Ansel Adams.

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

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Teiser: It is the exhibit of photographs of not yet completed houses in a
tract, and so forth?

Adams: Yes, that was part of it. The whole idea had a very disturbing

but rather accurate feeling about it. Again, it was only from one
point of view.

Teiser: To get back to this 1963 exhibit you said, I think, before, that
some people felt it was too large. On the other hand, I'm sure a
lot of people didn't. But otherwise, were you satisfied with it?
Did you think it came off to your standards?

Adams: Well, I thought it was an extraordinary job Nancy Newhall put it
together with great imagination, and it was beautiful to look at,
and the hanging was fine. The lighting wasn't too good, but that


Adams: wasn't anybody's fault the museum didn't have the circuitry and

the money to add to it. That's one of the things that's a tragedy
with museums and galleries they don't design for adequate lighting.
And it isn't just a matter of putting in more lights, because you
have to have the circuits to carry them. I've got just a certain
number of watts available in my ceiling circuit [pointing up]. Now,
if I had to load that up from 300 watts to 500, we'll say, things
would blow. The museum did the best they could with it.

But I think the great thing about that show was how things
were spaced and how Nancy used artifacts and natural objects as
decor and mood stimulators. I thought it was probably the best
show I've ever had or will have. I don't know what the Metropolitan
Museum one will be. I don't know whether I'd feel the need of such
a thing now. It was a rather flamboyant introduction. Mrs.
[John S.] Logan of the Women's Auxiliary instigated it. They made
thousands of dollars for the museum, but they practically had to
hold a gun at Paul Masson to get the champagne for the opening
party and at Podesta for the flowers! They were absolutely ruthless,
And there were I forget the number of people seventeen hundred,
maybe, at the opening, and that's a lot of champagne! [Laughter]
They collected admission for the opening, and it went to the museum

Teiser: I remember the exhibit. It was very impressive. It was one, of
course, where a difficulty was that some of the people were so
interested in some of the pictures that they wouldn't move.

Adams: Well, in saying it's too big, you may mean that you can't

possibly encompass it in one visit, and people resented having to
come back. They can't see it all, and they can't stay, so they
may have a resentment . But that would happen if you went to any
museum, like the Louvre. With a one-man show, such resentment is
more obvious.

Teiser: Did the book The Eloquent Light come out after the exhibit?

Adams: As I remember, we had some on sale at the museum some advance

Teiser: Was that book a big success as a publishing venture?

Adams: Well, I would say it was pretty good, but it was expensive to

produce. We've just heard the number two may be published by the
Sierra Club and Aperture. It will still be expensive! The thing
that I think is going to make money will be the little monograph
that Morgan & Morgan are doing [Ansel Adams] . That will be in the
$9 or $10, $12 class, which makes a terrific difference with
students. If we could get The Eloquent Light book in paperback,


Adams: then that would be ideal. But most photographers just can't afford
$35 plus for a book. I know most of the Sierra Club people can't
afford all these exhibit format books. My gosh, they are $25 up to
$55 each. You have to be a really well-to-do person to fill your
library with that kind of material. So many students people in
photography are limited to less expensive items.

Teiser: Did The Eloquent Light book and the exhibit together have any
appreciable effect on your life? Did anything change for you?

Adams: It helped crystallize a "direction," I guess. You don't know what
those things do for you. There comes a time when a good aspiring
photographer thinks that a cover on Life would be just the apex.
So he gets a cover on Life, then so what? I get a big one-man
show; oh boy, that's the most wonderful thing that could happen!
And it happens and that's that! So things go on and on. You
approve of these things if they're constructive. But once they're
done, they're done. You can't brood about the things that are not
so good.

Teiser: I wondered if it had direct effects like immediate increased demand
for photographs for publication and that sort of thing.

Adams: In that way, yes. Not so much publications, but I guess the show
helped sell the book. What it did do was to step up the sale of
prints. The main sales came from when The Eloquent Light was at
the Boston Museum, because they had a little notice up that prints
could be acquired through the Carl Siembab Galleries. The museum
didn't want to sell; it had no machinery for selling. It would
have been quite an undertaking for the museum to start selling

Traveling Prints and "Theme Shows"

Teiser: Was it exhibited in just those two museums?

Adams: Oh, it traveled all over the country went first to Barnsdall Park
in Los Angeles. Then it was cut down in size. I think that the
one in Boston was about half the size of the original show. Then
it was cut down to quarters! It's still going. But the interesting
thing was a thing that was very difficult to understand that little
museum at Barnsdall Park they put the whole show up, with the
exception of what was in the floor cases. They had them stacked in
the old 1890 way on the wall you know, one over the other. And
thousands of people came to that exhibit. I think it was one of
the things that did photography good in being recognized in art
museums. Because that's the first time, to our knowledge, that a
show of that size was given in a regular museum.


Teiser: Is it still traveling, or is it still available?

Adams: Part of it is.

Teiser: Suppose somebody wants it, how do they get it?

Adams: Eastman House has it, I think.

Teiser: Is Eastman House the custodian of it finally, in the end?

Adams: Yes, they kept the prints. Now the big prints are down at the Amon
Carter Museum, but have been moved temporarily over to the Admiral's
Club in Dallas at the airport, and they have created quite a furor.
I've been getting quite a few print orders out of that.

Teiser: Actually you owned the prints yourself originally, I presume.

Adams: Yes. That's a difficult thing. You own them, and you charge it
off to promotion, I guess publicity as they go to pieces. The
thing that got me down was the frames, because they said they
would pay for the frames, and then they didn't, and that was quite
a lot of money. There were some big frames.

Teiser: But then you presented them to Eastman House, in effect.

Adams: Oh yes. When we got all through with it. I mean, it came back in
fair condition chiefly broken frames. Now we charge a definite
fee, except for some private gallery or museum. If a gallery
writes and wants an exhibit, they have to guarantee, say, $25 a
print $15 or $25, depending on what they are.

Teiser: This is for private galleries?

Adams: Private galleries or small places. Because they don't handle

photographic work too well financially and otherwise. A gallery
in Chicago sold $3700 worth of work, and then sent me a check for
$500 and said, "That's all you're going to get because we've gone
broke." The prints that came back were ruined! That's just "one
of these things." And yet they weren't dishonest; they just didn't
know what they were doing.

[End Tape 21, Side 2]
[Begin Tape 22, Side 1]

Teiser: Your earlier exhibit of your own work and others that you and Mrs.
Newhall arranged

Harroun: "This is the American Earth"


Teiser: Those prints, of course, were from many photographers.

Adams: But that was a different kind of show. That was what we call a

"project show," like "The Family of Man," or a "theme show" that's
the word to use, really. It's the use of photography in expressing
ideas .

Teiser: Who owns those prints now?

Adams: Oh well, they've gone to pieces. They've just been worn out.

Teiser: They're no longer in existence.

Adams: They were fine prints, but of a type. You see, the really fine

print, the exhibit print, which is in effect a work of art, should
be taken care of and presented and handled as such. Now, when you
make prints for big exhibits theme show exhibits especially ones
that are mounted on panels, you just say, "Well, these have a
different function." And the prints are usually larger than you'd
ordinarily make, and while you make as good quality as you can,
they still aren't up to exhibit quality because in the first place
they have to be on a different paper and lacquered for protection.
You have to adjust to the situation.

As I said, "The Family of Man" should have been given under
the auspices of the United Nations, because then it would have been
a theme show in the proper environment, and nobody would have
worried whether the photographs were really fine prints or other
wise; it would have been images shown for a social purpose. Showing
at the Museum of Modern Art, it set a standard of sloppy work which
we haven't lived down yet. It just knocked down the discipline of
fine quality under the very erroneous idea that fine quality is
"precious," and has really no meaning. And that's bothered me very

Teiser: As I recall, they took that show to Washington so that the senators
and President could see it.

Adams: Well, we had shows, "I Hear America Singing" and "A Nation of

Nations," which were sent to different countries. But we had to
change certain pictures, say for the Moslem countries, because
showing people in white represented mourning. And the pig is a
very unclean animal to Moslems. We had a beautiful scene of a pig
farm, but we couldn't use it! All these State Department experts
had to give us the so-called "low down," and it was sometimes very
embarrassing and difficult to find something to fill the spaces.
Very strange, but we had to think of those things. We showed a
beach scene of Coney Island with women in bathing suits bikinis,
in fact. You can't show such pictures in Moslem countries. It
would be considered definitely pornographic and would be torn down


Adams: or defaced. It's a very real thing and relates to their creed.
They just simply resent it, and it wouldn't do the United States
any good to force these images on them. How the Arabs get by at
cocktail parties is anybody's guess, because I've been to a few
places in Washington where there have been quite a few Arabs
Moslems I guess would be the better word for it and they always
have fruit punch for them. Muhammad says "No." [Laughter] Their
belligerent attitudes are probably due to the lack of the calming
influence of an evening drink. [Laughter]

Did I tell you what somebody said to Golda Meir? "I wonder
how you stood up so well under the extreme external and internal
political and war pressures," and added, "You seem to be holding
up just splendidly." How do you do it?" She said, "For me, a new
problem is a vacation." [Laughter] I feel that way too sometimes.


Teiser: There is something we haven't discussed at all, I suddenly realized,
and that's your honorary degrees. The University of California gave
you an honorary degree in 1961, and I have the text

iams: Well, all I know is that Dr. [Clark] Kerr wrote me and said, "The
President and the Board of Regents wish to confer an honorary
degree upon you. Will you accept?" Of course, I said I'd be
honored to accept. There was no speech to be given, thank God.
But at Occidental I did have to give the commencement address for
the degree received!

Teiser: Was that another doctorate? I know the University of California
gave you a Doctor of Fine Arts.

Adams: Occidental made me a Doctor of Humane Letters.
Teiser: When was the Occidental degree?

Adams: Sixty-seven, something like that. It was a very pleasant occasion.
And then I was a Chubb Fellow at Yale; was there for four days.
Then I got an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts from Yale.

Teiser: At the University of California, Dr. Joel Hildebrand, whom you
were mentioning the other day, conferred the presented the

Adams: No, he was my sponsor. And in the ritual, he has to touch his cap,
and the president touches his cap. He presents me. It was very
formal. "I have the honor to present the candidate for honorary


Adams: degree." And then he stepped back, and then I stepped forward fear
and trembling. Really, I never have stage fright, but when there's
twelve thousand people, and there's nothing to do, I guess that was
the breaking point! [Laughter] Those things are fairly impressive
occasions. I hope they don't cancel them, because they do have a
certain dignity of recognition not only for the recipient, but to
acknowledge the whole idea of honor for some distinguished service,
at least. You're supposed to take off your cap and leave it on the
chair. You are given a list of instructions. I forget how it was,
but you receive a certain nod, and then you and Dr. Hildebrand will
rise, and Dr. Hildebrand will step ahead of you and present you to
the president, and then Dr. Hildebrand steps back and receives the
hood, and somebody else has got the scroll. And everyone's gotten
up, and the president reads the citation and shakes hands and
somebody throws the hood over your neck. (Sometimes they miss, and
it's very funny! It catches and pulls everything around.) Then
they have to remind you that the tassel I forget which is the
graduate tassel it's on the right side, isn't it? Yes. "Please
see that the tassel is on the right side at all times." Then you
have these hoods and you wonder what to do with them. Dr. [Alexander]
Meiklejohn had his original Ph.D. hood that he got something like
seventy years earlier; it was moth-eaten and frayed. And Mrs.
Meiklejohn used to become furious "You can't go in a procession
with that." He said, "That's my most prized possession." [Laughter]
Of course, some of these academic robes are very gorgeous Oxford is
spectacular. The one from Belgium is a very strange outfit: white
tie and tails and a top silk hat! Robes from South Africa or middle
Africa would be brilliantly colorful. And then a few grim
"regionals." [Laughter]

Teiser: You had known Dr. Hildebrand for many years?

Adams: Oh, he is one of my oldest friends. A perfectly wonderful man.

Teiser: You mentioned that he should be interviewed. He has been interviewed
by our office.*

Adams: I think he also should be interviewed for the Sierra Club because
he's got some pretty potent ideas. He and Tom Jukes. You know
Tom Jukes? He's wonderful. He's a physiologist I never know
exactly what he is. He's in the Space Sciences Lab. He's a top
scientist. Well, he's done a great deal of work in nutrition and

*See interview with Joel H. Hildebrand, Chemistry, Education, and
the University of California, Regional Oral History Office, The
Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 1962.


Adams: development and control of pesticides. Of course, he has a

concept of the whole pesticide situation which is very different
from the popular one today. He looks at it as a possible genocide
situation. Cut out DDT in certain parts of the world and you'd
account for twenty million deaths a year. If you want that
responsibility on your neck, why, you're welcome.

But I saw a television program when I was recently in Los
Angeles. A group of scientists on both sides of the fence, top
scientists in the field, and they had equally plausible arguments,
pro and con. So the pcfcr layman like me gets in the middle of it,
and what do you do? That's what happened to me in the Sierra Club.
I just couldn't sit there and vote on many of these measures
because I knew nothing about them. You look around and you say,
"Who do you trust on this? I'll go along with the one I respect
most." And that's about all you can do. They are bringing up
problems that are immensely important, but if you vote on them
emotionally, you might be doing a great deal of damage.

Teiser: When you gave the Occidental College commencement address, what was
the subject? What did you speak on?

Adams: [Pause] What was the subject? "Give Nature Time" that was the
title. It was a little more positive than usual. I've always
supported the fact that man, being a very natural creature too,
both progresses and regresses with the whole biosphere. And he may
cause himself a lot of trouble, but we hope in time it will be
balanced. Of course, there may be great losses and danger.
Nobody knows yet what happened to the dinosaurs I There's some
conjecture that there was a supernova fairly close, with strong
radiation effects creating mutation, which certainly could do
disastrous things. If the 1050 nova, for instance, had been not
three thousand or more light years away but in our immediate stellar
region, the radiation might have been very serious. We also may
have had changes of temperature. Anything can happen and probably
will. [Laughter]

Fiat Lux

Teiser: Here's Fiat Lux, the University of California centennial book. I

think you told us something of the circumstances of its publishing.
Anything you have to add about that would be very interesting.

Adams: There was a reception at Dean McHenry's home at Santa Cruz, just at
the beginning of the University [Santa Cruz campus], and we were
invited. And Dr. Kerr President Kerr met us at the door Virginia
and Nancy Newhall and I. And he pointed at Nancy and me and he said,


Adams: "You're going to do the centennial book on the University." We
said, "Well, why not?" Those were the days when the Regents had
money to do special things, and they budgeted a round sum of $75,000
which would be devoted to the costs of texts and photographs. There
was no royalty. It was entirely up to us. We had enough money, and
we also had a reputation for coming through. All they wanted was
that the money spent would have receipts, so that the accounting
office in Sacramento would be satisfied. Everything we did was
okay, but they wanted to see the "paper." It was a complicated
matter of keeping every slip for lunch, dinner, mileage, and all
that. Nancy had her work to do, and travel, as I had mine, and we
"pogo sticked" all over the state because I found that working in a
certain campus, in four or five days I was through for the time. I
just couldn't "see" any more. It's terribly hard to try to make
inspiring pictures out of sometimes very uninspiring architecture or
situations. I might have gone out with a little 35-millimeter camera
and just gotten moments of people. But I don't work that way, and
they didn't want me to. It was entirely up to us. There was no
dictation at all.

Teiser: Did you have anyone to confer with, though, about what's going on
here and what's going on there?

Adams: Oh yes, we'd go and talk to the chancellors and we'd have meetings
with professors and students.

Working with the stations, such as the Lick Observatory, I
found easy. It was "old hat" for me; I knew that whole group. And
then we had worked with marine biology, etc. The difficult subjects
to handle were the "abstracts:" How do you do mathematics? How do
you do social sciences? But we did good images of the tutorial

The original plan of the book was to have a series of semi-
abstract call them "extract" images which would head chapters or
sections and which would set a mood. Then there would be a series
of factual pictures, because the story had to be told. You want me
just to run through it?

Teiser: Yes, if you will, and make any comments that occur to you.

Adams: I was trying to get the idea of the title, and the idea of "Let

there be light." Somebody said this isn't ideal Latin, but we know
what it means. The idea of the sun and the reflection on the ocean
seemed ideal for the book jacket and title page photographs. I got
this at Santa Cruz with my Hasselblad and the 250-millimeter lens.

Teiser: Did you actually have it in mind for a title page before you took
the picture?


Adams: Yes. I was looking for it, looking for it, looking for it. I did
quite a few variations, but I got too much flare in most. One day
I was at Santa Cruz, and I saw light on the water, and I said,
"That's it."

Teiser: What time of day was that?

Adams: That was made late in the afternoon.

Then I thought the best thing of all would be to have one of
the Greek Theater assemblages Charter Day, 1964. Adlai Stevenson
gave the address wonderful!

Then of course here again is a purely inspirational image,
"The Pleiades" a Lick Observatory picture, and again, it's an image
which doesn't illustrate anything socially specific, and the text
doesn't explain it. It just gives you the feeling of whatever
feeling it gives you!

And this is a multidimensional model illustrating population
dynamics. These are little balls on rods, and there's a whole forest
of them. And the size of the ball and the height of the rod and the
placement on the grid reveal all kinds of statistical facts. These
balls are only an inch, at the most, in diameter in getting one to
eclipse the sun was difficult. It was done with the Hasselblad 38-
millimeter lens. The amazing thing was that this was a good example
of serendipity. In putting a filter in front of the lens, the
reflection from the filter gave this multipatterned halo effect.
The filter surface was reflecting back to the lens, etc. But I could
see it; I knew it was going to happen. This was purely photographic
fantasy. And it's a good progression from "The Pleiades." These
radiating lines on the stars are the defraction patterns from the
grids the supports that are holding up the secondary mirror on the
telescope. People don't quite understand what it is: it's a
telescopic effect. In a regular refractor, like the old telescope
at Lick, you wouldn't get that effect. They [the radiating lines]
are another property of the lens, and I guess that would be a
reflection effect. You can count these all out. One, two, three,
four, etc. Eight prime surfaces in the lens, all of different

Then we worked with Berkeley and the Bay. The University as
seen from Charter Hill or "Big C" Hill. It's a very difficult thing
to do, because you have to be there at just the right time of day.

Teiser: I was wondering how smog has complicated such things.
Adams: It was bad enough twenty years ago, but it's much worse now.
Teiser: When you were a young man taking pictures was there any?


Adams: Relatively little. We had forest fires to worry about. You see
the smog in most of the Los Angeles pictures. This is Sather Gate
in Berkeley, incidentally, but here you can see smog.

Then the old medical center, which was becoming surrounded
with new buildings. This was actually taken in fog. My uncle,
my father's brother, was a doctor who taught here in that old
building. The title misses a point here; it is really fog.

Then the stream of traffic the freeways, taken in Los Angeles
from a low-flying plane. I hired this plane, and we flew over those
intersections, and the pilot was flying at a very low elevation. A
police helicopter went right under us, a hundred feet away from us,
and the pilot said, "I guess I'll get what's coming to me when I
get back to the airport," because we were down to a thousand feet
instead of the legal three thousand. But they didn't pay any
attention. And I was using a Hasselblad and a 120-inch lens at
1/500 second exposure. You're going fast, the cars are traveling
fast, and the compositions are difficult and transitory. See
something exciting and try to tell the pilot how to tilt the plane,
etc. Of course, the door's off, and you're tied in; it's perfectly

Then, of course, this is a very typical view of Berkeley with
the morning haze. Class change is always a problem. You have to
get all set up and wait for nine o'clock, ten o'clock, eleven
o'clock, etc., and the students move fast!

And then we had some of the groups "Corner of Sproul Plaza and
Telegraph Avenue" just a normal group of students.

Teiser: This time you really put people in your pictures.

Adams: Oh yes. Of course, Clark Kerr made a wonderful statement: "The

University is not engaged in making ideas safe for students. It is
engaged in making students safe for ideas." A monumental statement
and very true. Students are important!!

Teiser: The stadium picture with the Campanile in the distance

Adams: This football picture was one of the most difficult things to get.

Online LibraryAnsel AdamsConversations with Ansel Adams : oral history transcript / 1972-1975 → online text (page 54 of 76)