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

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I had no right to be on the board, especially with capable young
people coming up with the whole new philosophy.

I'm sorry to say that the present board doesn't please me at all.
They're a bunch of political activists working for internal glory.
They spent hours arguing out who's going to be president, fighting
for the top power. What's the sense of it? I consider that thing
being reasonable in high finance, but in the club you're supposed to
be there to support certain ideals, and why should you have to fight
to be president? Factions arise, and some people want Brower back.

I remember a long time ago when Joe [Joseph N. ] LeConte left.
He got fed up many years earlier. He knew the club was developing
beyond...."! don't care what they do. I't s a new world for them.
I want to spend my declining years doing what I have to do." Well,
he was quite brutal and frank about it, and there's a little bit of
that in me too. I have my books and exhibits. Seeing that I've
spent all of my time in the last two years just working with prints
and things, I don't know how I could have possibly had time to do
anything but give the most "hummingbird wing touch." [Laughter] And
just sitting there and saying, "Yes" and looking wise with a beard


A Publications Program

Teiser: What do you think the club now, in its present state what its
publications program should be?

Adams: I've got very definite ideas on that. The old Sierra Club Bulletin,
as edited by Francis Farquhar, was a very distinguished journal. It
could be related to the bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and
Sciences. It was a very worthwhile thing. It contained beautiful
articles in general, notes, and carried out a good tradition. It
also did not have what we call "popular appeal." Again, it was an
elitist publication. Now, the club puts out a magazine bulletin
and it's finally got advertisements in it, which pay for a good part
of the cost. I think that the club should put out a handsome
magazine like the Audubon, which is filled with advertisements of
course, always related to the subject; should not advertise [just]
anything. There's all kinds of things, books and boots and
equipment, things that are appropriate. And it should have the
best color reproduction, good writers I think we could do it.

But I think the chapters should also put out good publications
which would relate to the local scene of the chapter, which would be
a little coffee table thing. Things that are standard 8 1/2 by 11,
with fine cover, something that one would leave out with pride, and
encourage new members.

Teiser: Are the chapters big enough to finance that kind of publishing?

Adams: Well, many of them are. The point is they don't realize their power.
The Ventana puts out a mimeographed thing all full of newsy news,
about what members are doing and trips they're taking and splurges
on big and little things.*

So the club itself, I think, should subsidize the chapters to
at least do a beautiful cover. And then these things can be sold
if they're good enough and they might pay for themselves or more.
Plus the fact that they give a certain prestige and could bring in
more members .

We're losing members now. We're on the decline. I think it's
because there's so many things going on. People have only so much
money. After all, the members of the Sierra Club, as they exist now,
are in a very median economic class, and a lot of them spend more
money than they should.

*Now, 1977, vastly improved in style. A. A.


Teiser: Do you think the Sierra Club should put out practical handbooks for

Adams: Oh, fine publications marvelous. Those are the things which really
will pay. And then getting our big books, which never went into
many more than ten, twenty, thirty thousand copies get them into
paperback up into million-copy editions. When the American Earth
came out in paperback, it had an exponential increase in its impact.
You see, when you get a book for $6, instead of $15 or $20, $25, you
just reach a totally different and expanded audience. All these
young people today are really dedicated and working terribly hard to
accomplish something. But they can't afford $25 books. I can't
afford $25 books. I've got a limit. I should have all of the
Sierra Club books, but I simply can't afford it. A third of them
are, I think, rather unnecessary. It's an awfully complex proposition.

Of course, we went into the situation of being a publishing
house without experience, and the publishing of the books is what
really wrecked us in the financial sense.

Teiser: Would Brower have had enough experience in publications to handle it
correctly if he hadn't had other things to do?

Adams: No. I think we should have immediately allied ourselves with a top

publisher. We should have provided the book contents, illustrations,
design, etc. and have had it published and priced so that the club
and the author would get a royalty. Suppose we got 20 percent net of
sales, and the author got half of that, and the club got half of
that we'd have been sitting pretty. We would have had more books
out, we would have had more impact, and more cash in the reserves!

We lost about it's safe to say a dollar on every exhibit format
book we published.

The little books like On the Loose, guides and climbing booklets,
they've done wonderfully well. Then when we released the books to
the publishers, like Ballantine for paperbacks, they just did
wonderfully too. We get, I believe, 6 percent the author gets 3
percent and the club gets 3 percent.

But Dave was saying that all authors should turn their royalties
back to the club!

Teiser: What for?

Adams: For the benefit of the cause. But unfortunately the authors and

photographers have to make a living too. It's an interesting thing
that the paper people get their money on about a fifteen-day credit,
and the printer gets paid on a thirty-day limit and so on. The
author should get his, too!

[End Tape 28, Side 2]

[Begin Tape 29, Side 1]

Adams: I don't like to just sit here and castigate Brower, who I think is
very difficult, gifted, and somebody that I wouldn't want to touch
with a ten-foot pole now as far as ethics are concerned. But while
he did a great deal, he practically wrecked the club. One of the
reasons Colby left the club was because he recognized that Dave was
going to wreck the club. He warned every one of us that you can't
continue his tactics, you can't continue his internal level of
management. You can't say that you're above the board of directors.

I understand the Friends of the Earth are a quarter of a million
in debt. In the meantime, the good old Save-the-Redwoods League is
perfectly solid and continues to get its thousands, hundreds of
thousands, and acquires redwoods, runs its office, and everybody's
happy and on a first-name basis.

The Future of the Sierra Club

Adams: The whole thing [the Sierra Club] is just so big now that it's going
to take a tremendous volunteer effort of hundreds or thousands of
people and all the chapters getting together. I don't think we have
anybody now on the board who's big enough to really put it over. If
Dick Leonard was a younger man, he could do it. I'm not trained to
do it. But I really think the future of the club is in a very
precarious state. We could blow up at any point. And now we're
losing members. The pendulum's bound to swing. The membership is
based on member services and member excitement. And believe me, a
lot of young people are not going to be satisfied to just read legal
briefs about "friends of the court" amicus curiae on some obscure
power line business in Tennessee and so on. This is sort of going
out of the sphere of public excitement.

We did have, when all the books were coming out with all the
flamboyance and publicity, we did have great excitement. I know that
if I even ventured logical thought about it, I had great hostility:
"Oh, you're dead. You don't know what you're talking about. You're
an old fogey. You're not out there fighting."

Well, now the fighting doesn't exist any more as such. It's
down to hard-boiled, nitty-gritty legal considerations.

Teiser: There was a certain excitement in the old Sierra Club Bulletin when
it told about new climbs that daring people made.

Adams: It was perfectly wonderful, but again it was an experienced outfit,
not a theoretical one. When I use the word "elitist," I'm not mean
ing high society or wealth, I'm meaning a certain number of people


Adams: who have very high-minded dedication, which has nothing to do with
whether they've got one dollar or a million dollars. Walter Starr
was one of those people, Bob Price of Reno a big lawyer up .there
and Judge Clair Tappaan. I can think of any number of people who
were dedicated, and it had nothing to do with the amount of money
they had. If you had a lot of money, you gave money, and if you
had a lot of energy, you gave energy. But you gave it on a basis
that was very self-abnegating is that the word to use? It wasn't
ever for your own advancement. That's one of the things about our
place in Yosemite we confounded the National Park Service. We were
always thinking of the park first, where the other concessioners
were thinking of their pocketbook. We knew perfectly well that if
we'd got to thinking about our pocket books, that would be the
quickest way to lose prestige and money.

It's a very interesting life. I wouldn't have missed it for
the world, but I'm glad I'm out of it because, as I say, I'm not
entirely functional in many ways. In fact, I'm, say, "minus-
functional" because the demands on a director today are so complex
and so knowledgeable in certain areas, that the board of directors
should be composed of highly trained people; the others are simple

Teiser: You suggested that a president be elected by a senate of the

Adams: Well, I think the fact is that the club is so big, and the

obligations so great that we cannot possibly count on volunteer
services to be effective. Now, we have volunteers; everybody's
a volunteer except Mike [J. Michael] McCloskey, who's completely
snowed under. He's the executive director, and he's got so many
problems! He's got people helping him, but it's not enough. I
think that, well, to put it very bluntly, the club should be run by
the chapters, which means the membership. Each chapter should send
two delegates. They should be paid delegates I mean, expenses and
per diem. [They don't have to be salaried people, although some
chapters are big enough to have salaried directors.) They should
then direct the club and should appoint the very best people in the
world to be president, treasurer, and secretary, and maybe vice-
president. And pay them a full handsome salary, because when you
have a hundred and something thousand people a year, you're getting
an income of about a couple of million dollars. These people should
be experts in their field. Policies should be laid down by the
senate and carried out by the trained high-power executives. The
chapters should be given an autonomous position by which they support
their local problems.

And the local problems are now, believe me, about twenty for
every chapter going, at least. But to have to refer all of these
local problems back to a central volunteer board is absolutely
ridiculous, because we don't have that human energy available.


Teiser: I think you have members at large now who are not chapter members,
do you?

Adams: Oh, there's a few.
Teiser: Not very many?

Adams: No, very few. You automatically belong to a chapter. If I live here,
I'm in the Ventana chapter. If I don't want to be, I have to say,
"No, I don't want to be a member of the chapter." But I think that
means practically nothing. It would be silly because what would you
do? You just pay dues, make contributions, but have no direct

Teiser: There would be no board of directors as such under your plan, just
these delegates?

Adams: Well, there would be the senate, then there would be the elected

executives, then the president would appoint an advisory board. You
see, that would be his business. Like the President of the United
States appoints a cabinet


Newhall: [Bringing photograph] I wanted them to see an early Ansel Adams.

Teiser: That's a lovely picture. [Interruption]

Adams: Well, have you another question?

Teiser: I think you were saying that the president

Adams: To recapitulate: you have the chapters, which would really be

membership representation, and they're little organizations on their
own. They have their boards and so on. And they would send
delegates to the main club, and the delegates would comprise the
senate, who would then elect or appoint or hire, which is a more
practical term, the top executives, which would be the president,
especially treasurer, and probably a secretary. Now, just what that
group would consist of would be up to the senate. But the president
then would have the obligation to appoint an advisory board, like a
cabinet a top expert in nuclear power, a top expert in land use, a
top expert in forestry and law and so on.

And we would have this big resource of the best people we could
get, and run the club on that basis. And I think that is going to be
the salvation of the club. Because for many years it has functioned
very poorly as a volunteer organization at the level of the
directorate, because there was just too much to do for a few human
beings to handle it.


Adams: Now, the committees and the chapters and the library committee and

the mountaineering committee and the Clair Tappaan Lodge committee
those are volunteers, and they work well at that level. But when it
comes to the really big problems of the club, it cannot be volunteer
because the president of the club is a judge of the Superior Court
of California at Vallejo. He has his whole career and life to
operate. How can he be president of the Sierra Club and carry these
additional burdens?

Will Siri is a very important man in the Donner Laboratory, a
radiation laboratory division. How can he possibly do both jobs?
Dick Leonard, who's an independent lawyer, spends at least one-third
of his time with the club. Colby spent at least a third to a half
of his life with the Sierra Club and still was the top mining lawyer
in the world. And also ran the state parks. So in some way he
spent one-third at least in conservation.

Then comes along a person like Lewis Clark, who's an engineer
for the Telephone Company, who has to put in eight hours a day. He'd
put in another four or five for the club for many years. Even that
now isn't enough, you see.

And the treasurer of the club is at this time also the treasurer
of Duke University. He spends thousands of dollars of club money a
year flying back and forth to meetings. But how is he going to give
the required amount of time, no matter how good he is, and do a good
job at Duke or for the club? We need an absolutely full-time top
executive treasurer at at least $30,000 a year. That's the only
approach that's going to save the club. Because we're not the. little
old elitist group that used to go out and go on outings, climb
mountains, write good literary treatises and notices for little rock
climbs. It's a totally different thing now. And terribly important.

Teiser: The early treasurer's reports were very simple indeed.

Adams: Well, a very peculiar thing has happened. We have a treasurer; he's
supposed to establish policy. Then we have a budget. Then the
finance committee, and the board of directors everybody approves
the budget, and then it is up to the comptroller to see that it's
handled. Well now, for some reason or other, the comptroller is not
able to control the funds, because somebody from up above said, "Oh,
we'll take a thousand from here, and so on." Well, the comptroller,
not being too forceful, has been kicked upstairs to treasurer's
assistant or somebody. But I just think of the comptroller of the
Polaroid Corporation, which is a multimillion-dollar business you
can't go one cent over your budget without being called on it. That's
his job. The comptroller is somebody who plain and simple controls
the budget. It is what we need in the Sierra Club.


Adams: But Brower would say, "Oh, pay it" and would take it out of another
account. He was down here one day, and Virginia got so mad at him
I've never seen her so mad. She said, "Well, how much is it going
to cost?"

"Well, about $2500."

"How much have you got in the account?"

"Got about $500." I said, "I guess we'll have to have a meeting
of the committee." "Oh no," said Brower, "I can shift it." And
Virginia says, "You can't shift it. What do you mean, shift it?"
I said, "Dave, I think we really should have a meeting on this."

"Oh, we don't need one," etc. Those are the kind of things
that really led to financial disaster.

Teiser: How could he do it?

Adams: He just did it, and nobody called him on it, you see. This is the
exasperating thing. For a whole year Wayburn would not, because he
was afraid the membership would rise up in wrath and throw out the
board of directors. I used to say, "Well, Ed, if the membership is
going to do that, then we should be thrown out. Suppose we are
thrown out; we've at least done our duty. We have to stop this
thing." "No, they'll just throw us right out and wreck the whole
basis of the club."

So I've had all I want of that kind of stuff. But I think that
as I live more, I find that we're not the only organization that has
suffered by this, and a lot of great big business organizations have
also had their troubles.

Now let's make a resume. In the sense that when I first knew
the club, it was a small group of people, very dedicated. I call
them elitist in the full sense of the term. And we were doing a lot
of good by the force of our personalities and importance in the
community. Many members of the club were really very important
people judges and senators. We had a big influence on the Forest
Service and the Park Service and the state, and they respected our
influence, and while they had no obligation to follow what we thought
should be done, in many, many cases they did. And it was all at a
very high level of integrity. We had a low political profile and
high integrity profile. And then as we got bigger, well, we found
that we were getting political pressure, without consideration for
the people that really could have done something. Then in the
sixties, it suddenly blossomed out into an activist, belligerent
organization, which lost contact with the people we should be very
close to, at least in discussion. Then we became really belligerent.


Adams: I guess we did save something. I'm always thinking about the things
we could have saved if we had applied a different approach. And
that's my feeling about it now: God bless it and God help it.

[End Tape 29, Side 1]

Recent Exhibits

[Interview XXV 19 May 1974]
[Begin Tape 30, Side 1]

Teiser: You've had two large exhibits since our last interview, first at
the San Francisco Museum of Art, opening in October 1972.

Adams: Well, I felt very good about the San Francisco exhibit. The little
catalogue that came out with it was very distinguished and seemed to
attract a lot of attention. Of course, I'm always a very great
problem to the critics because I bewilder them a little bit, being
interested in nature, and it's very hard for them to translate
between subject emphasis and expressive emphasis. But the public
seemed to respond, and the entire exhibit was purchased by donation
of three anonymous individuals.

Teiser: For the museum?

Adams: For the museum. With the exception of the original Polaroids, and
Portfolio Five, which was not in my personal collection. That
exhibit was very handsomely framed and crated and is being
circulated by the USIA (I believe you can call it that; it's some
cultural division of the Information Service) through Central and
South America, and then on to Europe. And in a couple of years it
will return to San Francisco as a permanent acquisition.

The Metropolitan show took quite a time to work out.
Teiser: That was very large, wasn't it?

Adams: Well, no. The biggest show I had was over 530-odd items in 1963,
at the de Young Museum. That was by far the best exhibit, because
the galleries were more intimate and the show was designed by Nancy
Newhall around these nine galleries, and it was a very stunning
setup. It never looked as well in other areas.

Teiser: The San Francisco Museum's exhibit was pretty well displayed, wasn't
it, this last one?

Adams: Fairly well. The trouble with museums well, let me get to that in
a minute I want to finish something on the big show in 1963 that I


Adams: mentioned, the big one at the de Young. It had too many, five
hundred and something units, and that is far too much. It was
circulated, but then it was broken into two parts, and then each
part was broken into two parts again, and some of it's still going
around the country, one-eighth or one-tenth the original show. The
rest of it has either come back here or scattered. The big prints
are at the Amon Carter Museum at Fort Worth, and now some of them
are at the World's Fair in Spokane.

The [recent] San Francisco exhibit was just about the right
size, but the Metropolitan exhibit [spring 1974] posed a problem.
They wanted to show the big prints as well as a portfolio in what
they call the Blumenthal Patio. It's quite a huge space, which is
a reconstruction of a medieval patio, which is stone, and there were
five big pylons, painted grey, on which these big forty-by-fifty (or
more)-inch prints were mounted, all framed, and were lit by what they
called "semidif fuse" spots from the ceiling. Well, they were overlit,
but got light on them, at least, and that was a relief.

In the balcony, around the patio, were the portfolio prints.
They were fairly well illuminated, some better than others. There
were thirty-something prints there. Then in what they call the
prints and drawing gallery was the main part of the show, which
consisted of 16 by 20s and 11 by 14s all the prints in the 16-20
category and smaller. In the center of this room were three cases
which contained the forty original Polaroid prints. They were very
well protected, each print in a frame, and the whole thing covered
with another frame. It was quite a diverse show, but the trouble is
there that the lighting isn't adequate. I mentioned, I think,, in
other parts of this interview, the problem of illumination theory.
The total reflected light in the environment has a great deal to do
with the impression of the prints.

Now, prints and drawings, etchings, lithographs, sketches, and
so on, really look best in a rather low light level. It seems to
enrich the value. A photograph, as it has a reflective scale of
about one to ninety to over one to one hundred, is very critical in
that respect. If you have a high-key environment, that is, a total
environment more than 20 or 30 percent reflectance, the prints look

Well, they helped just a little by putting the prints on a grey
panel against a white wall. But the light ceiling and the general
environment was such that the prints looked just about one step
lower in value than they should have. Also, the necessity of having
plexi-glass creates reflection which makes it a little hard to
clearly see many of the images. But that's typical of all museums.

Teiser: Plexi-glass? In front of the prints?


Adams :
Adams :
Adams :


Adams :

Adams :

It's in the frames, with a cutout over-mat over the prints.


Well, the prints could be destroyed, vandalized, scratched.

For protection.

Right, it's essential. The big prints are shown in a different
way; they're covered with a very heavy varnish, which can be wiped

But they're not covered with plexi-glass.

No, they're too big. The Polaroids are covered with plexi-glass,
and then a second plexi-glass cover over those. Plexi-glass is
marvelous in that it's clearer than glass, but it does scratch. But
that doesn't hurt the print, except for appearance.

So the whole problem is just one of getting the right amount of
light, and the museums are built with circuitry that'll take just
so many amps, so many watts of current. They load it up just as far
as they can go. They practically doubled the illumination on the
walls, but even then it wasn't enough. Except at the ends of the
gallery, where the lights were closer, therefore more intense. But

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