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

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it was able to withstand to a great extent the tragic impact of the
Reagan administration I

If a history of that should be written and fully analyzed some
day because it was a tremendously destructive period, with a
destructive psychology involved. I think most of the personnel, the
actual staff of the University were very, very good. Of course, some
of them felt a little bitter when the activists took over in Berkeley.
Many of them said, "Well, it can't be any worse than it is, so we'll


Adams :



go with the activists." That compounded the trouble, because nobody
knew where they were. I think that has quieted down now to a great
extent. People like Dean McHenry seem to have done a beautiful job
at Santa Cruz. I was impressed with the quality of the chancellors.
Of course, I knew Chancellor [Emil] Mrak at Davis, who is a wonderful

So I just say it was a great experience, probably one of the
most rewarding ones. I wish the pictures had been better and more
inspired and the original plan could have been carried out. But
since the University couldn't publish it and it had to be turned over
to a commercial publisher, it was reduced in size. But the publisher
cooperated to quite extraordinary degrees. It could have been very
bad. It could have been canceled, or it could have just been done
cheaply. But everyone did the best he could with it, and that's that.

Let's get on the record where the pictures are.
you hold the negatives?

I think you said that

There's a whole collection of prints that are at the University, both
proofs and reproductions and fine prints. I keep control of the
negatives simply because if they want prints, I can make them with
good print quality. They belong to the University, and they will go
soon to The Bancroft.* They're University property which I'm holding
in my vault. There's no reason why I should have them, except that
I just did want to maintain some continuing quality, and any time the
University wants a print of anybody in the University, they get it on
a time-cost basis, which of course is highly variable depending on
how many prints people want, and how many prints I can print at one
time. I have to make very sure that somebody wants a special print.
If one project comes in and takes a good part of the day, that's going
to be pretty costly. But sometimes I'll get some orders for thirty
prints, say. Well, divide it all up, it comes out very reasonably.
I think I will take the privilege of making a few prints for myself,
for my own record. It s_ a kind of responsibility.

My filing system is fairly understandable. It's the initials of
the campuses UCB, UCI, UCSC, UC stations and the numbers indicating
the negative sizes. It's very simple. They're all catalogued.

Teiser: Do you have anything more to say about this?

Adams: No, no. I don't think I gave you a very competent analysis of it.
Except so many pictures were taken over such a long period of time!
And I will say this, from a strictly professional point of view, I
should have gone to one campus and just worked that out and then
moved on to another campus and worked it out, and so on. But when
you're doing a thing of this kind, where you're trying to feel your
way, you just can't stay in one place too long. You suddenly become
"blind" and you have to come home and process and look at what you've
got and go to another place and get another flavor.

*Actually they are to go to the University Archives, a division of
The Bancroft Library.


Teiser: Well, weren't you trying to do ideas, anyway, rather than primarily

Adams: Yes. But from an ordinary professional point of view a professional
photographer would have worked, say, at UC Santa Cruz well, he might
have to go back at a different time of year for certain things, but
he would have covered most of the subject at one time. But I just
can't work that way. I had the same problem with the national parks,
mural project, and the Guggenheim Fellowship. I just couldn't stay
in one place after the "dead" moment arrived. There just comes a
point where you don't see anything, and you go mooning around and
looking and nothing happens. And that's the time to go home. But
sometimes you don't expect anything and something wonderful takes
place. The pendulum swings naturally in both directions.

I must say that Adrian Wilson did a beautiful typographic
design. Nancy assisted and worked it out with him. Charles Wood
did the best he could with the gravure plates, but due to the
structure of the book and the economic factors, it had to be
printed a little faster and perhaps in larger signatures. The ink
control wasn't too good; if you have four photographs on one sheet
you can control the ink better than if you have eight.

Teiser: I remember Wood was experimenting with the gravure plates for your
photographs long before the book was in production.

Adams: Well, you see, you can do this: you can take a sheet of paper, and
say you're going to print four up. Then, after that's printed you
reverse and print the other side, and you control the ink for that
side. The books such as My Camera in Yosemite, in the National
Parks and Point Lobos are collated books. They are not signature
books. You can arrange the plates so that the ink will be of
optimum quality for each. Then the sheets are cut up and the pages
assembled. Of course, it is quite a job to organize the whole
pattern of the book. You have to work it out the right way. Never
theless, they are all separate images. The titles printed from
rubber type on the back of the reproduction, must relate to the next
plate, but that doesn't mean they were printed at the same time.

Illustrating Jeffers and Other Writers

Adams: Now, you had another book, you said.

Teiser: Well, this is quite different. This is the one the Sierra Club did
in 1965 on Robinson Jeffers, to which you made some contributions,
apparently not only photographs, but also ideas suggestions based on
your knowledge of Jeffers and what he had been and what he had written
about. Is that right?


Adams :



Adams :

Adams :

Not Man Apart. Is that the name of it? Well, that was a very
successful Sierra Club book, and there are some beautiful pictures
in it.

Were you in on the early planning of it?

No, I really wasn't. I had a very strange feeling about the book
because what they did to Jeffers was rather bad in a poetic sense.
They just made excerpts from his writings which fitted the ecological
dogma. As Mary Austin said, Jeffers was one of the greatest poets
since the Greeks, and he was fundamentally a humanist. A lot of
people think him a pessimist, and he probably was. But Not Man Apart
does not give an adequate impression of Jeffers's poetry at all. It
is the "excerpt principle," which is I think not valid ethically and
aesthetically. And then I think many of the photographs did not
take full advantage of the photography that existed. But at that
time [David] Brower was very anxious to get a lot of books out. We
were hitting and missing. I had a few photographs in Not Man Apart.
I suggested some others using more of Weston's and some other people
that I knew, but there just wasn't enough time to really do a proper
job. But it's been a very successful and beautiful book.

It just bothers me that poetic statements were taken out of
context. If they'd done that as an anthology from a lot of poets,
it wouldn't have such a meaning, but it gives people the idea of
Jeffers's poetry being something very different from what it was.

It's a problem illustrating the work of a man, isn't it?
done texts, like the Muir and the Mary Austin


Yes, we took The Land of Little Rain, for instance, and I had a lot
of photographs, and I made excerpts from her text, but it related
to one theme, and there was nothing in the book that is a real

Is it the full text of the book?

The full text of the book is printed. My excerpts are from that in
different sequences. So it isn't as if I had gone through Mary
Austin's work and picked out only certain statements. You could
take from her novels and from her other books and make statements
which would not really relate. The Jeffers excerpts do relate to
the country, of course, but they do not fully relate to a greater
thing, which is his poetry.

There's been quite a number of editions of Muir, just on the
writings John Muir in the Sierra and that's wonderful. I mean,
there's no end to it. Muir was writing about the Sierra Nevada and
that's fine, but Jeffers was writing great epics and these passages


Adams: occur which are wonderful in themselves, ihey are all parts of the
whole, but when they're picked out, like taking seeds out of a
watermelon, it's not fair to Jeffers.

Teiser: You had known Jeffers for many, many years, hadn't you?

Adams: Oh yes. Since 1926.

Teiser: How did you happen to meet him?

Adams: Through Albert Bender.

Teiser: And you were friends?

Adams: Oh yes, great friends. I became very fond of Una Jeffers, and when
they were going to England or Ireland she offered their house for
us to live in while they were gone. I think it was quite an honor
to be asked to come and live in this incredible place, but we were
stuck in San Francisco.

Teiser: Not a Frank Lloyd Wright house!

Adams: Thank God. He'd designed and built it himself. I don't think the
house was entirely practical, but the tower was quite a bit of
fantasy. Una would go up there and play the reed organ. And he'd
go up in the top and sit. I mean it was a fantasy, and he'd done
all of it himself. He brought these boulders up from the ocean
shore; it was actually his own construction.

Teiser: He was a man who apparently attracted people very strongly. I
remember William Everson said he couldn't meet him because his
admiration for him was so strong. Theodore Lilienthal, who collected
his works

Adams: He was a warm and close friend. I think Jeffers was a very strange
person very shy, very remote. He had very few intimates. I never
could class myself as that at all. We were just very good friends
and very welcome at the house, but I never could break through this
slightly icy severity. And yet there was something very warm about
it at the same time. Una was a very beautiful woman; one of the
handsomest people I ever knew, and really was a perfect foil for him.
If it hadn't been for her, he'd have just been impossible. He would
have been a monk somewhere on the top of Mount Everest.

But it was an interesting episode with Edward Weston and
Jeffers. Weston photographed him. They didn't get along. He
didn't like Edward's photographs too much. I don't think he liked
any photographs. I'm sure he didn't like mine. I think it was more
a matter of not being interested in photographs. There was some talk


Adams: of Edward "illustrating" his work, and they both decided against it.
Edward was very astute in these matters, and he realized very
quickly that it just wasn't the thing to do. I would hesitate to
try to do pictures for a Jeffers poem! What I could do would be to
do a portfolio of photographs, a sort of homage to Jeffers, which
would be my equivalents. But I wouldn't want any of his verse with
it. This is a point there. I wouldn't even use a line. It would
just have to stand on its own, just like Portfolio One was simply
dedicated to Stieglitz, and every photograph in it says something
about what I felt about Stieglitz. And nobody knows what it is,
and I don't myself, except in terms of the image. But once I
started putting phrases and excerpts and lines, then I would have
"rigidized" it. (I don't know whether that's a good English word
or not.)

What Does a Photograph Do?

Adams: Well, I think the whole problem is what does a photograph do?

You're first seeing an image of something that is external. The
lens is like the eye. It gives you the optical image of the world,
as it appears on the retina and appears on the film. Then, of
course, how you have seen what you've seen, with all the subjective
significances, and how you have expanded the image by optical and
chemical controls, and what you've done with tonal control of the
print, plus the elements of design. The question is: Is it
creative art or is it representation? I still think for the
majority of people who acquire my photographs, the subject is a very
powerful motivation. Now, I hate to say this, but many people
wouldn't know the difference between a poor print and a fine print.
They would be just as happy. Of course, I would be just as unhappy
because that would be a destruction of creative standards. I've had
many people yell at me when I start to spot a print. I say, "Wait
a minute. You can't take this until I spot it."

"Oh, don't do that, with that little spotting. That's crazy."
I said, "But you can't neglect it; I have to clear this thing up."
They're not seeing the photographs, you see, they're seeing the

What the nonobjectivist painter is doing is creating the
symbolic imagery, which only a relatively few people can accept.
To me the Wyeth paintings are no better than the Norman Rockwell
paintings; they're a little more subtle in one sense. But a hundred
years from now, I think Rockwell will end up as the better draftsman.
The "Four Freedoms" series he did for the government has some
magnificent drawings. If you just get out of this particular aura


Adams: of fashion. I'm still very hurt when I see Andy Warhol, or somebody
of that type, with a six-foot-high picture of a Campbell's soup can,
which is a much worse painting than you'd see on a billboard, but
the price tag is $6000 and it's called art. I must confess that I
have a "gastrological" upheaval. [Laughter]

And yet, I'm a great admirer of Dali. I think he's delight
fully crazy, and he has a beautiful technique. Some of his things
are marvelously done. And the only tragedy there is that Dali didn't
quite study the physical techniques of the early masters, in trying
to imitate their quality, so his paint is cracking and leaving the
canvas, and there are sizing problems. But there are some wonderful
things .

Teiser: He's very logical, isn't he?

Adams: Just about as logical as what is the painter? you know, with weird

demons, and the imps with funnels on their heads the German painter.*

Teiser: I was wondering if you liked Edward Hopper?

Adams: Oh, very much as a painter. I don't like his world, but I like his
painting. That's an interesting statement, you see. If the artist
is powerful enough as an artist, you can thoroughly dislike his
world, but still admire his art. And when the artist doesn't quite
hit it, then the world dominates.

To me, I get a great emotional reaction out of John Marin,
O'Keeffe, Marsden Hartley, and Burchfield. Remember his painting,
"Hot September Wind"? One of the few of the Wyeths that I like is
the wind blowing the curtain at the window. The thing has a
certain magic in it, but you just can't verbalize about it.

Conflicts and Friendships

Teiser: I have another question. We've just been going over all the things
we've talked about. You have mentioned at various times, and I
guess I've read maybe in Mrs. Newhall's writings, that there were
conflicts among Stieglitz, Steichen, and Beaumont Newhall that were
somehow straightened out with your help and Mrs. Newhall's help
everybody's help. Is that too broad a statement?

Adams: Well, it's fairly broad. I guess I was responsible for bringing

Stieglitz and the Newhalls together. Now, historically I can't give
you the exact fact; Stieglitz liked Nancy but he automatically
distrusted Newhall because he was a "man from the museum." He
fundamentally distrusted the museum. When he got to know Newhall
personally, he was really very fine to him.



Adams: There was a strange relationship between Steichen and Stieglitz
which I'm afraid you'll have to go to Newhall an historian to
clarify. Steichen had begun as a painter in Europe and was dabbling
in photography. He was meeting with many contemporary artists in
Europe. He would send their work over to Stieglitz. Stieglitz
would say, "Fine, send me more and I'll give them a show."
Stieglitz is credited with bringing contemporary art, some of the
biggest names, as well as African sculpture, to this country. It
is really due, to a very great extent, to Steichen's discovery and
sending them to Stieglitz. And while I'm no admirer of Steichen in
many directions, it still is one of the top achievements. He really
did a great thing for American art. The Museum of Modern Art, of
course, had no interest in photography and, according to Stieglitz,
no fundamental taste or selection. It was just a bunch of very
rich people who indulged themselves in I forget what he called it;
probably wasn't very polite. So anybody from there was suspect.
I remember he wrote me a letter: _"Yes, and the man from the museum
came today. I told him what I felt about the whole situation and
didn't get anywhere much." Words to that effect. But after
realizing that Newhall was fundamentally completely sincere and
dedicated, Stieglitz was very agreeable [about Newhall 's department
in the museum] .

O'Keeffe and the Newhalls never got along very well. That's
something that you'll have to get from Nancy. I think it's always
a matter of jealousy Dorothy Norman and Georgia O'Keeffe the women
in Stieglitz 's life magnified I think to quite an impossible level.

I think I shouldn't tread in this field because this is
something which is historic and which you ought to get from the
Newhalls. I'm just telling you what I mean. I'm just saying that
I don't know enough to make it significant in any way.

Marin we were all terribly fond of. I think he was a great
artist, one of America's greatest painters. At least for me I get
a great charge out of his paintings. When I get a charge, I get a
charge, and it isn't a manufactured one!

And O'Keeffe is marvelous. We've always been very good friends.
I was very good friends, as you know, with Edward and Brett Weston.
Anton Bruehl and I can't think of all of them now. I guess the
only one that I never warmed up to, to any extent, was Steichen, and
I was thinking about it the other night. I just can't put my finger
on it, except that it was one of these strange things called personal
chemistry. And it isn't a matter of disliking, because he was a very
charming and extremely intelligent, capable man, but it's just a
negative situation oil and water don't mix, and we haven't found
the detergent yet that would do it.




And yet I had every reason to be mad as blazes at Stieglitz because
of his rudeness and sometimes even brutal attitude towards things,
but there was always a fundamental honesty which seemed to make him
plausible. I don't think it's because he liked my work or even
accepted it. I think that Steichen represented in photography the
commercial advertising psychology, supported by people like Tom
Maloney, who was really a wonderful generous Irishman. But they
represented a world which I don't agree with, and I think that
probably would be the answer that their world is antithetic, so
I never could make the hurdle.

As I say, I got along very well with the Morgans, Willard and
Barbara; they're marvelous people. We're continuing that in new
generations. In fact, I've had very few squabbles with my
colleagues. Much fewer squabbles than most of my colleagues have
had with their colleagues. [Laughter]

There have been some very strange things in photography kind
of hard feelings. Charles Sheeler, for instance, did a whole
series of shots of the Ford plant at Detroit, and I think it was
Fortune or some magazine that wanted to use them, and of course,
being a great artist, he had a certain high price on them. So they
sent Margaret Bourke-White to do the same thing. She didn't know
Sheeler 's work. She was a very fine person. She never would have
jumped the gun, so to speak. But Charles never forgave her or the
concern that did it, because he thought that she just pirated his
stuff. She didn't, but you couldn't tell him. These things get
very complex!

Again, that's something for the historian to elaborate on or
correct. Charles Sheeler was a great and really dedicated person
and extremely close to Steichen, which of course made our relation
ship always a little bit touchy, because he'd try to what is the
term that you use? convert me. And I wasn't convertible. [Laughter]
I was a sedan. [Laughter]

Well, I hope that this zany recording on my part has been of
some help to you.

More problems? I'm delighted to talk on.
We have a few more, and we'll bring them back tomorrow.
That's fine.
[End Tape 22, Side 2]


[Begin Tape 23, Side 1]
[Interview XIX 15 July 1972]

Teiser: Would you say again, for the tape, the poem about the dark slide?

Adams: Well, it was this thing about this photographer. He wasn't very

successful, so his epitaph was: "A failure he lived and a failure
he died. He never remembered to pull the slide." [Laughter]

And Alfred Stieglitz's epitaph. I was able to get him a
beautiful Zeiss lens, and he looked at it and said, "This is my
tombstone." I said, "You're not going to use the lens for that!
But what are you going to have on your tombstone?" He said, "All
I want is this: 'Here lies Alfred Stieglitz. He lived for better
or for worse, but he's dead for good'." [Laughter]

More on Reproduction Rights

Teiser: I asked you, before we started taping, about the Magnum agency.

Adams: Yes, Magnum is a group of photographers of very top names, including
Cartier-Bresson in Europe. They had a Paris office and a New York
office. They were primarily oriented to journalism. I don't know
why they wanted me in it, but they nevertheless do sell a certain
number of what they call "pictorials." I just did one job with
them which still has to be resolved. But not being a journalist, I
really didn't have much function in that group. It's still going,
and I guess it's doing well. They take usually a 50 percent
commission, but they make a real sales effort, which is fair enough.
A dealer gets usually 40 percent, but an agent has to scramble
around much more. Well, 50 percent is better than nothing. This
is not 50 percent of sales of prints, but 50 percent commission on
the fee charged. They set the fee with that in mind.

Teiser: And these are all photographs for reproduction, are they?
Adams: Usually just sold to magazines and journals.
Teiser: Then I think you said you belonged to the

Adams: The American Society of Magazine Photographers, called ASMP, which

now has some very long secondary title [the Society of] Photographers
in Communication or something, which is silly because everybody knows
what it is. But this was started many years ago as a sort of
professional society. I joined with the idea and hope that it would
remain a professional group, like the American College of Surgeons


Adams: or the Institute of Architects or Engineers, where there's a high
professional level. Well, seeing that most photographers are not
of high professional level, it turned into a union which was really
into almost a price-fixing situation. There were constant squabbles
over what a fee represents one use? multiple use? who owns the
negative? who owns the color transparency? are you paid to do the
job? And does the magazine use it as they wish, or do they have to
pay you for every separate use? And all this stuff. It gets
frankly very boring because professionally you do a job and
naturally expect the client to do what he wants with it. Providing
it's dignified and doesn't hurt your reputation, the more he can
get out of it the better, if the photographer's paid adequately for
it at first.

But the photographers wanted, at one time, 10 percent of the
total charge of the advertising; and of course that would be
impossible because the total cost of advertising page rates and
so on are so great. The thing that people don't realize is that
the advertising agency gets 15 percent over cost, and that's all it
gets in commission from the client. But that means that overhead
has to come out of that, you see. In other words, an agency will
bill the client for the photograph, for the art work, for all the
printing, for the plates all the expenses involved in making the
photograph. Say this bill comes to $10,000, they may bill $11,500.
But out of that $11,500 they have to keep their office going, so

Online LibraryAnsel AdamsConversations with Ansel Adams : oral history transcript / 1972-1975 → online text (page 56 of 76)