Ansel Adams.

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

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That exhibit of yours was circulated by the Smithsonian?

Yes. And the John Bolles Gallery had it too. "The Story of a
Winery" went all around the country. We made several sets.

Did you make sets on display boards and panels?

All done up on panels. The Atelier [Paul Frederick] did them.
We mounted the pictures on cards, and those in turn were mounted
on the panel, all protected for shipment in strong cases. These
exhibits were fairly expensive, but when they add up their total
advertising costs, they're really almost nothing. [Interruption]
You were asking me about the costs of the exhibits. If you make up
several exhibits at once, the unit cost, of course, goes down. But
well, I suppose sixteen panels would be a minimum of $2500 physical
cost. (If you have three or four sets, it comes to around $2000
each.)

How many panels were there in the exhibit?

I think there were sixteen. And when you think that one page in
Playboy costs $40,000 or $50,000! Then, once one concern advertises
like that, the competitors have to do it. So the amount of money
that is spent is just unbelievable. People say, "Oh, we can't
afford a thing like that," and they don't realize that moneywise
it's very small. But in relation to the number of people that see



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Adams :



Teiser:



Adams :



Teiser:
Adams:



Teiser:
Adams :



it, then its impact is more apparent. I think it's a fine way to
advertise, but it does involve a lot of work. Of course, the
professional tries to figure out all the ways he can of making the
photographs useful to the client, so that the original expenditure
is amortized, which is a kind of professional responsibility.

U.S. Camera annual, I think, ran a whole section of photographs from
it, and then there was a pamphlet made up with Elsa Gidlow's text.

Yes, these were a pretty good job; they used the pictures pretty
well.



That's the only big winery I've had anything to do with,
except I did do some pictures in the Napa Valley for the American
Trust Company when I did their book. But I actually haven't done
many professional assignments as such. I usually like to work on a
project basis and be able to put some thought into it. Ordinary
professional life is kind of a rat race because it's something like



a clinic you don't know what's going to happen next,
from an earache to appendicitis. [Laughter]



Everything



In This Uncommon Heritage the black and whites weren't so. bad.

Yes. But it didn't move me very much. You see, wine is really a
"mystique." There's nothing in the world that gets me down more
than the so-called wine snob who really drinks the label. Some of
our California wines are absolutely delicious, and some of Paul
Masson's I think are as good as any there are. Emerald Dry is my
favorite. The rest of them are sweetish, to my taste. Oh, then
there's an interesting thing they have a brand called Baroque.
Before it was released I brought a bottle down one time and tried
it. They said, "Test it and see how you like it." It was very good.
They said, "What are we going to name it?" They wanted to call it
Renaissance. I said, "Ah, it's too long a name a bit affected.
Why not call it Baroque?" My gosh, they did! I don't know whether
I can take the credit for it, or whether that was just a coincidence.
But it is a much simpler name than Renaissance.

This makes a good label.

But the danger is of course in people just assuming that a new wine
is an easy matter to make you just mix a few things together, etc.
There 're all kinds of technical problems. It's something terrific.
Now they have estate-bottled wine, which is highest quality wine.
We don't have vintage wines here because every year is the same.
You can't say that 1967 is better than *68, although the European
weather changes more than ours. But with the most careful controls,
there will always be slight variations. It's interesting to see the
huge trucks of grapes coming in. The laboratory is on a raised



508



Adams: platform, and they take handfuls of grapes and put them through a

special machine, and they're analyzed right on the spot for the acid
and sugar content, etc.

Looking down from the ramp in the [Mass on] cellars on four or
five million stacked bottles of champagne it's hard to believe it,
but there they are, a huge number. And of course there is a way
now, I think, of making champagne without having to put it in the
original bottle, because they just stand in these bottles a period
of time, and then the neck contents is frozen and discarded, and
it's dumped, filtered, and rebottled. It always seems a waste,
but that's the only way they've been able to do it, because when
it's standing in bulk, it changes character. Wine chemistry is
extremely difficult.

Teiser: Almost as difficult as photographic chemistry, I think.

Adams: Of course, in the old days they would walk around in their bare feet
and squeeze out the juice and pour it into a vat that perhaps hadn't
been properly cleaned. They never knew what bacteria would grow in
the acids and give these wines very distinctive flavors or produce
a failure. I think they were reasonably safe but now the wine is
transferred to the stainless steel and glass tanks and remains
"static" in quality. Romantic people say that the thought of using
a stainless steel vat for wine is sacrilege; it's like putting holy
water in a plastic flower bowl. They've got these romantic ideas
still! [Laughter] But you never could clean out a wooden cask as
well as you can a steel one.



Pirkle Jones and Ruth-Marion Baruch



Teiser: Pirkle Jones was working as your assistant at the time you were
doing that series?

Adams: No, no. But he and I were working together on numerous occasions.
I gave him lots of jobs that would come my way that I didn't want
to do, and he needed them. So I'd refer them to him. I still do
that right now. He's an excellent photographer. We just decided
we'd do this Mas son together.

Teiser: Was he at any time working as your assistant?

Adams: He did at the school [California School of Fine Arts]. Well, I

think once in a while he went off on some trips as an assistant, yes.
He didn't really "join up;" he was always pretty independent.



509



Teiser: He and his wife, Ruth-Marion Baruch, are unusual, aren't they, in
that they both photograph?

Adams: Yes, both very differently. They're quite a couple. She's very

good she's got a certain European approach. She's apparently very
quiet and indrawn, and yet her photographs have great force.

Teiser: I recall the Haight Street series or did he do the Haight Street?

Adams: She did the Haight Street series. I think he did a little with her
too. She did the flower people and she did the woman shopper a
series of such themes in San Francisco.

Teiser: And I guess the Black Panthers

Adams: Were done together. I think they really got caught on that one,

went head over heels with it. They did a perfectly excellent job,
but of course it's not the true story I mean, the full story.
This was just the icing. I never could quite get them to explain
or justify a bunch of the Panthers going up to the state capital
with rifles. It didn't seem to be exactly in line with democratic
sweetness and light. They were, in a sense, hypnotized with that,
and it got beyond them. Not that they didn't have a perfect right
to do it, but I think it was hardly balanced. It wasn't any more
balanced than my book on Manzanar could cover the whole relocation
situation both had a specific slant on the situations.

Teiser: Well, if you don't have a slant, what can you do?

Adams: That is a very good question. Whether it's complete enough, a book
is a kind of serious thing. I hoped that the text of the Manzanar
book defined the "slant," but apparently it didn't to a lot of
people.

They did a story on a town up the Bay Walnut Grove. It was
a very nice story. And Marjorie Mann praised it. Then she went
up and saw that all they had done was the ramshackle, beaten down,
old part of town. And the whole town as such was very different,
prosperous and modern. So then Marjorie "unpraised" them. [Laughter]
It was only one aspect of the subject. This would be like taking
San Francisco and doing it in the worst part of Chinatown and in
some of the black ghettos and calling it "San Francisco." Of course,
people do that. The reason for it is very strange. Sometimes there's
a reason to be helpful, but there's some kind of an ego that just
enjoys protest. These people take an awful lot out on the world in
their photography; it's not exactly balanced.



510



Adams: It's very interesting that when these so-called journalists, the
documentary types, do that, they stress the unfortunate levels,
which Lord knows need to be revealed I'm not begrudging it. But
whenever they get into the middle class or upper levels , they
approach them satirically, always make clowns out of them. If
somebody's coming out of the opera well dressed, that person
becomes a clown. Whereas the poor downtrodden spectator in old
shoes and a hat, there's something noble about him, you see.
[Laughter] It's a sort of identification. And that was expressed
very strongly in a group called the Concerned Photographers. I'm
a concerned photographer, but I'm concerned about many and
different things. But to them, there wasn't anything else to be
concerned with except the New York ghetto and the poverty almost
to the point of nausea. It's bad enough, but it just isn't the
full picture.

I never got such a surprise in my life as when I went to Watts
to photograph for the Fiat Lux book to show students doing tutorial
work. I expected to find Watts a real run-down slum town, but it's
a rather attractive little suburban area the houses, most of them
were separated and with their gardens, and they were pretty clean
and neat. Compared to the ghettos of Washington and Detroit and
New York or San Francisco my goodness, this place was most
agreeable. It looked like any other part of most of Los Angeles.
And of course the trouble came not from the way it looked but the
fact that there were no jobs. But we went into quite a few houses,
and everything seemed to be very well kept. It was obvious they
were quite poor. I mean, there weren't any signs of affluence, but
it certainly wasn't that filthy horrible thing that you usually see-

Teiser: How did you happen to be there?

Adams: Well, part of the University work. One of their big projects is

the tutorial. Students I guess fairly advanced students would go
out and teach problem kids or kids who are ill or underprivileged;
I don't know just what department it's under. The Sherman Indian
School at Riverside had a lot of tutorial people there. And the
Chicano group from Berkeley, I remember, went to Golden Gate Park
with a couple of young teachers who took about fifteen or twenty
kids along for the day. They took them to the Academy of Sciences
and they took them to the museum. It was a very good thing to do,
because the parents were working. I followed them around with a
camera. It was a refreshing experience!



511



"Images and Words" Workshops



Teiser: We were talking yesterday, I think, about the Yosemite book. I was
reading it this morning, your text, and it brought up the relation
ship of words and pictures, and complementary factors in words and
photographs.

Adams: Well, there was an attempt to create a relationship. Of course,
the Yosemite book is more or less limited because it relates to
just one subject. A book like This is the American Earth is of
far greater scope.

Teiser: The workshops at Santa Cruz, "Images and Words," how did they
originate? There were about four or five successive years?

Adams: Four. We talked with Dr. [Carl] Tjerandson, who's the dean of the
extension division at UCSC [the University of California at Santa
Cruz], in regard to possible workshops. Knowing how interested
the Newhalls had been (they had gone to several places in New York
and given workshops along this line), I contacted them about it.
They thought it would be an ideal thing to do a workshop where you'd
pick a theme and the students would have to do research and
exploration and the photography and writing and put it all together.
Then the typographic designer, Adrian Wilson, would come and show
them how such books are done. Nancy was very helpful for sequences.
Beaumont would give them an excellent idea of the mechanics. And
Pirkle Jones and I tended to the photography. It was rather amazing.
The Project FIND, which was an OEO [Office of Economic Opportunity]
project related to the what does that mean, FIND? [Friendless,
Isolated, Needy, Disabled] Our subjects were especially the
elderly people, and it didn't make any difference whether they were
rich or poor, they just had nothing to do. It was a social problem,
different from that of the underprivileged.

So the people in the OEO group took us around for a couple of
days and we met many people. Then the students teamed up in groups
and would go to these people in certain areas. We did a great deal
of work with the Polaroid process, and then we would review the
prints and find out that certain categories were incomplete, etc.
We'd dash out and finish those, and then start putting the book
together and making photostats enlarged copies for the dummy. It
was quite an exhausting thing, but it really came out very well.

Then we did the one on the Stevenson house in Monterey, but all
the negatives were lost. That was a great tragedy because that
would have been a nice book.

Teiser: What happened?



512



Adams: The negatives just disappeared. We had photostats made of all of
them, and I guess the negatives just got lost. I think we could
have put a pretty good book together on this subject.

Then we went to Yosemite and we were going to do an historic
book the old Yosemite and the new, the scenic and the human. But
the people got so taken with the new aspect of Yosemite, with the
youth and all the climbing and outdoor excitements, that they went
over to that aspect of the valley. It was quite a good
interpretation. It got a bit out of hand; it was a difficult job,
it was too complicated. I was relieved not to continue these
workshops.

Teiser: How many students had you in those workshops?
Adams: Oh, we had about forty to forty-eight.

Teiser: Adrian Wilson told me that you were inexhaustible in handling it,
that you kept people going.

Adams: It finally got so I couldn't keep myself going after awhile. We
just can't do too much when we are interested!

Teiser: He was telling me how well you'd organize groups of people, and I
realized then that you'd had experience as an organizer of group
activities going back into your very early years.

Adams: Yes, although nothing's ever the same. You have to play it by ear
every time.

Teiser: Were they the same kind of students who'd come to your other
workshops?

Adams: No, most of them were university people, college people people
interested in writing, editing, journalistic reportage, social
problems. There was a difference.

Teiser: Were some of them just interested in writing and not photographing?

Adams: Some. Some were interested just in photographing, some were

interested just in the technique of putting books together. You
see, people are waking up to the fact that book design is terribly
important and that all kinds of things happen to help the flow of
the eye and the flow of ideas. And then one of the great problems
that the average person doesn't realize is the necessity of writing
to space. When you notice Time magazine, or Newsweek , they're
marvelous examples of filling available space; there's never a line
short, and the text is written and edited with that end in view.
You usually overwrite and then you have to cut; and if you underwrite



513



Adams :



Teiser:
Adams :



Teiser;



Adams :



and have to expand, it's not quite so easy, because then you have
to pad it a little. But the size of the picture, the size of the
caption, the line length, column width, space between caption and
picture all of these things must be considered. Sometimes we can
actually change pictures. If the picture isn't an important image
pictorially I mean, if it isn't a fine composition you can "cut
and crop," which sometimes helps.

I know that in my Book One [of the Basic Photo series], which
I have to rewrite, I tried to fill out the captions but sometimes
couldn't, so it was always based on the two-column, left-hand
the right-hand column was either the same length as the left or one
line less. You never go over, whereas you do as many as you can on
the right. Sometimes we'd get to twenty-one lines in all, where we
could have eleven and ten lines. Then we'd look at the page and
look at the text, because we had to get rid of one line. That's
just "writing to space." Of course, maybe that would be the best
thing that could possibly happen to have everything reduced by one-
third! Who said the best thing to do is to cut out the first and
last paragraph of the preliminary text? [Laughter] But that depends
on how people think. I usually think of a thing pretty much as a
whole, and I have trouble reducing it all over. But some people
think progressively, and they have different problems.

Of course, some writers refuse to have their work cut.

Well, I know Paul Brooks, who's an editor of Houghton Mifflin, and
it's a pretty difficult thing for him to have to tell a world-
famous writer that he can't do this or that. Poetry is different.
But the text writer, no matter how good he is, can very often
benefit. Sometimes he thinks he's got a meaning over, and he
hasn't.

The "Images and Words" sessions must have been very good examples
of that kind of give and take.

Nancy Newhall is exceptionally good at that. She'd say, "Now,
you're not really saying what you mean; here you have three
sentences, and you can just reduce this to four phrases with
commas." And they'd learn a lot.



The Design of Printed Material



Adams: Then again, in doing a picture book of that kind, the size of the

type block in relation to the size of the picture is important. You
have what you call "lineups." It certainly has to line up somewhere!
Or there's a "bleed," which is terrible !!



514



Adams: The type block within the page has a set proportion that always
holds. Then you make everything work within the margin. The
pagination may be at one point on the page, and the caption line
may come at another. You can decide whether to have ragged right
and/or left edges. If you're going to think of the right-hand page,
you might have the ragged left edge of the type block. If you were
thinking of the left-hand page, you might have the ragged edge on
the right. That would be, I think, the conventional way of handling
ragged edges, although it sometimes can be changed. But it's much
trimmer if you have the type block lined up left and right. But
you then have equal line length. Properly set, it reduces the
number of hyphens.

It's very interesting because every type face has a different
feeling to it. If you're going to have a kind of bold sans-serif
type, I don't think a ragged line looks as good as it does with the
serif types. You certainly might disagree with me on that.

There are people who will put together various types of
different "family" relationships. Now, the Sierra Club uses
Centaur, and the italic of that type is called Arrighi. These are
types of the same "family." It's interesting you can take another
italic and put it with Centaur and it looks terrible.

Another thing people don't realize is that details of type
design change as the point size the size of the type changes.
If you have, say, a very delicate serif type that's very good in
8 or 10 point and you reduce it to 6 point, the serif might not be
visible or hold up.

Teiser: You were mentioning a designer yesterday, Joe Sinel have you

worked with Adrian Wilson in the same manner as you worked with
Sinel?



Adams: Oh yes well, I don't think as much in my own work yet. I did a
lot with Sinel. But Adrian's awfully good.

Teiser: Does he do about the same things that Sinel did?

Adams: Yes, but he's more classic in approach. Sinel is more modern and
more daring. But it's very difficult in type to go too far in
trick design because you can get rapidly into unreadability. There
are certain modern typographers who will put paragraphs too close
together and have little or no separation. That's almost
impossible to read. Then there are certain types which are very
difficult to read at all! I've been around type and printing for a
long time. I can't say I know really much about it, but I know some
of the basic factors. In fact, you should get Adrian Wilson's book,
if you haven't got it, on type [The Design of Books] . It's an
excellent book, really. I think it's one of the best. It will give
you a good idea of the problems involved in good typographic design.



515



Teiser: You, of course, have been aware of all this since your first
portfolio, haven't you?

Adams: Well, Albert Bender was the great "bibliomaniac," as they used to

call him. I was a charter member of the Roxburghe Club. Virginia's
been a member of the Book Club of California for a long time, but
that's a little different. The Roxburghe Club were primarily
printers, and they would do little things like Mark Twain's letters
to his laundress, or house rules for the Comstock House perfectly
inconsequential matters of statement but have them done in the most
beautiful fashion by such great printers as Grabhorn, [John Henry]
Nash, Johnck & Seeger, Lawton Kennedy, etc. They were great
examples of fine printing just marvelous things.

I don't know why we gave away all our Roxburghe things, but
they'd be worth a small fortune now. Somebody wanted them to build
up their files, and we gave them. Sometimes they'd be a little
thing about this big [3 by 4 inches] the Prayer of St. Francis,
for example and then there 'd be something this big [14 by 17 inches]
from The Annals of San Francisco. It might be a facsimile of a
letter of one of the Spanish explorers; they'd try to get the
original parchment type paper, and they'd make lithograph copies of
the type and/or illustration, and they'd do a careful translation,
and add several pages of very scholarly notes. They would all be
beautifully done. It cost a lot of money, but wealthy people would
do that for the club. Two hundred fifty copies made for the
Roxburghe Club. And I guess it's all right, but I can think of much
more what should I say? humane ways to use that money. [Laughter]

[End Tape 20, Side 2]
[Begin Tape 21, Side 1]



Scientists and Optics



Teiser: Another of your projects was with the Varians. Catherine and I

were recalling last night your portrait of the two Varian brothers
with is it the Klystron tube?

Adams: Well, that's a very funny thing. That was an assignment from Life
to do a series on the "mad scientists." [Laughter] Both of the
Varian brothers looked rather "mad." They were amazing people, and
they thought it was a great job. So I went down to see them. They
asked, "What do you want us to do?"

"Well, we have to make you look mad. What kind of equipment
have you got that we can use? I can see you looking through some
thing."



516



Adams: "Oh," they said, "we'll fix something up."

They appear with this machine, and I take the pictures. Then
I said, "What is that?"

"Oh, we don't know. One of the boys downstairs put it
together. It's just a lot of wave guide scrap." [Laughter]

Well, it must have totally confounded the Russian scientists,
and others! They got I don't know how many letters saying, "Dear
Russ, Sure enjoyed that portrait of you and your brother. We've
been sitting around racking our brains trying to figure out just
what device that is. Does it do this, or does it do that, or is it
part of a feed- in to a Klystron or perhaps it's restricted?" The
answer was: "Nothing at all; it's just plumbing." They just put
pipes together! There are undoubtedly colleagues in other parts of
the world who are still wondering "what in the world" because if the
Varians did it, it must be important.

Then I did Edward Ginzton [of Varian Associates] looking
through an electron gun. That was quite legitimate. That was a
real piece of equipment, although it would never be in that
particular position.

But one of the funniest things I had happen was when I was
doing a job for the Sugar Institute and went to their laboratory,
and this advertising man who was with me insisted on getting
dramatic effects. Here was a big chemical retort, and he wanted a