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

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I had to get on top of a house to make it. Oh, we had an awful time.
The weather was bad game after game after game. But finally it
cleared. This was made after the game was over, and the audience is
dispersing. People seem to like it; it isn't the conventional image.

The San Francisco Medical Center was done with the Academy of
Sciences in the foreground. And then Davis

Teiser: Did you find Davis an easy campus to photograph?


Adams: No, the campus is tough, but the people are wonderful. The great
Dr. [G. Ledyard] Stebbins in "Genetics Field Trip." This was done
with a Hasselblad. The students in a graduate class were studying
different strains of oats. There were two students from Africa.
These were really advanced, trained people, and he had this , group
out in a field for a day near Santa Cruz.

UC Davis has a large-animal clinic. When this picture was
finished, and they were going to get this horse ready for an oper
ation, the horse got panicky and kicked the professor and nearly
broke his leg. So we were persona non grata. [Laughter]

Here's Los Angeles, UCLA, which was very difficult. This was a
reasonably clear day. I don't know; I think you just have to take
your luck as it comes .

This is one of the breaks the scuba divers at Santa Barbara.
Most of the time it would be very dull smoky or hazy, and nothing
visual going on. These beaches really have natural oil on them
always have had. I found Santa Barbara probably the most difficult
campus to work with.

Teiser: There's no planting much on it, is there?

Adams: Yes, but it's Santa Barbara, if you know what I mean. It's kind of
thin but has nice people and a very fine staff. But from a scenic
point of view oh myl

Riverside I liked very much. The clock tower I don't, but the
buildings are fine. This is a marvelous building the Humanities
Building. And the conservative people down there criticized this
building because it had four front doors. They could think of a
building only having one front door, but this has four equally
important entrances, and they thought that was bad architecture!

Then I did quite a number of portraits, like the physics
major at Riverside. "First person" pictures just types. He's
looking right at you; he's a real person, not a posed model!

And then these home classes at Riverside; the radio station;
the bell on the top of the clock tower. This latter was done with
a 35-millimeter lens really squeezing in!

This is probably the best piece of architecture in the
University. It's the Breezeway, between the physics and chemistry
buildings at San Diego. The design is based on the floor's
hexagonal benzine ring pattern.


Adams: And then the great Dr. [Harold C.] Urey, who was just wonderful to
us. He wanted his framed pictures of his close associates in his
picture; there's Dr. Hildebrand, and Einstein, and many others of
the great scientists are there. These are all people that he worked
with, and he wanted those in his picture if possible.

And this was to be a stylized big thing the Fountain. Santa
Cruz is beautiful. The architecture is difficult.

Teiser: You had taken photographs there earlier?
Adams: Oh, covered the whole area.
Teiser: Did you have to take any new ones?

Adams: Oh yes. Everything I took first was before any buildings. So,
for instance, that's the only one here made before there were
buildings [p. 50]. Crown College was the first one built; Stevenson
College was the second. Here's the library. This is quite a
fantastic fountain [p. 53], and I wish they'd given the name of the
artist, because it's quite beautiful.

Then we had our real troubles at Irvine, with the smog and the
desolation. That region is the ugliest part of California dreadful
place. And the buildings the fenestration are all designed to
take care of what [William] Pereira called "the white sky" of Irvine;
they shield from the glare. They all look like nun's coffins from
the Spanish Revolution! [Laughter] Early in the morning you could
see the mountains, and then an hour or so after this was taken, you
couldn't see anything because of smog day after day after day. But
we did have a thunderstorm, and this was very lucky. I think this
one is quite typical of the architectural detail, and the planting.
But it's very desolate, it's on that open piedmont area of the
Irvine Ranch. When the trees grow it will be much better.

Of course that's the classical building [Doe Library, Berkeley].
Then you come across stylized pictures like this sometimes

Teiser: What is that one?

Adams: Well, this is at the main library at Davis. We're looking at the
libraries now. These books weren't there; they were in a case.
They were moved here. And then by using certain darkroom techniques,
like water bath, you get [the full image of] inside and outside.
Those kids wouldn't be there in actuality. That's why this might be
questionable. But how do you get all of these elements together,
you see? It takes several trials to do it well.

The Blake collection, of course, is very fine, but here again,
this book wouldn't be open in this place. But there it is, and the
composition is "stylized." The camera position is designed to show


Auams: both the book and the library. Then of course the special libraries
The Bancroft "The Plate of Brass."

Teiser: You put it against a map.

Adams: Put it against a map of the period, yes. What else could you do?

The librarian picked the map, so we assume it's an accurate choice.

Then again, these people "the Humanists" they are direct
portraits. Pierre Delattre in Linguistics, who could actually make
designs that could imitate the voice. He could listen to your word
and "design" it on tape and play the tape through and hear the
realistic sound. He had some very interesting theories. I don't
know what's happened to him or his theories.

Now, this is one of the first times they'd really used
television in education. Here's one television microscope, showing
a cell, and the second television is showing the background, and he
has drawn this line on it, and there's his hand and his finger here
pointing [p. 68], And these are permanently on tape for review.
They're constantly reviewing and perfecting the lectures. This
happened to be a fairly important picture at its time.

Then the building of the Lawrence Hall of Science, which is now
open to the public. That's up in the Berkeley hills. I used a very
long telephoto lens, from down in the campus, of the Space Sciences
Laboratory and the Radiation Lab offices.

Then the model of the new University Art Museum, and the
museology class at Davis, which is very good.

This is an interesting combination. This was actually taken at
the performance of Elektra. The audience were enthusiastically
clapping, as you see. This [p. 75] was taken during the performance,
with a very long lens that could "reach" far into the stage. Then I
just took the second camera, turned it around, and made the people
picture. Of course, they're out in sun, looking into this glaring
light. I had trouble with facing the sun while photographing the
shadowed stage.

And then the organ photograph. This was a kind of ticklish
thing to do, working only with the existing illumination. It's one
of the really great, beautiful organs in the country.

This one again, "Regents' Professor of Musicology, Riverside"
this is one of these problems, where you're attempting to show these
books, which are original, first editions of the great classics (a
priceless collection). And how do you photograph so you can read
every note, and still come up and see the people and keep the geometry
right in the building? There's no tilt showing. The organ is
standing true. This is a good job, I think.


Adams: Then we go on to the Japanese Garden, UCLA. They had a very bad

slide later, and the Japanese Garden was devastated. I don't know
whether they've got it back in condition.

And then the painting class. This was up at Santa Cruz, near
what is now College 5. Then "Fundamentals of Form, Irvine" Santa
Barbara, Davis.

And drama this was made at Irvine in the morning fog. They
were in a rehearsal. You must take advantage of things like that!

The movie class at UCLA was rather exciting.

And then you get into the so-called stations, of which there
are more than eighty. Of course, I didn't do all of those. A lot
of them are near duplications of research centers. I was very
fortunate in getting the Lick Observatory and the 120-inch telescope
when they had "dropped" the mirror, as they call it. They had taken
the mirror out for realuminizing. This picture is done with available
light, with the great telescope in vertical position, and the 120-inch
mirror lying down underneath it to be taken to the basement for re
aluminizing. That was quite an experience; the most nerve-racking
thing that they can do, I guess. This multimillion-dollar hunk of
glass is moved from under the telescope and lowered into a vacuum

And then the radio astronomy [p. 94] , and of course these are
very small antennae compared to what they have today. I liked this
idea of the lava, which is sort of indicative of the moon. Just
think that at that time we didn't know what the moon really was like!

And then it went on into one of the really great institutions,
the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. This again [p. 97] is what we call
a near/far image, where you have your birds, which are tiny things
close at hand, and then reach back into the laboratory with complete

This is at the Hastings station, up in the Carmel Valley.

And then the Deep Canyon [p. 100], which is a terrific place,
south of Palm Springs.

Here's a case [p. 101] where the reproduction this one of the
cactus is not good. The print was full of light, luminosity, and
the reproduction is too dark and heavy. Philip Boyd was a Regent
and a great benefactor and did a tremendous amount for the University.
He was one of the prime developers of Palm Springs.


Adams: I think the Marine Biological Laboratory at Bodega is one of the

most handsome buildings in the whole system. And this [p. 105] is
again a detail the sea anemones this is what we wanted to do all
through the book to "set the pace." We had to throw out many of
these, because of space limitations.

That isn't mine, of course [p. 108]. That's a DNA molecule at
about 112,000 times magnification. And Donald Glaser, who is one
of the very top people a Nobel Prize man.

Then we had the geology class out near Riverside. I found it
fascinating to get this group of students into the field among
these great rocks. It's a symbolic image.

I didn't get to the top of White Mountain, but I got up over
twelve thousand feet. I guess I got to thirteen thousand feet,
actually. This is the "Haldane Gas Analysis" a classic instrument.
They packed it up to several hundred feet higher elevation for me,
so I could get it and White Mountain in the background.

Teiser: Especially for the picture?

Adams: For the picture. I wanted to get it up in the rocks. Otherwise,
it's just in a shed. That's one of the things that's awful. So
many of these most important facilities are really very ugly just
sheds and dirty apparatus. Not really dirty, but they don't have
certain basic aesthetic qualities.

Then this is the "Bubble Chamber Events;" the cosmic ray enters
the Bevatron. Every once in a while this happens. This is merely
a decorative picture. There's millions of these things. The layman
couldn't possibly grasp what they mean. It just becomes a design
almost the added gimmick of a cosmic ray intrusion.

Then the first Cyclotron leading to the Bevatron; John H.

This [p. 122] is in a sense an important picture, the research
over at the Livermore lab on the fusion process. Of course, I
suppose this machine is totally outmoded now, but this was one of
the important steps in containing plasma. You note these enormous
bolts and massive structures when you're thinking of subatomic
particles! The energies involved are very great.

This is the Chemical Biodynamics Laboratory. And Melvin Calvin,
who's a wonderful man. He designed this circular lab. And I think
looking at this here again, what do you do? I mean, every lab
looks alike. An expert will come in and say, "Oh, I know what that
is. It's a gas analysis machine." So you have to make some kind of
stylized organization and composition and hope for the best I


Adams: Willard F. Libby was the most difficult one; he just couldn't stop
talking on the phone. He was all right in the end.

Then this [p. 128] was actual plasma illumination. That was
extremely difficult to photograph. It was as bright as the sun
you have to look at it through very dark glasses. And I got this
effect that seldom happens, called "the loops." See this white?
They were excited about that. The interior of the plasma is
controlled in a sort of a resonance with these highly energizing
induction coils.

Then we got into the agriculture, which of course is terribly
important. And how the University has helped agriculture enormously.
For instance, John W. Huffman, who's the director over in the Salinas
area. He worked in preplanting fumigation of soil [p. 136]. Great
areas are covered with plastic and they pump in toxic substances to
kill the nematodes before they plant.

And then the cross-pollenization in the pear orchards! Spring
irrigation [p. 140] is important before planting.

There isn't any point in saying that one thing is more
important than another. These rice fields looked perfectly
wonderful from the air, but they were very hard to photograph;
they're so brilliant looking into the sun [pp. 146-147], This is a
typical farm, with silos. The print seems too hard, but you are
looking down from a plane into glaring water-soaked rice fields.
They're really fascinating.

Teiser: The reproduction was too dark?

Adams: Too heavy. This was done with gravure, and we just didn't have the
time to perfect it.

This was an infrared picture in the desert done for the Dry
Lands Research Institute. Terribly important place.

Then here is a cotton field with an evening dust storm blowing.

Then this one of the palm grove is very interesting because the
palms in this area are leaning in the prevailing wind. In order to
make this logical I had to use all kinds of optical adjustments in
the camera to correct them, and yet create what appears to be the
level horizon. It was really something; you wouldn't believe that
all these palms are all tilted. The wind has been blowing constantly
and the entire grove has this tilt!

Teiser: I can't believe it when I look at the picture.


Adams: Well, the tilt would look terrible in a picture; you just couldn't
understand it.

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

Adams: We did quite a lot of work in the School of Forestry. It was quite
illuminating. The objective, of course, is to use about 96 percent
of the forest products! And they're getting there. I don't know
what the percentage is, but they use most of the slash and the wood
chips. The wood chips, especially, are piled literally in mountains
seventy-five feet high and more [p. 163]. In fact, they had to cut
the height down because the weight created heat and they started
burning inside whisps of steam and smoke appeared from just the
internal friction. They used to get rid of all this and burn it.
Now they use it in all kinds of preparations.

Teiser: If your father's process had been successful, a lot of it would have
gone into that, wouldn't it?

Adams: Yes. They took sawdust. But the chips, you see, are something else.
I think they came into use a little later. The slash and everything
is put through chipping machines.

We research the idea of denuded forests [p. 164], which were
burned off, leaving only snags. Then, of course, the second growth,
which is the revival. The great argument now is whether you should
have selective cutting or clear cutting. That is really a very
difficult thing to decide on, because the clear cutting wipes out
the whole forest. Then you have to wait so many decades to get new
growth. The selective cutting destroys the forest aesthetically,
taking out this tree and that tree and creating scars. So the
question remains whether you should just cut the whole forest out
and plant anew, or work selectively. They have used helicopters.
They fell trees and then take them out by helicopter. But even then
there's no such thing as a natural forest retained. It's damaged,
and as trees mature they will be cut. So to me it's a far more
unnatural thing than complete elimination and starting over. This
picture [p. 165] I think shows the visual effect of starting a new
forest. I don't know how old that one is. Maybe twenty years.
This was done in Europe, of course, for many years.

Teiser: Do they do clear cutting in Europe?

Adams: I think in some areas, yes. I'm sure they do. Great areas of too
well ordered forest exist trees planted in rows.


Adams: Then, of course, the University social service is tremendous the
clinics over at the San Francisco Medical Center, the radiology
laboratory at UCLA. And I actually photographed a heart valve
implant. This is the valve at the moment of being put into the
heart [p. 168], I spent the whole day at this operation. In the
beginning it's quite an impressive sight. Everyone completely
dolled up with the surgical gloves, mask, and gown. This surgeon
said, "Now, Mr. Adams, if you wish to come over to the head of the
table, you can look right in. We're going to implant the valve." The
lens I had on the hand-held camera extended about a foot and a half
away from the heart, and as I took this picture the lens hood fell
off, bounced on the table, and almost fell into the body cavity.
Fortunately it fell on the floor! And I could see all these people
looking at me over their masks. If it had bounced the other way,
I'd still be running down Parnassus Avenue because the danger of
infection would have been severe. The doctor said, "Well, it didn't
happen. It's all right. We understand." But I got this picture,
which for its time was very important.

And then the School of Law. What they call the practice court
in Los Angeles. At that time quite a prominent woman judge was
officiating. These were typical cases, where they assume certain
things are taking place. This happened to be a rape case, which was
very interesting. And the jury is impaneled just according to the
rules, but of course it's all practice. The judge had to take
notice that there was a camera in the room for purposes of documenta
tion, and such would never be allowed in actual court practice. But
it was really quite a thing to see the student trial, with everything
extremely strict. Somebody like the prosecutor would make a break,
and he'd be thoroughly called down by the judge. [Laughter]

And then the College of Environmental Design, Berkeley, and the
School of Architecture in Los Angeles were very exciting.

And the engineering laboratory at Richmond. People don't realize
what a huge installation there is there. Here [p. 176] they're
studying landing patterns from the simulated cockpit of a plane. You
ride in it and approach landing; they create dense fog. See these
seas of fog coming in? They can actually manufacture fog, and the
whole area will become absolutely obscured. Now, which landing
pattern light is best seen? Pilots from all over the world come and
ride this thing, which works as a glide approach. They can also take
advantage of, I think, the United Air Lines training system, where
the pilots look at a televised image simulating the whole procedure.
Whatever the pilots do goes on computer, and an incredible analysis of
their actions is made.

Then, of course, we had the Air Pollution Research Center. This
one [p. 179] is measuring the effect of cement dust on photosynthesis,
with recording of light emissions and energy. These things look fairly


Adams: simple, but I tried to use the available light. You can always trick
things up, bring a lot of lights in and theatrically illuminate the
subject. I will use reflectors sometimes, and I had to use a
reflector here to get enough light in this closed place. But what
you're seeing is actually lights from above.

Then, the Extension Center and Continuing Education in Business.
Now, a thing like that what in the world do you do? A bunch of men
sitting around a table with books and their name plates at a lecture.
But it's very important.

The Lake Arrowhead Center and the Extension group at Santa Cruz.
An art class in Los Angeles. Royce Hall jazz concerts. And the
tutorial system in Watts.

This is the Sherman Indian Institute near Riverside. And the
Berkeley student with the Mexican child tutee in Golden Gate Park.
They'd taken the Mexican children over to the park and visited the
museums, etc.

And then the final one of the Campanile is very interesting
because of the sun going behind the balcony balustrade.

Teiser: Oh, that's it!

Adams: There was just a moment when you could do this. And I was chasing
around with my Hasselblad, trying to get that at the right moment.
Just a change of an inch in position would make a difference.

So, that's the book. It was a great experience, and my greatest
admiration and thanks for all the people that helped me. It was

Teiser: Over how long a period did you work on it?

Adams: Four years.

Teiser: Did you have an assistant working with you on the photography?

Adams: Oh, sometimes. Mostly I'd do it alone. You see, if I'd gone out with
a regular complement of professional lights, that would be something
else. Then you have to use a staff. I'd just rather move in, use
natural light, and not try to force things. Sometimes you have to
in certain cases; you Just give up. I mean if I don't see anything,
I have to admit it, and then I have to contrive. You have to be
absolutely sure that your contrivance is never improbable. In fact,
in that library picture at Davis, those students would be right in
that position they could be at the stairs talking. And the chances
are that those books might or might not have been in that position.
Books might have been, but not those books. So, you take certain
liberties to get over an idea. As long as you know it's a contrivance
it's all right.


Adams : But I would like to go on record on the tape as saying that it was
a great experience, and the universal cooperation throughout the
whole University was simply extraordinary.

Teiser: It must have been interesting to talk to people.

Adams: I only had one or two people evidence impatience because I was taking
long. I know one astronomer was getting ready for a lecture in
Russia an astrophysicist. I tried to get him in his office, and
there were papers all over the floor, and finally he said, "For
goodness sakes, go ahead and take the picture!" I said, "Well, I'm
not a snap shooter; I'm trying to get some feeling into this." "Well,
all right, all right." So finally when I left he said, "I apologize,
but I'm just under a strain to get my notes done." I said, "You did
fine." [Laughter]

But some of the people didn't like moving machines around.
Sometimes you had to move a computer device out of the way, and
they'd get scared, and I'd have to tell them that I understood
instruments, and I'd do this with the greatest possible care. Things
like that.

Then I had one ghastly experience where Dr. [Donald] Glaser and
some other people and I had two days of appointments to do portraits.
I was using my Hasselblad with the 250-millimeter lens, so it would
get a long distance effect. Usually take two or three rolls of each,
to be sure of a good likeness. I checked at the end and I found that
my shutter "bounced." The picture was taken, and the shutter bounced
during exposure, so I had double images. Out of four rolls, there
were three pictures I could use. Fortunately, one was very good.
And that's what happens to photographers. I just went right back and
worked for another two days and all came out well.

The unfortunate thing was that when we started the book Clark
Kerr was certainly in ascendancy, and the University was absolutely
tops in the world in many ways. Then the reactionary people took
over and started cutting the most vital supports out. And the sad
thing that happened wasn't just that they reduced expenditures, but
they reduced morale. And that has not come back yet. Any ordinary
university organization would, I think, have probably collapsed. But
the morale of the University of California was so extraordinary that

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