Ansel Adams.

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

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print protected by a slipsheet, the chances are that the work is
good. It may not be; it may be a great shock; you might find some
awful, tasteless things. I always say, there's nothing worse than a
clear, sharp image of a fuzzy concept. [Laughter] You get a terrible
concept it might be physically sharp, but it's just empty or in bad

Then of course you say that and somebody asks back, "Well, how
can we define taste? Can you really say that you can define what is
good taste?"

Teiser: [Laughs] Can you?

Adams: Well, you can. Now, if you say, "I refer you to art standards,"

you're saying you relate tastes in photography to tastes in painting,
and you've been saying that there shouldn't be that influence.

Teiser: It's too bad that photography wasn't invented first.

Adams: Well, of course the camera obscura was used for a long time, and we
don't know how many (I suppose it is known somewhere) old paintings
were influenced by this optical image. One of the important things
to me is that one of the first daguerreotypes in 1839, that one of
the boulevards in Paris, shows that the lens is a beautiful
instrument. It has no distortion and shows perfect definition over
the entire field. Now, why would they need a lens like that before
there was photography? And Beaumont Newhall said, "They used to
draw and project architecture on the screen. The camera obscura
would reveal the image, and then they would draw lines upon it."
They did have accurate lenses.

Teiser: Didn't landscape painters have a little gadget they carried?

Adams: The Claude Lorrain glass, a reflective device that enhanced color
relationships. I really don't know what it did. We use a viewing
filter today which changes the colors, or rather neutralizes colors
makes what you see look more like what the panchromatic plate sees
without a filter. But the Claude Lorrain glass was both a trans
mission and a reflecting glass, I think. It would reflect and see
simplicities; a lot of detail would be gone. They'd just see mass
and body, and they'd get their composition quicker. But that was
for a certain type of painter. You see, Giotto did not have
perspective. Everything was flat, you remember, and perspective was
sometimes implied by a change of scale, but the idea of drawing
converging lines was a later development.


Teiser: But in photography you can't escape it.

Adams: You can't, no. Perspective is a function of distance of lens, and if
I have a 20- inch lens on a camera right here, that door is going to
be very big and the angle is very small. If I put on a 5-inch lens,
the angle is going to be larger, but the perspective will be the same.
Of course, in the large-image picture I don't get the impression of a
deep perspective because I don't see many converging lines. I only
see the lines that converge towards the center of the subject. So
long-distance pictures, made with long lenses, always look fairly
flat. Telephoto images are fairly two-dimensional.

We only see about a degree when we look at something. We have
peripheral vision of about what is it? Forty degrees? Depends on
the individual. But when I'm looking at that door, I can see you and
I can see this window. I'm only seeing the door sharp, and I'm
seeing recognizable objects as far over as the lamp there, because
what I'm doing is moving my eyes and head. So I have the illusion
of always observing a sharp image.

In one way the eye is a very poor instrument optically, because
it has a very small field of sharp definition. But it is also an
extremely sensitive psychological instrument. It will pick up
something here and interpret it, though you might not see it "clearly."
I can't recognize you when I look in there. I know there's two
people there, but you can make the slightest motion and it will be
recorded, and I would look at you. And then I would establish by
that the reality of you and the door. And I would put the lens here,
and I'd get you and the door, and a strange thing happens: the
element of scale comes in, because I have a direct comparison between
your head and the door. Now, when I'm looking at you I only have
your head, and when I look at the door I have the door or part of it.
And I adjust immediately.

When you take the photograph, that's where your scale comes in,
and the longer focal length lens the more accurate the relative scale
becomes. In other words, you take a very distant picture of a peak,
and there's a pine tree. Well, the pine tree and the peak you can
compare them. If you knew how big the pine tree was, you'd know how
big the peak would be. When you come up nearer with a short focal
length lens, you have near-far, the domination of the near subject,
so it's entirely out of scale. That's one of the magical things that
can happen in photography, where you get exaggeration of the scale
and feeling of depth.

We were just looking through the things I did in the Boston
Museum of Egyptian sculpture. This huge seated figure in the room,
and back of it, down the hall are little busts. Well, due to the
camera we were using and the film, I couldn't stop the lens down, so


Adams: the head's not diamond sharp, but still the figure was absolutely

enormous because of the reference to the optical size of the busts in
the distance. Now, if I can move down through the museum and out
across the street and photograph the same scene with a 30-inch or a
40- inch lens in the same camera, then the scale would be almost
relative, and the busts would assume their true relative size.

Teiser: TO continue that comparison with painting this means that the
photographer is trapped by his lenses?

Adams: He's trapped by optical considerations. If he uses the single

negative and doesn't make combination pictures, he is trapped by his
lens and the camera. The key is his focal length of lenses; he has
different lenses, and he has adjustments on the camera to compensate
for focus and correcting for convergence within a small range. The
basic thing in photography when you take your ideal position, you
first set your camera level. Of course, all this is intuitive.
You're out with a tripod and you just do that automatically before
you do anything else. And then you start moving around. But if you
just put it down carelessly and then you get a picture of, say, the
ocean with a tilting horizon it simply shows that you have not
thought of your image .

You have the geometrical accuracy to contend with, especially
with photography of architecture. If a building is plumb vertical,
then the camera back must be parallel to it, and if not you get a
convergence, one way or the other. The same takes place in the eye,
but of course, here again we have the psychological controls the
eye "corrects." If I were doing a picture of some architecture, say
of this room, and I was using my four by five view camera, I would
first get my camera back absolutely level if I wanted to have all of
these vertical and horizontal lines true and level. Then the lens
image normally would be cut off at the top, so I'd use the rising
front, lifting up the lens (hope the lens has coverage) to include
more of the room height. If this is not sufficient, I must tilt the
camera up, and then bring the back to parallel position. Then I
would tilt the lens to correct the focus, and if I focus on something
very close, I might have to tilt the lens further forward. I can
tilt the lens without changing the "geometry" of the image. But the
instant I tilt the back I'm changing the geometry, although I can
use the back with nonlinear subjects to correct the near-far focus.
If there aren't any straight lines, you are not aware of convergence.

Teiser: It makes painting seem easy by comparison.

Adams: Well, I don't think it is. Of course in painting you can place

elements as you want. The thing is you're free, and you get myriads
of impressions over time, and then you organize them in a creative
fashion. But painting is a synthetic medium in that sense, and
photography is analytic. Some people use multiple negatives, double


Adams: printing, and a lot of contemporary work employs solarization and
other special techniques. But you still have the optical image as
the base. There's nothing that you can do about that.

Of course, you can distort if you want. Some people will
distort in the enlarger. But the word "distort" is a negative term.
I mean sometimes we use tilts in the enlarger to correct for distor
tion in the negative that we couldn't correct in the camera. If we
have a slight convergence we can tilt our base board in the enlarger
and correct that convergence. But if we over-retouch or manipulate
the negative, the dividing line between good taste and bad may be
quite apparent. But again, who can really define good taste?

Teiser: Well, when you look at the photographs of a man like Weegee*

Adams: Well, Weegee was a great clown. Weegee was an extraordinary person.
He really was a clown, and his aesthetic sense as we think of
aesthetics was practically zero. He had an uncanny news sense. He
had second-sight, premonition. He'd actually be at a place waiting
for an accident to happen, and it would I Fantastic. And then later
on he started using these distorting devices, and it all ended up
being I don't think of any importance whatsoever. His really great
pictures are the news pictures he had of tragic events. The fire
in Harlem is one, and the one of the two dowagers leaving or going
to the opera is one of the great satirical photographs.

Teiser: That's distortion of one kind.

The Photogram

Teiser: Did Moholy-Nagy use distortion, or did he ?

Adams: I .don't know. He might have used devices, but to my knowledge he
didn't. In addition to his camera he worked with what is known as
a "photogram," which doesn't use a lens; it's a shadowgram. In
other words, he takes sensitive paper or film and he puts things on
it or over it. Some things may be solid, others translucent; some
things intensify light, and some things just cast shadow. You
perhaps expose for a short moment, and then you rearrange these
objects and make another exposure. What he's doing is getting a
quasi-abstract image without reference, you see, to the optical
image. Now, it would be possible to combine them, so you can't be
rigid about it. Pirkle Jones did some perfectly beautiful things.

*Weegee was the professional name of Arthur Fellig.


Adams: I think he used honey and objects on it. Honey would float over the
paper or flow between paper and glass and leave these beautiful
patterns. And they were of very fine tonal quality. Moholy-Nagy's
were usually very careless in this respect, very unspotted and blown
up big, and then he would claim that they were "constructions." But
I don't think they were. I always used to say, "Well, if you want
to do that, why don't you draw? Why don't you do what Kepes did or
Herbert Bayer or a lot of people did, really? Draw your quasi-
abstractions." But then he'll show you something where you get a
translucent glow or reflections, say, through a glass sphere you
can't draw that, you see. So, I think the photogram isn't really
photography, it just uses photo-sensitive material, but with
beautiful results.

There was a woman here that died, Margaret Valeceritos, who
would make a negative, and then she'd put it under hot water, and the
gelatin would melt and flow, and she'd get very weird and lovely
things . Then they came out with the new synthetic emulsions and
they won't melt, so she was frantic; she couldn't follow her career
in that direction! [Laughter] I guess that's life, you know.

Nuclear Bombs and Photographic Materials

Adams: If nuclear explosives were fired in the atmosphere, photography

would be in a spot. That would be the end of it. I mean one little
nuclear device in Lake Ontario and Kodak would be out of the picture,
because you couldn't avoid the radiation specks in the sensitive
materials. And to get a clear sky would be practically impossible.
So we're keeping our fingers crossed. Peace at any price!

Teiser: Have there been any effects on photography of the Nevada blasts?

Adams: Oh yes. The big one that got away from them sent a hot cloud east
over Utah, and everybody had to go indoors at St. George. It hit a
Union Pacific freight train on its way to Los Angeles. There was a
whole car of Eastman film with a lot of x-ray film. Our doctor in
Yosemite called me up one morning and said, "I'm stuck; I'm having
a terrible time. Can you come and look and see if you can figure out
what's happening?" I came to the hospital and, gee, there were these
awful-looking spots on the film. So I said, "Let's take one out of
the box and develop it." It had the same defects. Then I looked at
it, and then I knew what it was because I'd read about it. The ray
striking the film is so powerful it desensitizes it, so there's just
a little transparent hole burnt in the emulsion a bullet hole like
my Black Sun picture. And then the energy is dispersed sideways so
there's a halo. It looks like a doughnut, with a kind of hazy outer


Adams: edge. And the more powerful it is, the bigger the doughnut, and
those were all over the film. The ray went right through the
packing, and probably penetrated that without restraint, until it
hit the foil, then it was scattered and activated, and turned from
one level of energy to another, which then affected the film.

Then that same cloud affected cornfields in the Midwest, where
there's some factories that make cartons out of cornhusks. A lot of
the crude paper that you see has everything, including cornhusks, in
it. The Kodak yellow boxes for film a lot of them are made of that,
and some of that stuff was radioactive. DuPont had to close their
plant for a week, cut off all their air conditioning. Kodak had self-
internal cycling, and they could go ahead. Of course, long before
the time the cloud got to Rochester it was so weak there was no
danger to humans, but nevertheless, there could be some ruined film
and paper, and it got a little hairy for a while. So if you had one
big nuclear explosion, you'd have very serious trouble although it
might not be affecting you physically at all. We apparently can
take a lot of radiation; we have background radiation to contend with
constantly. I've seen the white flashes, the cosmic ray flashes the
astronauts write about. I've seen that a lot. People always say,
"Well, that's just a capillary bursting in the retina or in the brain.
That happens to everybody." Now it's figured out that it's cosmic
ray impact on the optic nerve or back in those receptors. Just a
flash. You close your eyes and you see it when at high altitudes.

Nature Photographs; Points of View

Teiser: We were talking about the use of photography in conservation in

general, in maintaining a decent world. I guess it had better be
used in its own self-defense too, hadn't it?

Adams: Oh yes. That's important. Well, the full use of photography, I

believe, has to have some kind of a project, whether it's a business
one or a social one or just a personal series of photographs to
express what you think I mean, a reason for doing it. Not just go
out and go "bang, bang, bang" and hope you find something you can

In the conservation world, [This isl the American Earth was a rathe
heroic thing, one of the first books on the conservation theme. And
there we brought in the human theme as well as the natural. The
implication of the beauty of nature that's needed in a world so that
you want to continue to live in it. But now you find people who are
doing just countless pictures of natural details and birds and bugs
and sunsets without the human connection. And what it does is to


Adams: give a lot of people who know about it a certain happy confirmation
"that's what I like too" feeling, you know. And the ghetto people
and the unfortunate classes and groups, they can't possibly understand
it. And there's a big resentment coming now among the poor of the
country and the racist groups a resentment against spending all this
money on wilderness, which to them is just pampering thousands of
acres of nothing, when that same money should be going into housing
and better education. They have something very important there,
from the human point of view. They feel that politically or
tactically, I guess, the approaches aren't making for a balance. So
for every ten million that is put into a national park or wilderness
area, there should be an equivalent amount that's put into education
and human welfare. But then the whole thing becomes totally
ridiculous when you think they're spending enough money every day
of the [Vietnam] war to establish a national park, or clean out a
ghetto. Then you have this conflict all the time between the people
who had an early experience and were conditioned to certain things
relating to nature, and the people who were raised in cities.

We had a group of underprivileged children up at Yosemite, and
the kids became terrified and had to go home a couple of days before
they'd planned. They were away from other people, and all these big
things just scared them. So that's another subject, and a very
profound one, in a way.

[End Tape 3, Side 2]
[Begin Tape A, Side 1]
Adams: Where were we now?

Teiser: I was about to say that I was interested in the fact that you used
one of your earliest sets of photographs of the Kings River Canyon
in the interests of conservation and took them into Washington

Adams: Oh yes, I used

Teiser: Could you tell about that episode?

Adams: Well, I'd had a tremendous collection of pictures of the Sierra

Nevada that appeared in various Sierra Club things in the John Muir
Trail book* and I made some enlargements for display for congressmen.
So the work was chosen because well, put it this way: there were
thousands, maybe millions, of pictures made, but I came along with a
creative interpretation which got over. And Cedric Wright's work
does the same thing. Quite a number of young photographers now do

*Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail. Berkeley: The Archtype Press,


Adams: very beautiful work in the wilderness in the mountains which is

much more than factual. And you could take, say, all of Joe Le Conte's
pictures of the High Sierra, which are very valuable historically, and
they'd have little impact; they'd just be pictures of places and
nobody would be moved. Well, he didn't intend that they should be
"moved." It's no criticism of him; he was a mechanical engineer and
a scientist. So, his photographs were nil as interpretations; they
were invaluable records of places that he had explored and mapped.
The Sierra Nevada meant tremendous things to him. But the element of
art interpretation just simply didn't interest him.

Teiser: I was looking at Helen Le Conte's copies of the Sierra Club Bulletin.
at your earliest photographs and those of a variety of other people,
and the distinction between why you were taking them and why they
were taking them is apparent.

Adams: Well, it's a different point of view. But you see, that's the

meaning of "photography is a language." Take the English language,
and you can use it for classified ads and scientific papers and news
reporting and poems and essays, all forms using the same language.
So when you say Joe Le Conte's pictures aren't any good because they're
not creative, you are wrong. What you mean is that they don't stir you
emotionally and aesthetically, but that wasn't their function. Their
great importance is as records.

One of the great problems we have in our Friends of Photography:
our charter reads that we are to further creative photography. Well
now somebody comes in who's been over to Africa, and they've got a
lot of pictures of wildlife, and he thinks they're just something
wonderful, and he's a member, and he wants to show his pictures.
Sometimes you can tell him why you can't show them but other times
you can't. Some people just simply can't understand. They never go
beyond the subject. Here they have an elephant, and it's a fairly
good shot of an elephant. But you know, you say, "Well, that's an
elephant" [laughs], but period! And a lot of people just have no
idea what you're talking about when you try to explain that you see
it at a very low level of imagination and a high level of factual

Well, let's see we have skipped around.

Teiser: Everything you've discussed brings up more
Adams: Well, that's fine
Teiser: questions and thoughts.


Quality Levels and Portraits

Teiser: Maybe this is the stupidest question in the world, but I'll ask it

anyway if I may: when you first started taking photographs seriously,
who did you think was going to look at them?

Adams: That's a very good question. I don't know. I must have had an ego,
because I made a holy pest out of myself, wanting to show everybody
the pictures. So it might have been an ego motive there. I figure
that a lot of artists may have that; maybe I still have it. I think
it was largely to show where I'd been. And then there's always the
competition among photographers: you like to show them what you're
doing, and they like to show you what they're doing.

Imogen Cunningham she's quite an extraordinary person, very
comprehensive; her world is a very rich one, and a very uneven one.
In other words, her technique would fluctuate good and bad prints,
variable, creative. Intensity will do that. But when you stop to
think of other people, practically all do that. Stieglitz was highly
selective, and he threw away many things, so that he probably had
what appeared to be a rather low volume of work. But you don't know
how many bumps and holes there are in any career. And Strand was the
same way; he was very selective. Weston wasn't. It's difficult to
not edit Weston. [Richard, known as Dick] McGraw over here has about
eight hundred prints (made under Weston' s supervision by his sons
Brett and Cole) which he's giving to [the University of California at]
Santa Cruz. And he admits himself that there's two hundred in there
that are poor photographs, but he feels he should show the whole work.
Well, I have 27,000 negatives at least in that vault right over there,
and some are pure junk. I don't know why I'm keeping them. Some have
great historic value because they were taken in Yosemite and no other
value at all. Others have narrative value, such as could be used as
illustrations or even advertisements. And then a certain small
percentage have aesthetic or creative value, which means it's the
work you really should present to the world.

So it's "operation wheelchair" as I call it. It means getting in
and printing and trying to make the segregation, because otherwise it's
going to be an awful job for my estate. Because things aren't really
defined very well. The dating is hopeless and even the titling.
I have portraits of Thomas Moran, Ina Coolbrith, a fair one of
Robinson Jeffers, Albert Bender, Edward Weston, Fujita, Phyllis
Bottome, Bennie Bufano. And some of them are very good photographs.
A few others are no good at all. The one of Moran is one of the old
glass plates, completely fouled up by over-exposure and over -developed.
His white beard is just a glob, and there's nothing in the shadow
areas of the negative. But that and the Ina Coolbrith picture have a
certain aesthetic quality. So if you take those two and put them
together early 1920s, you see they suddenly spring into something



Teiser ;





Adams :


out of logical life. And if you suddenly find those in a contemporary
collection, you don't know what's happening. It's like finding a
baby nipple along with a martini shaker. [Laughter] It'd be quite a

I suppose everything has to be taken in context. Those portraits
that you were listing then, and some others I remember, I have them
in my mind. I was looking recently again at the one that you made of
Carolyn Anspacher years ago that seems to me a portrait that stops
one person in time. Although I've seen her since, that's my idea of

Yes, that's one of my best things. A very noble one of [Gottardo]
Piazzoni the painter on his scaffold. That's one of my finest.

You don't think of yourself, I suppose, as a portrait photographer.
But as I think of them the one of Albert Bender

With the flower?

Well, I'm not a portraitist in the sense that I don't have a portrait
studio and haven't done portraits professionally

Did you do those mainly because they were friends?