And the whole thing makes a complex, abundant, and eventful
pattern. So it's awfully hard for me to point out any one thing, you
see, and say, "This is important," because it's sure to tie in to
something else. I often went down to Bakers Beach. A beautiful fog
would be coming in, and great waves but you talk about pollution!
The sewer for the whole Western Addition dumped off the beach, so
you had to watch your step. Nobody ever thought anything about it.
That didn't affect it any; the beach was still beautiful. I have a
picture of my mother and father and me about this big [gesture] (I
don't know who took it) sitting on the platform of the old lifesaving
station at Bakers Beach, and you know, such an image brings you back
to the particular qualities of the world as it was at the time when
it meant so many things to you.

If the beach was in that condition today it would be roped off
and covered with warning signs! You wouldn't come within a quarter
of a mile of it today. But I lived! I mean this is a very important
thing. The average human society lives in a biological slum India,
for instance, is a prime example and up until just recently, a half
century ago, we really lived in filth. We had garbage all over. We
didn't worry about anything. You'd go into the Sierra on a camping
trip, and there were so few people you knew the water was clear, but
even back in 1912, I think, William Colby got typhoid fever from
some high mountain stream.

In some ways we're so damned sterile today. Probably that's
one of the things that's the matter with us [laughter], that we've
achieved sterility and we're not conditioned. My son is a doctor,
and if one of the children drops something on the floor they have to
eat it. They should absorb germs, they should develop a resistance.
What is there on the floor? You walk outside, well if there's an
epidemic, if there was something here we'd take care of it in another
way. So my whole experience at Bakers Beach all my life was that the
sewer emptied into it, and literally the whole mile the whole coast
there you had to watch your step, if you know what I mean. But it
didn't make any difference. That was it. The situation what do
you do? You manage it. You watch your step.

Teiser: What you were saying of Dr. Land *

*See p. 33.


Adams: Yes, Dr. Land's incredible ability getting along with people,

situations just don't react, except to art art and music. But you
come across a situation with people, don't feel worried about it.
Just say, "Now, what's this situation?" You'll usually find out it's
something that can be solved. Maybe it can. Maybe it's a sour
marriage over here, or somebody wants to put Mama in a retirement
home over there, usually bothersome family things. Other things
become emotional you get mad because someone's appointed a director
of a museum, and you know he's a fake, and you think, why was he
appointed? He had something to offer, and if he offers it and
achieves it, it's all right. If he doesn't, they'll get somebody
else. Don't worry. And clinical things. Although Dr. Land is
concerned about the situation now (he thinks it's pretty bad), he is
one of the few who could point to a way out of it. There are more
than two hundred million of us, and about one million at the most
are interested in conservation and ecology. We just talk to ourselves
and we think we represent the whole world. We mismanage because we
don't realize that the vast majority of the people the ghetto people,
the farm people are not interested in "conservation" as we believe it
to be. Their whole history of man is taking down wilderness and
building farms. We must "manage," not just always oppose the world.
That's one of the reasons I got out of the Sierra Club. I felt
perfectly useless in the face of what I felt was irrational thinking.

Teiser: Let's stop on "irrational thinking."

Adams: Yes. [Laughing] Next time we'll really go into irrational thinking!
[End Tape 2, Side 1]

[Interview II 13 May 1972]
[Begin Tape 2, Side 2]

Photographic Equipment

Teiser: When you took your first photographs, had you seen photographs that
you wished you could take pictures like?

Adams: No, no, I don't think so. I have to think. The family had an old
Kodak Bullseye, 3 I/ A, 3 I/A; I used to take pictures down at the
beach. They were just scenes, but there never was anything of con
sequence. And then I went to Yosemite in 1916, and I had a No. 1
Brownie and took pictures. Then I wanted to take some more pictures,
so I got a choice between a pair of two-wheeled skates or a Vest


Adams: Pocket Kodak, and I chose a Vest Pocket Kodak, which was probably a

momentous decision. Then I got really interested, and my cousin gave
me a 1A Speed Kodak, 2 1/4, 4 1/4. That was when Folmer & Schwing
was still part of Kodak. They made this focal plane roll film
camera, which was an exceedingly good one. There were several
cameras made, but it is still a very superior instrument. I don't
know what happened to that; I guess I turned it in.

That gave me a larger image, you know, 2 1/4, 4 1/4, in relation
to the Vest Pocket, and then I felt I really ought to do something
good size, so I got myself an old four by five Corona view camera
kind of a classic item. It was the cheapest and best camera of its
kind then, having back swings and tilts on axis and a rising front.
The one I had was in pretty bad condition. It sagged and had to be
levelled up for almost every exposure, but I used it for a long time.
Then I got for trips a 3 1/4, 4 1/4. (nine by twelve centimeters,
actually). It was a Zeiss Mirroflex, which was a very good camera.
And then I got a 6 1/2, 8 1/2 view camera. I used plates on that,
although I did later have film holders. That's the one I did the
early Half Dome picture* with.

I graduated from that to an eight by ten Folmer view camera.
Somewhere in there I had a Deardorff that I didn't like and got rid
of it, and then I had a five by seven Linhof, early style, and in
the early 1930s I got a Zeiss Contax, one of the few 35 mm cameras
made at the time it still remains one of the best designed cameras,
although there are others that are equal to it mechanically today.
And then I sold the Folmer view camera and got Miss Louise Boyd's
Kodak eight by ten camera, which was of aluminum, made on the same
pattern as the wooden view camera. Silliest piece of engineering.
I still have it, but it's just ridiculous to look at. But it worked

And then I thought I really would go "contemporary," so I had
several Zeiss Contaxes over the years. And I then got a Sinar, a
five by seven camera with four by five reducing back. That was
really a pretty good camera, but it's very heavy and it didn't have
the tilts in the right place. The tilts are on base instead of on
axis. The later system is so much quicker in adjustment. So I
finally got rid of that and got the Area-Swiss, which I use now.

In the meantime I received a camera from Hasselblad, the first
camera they made called the 1600, which had a focal plane shutter at
1/1600 of a second maximum speed, which never was over 1/800. They
changed that model to a 1/1000 shutter design. Then they developed
what they called the 500C with the Compur leaf shutters a far more
dependable system. I've been sort of a consultant to them over the

*See p. 18 and other entries indexed under "Monolith, the Face of
Half Dome."



Adams :

Adams :

years. I had almost everything that I could use I mean, an awful
lot of stuff! And then, of course, Polaroid came along, and from
the very beginning I've had Polaroid cameras, and have been a
consultant to Polaroid. I had great interest in the cameras and
materials and in the quality control of films. And then I think it's
safe to say that I was rather instrumental in urging the four by five
system into production; the system includes the adapter which holds
the single film packet which is used with the view camera, and it
enlarges the scope of the Polaroid process tremendously. While I'm
no engineer, I just kept encouraging things to be developed.

The year before last, the sale was sixteen million just on the