Ansel Adams.

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

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girl to be up there pouring something into this. I said, "I don't
think that's the way they do it. I think this is a fractionating
tube. You don't pour things in the top, as far as I know." Then
the head chemist came in, and oh, he blew his top! He said, "There's
no reason why you can't be accurate. We'll be the laughing stock of
the community." Then we had to rig up something where the girl
wouldn't be pouring something into the wrong device, and yet show
her full figure. [Interruption]

Teiser: Had you known the Varians before?

Adams: Oh yes, a long time before through the Sierra Club, you see. Russ
was a marvelous person. He used to arrive at parties and recite
Gaelic. He was one of the really authentic geniuses he and of
course [William W.] Hansen, who worked with him on the development
of the microwave; and Sigurd, who was the engineer, was the one who
could put it into practical structure. But, you see, radar had no
future at all unless they could step up the power. And apparently
they were having serious troubles. The Klystron is a tube that
"reverberates" and builds up power. The name is Greek relating to
the idea of waves breaking on the beach.


Adams: So these huge Klystrons that they used for the DEW [distant early
warning] line were sixty feet high tremendous things. The guide
is a sheet of massive metal, and there's various small holes in it,
and the electrons are guided in straight lines. They had a terrible
time making that guide. Finally they did it by winding aluminum
wire in some other very hard material and twisting it, making a
cable out of it, and then annealing it, and then etching out the
aluminum, then slicing it very thin. You had these very tiny and
accurate hexagonal holes. Then we tried to show it by a basis of
comparison with a fly's eye the compound eye of a fly. I remember
taking the picture. We borrowed an African fly from the Academy of
Sciences. These were photographed on the same scale the holes were
one-quarter the size of the compound eyes very tiny indeed. They
had to be very precise, and they also had to be hexagonal for some
mechanical reason. The ingenuity of some of these things I saw
was unbelievable. Klystrons are used in telephone, radio, etc.,
now. They've got little ones this big [one inch] up to perfectly
huge things sixty feet high.

Teiser: Were you aware that all this was going on?

Adams: Well, not for quite a while, when radar was top secret.

Teiser: But you were, by the time you took the photographs?

Adams: Yes. The magnetometer was another thing they did. I think that's
probably one of the most important. They're used in satellites all
the time. They then developed the hydrocarbon detector. The
[Varian] place was highly restricted, so I didn't see most of the
things until later on, after they were released. But they
wouldn't mean much to me; you have to be a scientist to understand

Teiser: Were you there then as a visitor?

Adams: No, I was doing photography for them, and I had a clearance to go
to certain places in the plant. I wanted to get oscilloscope
patterns, so they gave me a great big oscilloscope to play with.
That was fun. You can control these things and get wave forms. I
was building up all kinds of weird forms square waves and moving
waves and all kinds of things. I made some pictures and people
looked at them and said, "Well, it's a nice composition, but it
doesn't mean anything." It would be like an electrocardiogram.
The doctor looks at it, and it's nothing but a bunch of waves, but
he can see discontinuities, etc. Electronic devices are terribly
hard to photograph. Everything looks like a mouse's eye view of the
inside of a television set. The computers are that way too. Now
it's even more so with these solid state creations. Just plaques
rectangles and plaques with intricate wiring patterns. The old
computers, like the 704 I saw at Poughkeepsie, had at least the sound


Adams: of fans cooling the power controls and the tubes. The mechanical
printers were noisy. Now all is very quiet.

Teiser: You've always had an interest in science

Adams: Oh yes, a profound interest in it, but there's a great difference

between interest and really knowing about scientific things. They're
so far from normal experience that you see them work and you say,
"How wonderful." My little calculator a cheap one will take a
square root in less than a second. Hewlett Packard have a little
machine out now that's like a wallet. I think there are twelve
mathematical functions built in it very complicated, amazingly
complicated thing tangents, cosine, factors, square root, log x.
Define what you mean by X as the exponent, and then write that in,
and then when you press log x, you get the log x of this number.
It's almost instantaneous.

Teiser: Well, the Varians you later did them a portfolio of prints

Adams: That relates to the Varian Foundation. Russell put a lot of his
company interests into this foundation for conservation purposes.
They acquired Castle Rock, for instance, for a state park. This
portfolio was in memory of Russell Varian, with excerpts from the
writing of his father, who was a poet, and Russell's own statements,
which were sometimes quite poetic in themselves. They weren't
pretentiously so, but they were very good. And the proceeds from
that went to the Castle Rock park project.

Teiser: What was the subject?

Adams: Just the natural scene.

Teiser: And things that Russell Varian himself

Adams: was interested in, yes. It wasn't that "tight." It was just
nature, and I had a lot of photographs at hand that I could use.
Then in selecting the text excerpts, we would say, "Well, that goes
with this photograph." You know, finally we built up the sequence.

Teiser: Who got up the quotations from his father's writings?

Adams: I did that. Well, Mrs. Varian got them together and sent me a lot
of material.

Teiser: Did you choose the excerpts from Russell Varian's writings too?

Adams : Yes .

Teiser: His father was a what was the religion?



Adams :


Adams :

A theosophist at Halcyon. Ella Young knew them very well. They
were quite a community. Quite remarkable, but very mystical. True

Sigurd too?

I don't think he was. The boys grew up there, but I don't think
he well, I don't think Russell had that conviction too strong
either. It was the old people that were really concerned. I think
being trained as a scientist, it would be very hard to quite
accommodate yourself to some of the mystical beliefs.

They were pretty well self-trained, weren't they actually both of

Russell had a wonderful story that he couldn't read in high school.
Just couldn't read out loud. He could read, and he could write, and
he was brilliant at mathematics and physics. But if he were asked
to read something aloud, he couldn't. He had a "block."
Nevertheless, he got through high school, and then he wanted to go
to Stanford. Well, in those days, you got in on recommendations,
but he never could have gotten in there now. He would have been
considered retarded. He was a very strange person, apparently,
and would go out and spend his evenings poking around on the
Stanford dump, getting pieces of wire and metal. And he made all
of the historic machines he made prototypes, duplicates that
worked of motors, and all these early mechanical and electric
devices and batteries and gold leaf electroscopes, etc. He
actually manufactured them himself, out of these bits and scraps
from the dump!

One time Dr. [Edwin M.] McMillan, the head of the [Lawrence]
Radiation Laboratory his son was interested in photography called
up and said, "I want to get your advice. My son feels that he
should go out and make all his own papers and films and chemicals.
He even wants to grind his lenses. And I tell him it's all been
done for him. Why doesn't he get busy and make pictures." And I
said, "Well, I agree with you. I don't make my own piano if I'm a

So I mentioned that to Dr. Land, and boy, I got it! "Why," he
said, "you discouraged that? That was the most wonderful thing he
could have done. He would have had a real knowledge of the
fundamentals of photography. What in the world got into you to say
that? I'm surprised at McMillan." I was really raked over the
coals. But his claim was that if he knew the actual physical basis,
he'd have a better understanding of things. I still inquire how
much do you have to know?

Teiser: Grinding a lens!


Adams: That's just mathematics. All lenses are segments of spheres. The
tracing rays of light through materials with different refractive
power, including air, with different segments of spheres and
different sizes: it's a very complicated procedure.

I think he could do a good meniscus lens. He might be able
to do a rapid rectilinear, but he'll have an awful job going beyond
that. Now you've got what they call aspheric lenses, which can be
made from plastics and cast in nonsperical shapes. It's very hard
to fabricate an aspheric lens. If it can be done, of course, and
it eliminates many problems of "correction." Now lens design is
computerized, but it remains awfully difficult.

Teiser: Has the equipment for actually making lenses improved too?

Adams: I don't know. Say you have a company like Zeiss or Bausch & Lomb
people who are making fine lenses and they have so many thousands
to make of a certain kind. They build these big spheres, which
have the correct spherical curvature, then the lenses are embedded
in the sphere with pitch, and then another sphere of similar
curvature rotates around them, grinding the lenses to proper shape.
That way they get, oh, maybe fifty to two hundred done at the same
time. But they have to be the right thickness; they have to be
carefully cut and "figured." There are different kinds of glass.

Then the air one of the problems in space photography when
you're in a vacuum you don't have air, so there's no refractive
index in that area, like there is with air between the lens. Now,
the question was whether to make the spaces between the glass a
vacuum, which would mean refiguring the glass, or actually put air
in there and seal it. Then the air would be under a certain pressure,
and that might distort the glass. I think they ended up by re-
figuring the lenses for a vacuum. I think that's why some of the
costs were so terrific. I don't know. I hear all kinds of weird
tales. But underwater lenses you know how it is when you're in a
bathtub, for instance, when you open your eyes you can't accommodate
your vision to it very well, to the refraction of the water. The
same thing with air. If you were in an absolute vacuum, with no
air touching the eyeballs, I think you probably would have some
difficulty. Of course, you'd be getting all kinds of ultra-violet
rays as well. It's a pretty complicated business.

As Dr. Land said, "We live in an ocean of light." Sunlight
comes in this room and reflects from the rug to the ceiling, from
the ceiling back to the rug, from the rug to everything in the room,
etc. I asked him one time, "How, with this practically infinite
mixture of wavelengths, how do you avoid canceling out? You'd
think they would simply collide and interfere." That remains a


Working With the Polaroid Corporation

Teiser: Earlier we discussed your work as a consultant for the Polaroid
Corporation, which I think began in 1949. Did you know Dr. Land
before that?

Adams: Oh, I met him a year or so before. He said, "I will send you a

camera, and we'd like to have you try it, and make you a consultant
to the firm and send you material, and you just write in your

Teiser: You weren't friends particularly before that?

Adams: I met him through the Newhalls, actually, and we became friends very
quickly; we had lots of "sympathies,."

Teiser: How did he know the Newhalls?

Adams: That I don't know; probably through Dr. Clarence Kennedy of Smith

Teiser: It's a small world.

Adams: In retrospect, at least. You never know who you've missed. [Laughter]
You just know who you hit or who hit you!

They're the only firm that really has an interest in the
aesthetics of photography. Kodak has none whatsoever. But Land's
prime assistants were girls that were trained by Kennedy in the
art department at Smith College. Polaroid Corporation had all kinds
of Ph.D.s in physics and chemistry, and when they got stuck in the
creative labs, they could call in these experts. They were trying
to formulate a product that would have aesthetic image quality.

So this new development of the SX-70 camera was amazing because
it was created by a relatively small group. One girl, Meroe Morse,
was extremely valuable; she was interested both in technology and
photographs. Then they had many imaginative people who could
intuitively put things together. They had a group of chemists
working on organic chemistry, a group of physicists working on the
structure of the new film, and a different group working on the
optics. The lens, which was designed by a man at Harvard, is a new

Teiser: The earliest Polaroid cameras had very simple lenses, had they not?

Adams: Very simple, but very good. They did their job. When they came to
the pack camera, they used triplets, I believe. (A triplet is a
three-element lens.) Very fine optical quality.


Adams: Now, my favorite lens is a five-inch, or 121 millimeter. It'll

cover an 8 by 10 film on axis, wide open, providing the camera is
level and the lens axis centered. That means it's covering a
plate twice as wide as the focal length, without distortion. It's
called the Schneider Super-Angulon. It's really quite extraordinary.
It allows for many adjustments of the camera I use it with the 4 by
5 Polaroid Type 55 P/N Land film in my view camera.

Teiser: Do you think that as you sent back your reports to Polaroid, they
made technical advances not only that they were going to make in
the first place, but that also would suit certain requirements that
you sent back?

Adams: We never know. Let's see, I sent in my 2087th memo the other day.

[Laughter] They relate to all kinds of things ideas, tests, gripes
if something goes wrong, etc., and those are duplicated and sent
around. So we assume that if they're worth anything, they would
have some effect. I think I did have a lot to do with the develop
ment of the black and white materials, and I know I persuaded them
to produce the 4 by 5 material. I was incapable of designing it,
but I begged them to do something for the professional. Now, whether
that would have been done without my persuasion or not, we don't

Teiser: Didn't your Polaroid-Land pictures appear in the first issue of
Aperture in 1952?

Adams: Yes, on the back cover. We got Polaroid to advertise on the back
cover and then they used some of my pictures, and I picked out
pictures by other photographers.

Teiser: Were they the first serious Polaroid photography to be shown?

Adams: Yes. Then they had other photographers do work for them. Now,
Marie Cosindas, who came to my workshop in '63, was typical, and
everything she'd try to do would be a color composition. She'd
ask me to look in the camera, and I'd say, "Marie, that's a nice
thing, but it's really in color. You can't separate these values
in black and white. You're thinking color." She found that she
was thinking color, and she went back to Cambridge and worked very
seriously, then got in with Polaroid and made some spectacular
pictures. So she's really helped develop Polacolor to a most
extraordinary degree. She had a show in the Museum of Modern Art
of these incredibly beautiful little 4 by 5 images. She's made
one of the great contributions.

Teiser: There is an article about her by Margaret Weiss [in the Saturday
Review of September 24, 1966]. It indicates that she really made
some kind of a great breakthrough at that workshop.


Adams: Well, that was her own breakthrough. In other words, she decided
that she was seeing in color. Now, she's a photographer that
works entirely by intuition. She has a very small technical
knowledge. I don't say this critically but, by trial and error,
she determined the use of various filters and developing times.
She doesn't know how to use a meter. She'll make her first
picture, but perhaps finds she needs a little more exposure.
Finally, she gets the quality she wants. But, of course, she'll
go through $30 worth of film to get that first good print! When
it's a big advertising job, the cost is minor, but for the average
person the empirical approach can be expensive! I believe that
you can manage in two or three exposures if you know what you're

Teiser: But still, has that encouraged professional photographers to use

Adams: Polacolor has been a very great problem. It's critical; all color
photography is. Because you see right away if anything 's wrong;
then you immediately gripe. If you wait several days to get it
back from the processor, then it's too late to change it. A lot
of photographers use it for testing, and that always bothers me a
little, because I like to think of it being used creatively and
directly. Type 52 is often used for testing; it has about the same
range as color film but at much higher speed.

Teiser: Type 52 is a black and white film?

Adams: Yes. Edwin Land has felt from the beginning that it is easy to
make garish color transfer, but to create something that has
pigment quality, where the colors relate aesthetically, like a
painter can relate pigments, is much more difficult. He thought it
would be good for photography in general. Well, the point is, a
lot of people do like the garish impact, and some of them have
terrible times with Polacolor because of its subtlety. Others get
very beautiful results with it. I've gotten some very handsome
results . But I can see that the average color photographer takes
a transparency and then has it printed, probably has a very garish
photo-print made of it. Color prints can be terribly harsh, with
an astringent "dye" color. As one dye lays over the other, they
have to be very intense. When you're printing images in a printing
press, your dots are adjacent, so you don't have a blue dot on a
red dot, you have the blue dot by the red dot, and with a certain
balance, you get the magenta impression. Or you get green and
yellow, or yellow and blue and cyan, and you get a huge variety of
color qualities. But put it this way: the dots lay on the paper
more or less independent of each other. They don't hide each other
as with most photographic printing processes.





Adams :




Adams :

Adams :

This is an off-print of the Weiss article. The picture of the masks
is not garish. It has a good deal of subtlety.

Oh, it has very subtle colors. It's a color offset print. The
photographic colors are more intense than that. One trouble they've
had is to get a red that isn't too orange in hue. The new process
has a much better red.

This print is larger than the original,
from Polacolor?

Do printers mind reproducing

Sometimes! Because it's a diffusion process, Polaroid images do not
have the acuteness of the normal processes, but they're improving.
I think the new color has a very high order of acuteness. I think
you can probably enlarge the new color three or four times without
any trouble at all.

I don't know how much darkroom work Polaroid material has eliminated
to date, but do you think it's eliminated any serious darkroom work?

Well, I can say this: if you're very careful and you know what
you're doing, you can get a perfectly beautiful print. When you get
the negative, then you have to do darkroom work whether you want to
or not. You have to make a print from the negative.

As far as color separations go, that's highly technical,
darkroom work. You see, engravers have a darkroom too. They make
their three-color separations, which are merely three black and
white negatives screened for each of the three prime colors. Well,
I don't know whether they would make the first set screened or not.
They can just make what amounts to black and white copies with the
three prime color filters to get three black and white negatives.
Then they make the separation plates from these with screens. They
can do it with screens to begin with if they wanted to. You know,
the screen makes the dot pattern.

You used Polaroid black and white very seriously,

Do many other

Well, they sold nearly $20 million worth of A by 5 film last year,
so somebody else must take it seriously. I don't know just what the
proportions of sales are. Of course, the 57 is an amazing material-
it's so fast. But it has a strange structure. It varies, depending
upon the negative material used.

So they haven't quite standardized it as Eastman has?

They're always working on it. Type 55 P/N always had a rather soft
print, and a negative that requires about twice as long an exposure
for optimum effect. All the silver has to go somewhere, has to be


Adams: divided between the print and the negative. The "print only"
processes such as Type 52 that develop the film and reduce the
unexposed silver for transfer to the print can get out of balance.
In other words, if it is a very hot day, you get a fast reduction
of silver before the negative is fully developed, and you will get
a soft image. On cold days the negative develops faster than the
reduction of the unexposed silver, and you will get a contrasty
print. Now, the actual description of what happens, I can't quite
explain here; it's chemically very complex. But you can consider
that the negative is developed by one ingredient in the pod, or in
the film itself. Then there's another ingredient that reduces the
unexposed and undeveloped silver in the form of silver ions, and
they migrate through the negative, as light would go through it,
attracted by the positive charge on the "receiving sheet" which
becomes the print.

Now, when you get to color, you have a very complex process.
The pod carries only the alkali, which is practically of maximum
pH, and everything else is in the film: developer, color coupler,
etc. It's an extraordinary technological achievement, especially
when you have no coating required for the prints. They have had
teams of people working for years on the various elements of the
process. They get one thing done and that may upset something else,
and they get that corrected and something else gives trouble! And
then they get a perfectly beautiful material worked out and find
it has no shelf life; in other words, the ingredients start to
oxidize or go to pieces in a short time. If you don't have a shelf
life of at least six months, you can't sell it, for obvious reasons.
It's supposed to be a year, I think.

Now, Kodak will date a film a year ahead, but if you keep it
in the ice box, you can use it after three or four years. It might
get a little bit slower or a little bit faster you have to test it.
If it is subjected to heat and humidity, then you may be in serious
trouble. Polaroid materials do not keep as well as conventional
film because of chemical changes in the pod.

Teiser: Mr. Mazzeo, when we were speaking to him, mentioned that you gave
talks or lectures to the Polaroid Corporation employees. Is that

Adams: Yes, we had classes education groups that would come on after the
various shifts.

Teiser: What would you talk about?

Adams: Basic photography and the Zone System and aesthetics and

visualization. A lot of these were people that weren't photographers,
but it helped them to know a little more about what they were doing.


Adams: One of Land's ideas is to put people who show talent into special

educational groups; they sit all day long doing routine things, and
they don't really know what they're working for in the end. They
can take measurements and draw curves, but they can't interpret the
curves. You have scores of people doing that in the different
units. All they do is to match a curve, and then if the curve looks
different from the standard they call the supervisor. But they don't
really know what the curve means. They work by trial and error.
You know that great Hollywood joke: the way to find out about life
is by trial and Errol. [Laughter]

But nobody fully understands the way that light affects
sensitive material. Light strikes the silver halide crystals of
the film, and it "moves" an electron. Then you have what is called

Online LibraryAnsel AdamsConversations with Ansel Adams : oral history transcript / 1972-1975 → online text (page 52 of 76)