Ansel Adams.

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

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was re-formed as a still group. It was taken over by the Commies and
was put on the "red list." Many of the best photographers were un
wittingly trapped in that. I was tipped off. I was down here, and
they called me up and said, "This board is now in control of the
Commies and you better do something about it." So I called my lawyer
and he said, "Write them a letter and ask them: Are you becoming
politically inclined or aren't you? I joined as simply a photographer."
And he said, "Send a copy to the F.B.I." I didn't get any answer, so
I sent them a resignation. I said, "I joined this for photographic
purposes, not for political or ideological reasons. I don't want to
be associated with Republican, Democrat, Commie or anything. I mean
it's bad business to get all wrapped up in the political thing." I
sent that to the F.B.I, too, and the letters got me clearance quite
fast when I needed it most, because I had disclaimed any political
association. But other young people paid no attention to it at all.
One of them had a job with the government overseas and got all the
way over to London before he was investigated and sent home.

That was mostly in the awful McCarthy period, so even if you had
only read a chapter of Marx, you were a subversive. Of course, as an
American that makes you very mad. But the thing I resented was not
any fear for myself from the thing, because I knew what I believed in,
but being automatically included in the propaganda business. My best
rejoinder is now if you want me to join things if somebody calls up
very impassioned and says, "You must write a letter to the government,"
I say, "I'm just not a push-button liberal." A lot of people say,
"Oh, sure, I'll come right out with an idea that's in favor of any
thing a Democrat would say, and any Republican is bad," and so on.
(And vice versa, I can assure you.) But it's fairly hard sometimes
to be really logical, retain a logical opinion, and so I just have
that phrase to fall back upon, "I'm not interested in being a push
button liberal."

Group f/6A

Teiser: Back to an earlier organization that you were part of and then

Adams: Oh, the f/64 Group, yes?


Teiser: Do you remember how that started?

Adams: Yes. For several years after 1930, two years anyway, I had been

talking to my friends about getting a group together and profess
watch that cat so it doesn't get out! you know, make sort of a
manifesto on straight photography, because the camera club people were
pretty dismal; [William] Mortensen down south [in Southern California]
was a prime example. Oh, there was some terrible stuff.

So Willard Van Dyke and a few others said, "It's a good idea;
what '11 we call it?" It was Willard who came up with "f/64." That
means a small stop, a very small stop on the lens which [makes for]
clarity and depth, the kind of image qualities typical of Edward
Weston's work and our work. We don't enjoy any fuzzy imagery anywhere.

We had this group formed, with Edward Weston, Sonia Noskowiak,
John Paul Edwards, Alma Lavenson, Willard Van Dyke, Imogen Cunningham,
Henry Swift, and myself. We had several very interesting shows, and
supported a kind of manifesto (you know, like the Dadaists); we pro
tested against the conventional misuse of the medium. Here was this
beautiful medium of photography which was being bastardized by soft-
focus lenses and paper negatives and all of the things that they used
to make the lens image look unlike a photograph. And then after a
year or so, we decided that we'd done all we could, and we'd just
repeat ourselves; it would become a cult, and Weston didn't want to
be in a cult, so we decided we'd simply disband. However, it did
create a cult, and the cult is still with us! Everybody apparently
creates a cult. Edward Weston had a cult, and I guess I've got one;
people are imitating me. But Group f/64 did have a profound influence
on making people realize that the straight photographic image could be
beautiful, and not the pictorial doctored one.

Teiser: Maybe this is the place to correct a thing that's in print. The

Gernsheim A Concise History of Photography says that Willard Van Dyke
started the f/64 Group.

Adams: Well, I would say Willard Van Dyke was instrumental, certainly a
leader. I would say (this is not boasting) I had proposed such a
group for two years. Willard Van Dyke activated it said, "Well,
let's do it," you see, and proposed the name. That's half right, at
least. I don't think it makes much difference so long as the other
people are mentioned.

Teiser: The others were all established by that time?

Adams: Some were amateurs and some were professionals. Imogen Cunningham
was a professional; Alma Lavenson was semi-professional; Noskowiak
was professional; I was a professional; Van Dyke was quasi-
professional he was really interested in film but running a gas


Adams: station to make a living, and also doing black and white photographs.
And, of course, Edward Weston was a creative-professional. Then
there was Henry Swift, the businessman, but of rare creative ability,
and John Paul Edwards, who was a former pictorialist, a businessman.

Teiser: How did you happen to let him in?

Adams: He was good.

Teiser: He was within the scope?

Adams: He was within the pattern. He was very supportive of the thing and
was doing very good photographs.

Teiser: Did you discuss "painterly" photographs?

Adams: Painterly? Oh, well, I guess that was what we were fighting. We
were fighting the idea of photographs imitating the feeling or the
looks, the appearance of other media. The straight photograph was
sneered at. There was no possibility of it being art, so earlier
photographers were always trying to add something to simulate art.
That was done with paper negatives, and texture screens, and rough
papers, and bromoils and gum prints everything imaginable! You
just look through Caf fin's history I'll loan it to you. Have you
seen it yet, the one the Friends of Photography gave to the members?
Caf fin's Photography As an Art?* I'm going to give you that book,
because that will show you much. This was at this difficult turn of
the century, when Stieglitz was trying to get away from the domina
tion of the Manhattan Camera Club, and a lot of these people such
as Gertrude Kasebier as well can't think of them all. Out here
Ann Brigman did nudes and junipers at Lake Tahoe all soft focus.
But they were very definite attempts to be creative, much more so
than the ordinary pictorialists, who were just being literary or
descriptive or making a fetish of being not sharp.** I've had people
say to me, "Now, if you only would give that a little soft focus,
do something to improve it it's so brutally hard now." And I made
all kinds of soft-focus pictures on rough Dassonville or Wellington
papers, and I did some bromoils. I've got a bromoil over there,
where the image is recreated in ink beautiful permanent image,
carbon black. But not sharp I

[End Tape 3, Side 1]

*Charles H. Caf fin's book, originally published in 1901, was re-
published in 1971 by Morgan & Morgan for the Friends of Photography,
**For more recollections of Group f/64, see mentions as indexed.


[Interview III 14 May 1972]
[Begin Tape 3, Side 2]

Teiser: Yesterday we were talking about the Caff in book

Adams: Yes. The idea of the division of photography between the "artistic"
and the straight record, which was just discussed semantics always
seems to intrude on common sense in photography but a documentary
record would imply an image in which there was nothing conveyed but
merely a factual record. You'd have a competent image; you may be
getting as much as possible in it, but none of it might carry any
conviction. Most of the very early photographs (many of those of
today) were very dull pictures of things. A few outstanding people
did much better. But the straight, detailed photograph a sharp,
simple print, of course, was not considered artistic. So, the so-
called "artistic minded" photographers just attempted to imitate
painting. And there's a very hazy line between the pictorialist ,
who is not intense, is more or less an imitator, and the person who
was trying to think of photography in the "feeling" of the time,
but being very sensitive to composition and arrangement, and seeing.
Although many of their prints do not look like our sharp prints
today, there is a very definite camera "seeing" ability, and it
takes quite a lot of study to really confirm that.

This Caffin book, for instance, has some of it, I think. Of
course, some of the work is very dull, and some of it is, in a
sense, manipulated, but it is a break from painting, although they
used a lot of fancy borders and toned prints and so on. The student
of photography can observe that they weren't "seeing" the world as
the painter might see it; they were beginning to see it as


Adams: In the next ten to twenty years, Stieglitz represents the transition
from almost imitative work, imitating the spirit and the appearance
of other media, into the spirit and reasonable impression of the
photographic image.

Teiser: There are two Stieglitz photographs in the Caffin book, on page 30
and page 36, that we wondered if you'd comment upon.

Adams: The greatest body of Stieglitz's work, I guess, was done in the

eighties and nineties. You said 30 and 36? Both these were strictly


Adams: photographs, pure photographs, in existing light. They're night

pictures. Their effect is from what we call "existing light." In
other words, the light in this room is existing. The light outside
is existing. Even if I turn on the lights in the house, that's
existing light. The instant I come in with a lamp and direct the
lamp on the subject, we say that's "imposed lighting," really
artificial lighting in the sense of supplying or contriving
illumination. Now there's a point between those two where you add
light to either simulate or enhance the existing light. And if you
were doing this picture, say, for television and you wanted to get
the spirit of this house, you wouldn't have enough light, so in some
way you would have to direct a diffuse built-up illumination so that
the feeling approached a simulation of reality. But the chances are
they'd just come in and put a big light over there, a big light over
here, and it would be absolutely false to the character of the
place or its illumination.

Teiser: Stieglitz's icy night picture, the earlier one, if you looked at

it quickly I suppose you'd say it was soft focus, but perhaps it's
the atmosphere. The other seems sharp.

Adams: Well, no, Stieglitz might have used soft focus. I don't know what
he did; I mean, he did everything sooner or later. But there were
lenses that were "uncorrected." Well, let's see, Weston used a
portrait lens (the name will come to me). Whereas at the larger
openings, it was slightly soft focus, when you stop down around 16
and 22, it gets sharp. The Graf Variable Anastigmat it was called.
I want to correct that: I think that that was independent of the
stop, but the soft-focus effect came by separating the elements.
In other words, you didn't get a sharp image.

Now, this does you're quite right this looks like a slightly
diffused image. It might also be a way of printing it, maybe a
platinum print that was on a textured paper. I've seen it, and as
I remembered, it was much sharper than the reproduction. But you
mustn't mix up sharpness and acuteness. Acuteness is an impression
of sharpness, because we have what is called a "micro-density
relationship;" that is, value-edges from light to dark are very
abrupt. Now, if you have a diffusion effect, there's a curve or
slant between the light and dark values instead of an abrupt change.
So this photograph looks as if there was low acuteness in the snow-
covered branches, but as you look down other places, you find little
dark branches that look quite sharp. So you think somewhere there's
a flare, or diffusion of light or silver. When you look over here,
you think it's much sharper, and it is. But these are reproductions
of reproductions, so it's awfully hard to tell.

Teiser: Did Stieglitz ever work in the early, pictorial idiom?
Adams: Oh yes. He did lots of things in these modes.


Teiser: And then did he just suddenly decide that that was not the way to go

Adams: Well, let me see now. I'm not enough of an historian to make a

correct statement here, but these early works were pretty factual.
He went around the Alps, made many photographs of the Alps, and in
all of that period, his work was quite sharp, as I remember. Then
he went back to America in the 1890s and 1900s and was trying to work
at the Manhattan Camera Club, and did some things that really weren't
very sharp, and whether he did it intentionally, whether that's what
he wanted to do just keeping up with the Joneses I don't know.
But, nevertheless, he did make quite a break with the Manhattan Club
and other groups , and said that photography was art and could not
imitate, and then selected works which he felt were not imitations
of general work of the time.

Teiser: By the time you knew him, he was established in this?

Adams: Oh, well, he had gone through the whole period of Camera Work,

publication, and a great deal of creative work that became sharper
and sharper as time went on. Some of his later prints are very
sharp. I have a print, "City at Night" it's on a smooth surface.
It's a very beautiful, clear photograph. He didn't care for Weston.
Stieglitz had a vastly greater warmth of tone and warmth of feeling.
Weston 's work was more intellectual, straightforward, black and white.

Teiser: You knew of Stieglitz, of course he was well-known here on the
Coast, I presume before you went east in 1933.

Adams: No, very little. He was known by reputation here only. He only

went as far west as Chicago once. He was a distant relative of the
Sigmund Sterns [of San Francisco],

Teiser: Oh, he was? Well,

Adams: Well, it's a complicated thing. He married I believe into the

Lehmann family, and Mrs. Stern's sister married a Lehmannf?], Charles
Lehmann, so somewhere they were second or third cousins. Charles
Lehmann was a brewer Lehmann breweries, tremendously wealthy and
lived in New York. Mrs. Stern knew Stieglitz, and she had bought
at least one O'Keeffe,* so she gave me a letter when I went east,
a letter of introduction. Weston had a bad time with him; they
didn't get along. Stieglitz could be very, very difficult. In
fact, kind of ferociously negative at times. But that I think is
a separate story, that whole Stieglitz episode. My meeting with him
and everything.

Teiser: Would you tell it?

Adams: Most of this material is in The Eloquent Light

*Painting by Georgia O'Keeffe.


Teiser: Yes.

Adams: But I went there with this letter, and it was an awful day, a rainy
April morning in 1933. Stieglitz had just moved into the American
Place on Madison Avenue, and he wasn't feeling well and was looking
very grim. So he nodded and I gave him my letter, and he opened it.
He said, "All this woman has is a lot of money, and if things go on
the way they're going now she won't even have that. What do you
want?" I was rather mad, really, in a chivalrous sense. I said,
"I came up to meet you and show you some of my work." He said,
"Well, I can't possibly do it now, but come back this afternoon
about two-thirty," and turned his back on me. So I went out in the
streets and pounded up and down Madison Avenue in the rain and got
madder and madder and madder and wanted to get the first train home.
And then I figured, "No, I came all this way to see Stieglitz; I'd
better stick it out."

So I was up there at two-thirty, and Stieglitz was sitting on
this cot, with a sore tongue he had some kind of a circulatory
trouble, and his tongue would get sore. And he was holding his
handkerchief and talking. Finally put the handkerchief away and
then, in a most uncomfortable position, looked through my portfolio.
There was this one hard cot, and the only thing for me to sit on
was the steam radiator. I was getting gradually corrugated and
grilled on the steam radiator [laughter], and he looked all through
the work the folios. And every time I tried to say something, he
put his hand up for silence. So we went through this thing in dead

Then he took the portfolio and he closed it all up and tied all
three strings, and then he looked at me. And then he opened the
portfolio up again, and he went over all the prints again. He really
looked at them slantwise to the light, saw how they were done,
mounted, etc. Well, by that time, me and the radiator were not
getting along too well and I was pacing around. So finally he tied
it up again, and he said, "Well, that's about the finest photography
I've seen in a long time. I want to compliment you." It was quite
a happy shock, and from that time on we were very good friends. But
he sure made it difficult at first.

The first moments were pretty tough, and many other people had
a similar experience. It was sort of a testing. If he didn't like
you, he didn't like you, and he had nothing to do with you period.
If he did like you, he was fine, but he was irascible.

Teiser: Then he gave you a show.
Adams: Then in 1936 he gave me a show.



Adams ?


Did he influence your work, would you say?

No. Well, what he did, you see, he affirmed a very high standard,
and opened up a very different point of view from any I'd ever known
of before. And that point of view was reinforced by his contact
with the contemporary arts. He was the one that brought many of the
greatest contemporaries to this country. Steichen would meet them
and see them in Europe, and then send examples of their work to him.
So he gave the first showing to Negro sculpture and Picasso and many
others for the first time in America he was a very important
influence in contemporary art.

So the influence was not technical. I mean, I got my great
craft boost out of Paul Strand's negatives I saw in New Mexico
earlier. Paul Strand is, in a sense, a purer photographer than
Stieglitz. I mean, a straighter photographer if you want to use the
term. But the Stieglitz influence was a contact and an awareness of
a bigger world than I'd ever known, you see. And tying photography
in with that, of course, gave it a different stature. So, it was
a vital new experience. Both Stieglitz and Strand did have a
profound effect on my work. It would be hard to describe.

Now, I knew Weston very well; we were very close friends, and
had mutual affectionate regard. But his work never moved me, never
stirred me to do anything different. Just reaffirmed clarity. In
fact I was bothered by the emphasis on shape and form. I mean I
thought he was extracting sort of voluptuous effects shapes out
of things and gave them sexy undertones or overtones. He disclaimed
that most of the time. People read into it what they will. Peppers
looked like nudes, etc. And that bothered me because I thought it
was an imposition of something on the object. I didn't feel it
necessary to go that far. I think Strand felt the same way. And
I think Strand had the greatest influence on me

You met him in New Mexico in 1930?


What was he like, personally?

Strand? Oh, he's eighty-three now, and he's he's a little aloof,
a little dour, moves and thinks rather slowly. I mean, he's very
deliberate, and he's a very fine artist, and a very kind and
understanding person, indeed. [Interruption for telephone conversa


Teiser :

When you first met him was he well launched on his career?
well known?

Was he

Adams: Oh yes. He had his first show when he was sixteen or seventeen.
And he'd experimented with movies. He had very strong leftist
political orientations. In fact that's why he moved to France.
Couldn't get along with our particular system, although he'd
inherited quite a lot of money and seemed to take advantage of the
system, as so many people do. But he was at the Photo League and
stood up for them during this distressing political probe and was
very definitely on the "list." It was an awful thing.*

Teiser: But was he personally encouraging to you?

Adams: Yes, yes. He didn't see many of my things until much later. But he
was very reserved. Yet when my show of Manzanar Relocation Camp and
the people the Japanese-Americans was at the Museum of Modern Art,
he was quite visibly moved, wiping his eyes, though he wasn't saying
anything. Now whether that was because of the social implications,
the photography, or the combination, I don't know.

V. Adams: I'm going down to Point Lobos.

Adams: Look out for that road there; it's very dangerous. [To Teiser] Ex
cuse me.

Teiser: I think in Mrs. Newhall's The Eloquent Light she says you saw at
first just his negatives and admired them.

Adams: Yes. You see, if you're a photographer, your negatives sometimes
are more important to the student than prints. Now, I won't say
that for an individual picture. I mean, you might not visualize
the real print, but when you see a series of negatives and they all
have this clarity and this organization, you may become very moved.
And you realize how they could be ruined by bad printing. Anybody
who could make negatives like those was a superior photographer.
I wouldn't be able to tell just how he would print them. But I know
that the negative has the inherent great qualities. I think some
times with the negative you're more conscious of the design and
organization than you are with the print because you don't have the
subjects in positive form dominating you.

Teiser: I suppose when I ask you about influences, I'm asking for over
simplification. I mean, I'm sure you were going your own way.

*See p. 49.


Adams: I don't think influences are always very obvious. I think that you

never know what's going to influence you, and I've seen some students'
work that influenced me very much. I mean the student has seen the
thing in a new way, and I remember that whether I consciously use it
or not. But, I certainly was negatively affected by Mr. Mortensen,
by the pictorialists. I never was excited about Clarence White , but
lately I'm beginning to feel much better about him.

Teiser: Why?

Adams: Well, he had a very fine sense of composition but the prints were,
with a few exceptions, a bit soft and vague for my taste.

I think that's what bothered me. I was kind of a purist, and
I was feeling that a lot of these photographers saw things very well
and, like some workers in the Photo League, just made bad prints.
And you learn later that the fine print, per se, is something which
may not convey the idea. Maybe you want a hard, brutal grainy print,
like the work of Lisette Model; it's phenomenal in its way. The most
brutal black and white prints you've ever seen, and in absolute
resonance with her way of seeing her subjects. So I think it would
be very narrow to say she's not a great photographer because her
prints don't look like Weston's or mine. You know, it would be
silly it would be impossible. I think if I were to take a Lisette
Model negative and make a rich-toned print and beautifully mounted,
it would be very apparent something was phony.

I think that in the professional sense [Anton] Bruehl strongly
influenced me, and Paul Outerbridge, Ira Martin, and the Morgans
(the Willard Morgan family), of course, for many years. But I really
can't describe, for a student to figure out, where the influences are
because, as I say, I'd go on trips with Edward and I'd see all his
work and prints, and we were the closest of friends and had great
admiration, but nothing really important happened to me with him.
I didn't change my opinion or approach at all.

Taste, Perspective, and Distortion

Teiser: In discussing photography with people whose photographs you don't
necessarily admire tremendously, do ideas come to you in an inter
change of opinion?

Adams: Oh sure. Ideas come. Sometimes I have occasions to be very

critical because of unnecessary sloppiness. The thing that bothers
me more than anything else is weakness. I don't mean what fascists
would say was weak, but just no body, namby-pamby. You know, many


Adams: musicians just play, and so what? Well, many of the photographs
you see are just so what? The way the photographers see, the way
they print, the way they present the prints, the way they handle
them. When I see a kid come up with a portfolio and he has a nice