Ansel Adams.

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

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thing of interest. I was writing for the Yosemite and the Sierra
Nevada about the quality of the pre-dawn light. [She asked:]

"What do you mean, pre-dawn light?
can you have pre-dawn light?"

Dawn is the first light. How


Adams: "My gosh, you're right." I think in Science magazine or some other
very good magazine somebody has written about the qualities of pre
dawn light. "Up and about in the beautiful quality of the pre-dawn
light." You feel what they mean, but when you think logically about
it, it's impossible, because dawn is the first light, and what's pre-

Government-Sponsored Exhibits


Adams :

There were two exhibits for the USIS in 1957-
Singing" and one "A Nation of Nations."

-one "I Hear America


Yes, the "Nation of Nations" was done for the Kongresshalle in Berlin,
an exhibit designed by Herbert Bayer. "I Hear America Singing" was
the one that toured through most of the world but was not shown in
the Kongresshalle.

How did you happen to be involved in that ?

The USIS asked us to do them after the "This is the American Earth"
exhibit. They thought we could do it. The Kongresshalle itself was
designed by a Boston architect he did College Five at Santa Cruz.
(They called the Kongresshalle the "pregnant oyster." It's a concrete
structure very "brutalesque.") We got Herbert Bayer to do the
designing, and Herbert is a wonderful man absolutely precise. He
lives in Aspen. I guess you've heard of him before. He got the
Kongresshalle plans, and we found that hooks would be set in. So he
designed the exhibit to hang from cables from the ceiling. He was a
very meticulous man. I was to make the prints in a certain way, the
panels were then to be held stable to the floor by piano wire, with
little weights. The exhibit was to be a group of hanging panels an
exciting concept I

It was all designed and all laid out and shipped to Berlin.
Then he found that they hadn't put any of these hanging bolts on the
beams. He called me up from Germany and said, "This is crazy. I
think I'll give it up and come home. They have no hanging bolts on
the beams." I said, "How come?" He said, "The architect showed me
the plans on which I planned the show, but there's no bolts in those
beams, so I have nothing to hang the show on." "Well," I said,
"Herbert, we've got to do something." "Well," he replied, "the only
thing we can do is just A-frame. I don't know what else we can do."

So he worked out a plan where there were heavy weights and
posts, connected with slanting panels. But it wasn't the airy effect
we desired.


Adams: Then we received hundreds of negatives from all over the world, and
I had to make the enlargements, and that was an awful job!

Teiser: You did all the enlargements?

Adams: I did all the enlargements. I remember making a six-foot picture
from a 35-millimeter negative of a cowboy rolling a cigarette. I
really resented that one. I went up through two copy negative
stages. It looked horrible!

The worst job of that kind that I did was enlarging all the
pictures for the Australian building in the San Francisco World's
Fair. Joe Sinel designed it. One or two huge walls were just a
mosaic of pictures, and the negatives all came from Australia. I
thought there were bad photographers in this country, but I never in
my life have seen such hideous things. Most of them were copy
negatives. Joe designed them very precisely, and we worked like dogs.
All I can say is I did get a good fee for it; I did my job, and I got
paid for it. I made these things exactly to scale. They were all
mounted, and they were delivered. And the people who were putting
them up just didn't care just trimmed them to fit! Joe Sinel went
out of his mind; I had to practically hold him down or he was going
to shoot somebody. I said, "We have to stop this [stop the hanging
of the prints]." The contractor said, "We've got to get it done.
You're not union; you have no right to be here." These pictures went
up in the most haphazard awful way after spending $6000 and weeks of
time. There was one picture eighteen feet high of a waterfall; all
I had was a print six inches high to work from. I had to make a
copy negative on 8 by 10, and then make big blowups of that in six
sections and have them mounted to fit together.

Teiser: Did you work on other things with Joe Sinel?

Adams: Oh yes, he designed the Death Valley book. We had a little argument
with dear old Joe over the cover. There was a type known as "bones."
Now, Joe Sinel was a very fine designer, but once in a while he had
his lapses. So he got this type for the Death Valley cover made up
of what we call "bone type," in which every letter is formed in bones.
It's one of these incredible period types. The "Gs" were curved
bones bones with nuckles at each end, something like that. And we
couldn't take it, and he was very mad at me for a while. So finally
we used "ghost" type we compromised which is not bad. I mean, the
name is bad, but the type is pretty effective.

Teiser: Did you have many of your photographs in "Nation of Nations"?

Adams: Yes, maybe a fifth of them were mine.

Teiser: What was it, a representation of America as it is today?



Teiser :

Yes, all the races the Amish and Jewish ghettos, and the Irish and
the Chinese and the Japanese and the Mexican.

11 7

And what was the exhibit "I Hear America Singing

Well, that was something of the same but not racially oriented. It
was nationally oriented to the United States and distributed overseas.

Teiser: Did you print all that too?

Adams: Yes, I printed all that too. I think, instead of figuring the miles

I've driven, I should have figured out the acres of photographic

paper I've used. Like, sixty rolls of fifty-foot paper for one show
forty inches wide by fifty feet long!

Teiser: Do you enjoy working on exhibits like that?

Adams: I did, but if it isn't your own work it becomes a different challenge.
Sometimes we got some beautiful negatives from which I could make a
nice print. The thing that shocked me was that many negatives we got
from well-known photographers were so bad that I could only say, "Well,
I can't understand it!"

Teiser: I'm surprised they sent bad negatives, without being embarrassed.

Adams: They thought they were good. I hate to say it, but most of the

photographers know very little about photography! They just know
about situations, images, events. Their only response to that
comment is to say that I'm just too precious, and the world I
represent has no human meaning.

Cartier-Bresson says, "Look, the whole world is going to pieces,
and all Ansel Adams photographs is rocks." He said that twenty-five
years ago, and the world hasn't gone to pieces yet and the rocks are
still there. [Laughter]

For some reason or other I'm intellectually weary with
cataloguing. I mean, that kind of stuff is hard on my mind. I'm
enjoying this, but looking at negatives and trying to figure out
what they are and when they were made, and then typing that data on
envelopes and making a catalogue list in duplicate is it San
Ildefonso Pueblo or is it Domingo? I often have to put a question
mark, because I don't know.

Some young girl out at Radcliffe is going to get a grant to
figure out the historic element in my negatives. And I feel very
sorry for her. [Laughs] It's going to be a terrible job.

Teiser: Are you going to let her at them?
Adams: I don't know what we're going to do.


Photography Critics

Teiser: I just read a statement by Minor White in Aperture, a kind of

editorial in reply to a statement by Marjorie Mann. He wrote that
maybe the only thing left for human sanity is to photograph rocks
and beautiful details of nature. He was writing the opposite of
what Cartier-Bresson said.

Adams: It was a good statement. Well, Marjorie Mann is a problem because
she writes very brilliantly in a quite sterile way. She has a
slight paranoia, and I never could figure out why she got into
photography. I had lunch with her once at UC Davis. She was doing
a lot of writing and taking everything to pieces in a very
aggressive manner. I said, "What is your real interest in all this?"
She said, "Photography's all wrong, and I'm going to set it right."
I said, "Well, that's a very large order. I wish you luck, but "

So I had a special feeling about her; she made no effort to
find out what the Friends of Photography here was really about, and
came to the first show and another show too, and found that both
were reasonably conservative. We'd been using Edward Weston, Brett,
and people around here, and people who were photographing nature in
a rather superior craftsmanship way. And so she said we're just old
fogies, and we're perpetuating death, and we're living in the past.
She paid no attention to the number of advanced and avant-garde
shows that we've had. Fred Parker had read her [before he came to
Carmel] , and he had the same feeling about the Friends, because the
woman seems to have some power of conviction. I think she writes
very glibly. When he looked at the list of what we'd shown, he
simply said, "I'm wrong. This list gives me a totally different

That brings up the whole question of the photographic critic.
When Beaumont Newhall was sent out by Popular Photography or Modern
Photography or one of those trade magazines to cover my big show
that Nancy did, they said, "Thank you, this is fine, but for God's
sake, can't you find anything wrong with it?" And Beaumont tried to
point out that criticism wasn't just trying to find what's wrong.

A lot of these terrible photographic critics in these even worse
magazines, which we are surfeited with these days, are in the main
always trying to find something wrong. And the reason for that
perhaps is that it makes the reader feel superior if he can read an
account of an exhibit by a well-known name that takes it to pieces;
it makes him feel pretty good. It is not scholarly criticism. I
say it's human. I can understand the reaction. It's been a little
better lately.


Adams: But exactly what is the function of criticism? Criticism isn't

just taking things apart. It really is evaluating art in the light
of certain historic aesthetic and craft standards.

Teiser: There's a woman named Margaret Weiss who's written

Adams: Weiss. Now, she's very good. She's not too strong, but she's
more sympathetic. She tries to get to the essence of what the
photographer's saying.

Teiser: I know she's written articles about your work over the years.

Adams: I don't think she's been objective enough sometimes, but she has
a certain human quality. Marjorie Mann is just out there
"gladiatoring." Photography is the virgin tied to the stake and
she is the lion. [Laughter]

Teiser: I've wanted to ask you about the 5 Associates, and the history of
that publishing enterprise.

Adams: Well, that's very simple. We had a young man with us named Phil
Knight. (He's dead now.) He was a good photographer and he had
good ideas. He was trying to help out Best's Studio, and we thought
if we could publish postcards of Yosemite, we could put out some
pretty superior cards. But of course we'd have to be able to sell
them outside the park. We couldn't possibly publish postcards and
sell enough in our own place. And the Park Service at that time
refused because they didn't want any concessioner to be involved
with any outside effort. We could have fought it, but we didn't
have the means or the energy at that time to do it. So we set up
this little corporation known as 5 Associates, which was Phil,
Virginia it's like fifty-seven varieties you could have fifty or
a hundred of them. The name was just 5 Associates, Inc. We
published cards and booklets and we could sell them to Best's Studio.
We had trouble with the National Park Service because they thought
that was a subterfuge.'

Well, 5 Associates was a very difficult thing to manage.
Teiser: Your daughter, Anne, has been

Adams: Yes, she's been running it. We have to make up our minds soon
whether to let it die or do something expansive about it.

Teiser: The first book that I found that it did was Bracebridge Dinner in

Adams: Oh yes, that was just a little pamphlet that the Yosemite company
guaranteed to buy.


Teiser: You had written it?

Adams: Jeannette Dyer Spencer did the foreword, because she was the one

that had all the intellectual concepts of the Bracebridge, and her
daughter Fran did the sketches, and the text was by me. The whole
thing was designed together with drawings and type. It was a rather
interesting thing.

Teiser: Is that still in print?

Adams: Slightly. We're now worrying about whether we should print it

again. Of course, the company won't buy enough to cover the costs,
and what do we do, we only sell a handful at our place.

Teiser: There's a copy of it in The Bancroft Library.
Adams: Oh yes. It's a nice little thing beautifully done.

Honors and the Hawaii Books

Teiser: In 1958, your third Guggenheim Fellowship. What was that project?

Adams :


Adams :

That was primarily to print negatives try to catch up with the
printing. And the outcome of that was the big '63 show. But the
fellowship enabled me to print negatives and do the show, which cost
a very considerable amount of money big screens and panel pictures
were used. My stipend from the Guggenheim paid for part of that big
exhibit, which then toured the country and was broken down into
halves and then into quarters. It's still floating around somewhere-
some of it.

In '58 the Rochester Institute of Technology gave you the Brehm
Memorial Award

Well, that was in honor of somebody who gave something to KIT.
considered rather prestigious in the field.


Teiser: For your general work?

Adams: For my general interest in photography. You see, the Rochester

Institute is a great place, and it is primarily devoted to technical
photography the photography department is directed to photo-science
and advanced techniques in color, etc. It is not too creative.
Minor was teaching there for a while, but he didn't get as far as
f he'd like. Now he's at MIT in the department of architecture, and
he's putting the icing on that intellectual cake with great success.
Somebody said to Minor, "You're putting the spiritual icing on the
intellectual cake." [Laughter]


Teiser: The year before the publication of The Islands of Hawaii you had

an exhibit at the University of Hawaii. Was that of your Hawaiian

Adams: No, general work.
Teiser: Was it a big show?
Adams: Pretty big, yes.

Teiser: Was that during the time you were working in Hawaii to take pictures
for the book?

Adams : Yes .

Teiser: How long did you have to stay in Hawaii?

Adams: I was over there five times. I can't stay in a place longer than
a few weeks when I'm working. I have to "pogo stick" do a number
of pictures and come home and develop and print them.

Teiser: You have a large collection of negatives from that one?

Adams: Oh yes, some very good ones. I've been over all the Islands.

Probably know more about the Islands than most Hawaiians I don't
mean "know more," but I've seen more.

Teiser: Did you fly?

Adams: Oh yes, we flew all over the place.

Teiser: Did you do much aerial photography there?

Adams: None. No, my only aerial photography has been in very small planes
around here. And for the Fiat Lux there's one of the Los Angeles
freeways and of the Sacramento Valley rice fields. I'm very happy
about those. But that's a special branch of photography. There's
so many things against it for fine image quality that it's almost

Teiser: The book, The Islands of Hawaii had the Bishop National Bank seen
the book you did for the American Trust Company?

Adams: Yes, that's what stimulated them this book, The Pageant of History
in Northern California, stimulated them to do their book. Then
5 Associates did an Introduction to Hawaii, the bank gave permission
to use the photographs I had made, and Joesting again did the text.

Teiser: Was that satisfactory enough to you?


Adams: Yes, that was all right. The bank book was designed by Herbert

Bayer. It was a horizontal book. The Introduction to Hawaii was a
vertical book.

Teiser: Was that more to your liking?

Adams :


Oh well, it was a book for sale. The other book was for free
distribution by the bank. It covered a lot of things that we never
would put in a book for sale.

Do you hold the negatives to the Hawaiian book?

Yes. I never use them in advertising without permission. I'm
allowed to use them in exhibits. I never would give them out for
any competitive use; that's more or less a natural, ethical
agreement. Most photographers follow it. There have been some bad
cases of "jumping the gun," as we call it. It hasn't done any good
for the reputation of the medium. But, as a rule, I think most
photographers are pretty ethical people.

[End Tape 20, Side 1]

Photographing Wineries and Vineyards

[Interview XVII ~ 9 July 1972]
[Begin Tape 20, Side 2]


Would you discuss your Masson winery pictures?

Oh yes. Well, there's no direct relationship, but one of the first
commercial jobs I had was a story on the Shewan-Jones winery at Lodi,
I think they are still there. (I don't know who owns them.) They
didn't have at that time I don't think they have now their own
vineyards. You see, most of the wineries have to buy a great deal
of grapes. Even Paul Masson, with their thousands of acres, buys
hundreds of truckloads.

It seemed that the second house down in West Clay Park away
from us, people were moving in one day, and I came over and
introduced myself and said, "Come over and have a drink." And it
was Mr. Otto and Mrs. [Sue] Meyer; he is the president of Paul
Masson. We became very good and close friends. They're delightful
people, and he's easily one of the top cultural leaders of the city
the Spring Opera and the Music in the Vineyards projects and many
other things. He's retiring now, so we may see more of them in


Adams: Well, then they asked us to make some photographs. I never know
whether to make a suggestion, cook up a project and get them
thinking about it, or just let them come to me. It very often
works that way in the natural course of events you suggest to
them that you might be useful, and then things go on from there.

They wanted an exhibit. I had Pirkle Jones helping me, and
we did a lot of photographs that turned out very well, and I've
done all kinds of work for them since. Pirkle Jones did very well.

Teiser: What kinds of things did he do particularly well?

Adams: He was more interested sometimes in people small camera work

with people. He did a very handsome photograph during construction
of the new Paul Masson cellars at Saratoga that is in the Metropolitan
Museum collection. It's quite a handsome heroic figure of a man
wielding a big sledge hammer. It really came out very well.

Then, as I say, I've done a lot of work in the professional
field. Not as much as I would like to have done. I gradually got
away from the commercial aspects, the professional aspects, because
it takes artificial lighting and many "controls," and that's really
not my natural bent I

Teiser: You know the picture in that series that I used to just look at in
wonder technically, it seemed to me astounding! It was a very
long assembly line, a bottling line. There wasn't one curve; there
wasn't a shadow. It was beautifully lit; it was absolutely clear.

Adams: Yes, well, that's using natural light, what is called available
light. They were new buildings. They were all lit up evenly by
fluorescent lighting. Sometimes you have to do a little burning
or "dodging," as we call it, for the "hot spots" you need a little
more light at this end than the other, and you balance it in

The one of the vats, with the man standing on the far one, that
was very difficult because it was a very long exposure. When you
get in the places that are very dark, you have the reciprocity effect
to contend with, and you have to double, triple, or quadruple normal

Reciprocity relates to the amount of time of exposure. That's
why with Polaroid 4000 speed film they say it's 3000, but it's 4000
for me! you can take a picture in this room at a fraction of a
second, with this light. With ordinary film the meter might say
you have to go to about a second, which you might have to increase
to two or three seconds. It's a very peculiar and complicated time
relationship. So, working with natural lighting indoors, you really
do have trouble. But that picture really wasn't so bad. That was
really a relatively simple task.


Teiser: Was the series commissioned as an exhibit originally, by Mr. Meyer?

Adams: Yes, they wanted a complete series. First they used them for
publicity. And they've been used in books.

Teiser: Did you take a lot more pictures than were ever used in that series?
Adams: Yes, you always do that.
Teiser: I mean subjects.

Adams: Well, mostly you take variations. I think one of the trickiest ones
was the candling of the champagne bottle a man looking at the
candle through a bottle, to be exact. That was done with the
available light in the room. We thought we could do it with that,
and then we "bounced" a little light on his head. What's called
"bounced light" is where you try to simulate the existing light by
just strengthening it. We reflected an extra light on the ceiling.
But, you see, we had to hold it at low value so the candle flame
would be relatively strong. Too much exposure and the candle would
be relatively weak. It was quite a trick to balance the light.
That was far more difficult than the big one of the bottling line
discussed earlier.

It's really very difficult to photograph grapes because the
great big luscious bunch of table grapes you see is one thing, but
the wine grapes are not that good looking. And one of the great
plagues they have are starlings. There's hardly a single bunch of
grapes that hasn't got pecked holes in some of them. It doesn't
hurt them much for wine only reduces volume. They would lose a
very high percentage of their grapes if they didn't have the
electronic distress sounds; they've recorded the distress sounds
of starlings, and they play them very loud over loudspeakers. And
the birds all rise up in a cloud and settle down somewhere else!
Then it goes off where they land; it's a harassment of these birds.
But if it weren't for that the birds would cause an extremely serious
loss. They lose 10 percent anyway, I think, with all precautions.
They have problems they have virus infections. One of the
beautiful things is the grape fields in autumn, with the russet
color of the leaves, and it's virus bugs (although some turn color
naturally). It looks nice, and it gives nostalgic effects in
pictures, but it really isn't very good for the vines.

Teiser: I think your photographs are the ones that are hanging in Mr. Meyer's
offices now. As I remember, you used hill contours and shapes,
stressed those larger shapes in some of them.

Adams: Well, a vineyard is nothing but a really big lawn. In flat country
it's more difficult than in hilly country. It's not too easy at
Soledad. It's nice up in the old vineyard at Saratoga, up in the


Adams :

Adams :




Adams :


hills. But Salinas is pretty flat, and of course the San Joaquin
Valley is nothing but flat. So it's a matter of oh, I don't know
just how to explain it every subject proves to have its own
problems. If I did the pictures in color, I'd do it totally
differently. Although there's not much color with the grapes.

There was no color in your series?

No; we tried a few, but it just doesn't work. It's drab. The
color has to be done well, you can stylize it do it early and
late in the day. The greens have a fairly low saturation, and
the grapes aren't very colorful. There's some beautiful table

grapes muscat, for example-
compact, rather ugly bunch.

-but the wine grape makes a pretty

I think one of the most convincing arguments that I've ever seen for
black and white as compared to color is the book This Uncommon
Heritage, that the winery published using some of those pictures.
Do you remember the color pictures in it?

Oh yes. And that was bad reproduction too. But it is very difficult,
because there just isn't much color there to begin with.