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

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advertising isn't all gravy. It's pretty tight.

Suppose that somebody has a campaign. I just did one for the
Wolverine people boots. I gave them a set of photographs, got a
very nice fee for it (comes in a monthly stipend). It was so
successful they want to do it again next year, which is fine. They
put out a brochure. Did I give you one of those?

Teiser: No.

Adams: Oh, I'll give you one. It's a very nice little thing. And they're
running full-page advertisements in Life. I think they've run
three, black and white. Well, the cost of Life pages is so much
greater than the cost of the photographs, but that doesn't really
excuse meager payment to the photographer.

Playboy, the last I heard, was $45,000 a page, an inside color
page. That cost is for one issue. Polaroid spends $20 million to
$25 million a year in TV and advertising, which is a set percentage
of their gross sales.

Teiser: Polaroid's advertising has such a wide range, from Aperture to the
Sunday paper and radio and television


Adams: Oh yes. The point is entirely a matter of readership how many
people see the ad. A certain percentage of those are going to
respond. That pays for the ad and makes a profit. They've got it
down to a cold-blooded mathematical fact.

Teiser: But most companies don't advertise to such a very wide range. They
figure "most of our buyers are here," in one or two categories.

Adams: Well, that's specific. That's a different thing. There is one

very important point: William Edwin Rudge told me that if you do
a book, no matter what the book is, if you send out a mailing list
of a hundred thousand names, you will get a minimum of two thousand
responses. That's part of the whole advertising promotion pattern.
But people forget what it costs to send out a hundred thousand ads,
you see. Your printing and postage alone is an absolute minimum of
10c apiece; a hundred thousand would be $10,000. Now, suppose you
get two thousand orders, and you make $2, at the most, on the book;
that's only $4000. But the minimum advertising cost is ten.

But the photographer working with the dealer (now Lee Witkin
in New York is my agent there and Carl Siembab in Boston, and 831
Gallery near Detroit, and the Focus Gallery in San Francisco) they
work on another basis. They show prints at an exhibit, and they
have prints on hand and they sell them, almost always on a 40 percent
commission basis, like a book. The average of the book sales profit
was about 5 1/2 percent seven years ago. The publisher's profit was
a little bit higher, nearly 6 percent. So you see it is a very
close thing.

If I just wanted to sell my photographs myself, I could get a
big mailing list, and I could announce portfolios, and I imagine 1
could sell a great deal directly. But the cost of doing it would
still be a minimum of 25 percent, because I'd have to hire somebody
to help. I'm not going to write all those letters. So the direct
sale may be an illusion too.

A painter is in a little different situation. O'Keeffe has
given up any gallery. She just lives in New Mexico and paints.
People come and write or ask for appointments to see her, and
they'll consider the matter for two or three months, and finally
they'll like a painting and, "Well, all right," she will condescend
to sell them a painting. And a painting is $15,000 to $50,000 so
you know she does not have to do many in a year! That's a little
different world, because your production effort is way down (and
your fame way up!).

But the whole idea of associations and groups and sales, it
sounds commercial for somebody who's supposed to be an artist, but
still, these are the realities. And a great many very fine artists


Adams: in photography are having a terrible time because they don't face

the reality of just the cost of getting their work out to the people.
Edward Weston nearly starved to death. You know, he never made any
money at all. He was doing very well when he was a portrait
photographer in Glendale in the 1920s, but when he gave up that work
and went into purely creative work, he had a very tough time most of
his life. And it was so stupid, because getting the right agent,
Edward could have made quite a little bit of money and been
comfortable. I don't say he'd have been or wanted to be rich.

Teiser: He was just against the idea?

Adams: He was against the idea, but not on a very logical basis. For him
"business" was associated with prostitution. I always used to kid
him. I said, "Are you really against prostitution, or maybe you
don't like prostitution because it reminds you of business."

Teiser: Would you tell again about your gold pagoda?

Adams: Oh, the gold pagoda. I often get honors and awards and things. I
got the progress medal from PSA. But before that, Nikon, the
Japanese camera company, gave an achievement award, and they picked
me out and I got my temple [laughter], which is a very nice model.
It's a trophy. Of course, it's much better than the average golf
trophy you see on businessmen's desks. Nothing in the world is
designed more terribly than the average trophy. Anyway, the
temple is very nice.

I think I also mentioned something about the trials of working
on Life special assignments. I did a big story on begonias
worked for months on a sixteen-page color insert. And it really
came out very beautifully. It's a very difficult thing to photograph
begonias in a greenhouse because you have to control the color
sensitivity of the film, that is, control the light with filters.
And these were 8 by 10s, some of them really pretty spectacular
and the people at Life were crazy about it. Everything was fine,
and I understand they printed it all; then something happened and
it wasn't used. They finally redid several pages in color and a
small text, but the main section was printed and then discarded
because there wasn't economic space for it. And this is a
continuing editorial burden which I think we have to face in
journalism. If a budget has so much money for pictures and
printing and they just spend it, they don't worry about it. If they
do something and it costs them $25,000 or $50,000 or $100,000 and
something comes up that's more important, they just junk it.

Teiser: Yes, in a news magazine it must be


Adams: Yes, perplexing. And covers. Time will have several covers
prepared relating to impending events. Then they'll pick the
appropriate cover. And the artist is paid a fee and then gets so
much for the cover in addition to the fee if it's used. But I think
Time at one time had five covers holding for a couple of weeks the
election, the war, etc. And they have to be all ready. These things
are commissioned, and when they're out of date, they're just

Teiser: You said that now Bill Turnage has been getting you so much work
that you can't do it all.

Adams: Yes. Turnage is really doing extremely well by me, but he's doing
a little bit more than I can handle. I have to watch things very
carefully. Because now today I was doing some printing for the San
Francisco show. I really am tired at the end of the day, and I
think I made only four prints four or five prints of each, while
I am at it.

Teiser: How many hours in the darkroom does that represent?

Adams: Oh, that's about six in the darkoom. But I mean four separate

subjects; when I once get the good print, then I make four or five
copies so I have them for other exhibits too. But a couple of them
usually have to be done over.

Sometimes things go extremely fast. The other day I was making
big prints, and it went very fine. The day before that I had real
trouble. Then you have what is called a "dirty negative" the
negative has been damaged or gone through a fire, etc. With an 8 by
10 print it's fine; get them up to 16 by 20 and you begin to see all
the little defects, which have to be very carefully spotted.


Teiser: You're going to take us on a tour of your darkroom

Adams: I could probably preface it a little bit by the history of my

darkrooms. I had a little darkroom in the family house, a room that
the Chinese cook used to occupy. We cut a hole in the wall and I
had a daylight enlarger an old 8 by 10 camera with enlarging film
holder, and outside was a great big aluminum reflector that pointed
up to the sky, and a diffusing screen. And it really was beautiful
light; daylight's handsome enlarging light. But unfortunately San
Francisco has a variation of weather, and the fog would come in and
my exposure would drop down terrifically, or the sun would hit the


Adams :

Adams :

Adams :

reflector and I'd be in trouble. Then early in the day and late in
the afternoon the exposure changes, so I had no set exposure at all.
All the Taos book [Taos Pueblo] enlargements were made in daylight.
Which is a thing that I think I hadn't mentioned before; I remember
that. And I'd work after 10:00 a.m. 10:00 to 3:00. I loved a
nice consistent heavy foggy day because it stayed at the same light
value. But storm days and sunny days with the sun coming through
trees and fog and producing changing light were pretty bad.

Well, then I got an enlarger with two Cooper-Hewitt M tubes in
it. Used the same enlarger but added the light. And I guess the
electrician didn't know what he was doing, because the tubes
resonated in phase and would break. Then I had to wipe up mercury
all over the place. Why I didn't die of mercury poisoning I don't
know. I must have gone through eight M tubes. The tubes are
rather widely separated. We put one tube back of the other, but
they "resonated." Then I had a mercury-argon 5-millimeter tube in
a big fourteen-inch grid, and a twenty- thousand-volt transformer.
That was simply marvelous light. I used that for many, many years.

Then when I came down here, I decided I'd go to tungsten light.
You can see the enlarger with thirty-six lamps in it, each one on a
switch. So now I have an enlarging-light control that I didn't have
before. I can dodge now directly. Also, this light is very fast.
The other one wasn't too fast.

That's the principle that used to be used in contact printers?

Yes, with contact printing we turn on and off lights in the box.
I turn on and off the enlarging lights at the back of the enlarger.

Was this your own invention?

Not an invention. It's just an adaptation of a principle.

Has anyone ever had an enlarger like that before?

Not that I know of. That's very funny; I don't know of one.
There's no reason why there shouldn't be. The point is to cross-
wire, so that if you look at the sky in the upper right hand of the
negative, and wish to give it less light, you operate the light
switch which is in the upper right-hand area of the panel. If
your lights are cross-wired, you then operate the light in the lower
left area. Sometimes I'll have sixteen lights off.

Well, after the little darkroom I invaded the family basement
and built a darkroom about twenty-eight feet long (it's just about
the same as this one in Carmel) and had vertical tracks for the big
enlarger. I made big prints a lot of big images for Yosemite


Adams: using big wooden trays. Used to develop by laying them out flat.
Now we develop them by rolling in deep narrow trays.

Teiser: Did you use gallons of black substance called Probus paint?

Adams: That's what we used, but that is pretty bad photographically; it

will cause fog. Now I use fiberglass. Of course, nothing's better
than stainless steel. It costs two or three times as much in the
beginning, but it lasts forever. I wish I'd had all my sinks done
in stainless steel. That would have cost something like $700. Now
I've spent $300 just getting the present sinks repainted and fixed
up, and that will happen again in a few years. So stainless steel
would have been the best choice.

When they first came out with metal tanks, etc., they had
monel metal, which preceded stainless. Then they had ordinary
stainless, and that doesn't react well with some photographic acids,
so they made what they call the 818 type. Now there's a new one
that's even a little more resistant to stain. The Calumet Corpora
tion makes marvelous sets of tanks and trays and equipment
beautiful steel. It's not cheap but it's certainly top stuff.

When I moved down here, Mr. [Adolph] Gasser came from San
Francisco and laid the rails for the enlarger and set them to a
high degree of accuracy with a theodolite. You know how that is
used, for getting elevations. You lay down a track, and then start
with one end and put a mark on a post. Then you move the post down
the rail; if it sags, you support and then secure the rail, getting
exactly the same height over all. It's about the only way in which
you can get such things really right. You can with a level, I
presume, but it would be rather tricky.

Before coming down here from San Francisco, I had the difficult
problem of keeping my negatives in the vault of the Bank of
California, because the house wasn't fireproof. So when I'd start
to print I'd have to go downtown to the bank, get into the safe
deposit, get into the storeroom, pick out the negatives, come home,
find I'd forgotten one, go back againl It wasn't too expensive
about $40 a month for storage and service and the negatives were

So then, part of the plan of this house included a fireproof
vault. We have one that's built right into the rock. It is really
a bomb-shelter design ten inches of thick concrete. If there's a
big fire and the house should burn, the vault would still be cool.
But anything can burn that's wood, and it's not right to have
negatives as prize possessions in a frame house.

I have, for me, an extremely efficient darkroom. It's bigger
than I would have if I didn't make large prints.


Teiser: You also have an adjacent room with finishing equipment in it, a
room between the darkroom and the gallery room.

Adams: Well, the original design of the house was that this darkroom would
lead into that workroom, which is for mounting and densitometers
you know, the general area. Then there's "pass-through" storage,
which is back of those black doors in the gallery; it leads into
the workroom. Theoretically, you can pass things through to the
gallery across those four-foot shelves. They lead right into the
workroom. I'm the only thing and the cat that's ever really
passed through. But anyway, the principle is there. That and the
garage and the study space and the vault is about half the space
of the house and can be written off professionally as such. Has
been so far.

Darkroom Tour

[Darkroom tour follows. Taped while walking through the work areas.]

Adams: Well, if you want to go in the darkroom first, I can describe some
of its points. The average darkroom, of course, should be air
conditioned, but in this climate, we don't need it. We have fans.
The sound you're probably getting now [on the tape] is the drum
washer, washing the smaller prints. And they're about ready to come
out a second batch.

This is the big enlarger, and it has, of course, a cooler
blower which is terribly important because the amount of heat
without heat-absorbing glass is very high. I use 130-volt lamps.
Ordinary 115-volt lamps would wear out much quicker when the power
is increased. We use a 24-inch Goerz Artar Tessar lens for most
enlarging. The enlarger moves on a track, by hand power, but the
magnetic easel (the paper is held on with magnets) is motorized.
My friend made me a metal strip guide for the big prints. I can
place the pipe at several levels, put the roll on it, pull the paper
down to the desired length, and secure it with big magnets at the
bottom. Then I just set the guide across the top under the roll and
cut right across.

Teiser: That's a straight-edge?

Adams: Yes. Well, it's a T-square straight-edge, and it has an edge guide.

This other enlarger is very fine; it has a very special and
remarkable light called the Code Light, made by the Ferrante brothers
in Los Angeles. I use it for variable contrast paper. There are two


Adams: tubes one is for soft contrast, and the other for hard. When we use
the green light only we simulate a soft, number one paper. With the
same amount of green and blue light, the soft and hard get a number
two paper contrast. With the blue light only we get a number four
paper contrast. So you have an infinite variation of contrasts
using these two dials.

And then we have a third, hard light to use only for graded
paper. The graded paper is not sensitive to the green light. This
enlarger can be turned horizontally and project on to the large
vertical easel, making possible big prints from small negatives.
I use a ten-inch process lens for that as a rule. The longer the
focal length used, the straighter the rays and the more sharpness
you get from small negatives.

Teiser: The source of this Code Light is above the negative?

Adams: Yes. And the substance in the tubes puts out light of the same color,
independent of the intensity of light going through it. The grid
(this is built with a special head) is a little larger than usual,
and completely covers the negative. And of course the enlarger moves
up and down by motor. The transformers are in the console.

My friend Dick Julian made me a metronome; you see, it's an
electronic timer. I don't have a voltage-control machine because it
would have to be very large for the big enlarger, also would be very
expensive. But this timer is a computer: as the voltage drops, the
intervals increase; as the voltage rises, the intervals shorten. If
I want a ten-second exposure, I just count ten. Sometimes the
"second" may be a second and a quarter, or maybe even less it varies
according to the amount of voltage. The intensity of the light
changes least with the fluorescent tubes, and greater with tungsten
lamps in the 8 by 10 enlarger.

And this device is a "target." (I'll turn it on for you.) Each
one of those illuminated squares is one zone apart, or is twice as
bright as the one below it. So, in photographing that, I get four
exposure zones at once. I can photograph Zones I, II, III, IV.
Then I can take another picture Zones IV, V, VI, VII, or VII, VIII,
IX, X overlaps show any discrepancies in the shutter. It takes a
little while for this target to heat up and reach standard intensity.

Teiser: You use that for ?

Adams: Testing film. Find out what the film speed is and what the threshold
is and what optimum development times will be. When I get a new film
I must find out many things. "If I expose on Zone IV, how much more
development do I have to give to get density five?" The Zone System
controls help me in field work.


Adams: The rest of the darkroom is very simple; any normal good black and

white darkroom would be like this. Color labs are much more complex.

My friend also made me this electronic counter, which, as you
notice when I press this button, goes right back to and begins to
count seconds.

Teiser: The digits are lighted in red so that they don't

Adams: Well, I can get it up quite bright when printing, or when I'm doing
film in the dark I can bring it down to very low intensity. There
isn't any fog danger it pushes back on the shelf out of sight.
It's an extremely handy device. It just keeps going; it doesn't do
anything special. But this is the most convenient and handy thing
I can imagine. I can use it in any operation.

Teiser: That's made by the same fellow who made the metronome computer?

Adams: Yes. He's a fine photographer, and an electronic engineer with
Hughes Corporation.

The big sinks are used for this one especially for laying
out the big enlargements to look at. All that equipment (washers,
etc.) comes out.

Teiser: You mentioned, I think, the largest size paper you can handle.

Adams: Oh, I can go up to seventy-eight inches in length, with a forty-inch

Then the drying racks plastic screens are very practical.
Every once in a while, when it's a warm day, we take them out and
hose them off to assure chemical cleanness.

This is one of the photographs I was doing today a 1929 eagle
dance. It's for the new Southwest book.

Teiser: How wonderful.

Adams: It still has a certain "feeling."

Oh, I might say that the darkroom is completely controlled by
this one switch, and it's on a relay. You can hear it 7500 watts
in there, and I have to have a big positive switch for safety.

Teiser: No more fires. We're now in the workroom.

Adams: This is a big dry mounting press, mounting prints by heat. And this
is the tacking iron, a little device to tack the tissue to the mount.
And this is really a printer's trimmer, which is a very accurate


Adams: one important because a lot of photographic trimmers aren't really
good and don't cut a clean edge.

Then I have two densitometers. This is a reflection densi-
tometer that measures the reflection density of prints, the scale
from black to white. This is the probe, and you just put this on
the print and depress it, and this gives you the percentage of
reflection, or the reflection density on the dial.

And this is the diffuse transmission densitometer, with the
read-out numbers. These are read-out numbers like the darkroom
timer, so when you depress it gently on the negative the density
shows in digital log numbers. This is a very valuable device.
This is where you measure the densities of your negative. Density
is usually given in log^ values. It's just a convention; it could
be arithmetic, but it's always been put in terms of logs: 0.0 is 1,
1.0 is 10, 2.0 is 100, etc. You have to get used to that sequence.

Teiser: These are shelves on the wall that separates this room from the

Adams: Yes. There's no pass-through here, there's just my paper. I have
to have a lot of paper on hand, because I never know what I'm going
to use. It looks like an imposing stock, but it's better to have
more than less when you really need it.

And then there's the Polaroid MP3 copy camera, a very handy

So I can do a lot of work here. Then there's this garage,
which we now use for packing no cars any more storage and stuff.
It may be an office some day. Then what is known as a study, which
is in even greater shambles than usual. And this leads outside and
you can see the negative storage vault out there. It's just a
concrete cube mostly filled with metal cases with negatives in

So, you see, the circulation is such that we can really get a
lot of work done. But at the moment I'm trying to get things set
so it will all be clean and neat by tomorrow when we leave.

Now, the negative catalogues for instance, this is [the
catalogue for] the Yosemite book. This isn't the original but a
duplicate. Well, I've got them all filed in a code. For instance,
you have Yosemite, and 1Y would be an 8 by 10 of Yosemite "1"
meaning 8 by 10, "Y" meaning Yosemite. "3" is 5 by 7; "4" is 4 by 5;
"5" is 3 1/4 by 4 1/4; "6" is Hasselblad size, 2 1/4 by 2 1/4, etc.

Teiser: Is this a system you established long ago and have kept in use?


Adams: Yes. They're not cross-referenced. They have to be cross-
referenced some time, however.

Teiser: Here on your study wall are many, many awards.
Adams: Well, this is what we call "professional wall paper."
Teiser: Very impressive.

Adams: Well, they gave me a special citation from the American Institute
of Architects that I went to Detroit for. And then the Northern
California chapter [of the AIA] . Then I had oh, Fred Farr got me
a senate resolution. And the membership scroll from the American
Academy of Arts and Sciences. And I don't remember all of them
Governor Brown had some special citation. Stuart Udall gave me the
Conservation Award. I have the John Muir Award from the Sierra Club.
And five honorary degrees that should be enough!

The gallery the black wall is primarily to cut glare, because
when we're spotting or working here, we don't get any reflections
from black walls. The gray wall is a 20 percent gray, and the
panels are about 12 percent. Now, the total environmental reflection,
if you stand and look at the pictures, would be about 20 percent. And
the pictures should look their optimum value. If the room were white,
the pictures would look too dark; if the room were dark like that
black wall, the pictures would look too bright. In other words, if
you put a picture against this black wall, you get a totally
different emotional effect from it.

Teiser: What about the mounts?

Adams: Well, the mounts balance out, you see. The mounts in the darker
panels strike a sort of approximate balance, so the whole

Online LibraryAnsel AdamsConversations with Ansel Adams : oral history transcript / 1972-1975 → online text (page 57 of 76)