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

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environment remains about 20, 18 percent, actually, the geometric
mean of photographic reflection density values. That is, the
reflection density range of the print which is, say, 0.08 up to
about 2.0 +, and the geometric mean is about 0.7 or value 5. The
eye seems to respond logically to that. It doesn't make much
difference what color you use, providing it's about of that value.
You could have greens or blues, reds I wouldn't like too much color
for myself. When you have very brilliant colors on the wall, like
those yellow boxes, for instance, it's terrible. A lot of people do
that to walls, and photographs look awful on them.

Well, I don't think there's anything else. A lot of people
think the darkroom is super-elaborate, but it really isn't. If I
were doing color photography, I would be trapped with more compli
cated processing stuff, like nitrogen bursts for agitation, and all
kinds of printing controls. Thank goodness I'm not doing color!


Teiser :

Adams :


I think you mentioned on another tape, but let's put it on this,
that there's humidity control in the negative storage building.

Oh yes. Film, if kept in high humidity conditions, may become
hygroscopic and absorb moisture, and any adhesive in the envelopes
may cause trouble. A lot of Edward Weston's pictures had a blue
streak down the back stained, from what they call the "hygroscopic"
effect from the center-line glue on the envelope.

Then in high humidity, plus heat, you have fungus problems.
If you keep your humidity between 40 and 50, that's normal and
that's about the best for film. If you go lower than that, the
film gets brittle, and it's especially true with movie film. (They
found to their sorrow if they had a very low humidity, the film
would just break.) So the temperature in my vault runs rarely up
to 70, never gets more in hot weather, and the humidity holds
around 45 percent.

Is there an alarm system on your dehumidif ier?

No, it will just stop when the humidity reaches the optimum. The
humidity here isn't extreme. The Westons keep all their father's
negatives and their own without himudity control, but I still
wouldn't especially with older film, nitrate base.

You see, nitrate base is really a form of nitroglycerin. When
it becomes soggy, absorbs water, it can become really very dangerous.
That's the reason for the great tragedy that happened at the
Cleveland Clinic x-ray department the film burned with a near
explosion. Kodak came out in the 1940s with what I believe is called
acetate base well, it'll burn, but only if you put it in the
fireplace and stoke it. Then they have the new film material called
"Estar," which is a plastic of very high dimensional stability,
giving very little film shrinkage. Some of my old 8 by 10s are a
quarter inch less in dimension on each side; they've just shrunk!
The older films are extremely inflammable. In other words, if I
were to light a match to one it would go up with a "poof." But
they're kept in separate envelopes, in folders, and there's no danger.
If I had a bad fire in the vault and a lot of heat, they probably
would go. But there are not many of them.

There was a very nice woman here in Carmel Mrs. Valeceritos who'd
do quite fantastic things. She'd make a photograph of a natural
shape, or sculpture, and then she would subject her negative to hot
water. The gelatin would flow, and she'd develop these rather
fantastic patterns. And she really controlled it very beautifully.
Then the new films came out with synthetic gelatin, etc., that doesn't
melt, and she couldn't get them to flow!



I wonder how many art forms are lost because of such accidents of

Adams: That was really quite a blow to her.

Harroun: About how many negatives do you have in the vault?

Adams: Oh, it's somewhere between twenty-seven and thirty thousand. A lot
that aren't catalogued and a lot that relate just to historical
values. A lot that probably relate to trials and tests. One-half
of them probably have no real value. Then there's a certain number
that have very considerable historic value, especially the way the
Sierra looked fifty years ago. And then there's the creative work,
which is something else. But, it's surprising what you collect
over the years, and what you keep. You don't want to throw anything
away I

The other day I went through a lot of stuff and threw away two
big wastepaper baskets full of old negatives and tests and things
that have no possible value to anybody. Like an old commercial job
or something, such as a picture of a shirt!

My first commercial job was the Boudin Bakery, of which I took
the interior. It was a very nice little architectural design. Then
I rephotographed the sign over it. It's double-exposure, very
European, very modern in 1931. I kept that, because that has both
creative and historic value.

Formulas and Procedures

Teiser: We're continuing now after having completed the darkroom tour.

Are there any other things that you think of now that you feel
we should have discussed?

Adams: No, I don't think so. I think the basis of my work, of course, is
a maximum of simplicity. I mean, I don't use any more systems or
methods than I have to. At present I'm using Kodak HC 110 developer
for the negatives and Dektol for the prints. Occasionally I use for
prints what is known as Selectol Soft, which is really a surface
developer and can be made up from Ansco 120, or Beers A formula,
which is just Metol sodium sulphite and sodium carbonate. A lot of
people have worshiped Amidol; I never can use it. It's too potent
a developer for the type of papers we have now.


Adams: There's always a discussion about negative developers. You know,
everybody has their pets. But it's surprising how similar most of
them are. Then I use always a weak acid short stop between
developer and fixing bath, and I prefer Kodak's F6 fixing bath
formula, which contains a buffer, a balanced alkali which cuts down
the smell of the acid a great deal. It keeps the fixing solution at
a consistent acid pH.

I don't use quick fix; I don't like it. It's not necessary,
and I think it's harmful, because it has very potent action. If
you're doing "fast" stuff, as they say, you might save a minute.
So what?

All my fine prints are toned. They're first given a second
hypo bath, then they go into a hypo-clearing solution with selenium,
then into a plain hypo-clearing solution, and then a rinse and wash.
It's really very archival. The prints should last forever.

The prints you saw washing in there now are not toned, they've
just had the first fixing. But they will be thoroughly washed and
dried, and in about two or three weeks I'll be able to tone them.

Teiser: Is it necessary to wait that long?

Adams: No, but I have no way to do it now. It takes too long. I'd rather
look at them and figure out, "Did I do it right, or didn't I?" and
throw away the ones that aren't right, because some are pretty
complicated. And then tone the best ones?

Teiser: I was reading an article on Paul Strand which said that sometimes he
used gold toner and sometimes he used selenium toner, and he didn't
know why he used which.

Adams: Well, Ansco once put out Flemish gold toner, which is nothing but a
selenium formula. A real gold toner like the Kodak gold protective
solution gives a bluish cast. It makes the prints very permanent.
And then there's the Nelson gold toner, which is really a silver
nitrate formula. And the ordinary sulphide toners, where you bleach
out the silver and reconstitute it in silver sulphide, giving what I
call "the egg yolk sepia," the ordinary brown tone that you see
rather ghastly. Then there's the Kodak brown toner and the poly
toner. Selenium seems to be the best. It gives a cool color, not a
yellow sulphide tone. No matter whether the print shows the color or
not, if it's subjected to a selenium toner it does have permanency.
I mount my fine prints with dry mounting on rag boards. Then we spot
them inevitable, because of all the dust specks and the physical
defects that occur.

Teiser: Do you tone prints for reproduction?


Adams :


Adams :


Adams :

Adams :

No. Only for permanency. In fact, it adds to the density. Well,
I made some pictures the other day of a Clarence Kennedy negative
I'm going to make for reproduction, and I sent them to the engraver,
and I said, "Now, the color is slightly warm, and I can correct this
by putting it through a gold toner gold protective solution, to be
exact." But the trouble is, it would increase the density; it would
make the blacks blacker a richer tone. And that would probably
take it beyond the range of the engraving film. So he said, "No.
It's perfect the way it is. Leave it alone."

The whole process of reproduction is to get a print that does
not exceed the exposure range, if you want to use that term, of the
reproducing materials. You see, if you have a print the average
bright print that we make today up to 2.0 density range you can't
hold it in the engraving film. The blacks or the whites are going
to suffer. The two-plate offset printing system does give you a
little more range. One overlaps the other in favor of the whites
and blacks. But still, you have to keep your print down to not
more than 1.5 density range. Whereas, the prints you look at could
be 2.0 and higher. 1.5 would be roughly one to thirty-five arithmetic;
1.7 represents around 50 percent.

Will you have good control over the reproduction of the plates in
the second volume of The Eloquent Light?

It all depends who prints it. If it's to be printed by Rappaport
in the East, or George Waters out here, I won't worry at all. If
it's printed by somebody that doesn't know me, and I don't know
them, all kinds of things could happen.

I suppose the choice of the printer partly depends upon the economics
of the situation.

That's the trouble. It isn't so much the printer as the economics!
Here we have a book of so many pages and in such a size, and you
can't spend more than $2 on it because it should be a $10 book, or
you can't spend more than $5 because it's going to be a $25 book.
Then, what can you do with two hundred pages in this format? And
you'd like to have two-plate offset with varnish. Chances are you
can't. Raise it to $6.50, then you have to multiply that by five,
so there you have a $35 book. And so it goes!

Were you satisfied with the reproduction of volume one?

Fair. I think today they can do much better with the offset.

You were discussing the possibility of paperback editions,
reduce the size, would it be adequate?

If you


Adams: Well, what happens is very interesting. You take [Eliot] Porter's
book by Thoreau, In Wildness, and that was reduced directly from
the original color separations. They reduced the screen to about
350 lines per inch, and got a quite beautiful effect with offset.
You couldn't possibly do that with the letterpress process.

So in setting up my book, we're going to keep this in mind, as
we'll probably reduce it down to three-fifths or two-thirds original
size. And that means, then, that we can't have tiny footnotes in
the text because they would become unreadable. If you have to
change that, that means stripping in another type block. It can
throw the book out of balance. So it's much better to design it
for size ahead of time. Although This is the American Earth and the
Wildness book and others have really come out very well by direct
reproduction. But that could not be done any other way but offset,
because if you're going to reproduce half-tone like that, your
metal dots would be so weak they could not hold up. They are like
a little mushroom on a stem, you see, and you get down to a delicate
spider web of metal, and it wouldn't work in the press.

[End Tape 23, Side 2]


Early Aesthetic Impact of Yosemite

[Interview XX (Sierra Club Interview I) 16 July 1972]
[Begin Tape 24, Side 1]

Adams: I was very young fourteen when I went to Yosemite. The idea of
conservation had never entered my head. I knew about John Muir
and I remember reading about his death in 1914, I think it was,
before Christmas. I remember the headline in the paper, "John Muir
Dies," and to me he was a naturalist and a writer. But conservation
as such developments in environmentalism and ecology was
absolutely an unknown quantity.

My father came home from Washington one time and saw that they
had cleaned out all those beautiful little oak trees in Lobos Creek,
in San Francisco. It was a great loss, and we were all upset about
it. He was very much upset about it. And this was a real sense of
loss. But, you see, at that time there was so much wilderness and
so many wild places that it wasn't as it is today. The Hutchings
book, In the Heart of the Sierra, was a very intriguing guidebook
and showed a lot of wonders and curiosities.

Now, the National Park Service was really established with the
setting aside of Yellowstone I think pretty much on the curiosity
curio attitude. In other words, it didn't have any of the quality
of Wordsworth's nature adoration, which was almost a form of English
pantheism. The Greeks got by very nicely by giving personalities to
everything. And who was it? Ruskin? who spoke of the "pathetic
fallacy" I think it was Ruskin; I'm not enough of a scholar to
remember. And this pathetic fallacy was the imputation of human
traits to inanimate objects. Maybe you can give a more precise
definition than that. But it is a very difficult philosophical
point. And most of the aestheticians I've known, people like
Stephen Pepper, who was a wonderful man, and others, were wrestling
with this problem of why the natural scene is so important. Are we
involving ourselves in a pantheistic approach? Are we escaping?
What are we doing? Because nature is not aesthetic. Nature may
evoke emotional reactions.

The aesthetics of art and the quality of beauty is meant as a
human trait. Maynard Dixon and I used to have great arguments about
the Indian's level of appreciation. The Indian probably saw Monument
Valley very differently than we did. For instance, he saw it as a
home. And of course there was an endearing quality to that
particular landscape. And then these great natural features
acquired a religious significance; I think that that is perfectly
logical, and I think that is very important.


Adams: But we come along and we look at a certain view down a canyon, and
we have a semipossessory sense about it, and we say, "How beautiful
this is, and how wonderful this is! It's mine!" In my later years
of flying across the Sierra at thirty-eight thousand feet, you look
down on the Sierra Nevada of your youth, where you spent six weeks
going a relatively small distance with donkeys, and the whole thing
looks like God has stumbled on a cosmic rug, you know. It's just a
matter of ruffles. [Laughter]

The vaster world appears, and things become symbols. And a
lot of my friends in the East think I'm slightly fey the ones who
climb mountains understand. That's a challenge. It's like those
ridiculous rock-climbing events that have developed in Yosemite,
drilling holes in the rock. To me that's nothing but engineering,
and I can't see where it is justified. It's a hazardous challenge
but nothing drastic has happened yet. I mean, they do it very well,
but it isn't like the real climbing; pitting yourself against the
situation and protecting yourself with a logical technique and
occasionally putting in a piton, which is called an artificial aid.
(It's a spike driven in rock cracks and you run the rope through it.)
That to me seems to be about the limit of what you can ethically do
and still say you're climbing a mountain. But when you drill holes
in the rock and put in expansion bolts, that doesn't seem to me to
be a fair well, it's like shooting game from a helicopter. The
game has absolutely no chance.

But anyway, to get back to the early days when I went up there.*
When I got to Yosemite first, it was entirely without any awareness
of need of protection. I didn't know the difference between the
national park and the national forest, and these things hit me as
they do any number of people with tremendous impact. And I hadn't
been prepared. I guess I just responded to the natural qualities
from the very beginning. That is, the details in the rocks and the
presence of little things on the trails. I might say that such
appreciation and indulgence requires a very good physique. People
forget that you cannot climb mountains and pack heavy loads around
and really explore wilderness unless you are in what would be
called reasonably good physical condition or training. A vast
number of people in this country are not trained at all in that
sense. In fact, we're at a very weak level of physical capacity
now. The farm people and miners and such people, of course, always
worked hard, but they never had much interest in the outdoors,
except hunting and fishing. It all gets very involved.

*For a previous discussion of early experiences in the Sierra, see
pp. 227-252.


Adams: In trying to figure out why this impact is strong, I would think
about it all as music, and a rather romantic experience in
literature, and living around nature, like at Bakers Beach and
the Marin Hills and the Santa Cruz Mountains. I mean, I was
definitely not a child of the ghetto. So all of this seems to tie
in, but it would be frightfully difficult to give it a true
philosophic description.

If I went to a philosophic psychiatrist and tried to analyze
now just what were my reactions what, even, are my reactions
today it would be a difficult thing to explain, because for most
of my life the enjoyment of nature has been a by-product of
affluence of some kind. I don't mean physical wealth, but being
able to live in the out-of-doors and do somewhat what you want.
Money did not necessarily enter into it, although to go on a Sierra
Club outing, you had to have some money, and you had to have some
equipment. But it was the young people, when I was just a kid,
that were living on practically nothing and being sort of super-
hippies. I don't see very much difference except that there
weren't any drugs around, but they needed baths as much as the
present ones do.

So this particular contact with the out-of-doors is, in a
sense, a feeling of meeting a challenge and a physical, or in my
case, I guess, a kind of emotional challenge. It's awfully hard to
describe, and I hope that I don't ramble too much on the tape.

There are certain terms you can use; I guess "revelation" or
"a sudden experience." We all get that in the arts, with a great
painting or hearing a great concert. I remember my first trip in
the high country. Mr. Holman and Miss Smith and Admiral Pond and
his daughter Bessie and two donkeys we left Yosemite and went up
to Merced Lake Trail. Went all the way to Merced Lake. I was
absolutely exhausted. It was raining. We'd just get tantalizing
glimpses of mountains. The first time I'd ever slept out on the
ground. And Bessie Pond and the Admiral were very kind to me, and
they showed me how to fix the bed and cut off some pine boughs to
sleep on, which you wouldn't think of doing today. (That would be
terrible.) That was the way we made beds. There were plenty of
plants and trees around!

And then it rained a little that night, and I remember
rivulets going in the sleeping bag down my neck. And then it
cleared up and I remember Bessie Pond and Admiral Pond we were
all lying out on this meadow. And Bessie said, "Oh, look at the
stars!" and that was the first time I'd ever seen stars so
absolutely bright. This was at seven thousand feet. And that again
was a primal experience. It was just an amazing thing.


Adams: And then in the morning at dawn I got up and, along with everybody
else, climbed up a long tongue of granite on the north. And at
sunrise we saw the big crags under Mount Clark (which are really
not big at all) looked very spectacular in the sunrise light. And
the absolutely pure air and clean dawn wind and the glowing sunrise
on these warm-toned peaks, and the sound of the river and the
waterfall the whole thing created an impact which was quite over
powering. I've never been able to put that particular experience
in a photograph because it was so complex in so many ways. I don't
know if I'm making sense with this. But this was the very first
great High Sierra experience. That whole trip was just one fine
experience after another. That was 1917.

So we all stayed three weeks, and I wrote to my mother and
said, "Well, I have to go back; this is it." And she was very good
about it. My father was wonderful about it. But the idea of me
going off and spending two or three months in the mountains, to my
mother was quite a hazard. And when I got doing more and more
photography, and finally decided I'm going to be a photographer,
she was very much upset. "You're not going to be just a photographer,
are you?" She was thinking of me being a musician, because
photography was not known as an art by people of her age and type.
If anything, it was something down on Fillmore Street where you'd
go and get a family portrait for a few dollars!

So this was very complex. In 1917, then 1918 and 1919, I made
many, many trips with Frank Holman and friends an old farmer, Mr.
Schu, and Mr. Lewis, who was a farmer and a very fine gentleman
from near Lodi real down-to-earth people and then a few professors.
Went all over Yosemite Park, and it was sometimes rather arduous
trips, because Mr. Holman being of New England extraction and a
severe disciplinarian, we'd get up before dawn and would cook dinner
after sunset. We would travell Often we'd stay in one area and
travel around and explore.

"Some Wild Experiences"

Adams: We had some wild experiences, like climbing the gorge just southeast
of Lake Washburn. We knew there was a chock stone in it; we didn't
know there were three I A chock stone is a big boulder that's
wedged in a crack or gorge, and if you can't climb under it you have
to climb around it. That was probably the most hazardous single
thing I did, because we only had window cord to secure us. When
I got to the top of this gorge I was a very happy and relieved
person, and so was Mr. Holman. Because after going over the second
chock stone, there was no going back. We weren't trained climbers


Adams: and were using this cord, without any technique. If we'd fallen on
the window cord, we'd have been cut in two I And the gorge was very
steep, so when you were climbing up the wall to get around the last
big boulder (as big as this room) , you were exposed to about a three-
hundred-foot drop.

There were lots of experiences like that. I remember getting
within two hundred feet of the top of Rodgers Peak, and I sat down
on a big piece of slate, bigger than this rug, and the whole thing
started to slide, and it slid for about fifteen feet with me sitting
on it. Mr. Holman was white as a sheet. It stopped. Mr. Holman
says, "I think we'd better go home now. We're all a bit too tired."
The top was very craggy at nearly thirteen thousand feet, and we had
no equipment for climbing. It's terribly rough country, and getting
back at eight o'clock at night and having to cook, then stake the
donkey out again such were tough times I Someone said the "good
old times" are the product of a poor memory. [Laughter] I think
I've had some of that too, because we really went through some real
physical agonies in the high mountains.

I remember the Lyell fork of the Merced and going to get water
one evening after a clearing thunderstorm the winds had come up and
it was really pretty cold. I went to the river to get water, the
bank gave way, and I fell right into the very cold river up to my
neck. Well, it's icy water, but getting out with the wind blowing
and getting out of these soaking wet clothes and not much firewood
and trying to build a fire and get something organized is much
worse I I didn't get pneumonia.

But I can inject a rather humorous event. Mr. Holman decided
that we had been rather uncivilized gone on all these trips and
slept in our clothes* He was going to be a gentleman again no
reason why he shouldn't. He had a nightgown. He was going to
completely disrobe, put on this nightgown and be civilized. And
he hung his clothes on the willow branches (it was up at Young
Lake in October). I wasn't inclined to that at all. I put on a
jacket, put the shoes under my head and climbed in. That night

Online LibraryAnsel AdamsConversations with Ansel Adams : oral history transcript / 1972-1975 → online text (page 58 of 76)