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

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four by five system, this four by five back and the film designed for
it. Now they have quarter-of-a-million-dollar machines, three of
them putting the backs together, and the whole system is going very
well. It is getting an enormous amount of use in science, industry,
microscopy, and creative work. I've had a pretty general experience
with Polaroid! Then just a couple of days ago the new camera now
a whole new system was announced. I must say it is fantastic!

I forgot to mention some Graflexes; I've had several Graflexes
over my life. I have a 3 1/4 by 4 1/4 and two 4 by 5s.

Do you still use those?

Not as much as I'd like, but I often use them with Polaroid,
fairly valuable instruments.


I forgot to mention that in there after the Mirroflex, and after
the Linhof, the first Linhof, I had two Zeiss Juels. I still have
them. They're very handsome cameras, but they don't have many
adjustments. They're more of a folding camera with a revolving back

Then I have also Louise Boyd's aero camera, the five by seven
Fairchild camera that she used in her exploration of Greenland, which
is a rather extraordinary outfit. She got some very interesting
stuff with it. It's big and as heavy as sin, you know.

How did you happen to have her camera?

Oh, we've known her for a long time and she was disposing of her
equipment. I sold quite a few things for her some very elaborate
navigation instruments. These things went rather cheap. They were
not worth much financially, but now they have historic value. And a
set of optical glass filters that are hard to come by now. Grade A
glass, about 1/2 inch thick. Absolutely flat plane.

And then, let's see. What would be the next step? Hasselblad.
I never owned a Rolleiflex. I've had several enlargers. Also the
Polaroid MP-3 camera, an industrial camera.


Teiser: What use do you make of that?

Adams: Well, that's really a copy camera. It's on a stand, with lights,
for copying other pictures or documents, or objects in the round.
And you can use half-tone screens and get screened images on Type 61,
all ready to go for lithography, having an offset plate go to 200-line

I have the usual bunch of tripods and accessories, finders and
lens shades and all that stuff filters, exposure meters, etc. You'd
be surprised what you can collect in a lifetime of photography. My
studio looks like a flea market. And, the trouble is few items have
any real value, but you hate to give them up. I've got filters that
don't fit any camera, but I just hate to let them go. They're
perfectly good filters.

Teiser: How much strobe equipment have you collected?

Adams: I've done very little with artificial light. I've a ColorTran set,
I've a Graflex Stroboflash IV, and I've used it, but I just don't
like artificial light. Now these are the things that I should get
rid of, but if you do that suddenly comes some situation where you
need them.

Like last year, I photographed something and couldn't do it
outside, so I had to use my ColorTran (that's the new halogen lamps).

And I had my cars, with the big platform I transferred from car
to car, and I gave it to my former assistant as a wedding present to
put on her big car.

Photography and Technology

Teiser: After you started making pictures with those first cameras, I assume
the progression was in both your own skill and improved equipment.

Adams: At the very beginning you're just taking images at the diary level,

and I don't think you think at all about it. You see something there
and you want to make a picture of it. Now just the preservation of
what you see is one thing, but the excitement of making a picture
at the lowest level of technique is still an important factor.

The majority of people just work on that basis, and a lot of
cameras are designed to be foolproof so anybody can get a reasonably
bad picture. A lot of these cameras are automatic and you have no
controls. Polaroid has been very generous in that way of thinking
and has produced these automatic cameras with "lighter" and "darker"
controls. You do have some selection of exposure value.


Teiser: Do you remember at all your first consciousness of cause and effect,
of the whole span of the system that you're so very technical about

Adams: I think about my picture of Half Dome, made I think about 1923 or '26.*
I got deeply interested after that and concentrated on visualization
and technique. The techniques don't do you any good at all, unless
you first visualize your picture. It isn't just exposure and
development, looking at a meter and thinking, "I give so much
exposure," etc. You have to "see" the image and must have enough
technique to know what you're doing. A man called me up today from,
I think, Ohio, and he wanted to know how to make a pinhole camera.

Teiser: [Laughter] He had to phone you for that?

Adams: Oh yes, and of course it was perfectly obvious from the beginning
he didn't know the first thing about photography. He wanted to do
color, eleven by fourteen color. Well, you have to tell him that
when you use eleven by fourteen color with a pinhole camera, that's
a problem! His exposure time would be something like two hours, and
the reciprocity effect of the film would be so distorted, as well as
the exposure values increased, that it would probably end up with a
six-hour exposure with filters even more than that and results
couldn't be guaranteed. Well, he hadn't thought of that, you know,
and he had the funniest ideas about the kind of depth of field you'd
get with a pinhole. If you knew the first thing about optics, you'd
know that you don't get any depth of field, you get a transmission
of pencils of light, from all parts of the subject through the
pinhole, and it's a perfectly beautiful "correct" image, but of
course it has chromatic aberration. As you extend your bellows, you
see, your image gets bigger and bigger and bigger, and your exposure
gets longer and longer and longer.

So we had about fifteen minutes of talk on that. It was his
nickel, but it was interesting to me to find out how little some
people know about photography. He said, "How do you know what
exposure to give?" I said, "Well, you have a sixty-fourth of an
inch pinhole, and you have a ten-inch focus extension of the camera,
and there you have f/640." "That small?" "I'm sorry, that's the
two times two equals four principle." [Laughter] You see, here he
was going ahead with his project and he couldn't find any data
anywhere so he calls me up. I'm not an encyclopedia, and there's
many things about pinhole photographs I don't understand, such things
as diffraction and vignetting. But you see, you have to think of
optical and chemical techniques. It's useful to understand complex
ity up to a certain point, and then it does the job that's needed in
photography in the ordinary sense. It's like an iceberg only one
quarter above, and that's all a photographer really has to know.
But the scientist has to know the three-quarters below in order to

*"Monolith, the Face of Half Dome."


Adams: design lenses and make emulsions and papers and evaluate scientific
results. But we don't have to go that far. I don't have to know
the basic theory of the latent image. I console myself by saying,
"Nobody really knows much about it anyway!" but you should see some
of the purely technical works on such subjects!

Teiser: Were you reading technical papers all of the time?

Adams: I couldn't say I was reading truly technical papers. I was reading
books and papers on practical technique, and that's a distinction.
Of course in my early period, 1920s and '30s, very few knew what they
were doing. There were all kinds of contradictions and myths and
hocus-pocus going on. They were doing some of the funniest things
in photography you can imagine. And then the bad thing about
photography literature is that errors have been perpetuated. I've
been guilty of that myself, just assuming that because I see in
somebody's book that I'm pretty sure is an authority, that a certain
developer works a certain way, I repeat that, and then I'm called to
account by an advanced technologist who says, "I'm sorry, but your
statements are passe." Photography is complex and you cannot some
times define the separate actions of materials and processes. For
example, the temperature coefficient of Metol and Hydroquinone in
combination is not the same when they're singly used. And so I have
to correct that in the next edition of my book,* you see. So that's
the way it goes. Actual technical papers are something entirely
different; they relate to basic scientific investigation, and 95
percent of that is beyond me. And I have no need for it.

Teiser: Adolph Gasser said that your technical knowledge was quite profound
and that you often lost him, but of course he's not precisely that
kind of technical man either.

Adams: Oh, no. He's a very fine mechanic, but he's not a photographer.

I was at a scientific meeting, and a man from Kodak laboratories
said, "In spite of all the complex papers, your books, The Negative
and The Print,** give the only completely clear expression of the
process that there is." I said, "Well, there must be " and he said,
"No, there's just a lot of things that you're told to do but
nobody's ever said why it works or how it works or what you can do
to control it." I said, "Well, my work just touches the surface of
technology." "Yes," he said, "but you test it far enough." You
have to make tests and trials of materials in terms of practical
photography. If you went any further than that, you'd be confusing
the general photographer.

*In the Basic Photo book series.
**In the Basic Photo series.

See below and index.


Teiser: How did you ever happen to make the decision (if it was your

decision) to devote so much of your time to writing that technical
series? It must have taken time away from your photography.

Adams: I guess it did. Looking back at it, I did far too much of it. It's
a matter of getting mixed up with galleries and museums, photographic
politics, you know, all those kinds of things. It does take time
and energy, but you seem to have an awful lot of it when you're
younger. I think any professional has an obligation to continue and
support his profession. You take doctors, for instance. A good
doctor has to do a lot of study as well as teaching and convention
work, writing, and reporting. Scientists' reputations really depend
pretty much on what they publish. Some scientists have got three or
four hundred papers to their credit. Dr. Land and the late Meroe
Morse, his famous chief assistant, got a coveted prize for the best
article on photo technology. I can only understand one-tenth of it!
But these things contribute hugely to the medium.

Innovations and Patents

Adams: The difficulty in industry is that pure science can be written about
whenever the nature of science is being directed to a project. But
then it becomes immediately very secret until the patents are
obtained. And then production methods remain very confidential.
You have to be a constant watchdog because once you allow a patent
to be breached in any way you're out of luck.

Teiser: Eastman does the same thing as Polaroid?

Adams: Yes, they undoubtedly do the same thing. They have a tremendous

laboratory, and they do a great deal of basic science. The problem
is they don't have much imagination. Polaroid's labs work on a
very different basis. They know they have to make money, and they
always have done extremely well, but the company as a whole doesn't
approach these programs only on finance. They approach them on
creativity. Now Land had no reason to present this camera to
scientific and technical groups other than that he wanted the
community of scientists to know what was going on. Eastman might not
do a thing like that. They'd present it to their own salesmen and
dealers. But to really go into depth the way Land did, for a
scientific group, which means not holding anything back, is remark
able. He has of course given many professional demonstrations of
various aspects of the Polaroid process.

Teiser: Will the new SX-70 camera have implications for designs of other
single-lens reflex cameras?


Adams: I don't know. I think it's Polaroid's concept for quite a time to

Teiser: The SX-70 camera is for color only?

Adams: So far. They may have black and white some day.

Teiser: No reason there shouldn't be, is there?

Adams: No, I suppose theoretically you could say if you can do it in color

you can do it in black and white, but there's nothing sure about that,

Innovations and Aesthetic Demands

Teiser: Is there any work being done in any systems not making use of

Adams: Oh, the laboratories are spending fortunes on it.
just assume this. It's a very interesting thing:

I don't know. I
way back in the

1830s they found out that silver halide is light sensitive and
they've found nothing since then that equals itl We have what they
call Diazo; that's a dye image, pretty complicated and not permanent
and rather bad color. Very bad even in black and white because it
has to be a condensed color image. Then of course Xerox is electro
static image, which is very important. Again it's very slow and it
has a limited range.

This Polaroid print of a marble head and leaf is practically
what we call a "straight- line image." You can't make a print like
that on ordinary paper. I haven't been able to make a print to come
anywhere near it in quality. Now just why that is, is psychologic
ally hard to define.

I think there's a response, an instinctive response to creative
patterns. The highly gifted artist has that to a much greater
extent than others. It has either been developed or hasn't been.
Perhaps it is a truly instinctive quality.

Making Photographs and Printing Negatives

Adams: I'm sure if you heard some music coming out of the phonograph that
was Wagner you'd immediately recognize it, and yet you might play
Strauss or Beethoven and get the same sounds, but that isn't it, you

Adams: see. The same orchestra, the same instruments, but something else
"happens." That whole thing applies to photography in the sense of
values. The difference between a fine print and an ordinary print is
terribly hard to define; in fact you can't, in a physical sense. It
is a profound composite experience; putting everything together and
instinctively meeting internal demands.

So I think it would be hard to say just when did the casual
interest in making pictures with emphasis on subject change into an
awareness of the image as a thing in itself? You think of photography
as an analytic art. The optical image of the world is very precise,
so you've got to get the camera in a position where you get the
maximum formal arrangements that you want. Then you make all kinds of
tonal and spatial separations. That's one of the things that you
learn very quickly. Like I told you yesterday, you're sitting here,
and it doesn't bother me when I'm talking to you that the window cord
comes out of your left ear or right ear [laughter]. I move around
and control the relationship in space and time. But if I have the
lens here, the picture shows a curtain cord coming out of your right
ear, a highly unpleasant thing. This suggests the idea of following
lines without mergers or confusions. And then, what is the value of
the skin? I can measure the light reflected from your face.
Probably fifty c/ft (candles per square foot) on one side, and
fifteen c/ft^ on the other, but what does it feel like in terms of
the print? If you know the zone system, you know where you place
your values on the exposure scale of the negative, and that
automatically tells you how to expose and develop.

And then I think it is very important as a reference idea would
be to compare the negative to the composer's score and the print to
the performance. It doesn't mean what you call the photometric
equivalent. If you're getting a negative that has the same propor
tion of values as the negative, you'd be going through the photometric
equivalent sequence. That might have value in science, but it would
not have value as an expressive picture. In fact it might be
extremely unpleasant.

Teiser: Different performers have performed Bach, say, differently, so there

are variations in performance. Can you conceive of taking one of

your negatives say that you made many years ago and printing it
now in quite a different way than you did?

Adams: I do, I do. But it's not so different that it changes the basic

character. I might print it harder, or I might print it softer, I
might print it bigger, I can't really do anything fundamentally
different with it. I can't change the subject of it, but I can
change the interpretation. I was going through a lot of old pictures
just the other day, and I couldn't understand how I could have
printed them that way. They just looked tired. They had a small


Adams: density scale (the reflection density scale). So if I took the
negative and printed it so extremely different that there 'd be a
really different image, that might be questionable. Maybe it wouldn't

Teiser: In this, you're both the composer and the performer yourself.

Adams: But I still would play differently, subtly differently within the

Teiser: You have printed negatives of, I think, Brady

Adams: [Matthew B.] Brady and [Ben] Wittick and [Arnold] Genthe.

Teiser: Have you attempted to print as nearly as you could the way the
photographer printed it?

Adams: In the Genthe pictures I vastly improved it. Genthe used a terrible
paper, a thing they call Opal, had kind of a bad green tone and dull
surface. So most of his pictures are very romantic, have the turn-
of-the-century feeling, but never showed all the negative contained.
So I made the print, it was of the San Francisco before the fire. I
made it my way, and I took it down, was scared to death to show it,
and he loved it. I was afraid he might say, "Well, I don't like it
that brilliant." Then I made Genthe' s "The Street of the Gamblers,"
a fantastic thing, done in 1904 with an old Kodak, roll film.
Beautiful "anticipation." You could possibly pass it off as Arnold
Genthe or W. Eugene Smith or Henri Cartier-Bresson by the style.
But all his prints were sort of brownish green, soft, and "goofy."
As for using glossy prints that was in earlier days only for news
paper reproduction, etc. An "art" photographer was ashamed to make
a glossy print, you know. Now we do the opposite thing. We want as
much brilliance as possible!

The Brady photographs, the photographs of the Brady group, were
informational pictures, and they were done on wet plates, and of
course, as they used the printing-out process, such were extremely
contrasty. The printing-out process is where you put a piece of
sensitive paper back of the film and expose it in strong light, and
the effect of the light reduces the silver halide in the print paper
to silver. You can see the picture building up. The printing frames
have little back trap doors you can open and see the progress of
printing. Now, as the silver builds up it acts as a shield for
further exposure. It is self-masking. As you get to the maximum
black, it takes a longer, and longer, and longer time, and in the
meantime your gray and white values come through, and you print
until you've got just the detail you want in all the values. As you
print more than required you get gray results. But a modern normal
negative printed that way would be so soft you would get very weak


Adams: prints. And so these wet plate negatives of very high density and

contrast, to print them I had to use A20 Number 0, the softest grade
of A20, and an extremely soft developer. I did get some prints that
were very close simulated the originals but any normal treatment
given would result in far too contrasty prints.

Teiser: Eastman wouldn't make you a special emulsion for this sort of thing?
Adams: Well, they could. It would probably cost five or ten thousand dollars.
Teiser: I see. [Laughter]

Adams: It's got to the point now where with certain items you have to order
a minimum of three or four hundred dollars' worth. For instance, if
I want to use a roll of paper and make a big print the size of this
door on No. 4 Kodabromide double weight glossy, I have to order about
three hundred dollars' worth. They don't stock it. They stock the
G surface and they stock something else. They have the paper, and
out of their huge rolls they'll cut you three hundred dollars' worth.
But they won't make up rolls in boxes and send them out in the country
for sale, because it has a relatively short shelf life and not much
if sold. If you keep it cool it's good for around two years, and
I've used paper ten years old by putting potassium bromide in the
developer to reduce the fog, providing it hasn't been subjected to

Teiser: Who was the third photographer whose photographs you said you

Adams: Ben Wittick. And then Bill Webb lives down here near us who's doing
a second book on [Adam Clark] Vroman, the excellent photographer of
the Southwest. He's having an awful time printing, because the
negatives are not normal negatives, but he's got a fine technique
he can manage them. But you can't do exactly what they did unless
you use a printing-out paper. And you can't buy any good printing-
out paper today.

[End Tape 2, Side 2]
[Begin Tape 3, Side 1]

Photographs as Commodities

Teiser: I don't know Ben Wittick. When was he?

Adams: Oh, in the seventies, eighties, nineties,
let's say.

Teiser: Where did he photograph?

Late nineteenth century,


Adams: Southwest generally, to the best of my knowledge.

You see, many of the Brady group, when the Civil War was over,
went west to photograph. [Timothy H.j O'Sullivan, [William Henry]
Jackson, I think [F.H.] Bell; several others did, went into profes
sional or survey work. Of course they were all relatively young men
then, and a lot of them didn't keep up photography.

You see, Brady didn't make photographs himself. He was a
promoter and a businessman. He would contract with the photographers
for their services. Beaumont Newhall and I went through about five
thousand Brady negatives in the [National] Archives (a big set had
just been presented them) , and every negative envelope had the name
of the photographer on it. But, you see, the photographer was
seldom, if ever, given credit for all his photographs. But Matthew
Brady, Incorporated, studios was given the credit. Now when [Roy E.]
Stryker took over the photographic group at the time of the dust
bowl that's the Farm Resettlement project history he got his group
of superb photographers together, but they always got the credit.
That was the difference; the photographers got the credit. F.S.A.
[Farm Security Administration],* Dorothea Lange photographed for it.
They always gave full credit.

Now, we don't think that Brady intended to omit such credits,
but photography was nothing but a business at that time. And if you
did a story, you wouldn't give credit to every item that went out.
If you go to a machine shop and have a device made, it would be made
by the Blank Machine Company, and they don't name Joe Doaks, etc.,
who perhaps did the actual work. So it's a psychological approach.
Photography didn't mean anything in terms of creative art. The men
even exchanged negatives. O'Sullivan would bemoan the fact that he
didn't have something of the Southern Colorado plateau, for example,
but Jackson had, so he'd trade him one for something else.

So, photography was a kind of commodity. They only became
conscious of it as a personal and expressive art at a much later
date. Excepting a few people (very few) Stieglitz, Cameron, [Paul]
Strand those people maintained the integrity of the artist. I think
Vroman was probably okay. He realized what he'd done. But then on
the other hand, it was a kind of exploitation to allow the Union
Pacific to use his photographs and hand-color them. God-awful
calendars and posters and timetables that were hand-colored re
productions ad nauseam! I don't know how far I'm going afield

Teiser: No, no. It's all within the

*Stryker headed the photographic unit of the historical section of the
Division of Information of the Resettlement Administration, which in
1937 became the Farm Security Administration.


Photography and Politics

Adams: So then we had the Photo League in New York, which formed before

the war [World War II] primarily as a cinema group. After the war it

Online LibraryAnsel AdamsConversations with Ansel Adams : oral history transcript / 1972-1975 → online text (page 6 of 76)