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

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a hole in the crystal, and that renders the crystal vulnerable to
development. Certain chemicals in the developer take over and
further reduce the crystal to pure silver.

The grain is really chains of atoms (I suppose they'd really be
chains of molecules) appearing as long filaments in the electron
microscope. They come together and we see them as a "clump," or we
see them as many "clumps" together. That becomes the gross physical
grain. But what you see as grain in the print is really the spaces
between the grains of silver.

Teiser: Has the grain been made smaller over the years that you've been

Adams: Oh yes, much smaller. We use developers that encourage that. First
you have the natural grain of the emulsion, then you develop the
negative and you get the basic useful grain. You can use silver
solvents and reduce the grain size; they dissolve in the silver and
that makes the grain smaller. But, as that silver has to go some
where, some of it moves sideways and produces a "halo" that reduces
the acuteness. I won't say it is a "fog" in that sense. It spreads
ffom the borders of the grain, and instead of edges being very sharp
and having a clean-cut separation of high and low densities, you get
a certain softness. Using a developer with a lot of sodium sulphite
in it does that.

But those are all technical things. There's no end to them.
It can be very complicated.

[End Tape 21, Side 1]


Revising the Basic Photography Books
[Begin Tape 21, Side 2]

Teiser: In revising your technical series, are you finding a tremendous lot
of changes to be made?

Adams: Yes, an embarrassing amount. The principles are always the same
the basic principles. But there are certain advantages in what's
called the "thin emulsion film" increased sharpness and less
"scatter" in the high densities. You can't expand it as we used to
with the thick emulsion. You can soften it. (Eastman makes only
one thick emulsion film now: Super XX sheet film.) But there
isn't enough silver in the thin emulsion film to permit great
expansion of contrast and density. They have to be intensified in

The wonderful waterbath system, which is really the saturation
of the developer in the emulsion layer and letting that work itself
out in water, then putting it back soaking up more developer and
then putting it back in water does not work well with the new films.
The thin emulsion films carry a very small amount of developer, so
you have to make many developer-water transfers to get any effect
at all. In fact, it's almost impossible, because the developer
exhausts itself so quickly there's so little of it held in the
emulsion. We can develop in nitrogen-burst agitation, which is
quite complicated but good for developing color films to exact
densities. The nitrogen, which. is absolutely inert, bubbles up
through the developer and "agitates" the solution.

Then we have all kinds of new developments in photographic
paper. When they made their first bromide paper, there didn't seem
to be much silver in it; it was hard to get high densities good
blacks, in other words. So Amidol developer, which has a very high-
reduction potential, was used, and it did help. It was found that
there was enough silver, but that there wasn't enough of what Dr.
Mees called the "mustard speck" or the "sulphide speck," which is
part of the emulsion structure and which rendered the silver grains
more sensitive. That was discovered during the war, when the
gelatin from Southeast Asia was cut off and we had to use local
gelatin. They were loading everything up with silver but still
couldn't get density. Then they discovered that the gelatin from
the South Pacific contained a much higher degree of sulphur, or
sulphide. So by a simple addition of this to this gelatin, they
were able to use a minimum amount of silver and get a rewarding
amount of density.


Adams: Now they're making synthetic emulsion, which unfortunately has a

greater effect of expanding and contracting and "drying down" (the
high values lose brilliancy when dry). Varilour, which is a
variable contrast paper, was a perfectly beautiful paper in the past;
but now the prints look wonderful when they're wet, but as they dry
the emulsion contracts. And what were beautiful, scintillating
whites become grayish, depressed in value.

Teiser: Are you, in your revised texts, giving as many formulas for solutions
that the photographer mixes himself, or are you advising more
proprietary formulations?

Adams: I think I'd advise the proprietary.

Teiser: There have been more come on the market, have they?

Adams: More come on the market. There are certain formulas you have to
mix, but what's the use of mixing selenium when you buy selenium
toner prepared? What's the use of mixing D 72 when you buy Dektol?
So, what's the use of making up Beers A and B when you can get
Selectol-Soft? You continue that just because some people believe
in it. Selectol-Soft, which is Metol (they say right on the label
what it contains) what is the name of it? Monomethyl para-
aminophenol sulfate. There is [also] Phenidone, which is equivalent
to Metol in action, but it's not toxic. Then a lot of these
developers are prepared with what we call buffers (pH control) and
sequestering agents a funny name, but it means they sequester
metallic ions and keep the solution relatively clear.

Teiser: You must have to keep tremendous files of reference materials.

Adams: That's one of the points I have a very large file of technical
information which is obsolete!

Teiser: What are you going to do with it?

Adams: Well, there's nothing to do with it it's all in the records

somewhere. It isn't anything secret. But if I give a table for
two-solution development using thin emulsion films, for instance,
it isn't going to work as before.


Teiser: So you've had to keep all your technical files

Adams: I haven't kept them up as well as I should, but there isn't much

variety actually, when you stop to think, it's what a pianist has
to do when he comes across a strange instrument. He has to adapt
to the instrument. He can't change the instrument.


Adams: You take a Hammond organ, for instance. If you have twenty-four
speakers in a big cathedral you can get the most extraordinary
illusion of a pipe organ. A Hammond organ can produce all of the
sounds, but it's the resonance in the spaces that gives the effect.
People say that's crazy. But they had, I think, a twenty-four-unit
Hammond at the San Francisco Opera House. I remember trying it once.
I was absolutely amazed at the organ quality. But when you hear it
coming out of a squawk box ten feet away, it's not organ music as we
think of an organ.

Hawaii Books, Continued

Teiser: One thing that occurred to me as I was looking at The Islands of
Hawaii afterwards was that this is a very fresh view of Hawaii.

Adams: It's not the Hawaiian tourist bureau's view.
Teiser: How did the Hawaiian tourist bureau look upon it?
Adams: Hawaiians, I think, liked it.

Teiser: I should think so. Did you have a hard time finding those things,
or was it easy to ?

Adams: Oh no. They're wonderful people. They were most cooperative.
Teiser: But I mean visually, when you went about

Adams: Oh photographically, I think it's a very difficult place. In
color photography in certain ways David Muench has got some
pictures in the last Audubon magazine of lava actual red, liquid
lava that are fine. If you take things early or late in the day
and get spectacular light and shadow effects, you can convey the
"feeling." But to me the Hawaiian Islands are largely black lava
and green foliage, and then some parts have reddish oxidized lava,
like on Kauai. But the colors, except at sunset and sunrise, are
pretty drab.

But we had all the lists of where to go and what to see, and
we did most of them a lot of things that the average person never
sees. And of course in the first book for the bank we got into
industries, and that was something else, when you have your
macadamia nuts and the fiber business and cattle ranches the
Parker Ranch on the Big Island and the sugar and taro fields.

Teiser: Is the Parker Ranch color picture in there, that Mrs. Adams took,
her only published work?


Adams: No, she did the back page of Arizona Highways and one of the figures
in the Mission San Xavier del Bac, and it's the best color picture
of the whole series. She did it held by hand with a little Zeiss
Super Ikonta B. [Laughs] I always kid her; I say, "You know
engravers can work miracles." [Laughter]

Teiser: We were talking yesterday about double-truck pages in connection
with the American Trust book.

Adams: Well, you see, the ideal double truck is one that comes at the

center fold, so there doesn't have to be split printing, that is,
half the plate on one form and half on another.

Teiser: Yes, as that did. But there are some good ones in this Hawaii book.

Adams: Well, it's all right. But you see, except for center fold, you
always come into the gutter. Part of the mechanicals of good
design and printing is to consider the binding, and then being able
to divide the plates enough so that when you open the book and look
at it, there may be a division without part of the image lost in the
gutter. That's one advantage of a horizontal book you don't need
double trucks.

Teiser: It's a temptation, I should think, to make album-shaped books.

Adams: I don't mind a horizontal book, but conventionally, a book is

supposed to stand on the shelf. It's all a convention. The first
book we did on Hawaii was horizontal. The advantage of a squarish
book is that you can have vertical or horizontal pictures on one
page, each up to optimum size. But once you go across two pages,
you have that problem.

Now, it's interesting, in the Death Valley book, in the color
which is just the magazine color, really, one side is very weak.
Now turn that page over and see how much stronger the colors are on
the other side. Now turn the next page and it's weak again. It's
folded this way. The fold isn't the way you think; it's the other

Teiser: These pages were printed together on one side of the sheet and
those were printed together on the other side.

Adams: You see how much richer one side is.

Teiser: One thing that occurred to me as I was looking at all of these (and

I think you've mentioned it), you have few human figures in your

photographs. I was particularly reminded of it as I was looking at

one here called "Miner's Doorstep," where there's a foot that
represents a man







Adams :

Yes, and a hand down in the lower one.

That's a much less dated kind of image, of course. Why is that ?

Well, it's just a problem that people I always say this: there
is always one person in every picture and that's the spectator.
Perhaps two the spectator and the photographer. If you do a
person and the person is sympathetic understands and will take a
position which is perfectly natural for them, like my trailer camp
children there is no question of authenticity.

There's a photographer who's done thousands of pictures in
color and he wears a red shirt and he has a self-timer on the
camera. So he sets up his camera, then the self-timer, and he
goes dashing in and shows himself looking at the scene. (Of course,
the worst of all is somebody pointing.) It intrudes something that
is hard to explain. Some people demand people in everything, and
I don't because I would rather see people separate than people in

In a photograph that I remember in The Islands of Hawaii you used
someone as the only possible way to point up the distance. Maybe
it wasn't the only way possible, but it was a very effective one.
You have a road, and a figure

Oh yes, in the lava area. That's Virginia walking down the road.
It's the old Kamehameha Highway. That does give a sense of scale.

I don't see how else you can possibly achieve it in this.

It is important,

That element of scale is a very vital thing in

I've got a wonderful bunch of pictures of the Sierra Club
people and Sierra Club campsites. I've got to get those printed
and do something with them. They're historically important. They
may be lousy photographs as such, but they do give you a feeling
of time. As somebody said, "Time and the wrinkles flowing."

I got by one time at a lecture at the Century Club when I was
talking about retouching portraits. I said that the only function
of retouching is not to destroy the character of the face and not
to take out all those.... And I suddenly realized that the audience
was mostly over fifty. I was young enough then, and I had a quick
comeback. I used the words "benefits of time." [Laughter] I got
by with that very nicely, instead of "lines and wrinkles." [Laughter]


Signed Prints and Limited Editions


Adams :
Adams :

One other question. This is for the record:
print, it means what?

when you sign a




If I sign a print, it means I did it and I approved of it.
And what do you mean by "did"?

I made it; printed it myself. First, it's my photograph my
negative and second, I made the print. Now, if I didn't make the
print, I would write on the back, "Print by So-and-so," such as [are]
applied to my special edition prints. Liliane De Cock made some
very handsome ones. We just started out in the morning working
together and decided, "This is it." Then she made many duplicate
prints and I'd sign them (I initial 'them now).

You made a master print?

Well, yes. We made the prints in the darkroom with the same
chemicals and the same control as for "fine prints." It wasn't as
if she had taken the negative and had made a print remote from my
concepts, but she got the intended quality. Most of the Renaissance
painters and Diego Rivera and everybody I know of who does anything
of any scope at all had assistants who did a good part of the work.
In Rivera's frescoes, he did very little of the actual application.
He did the design and the edging and dictated the colors. But
somebody did the detailed work. It remains very definitely his work.

If somebody comes in and picks up one of my negatives and takes
it to his darkroom and makes a print of it, and it doesn't look like
my photograph, then I couldn't approve or sign it. I don't think I
could have anybody else do the "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico."
I'd have to do that myself; it's very difficult, and the personal
touch is there whether you realize it or not.

I think you sign a photograph because you stand back of it
saying, "This represents what I intended, and I made the print."

Don't you think you probably do more darkroom work than most

A lot of photographers, especially Europeans and many in this
country, have all their processing and printing done for them by
laboratories, and these laboratories are extremely good. I mean,
technically. They're very fine and they seem to try to think of
what the photographer wants. But this relates mostly to documentary
photographers, and most of the European photography is related to


Adams: reproduction work. People don't buy fine prints as they do here.

So there are very few good printers in Europe. In fact, the quality
of prints I've seen from most of the European photographers is just
ghastly. The images may have great flair and imagination, but the
print seems just a necessary evil. "We make this contrasty print
and get it to the engraver." Cartier-Bresson, I think, doesn't
make most of his own prints. People have said that he sometimes
does; but his work doesn't seem to have that particular quality of
"individual" printing. It's a complex problem.

If I were a composer, I could compose songs, but I can't sing.
I think most composers who compose with piano can play. Ernst Bacon
composed perfectly beautiful songs from Emily Dickinson's poems, but
he can't sing a note. I may go out and get a perfectly handsome
series of photographs and let somebody else process and reproduce
them, but they wouldn't have that particular personal thing that a
print should have.

We can say one more thing, about limited editions of photographs.
As the sale of photographs is becoming more important in this country,
the collectors are demanding that the editions be limited. Now,
heretofore we just sold prints as people ordered them. And we did
portfolios. All my portfolios were limited, and while I did make
other prints from those same subjects, they'd be different prints,
and in different sizes, but they wouldn't be the same print. When
we came to Portfolio Five, we had a strictly limited edition of 110
copies for sale, and then the negatives were canceled and cannot be
printed again. In that way, the person who buys this realizes he's
getting something that has a certain value because of its limitation.
And yet it's negative or false to the full potential of the photo
graphic medium, which allows you to make as many prints as you wish.
A negative doesn't wear out. Edward Weston had a limitation of fifty
prints. He'd write on the print "6/50," signifying the sixth print
of a possible fifty. He very seldom sold more than four, five, or
six prints of a photograph, but many of a few which were very
popular. The same thing happens to me. I have hundreds of
photographs of which I might have sold only one or two or three,
and then I have others that I've sold tremendous numbers of prints.

Teiser: Did he destroy the negatives when he did fifty?

Adams: No, he just wouldn't make any more. But I don't think he ever hit
that limit. Edward was extremely ethical.

I think I've probably sold more prints from a few negatives
than anybody I know of in modern times. I have that "Winter
Sunrise," and "Moonrise" and "Mount Williamson" and, oh, some of the
Yosemite "Half Dome," etc. And they go out over the years in very
considerable quantity. I call them my Mona Lisas. [Laughter] But


Adams: the prints that are in the portfolios are perhaps the ones that I
have really sold the most of, because all of the portfolios have
been sold seventy-five, a hundred, a hundred and fifty, or more
of each.


[Interview XVIII 14 July 1972]

Adams: Yesterday I was having a family meeting here, and my son and
daughter-in-law and her uncle flew over and back to Fresno.
Chartered a little plane. Last night I had a dream that I was in
that plane, but I was tucked in the back, and they couldn't land.
Had to fly all over Fresno. It was perfectly clear at the airport,
but they couldn't land. And the pilot was saying, "I just cannot
put this plane down, and we're going to get out of gas pretty soon."
It went on and on and on. It was one of these extraordinary dreams
you wake up in a cold sweat because there is no logical reason why
you couldn't come down. He didn't say the landing gear was he just
said, "We just can't put the plane down." Talk about suspense!

I think I told you my terrible nightmares of finding myself in
a taxicab going to a concert hall, seeing great big placards posted
on the wall: "Ansel Adams playing Beethoven Fourth Concerto with
the Boston Symphony." I arrive backstage, and I go in and meet the
conductor and I go through all the preliminaries, and I'm getting
more and more anxious. I look and see the hall is absolutely
jammed. And finally the orchestra goes on and then the conductor
says, "Please go in," and I don't know the first note of the darn
thing I am to play! There's the enormous piano, and I sometimes
get to the piano stool. Usually, I wake up with heeby-jeebies.
[Laughter] It's a recurrent dream. It would be interesting to
figure out why. I never get to playing anything, but I'm announced
as the pianist! I recognize, I think, all the members of the
orchestra as musicians I've seen at the San Francisco Symphony.
Everything is so real and so absolutely improbable and horrible.

1963 Exhibition and The Eloquent Light

Teiser: I think we've talked a couple of times a little about the 1963

exhibit at the de Young Museum, but I just wanted to round it off.
Can I read from a review of the exhibit? This is in Aperture,
second number of 1964, by Michael Gregory. I'll just read a couple
of paragraphs.



Adams :


Adams :

"In San Francisco's M.H. de Young Museum, the highlight of the
winter season was Ansel Adams' 'Retrospective Exhibition, 1 timed
to accompany the publication of the first volume of Nancy Newhall's
biography of Adams, entitled 'The Eloquent Light.' Between
November 5 and December 8, more than 130,000 people came to view
this incredible display of forty years of genius. Four hundred of
Adams' photographs from immense murals and screens to exquisite
miniatures were distributed through ten of the museum's galleries,
constituting all together the largest one-man show in California's
history. .. .Adams' 'Retrospective' must certainly become one of the
major milestones in the history of photography in the United States."

Then there's a comparison made of your work and Chinese
landscape painting. He doesn't impute any, I think, influence, but
just happenstance. And he ends with, "The photographs of Ansel
Adams are at once finished symbols and rituals of our own awareness
that are simultaneously the way and the goal. What is to be known
is identical to the way of our knowing it. His photography, finally,
does not really mean or render; it indefinably and mysteriously is.
As witnesses or as disciples, we are initiated into the vast and
subtle harmony of nature, and we hear across the ages like an echo
the contrapuntal harmony of our own forgotten humanness."

Does that seem appropriate to you?

Oh, it's all right. I guess it's a good criticism. [Laughs] There's
always a difficulty of verbalizing. I remember that Chinese landscape
relationship. I can't make the association, but he did, so that's
all right. Yes, it's good. But I'm no one to judge that

Well, it seemed to me apt. Of course, you don't see your pictures
as the viewers see them. But don't many viewers react in that way,
to your knowledge, to your photographs?

In a great many reviews in the East, the comment has been on the
lack of direct human content. They say, "There's nobody ever in
your pictures." And I always say, "There's always one person in
the picture, and that's the spectator." Put it this way: people
have the urge to write; some people try very sincerely to make an
interpretation. Others just fill up space with facts.

Yes, I think in that way it's very good, but you see, I had a
surfeit of musical criticism and what I call the "program notes
syndrome." Well, music just can't be put in those compartments.
Verbalization bothers me.


You think photography should stand for itself,

Am I saying that


Adams: Yes. If somebody asked me to review a show, what would I do? If
I accepted doing it, then what would I say? I suppose I'd say
something very much like the above critic did. He apparently
liked it; there's nothing negative in his comments. But I just
don't know. I've always had a blank spot in my consciousness about
writing about art in any form.

Harroun: Beaumont Newhall wrote about this show. What magazine was that in?

Adams: Popular Photography or Modern Photography one of those. The editor
asked him if he shouldn't be more "critical." His idea of
criticism was that you've got to be a little nasty about it or the
people won't read it!

Teiser: I suppose you remember what I thought was a very inadequate review

that the Chronicle had by Thomas Albright of the exhibit at Stanford
this spring of your portfolios. He said he was kind of begrudging
(I think that was the word he used) in his admiration of your
photographs. But he thought he detected a progress toward more
"humanness" (I'm not sure that was his word, but I'm sure that was
about what he was saying) as time had gone on in the sequence of
the portfolios.

Adams: Yes. Well, Portfolio One had one picture of Stieglitz in it.
Portfolio Five

Teiser: I don't think he was meaning people in them, but a human quality,
whatever he thought a human quality is.

Adams: Well, a show by Los Angeles photographers got a very fine review

this morning. It is in some way "human." The "something vacancy."
It is an extremely interesting show a terrific number of very ugly
photographs, which are quite in line with the subject. But it's a
matter of social and situation approach rather than "lyric."

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