Ansel Adams.

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

. (page 9 of 76)
Online LibraryAnsel AdamsConversations with Ansel Adams : oral history transcript / 1972-1975 → online text (page 9 of 76)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Part of it, yes. I just wanted to photograph them. Let's see
Colonel [Charles Erskine Scott] Wood, Sara Bard Field, Ernst Bacon.
Sometimes people have asked for pictures. I did a recent one of
Sandor Salgo the conductor here a Hungarian. They wanted me to
make a donation to the [Cannel] Bach Festival, and so I donated the
portrait. And it came out quite beautifully. And that's the way
these things emerge. But I mean I never had a portrait studio as
such, because I couldn't imagine anything more difficult or uncertain
than trying to do portraits of random people. You don't have a
chance to know them. I don't want to be the Bachrach of the Monterey
Peninsula. [Laughter]

Edward [Weston] made his living largely with portraits,
were very effective. But I don't think it was his best work.
his picture of Albert Bender is superb.

I don't remember that.

Well, that's a good human image, but not a great photograph.



Albert Bender

Teiser: You were going to speak about Albert Bender.

Adams: That's very complicated. I met him first at Cedric Wright's home
in Berkeley. Let's see, it was a musical evening, but Cedric said,
"Show Albert Bender some of your mountain pictures." Albert was very
much impressed and said, "Come and see me tomorrow morning, and bring
some prints." Well, I showed him some work and he said, "We have to
do a portfolio of these." It was the furthest from my thoughts. I
was still trying to be a pianist. So I said, "Let me think about it."

In two or three days I went down there again in the morning with
a big bunch. He selected a number and he said, "Grabhorn will print
it. And Jean Chambers Moore says she'll publish it, and now we've
got to sell some copies. So how much is it going to cost?" So we
had to figure that out, and it cost quite a little, as all such
things do. I never counted my work in it; that's the way you do
these things. So he started off with five copies. Now, they were
one hundred dollars apiece, I think, which was high for those days.

Then he calls up Mrs. [Sigmund] Stern. "Top of the morning,
Rosie. How are you? Well, I've got a man in my office, and he's
got some pictures and we're going to do a portfolio, and starting it
off," he says, "I'm taking five hundred dollars."

She says, "Well, Albert, put me down for $750." "Thanks, Rosie,
that's fine." Then he calls Cora [Mrs. Marcus] Koshland. "Top of
the morning to you, Cora." Describes what he's going to do with the
portfolio "I've put in five hundred dollars and Rosie put in $750"
Rosalie and she says, "Put me down for five hundred dollars, Albert.
I'd like to have the work." And in just about two hours' time on the
telephone, he'd sold much more than the cost of the portfolio.*

He wasn't a rich man; he was well-to-do. He had a good
insurance business. And of course he was a bachelor. And he just
gave away a tremendous amount of things and money. But mostly in
small parcels. He never gave really large amounts he didn't have it.
But some artist would come and show him some pictures, and Albert
would buy one, give him a hundred-dollar check and spend an hour or
so on the telephone getting contacts for him. It was that kind of
true philanthropy. I mean, he just didn't write checks, he really
helped people. He was the most generous man, by fifty times, of
anybody else I've ever known.

*Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras. San Francisco: Jean
Chambers Moore, 1927. See also other references as indexed.


Adams: So it was this kind of patronage that really got me started. And

even during the Depression times, there was always something to do.
I did a catalogue for the de Young Memorial Museum. Bender had a
group of very handsome Chinese carvings, and we made a portfolio of
that for Mills College. I don't remember the circumstances, but I
think there were ten or twenty images in each set and they sold for
several hundred dollars apiece, and the proceeds then enabled him to
buy these marbles for the college. So, many things were done on that
basis: I'd get a fee for the job, then he would sell four or five
copies, and the difference would allow things to happen.


Teiser: Those were the first photographs on specific commissions?

Adams: Some, yes. Now, I did the Maurice Sterne paintings for the Department
of Justice Building. He painted them in San Francisco, and I did
them at his studio at the California School of Fine Arts. It was
terribly hard getting even light on them because they were very big.
And I have a beautiful portfolio of that. I did Coloramas for Kodak
[i.e., Eastman] big things to be shown in Grand Central Station.
And I did let's see, Fortune magazine, general advertising commissions,
and then worked for the Yosemite people. Later on, projects would come
up like Timber Cove. And I did a whole series of pictures of Laguna
Niguel. They said they wanted to have these pictures to guide the
development. They absolutely ruined the place; it didn't guide the
development at all I

Then I did an enormous series of pictures for the University of
California of the Santa Cruz campus before there was anything
developed there. And that was very valuable because the architects
could see what certain areas on the map looked like.

Teiser: I wonder if those photographs didn't have something to do with setting
the tone of that whole campus as it is now?

Adams: Well, put it this way: it's only half what we wanted. The architec
ture is, I think, sad. Better if it had been something like Foothill
College. They should have really gone to the Maybeck feeling, where
you'd have a blending of the buildings and of the out-of-doors. But
Crown College is like a suburban housing project. Stevenson College
looks like pictures I've seen of "British Bauhaus." Very tight
little buildings. I don't know any one that really is appropriate.
And College Five is done by Hugh Stubbins who lives in New York.
It's just hideous. I mean it's an imposition right on the landscape.
Here's one of the grandest groves of redwoods standing alone anywhere,
and there's absolutely no consideration for it. They crowded it with
a wall. It's really "brutalesque."


Teiser :
Adams :


I think I was speaking not alone of the physical development of the
buildings but of the whole spirit of the campus.

Adams :

Yes, that was the idea,
in the main.

We tried to keep the meadows, and succeeded

The students have seen those photographs, haven't they?

Oh yes. I have students calling me up and wanting me to protest
against something that's going in.

Tommy [Thomas D.] Church and I did the definitive paper on
style the photographs were part of that what the University could
represent in terms of style in relation to the natural environment.
And I just got a letter the other day saying that was still the
guiding light although sometimes it was very difficult. This
present hideous [state] administration is really very negative to
that college idea. They want a college right in the middle of the
city in one unit. They think Santa Cruz is very "extravagant."
Well, I don't think it has cost any more, and it certainly has a
tremendous effect on students. But the plans you can't afford to
have the expensive plans. So they're allowed so much square foot
cost, and the architects have an awful job getting these things to

Now, these bedrooms in Stevenson College are the worst planned
things you've ever seen. I mean, you can hardly get into the closet
door, around the bed, because it's so small. One foot more, but
They planned a little lintel over the entrance doorway; it had to
come out. They had some decoration, molding; that had to come out.
The Finance Committee of the Legislature, or State Senate, just
slashes the "amenities" out. They have no architectural advisors
on what can stay or go. So instead of having that little extra
something for style, it's up to the architect to do what they did
at the Bodega Marine Laboratory; the building is of prestressed
concrete, molded into beautiful designs. The building is a very
attractive thing although it's nothing but big columns of concrete.
But of course, they could afford to mold them into agreeable shapes,
if no ornament was added.

I did a book on the University of Rochester.
What was that?

A book on the university called Creative Change; it's a brochure.
And then I did a book for the Bishop National Bank of Hawaii, The
Islands of Hawaii; did that one after the one for the American
Trust Company. You remember that book The Pageant of History in
Northern California. "Well, then the Bishop Bank wanted me to do
the Hawaiian one.


Adams: Then I did some work for IBM
Teiser: What sort of work for IBM?

Adams: Oh, I just made a series to interpret the activities at the

Poughkeepsie plant. It's a very ugly, modern, beautifully functional
plant, and some of the things in it are very exciting. That picture
on the wall, of the transistor, is one; it's all out-dated now. It's
a computer world. So I got by fine there.

Then of course the big centennial project for the University of
California with Nancy Newhall [Fiat Lux] , and I'm sure I can think up
other things as I go along.

Albert Bender and His Friends

Teiser: Let's go back to Albert Bender. We were interested in Mrs. Newhall 's
description in The Eloquent Light of your first trip to New Mexico
with him. And who was Bertha Damon?

Adams: Well, Bertha Clark, who married Arthur Pope. She was quite a

literary person, a very fine writer, and a great friend of Witter
Bynner and Arthur Davidson Ficke. So we all went down there, you
see, and met Ella Young. Of course, she and Bender always hit it
off in fine form, because I think they had worked together in the
University of California at Berkeley before World War I. Let's see,
she's about eighty now.

Teiser: This trip was in 1927, wasn't it?

Adams: Yes. We met Ella Young and Marie Welch. And then Bertha and

Arthur Pope separated, and he married Phyllis Ackerman the authority
on textiles and she married Professor Damon of Brown University and
lived in the East, and apparently did very well in real estate,
developed areas with style. She did that earlier at Point Richmond
out here. Beautiful houses. She's still living, and she's a good
friend of Ernst Bacon who's here now, staying with us. (He lives in

So then we met Mary Austin, too, down there.

Teiser: Oh yes. That brings up another subject, but let's stick with
Albert Bender.

Adams: I would take Albert he didn't drive on innumerable trips. We'd
come down here to Monterey and Carmel every so often, and see all


Adams: the friends Robinson Jeffers and Johnny O'Shea and Kriley a kind
of a circuit. Albert liked nature, as a Christmas tree with human
ornaments on it. He didn't care much for the natural scene; he just
liked fresh air and people, which is wonderful.

Then we'd go over often to Mills College with the back of the
car laden with books and things, maybe some Chinese things he'd
gotten. We went to Yosemite, and I can't tell you how many trips
in all. He'd call me up and say, "Well, Dr. Adams, are you free
today?" Sometimes I wasn't, but I would certainly make an effort
to be. And we'd get in the old car and go out. Knew somebody at
Napa writers and knew somebody at College of the Pacific over in
Stockton. We'd drive over and see these people and go and see
printers. And then people would come. He'd entertain. He was a
great friend of Ruth St. Denis. And I remember we drove to Los
Angeles to hear the San Francisco Symphony, and Ruth St. Denis's
group danced with it, and we took her down she and Ted Shawn. We
drove down to Los Angeles.

I'll never forget that day. We went to an apartment for
dinner Mrs. Guggenheim of the Guggenheim family. And this was a
whole floor in one of these Hollywood buildings, and it was very
elaborate wow! She had gorgeous things in it. She said, "Of
course, you'll leave your car here and we'll go over in mine
because it's so difficult parking and my people can handle it much
easier." So that was fine.

So after this very elaborate dinner we go downstairs and here's
a great big Rolls Royce, really custom-made; everything you can
think of a huge thing. And a chauffeur and a footman. So we get
into this thing. Oh, it was beautiful, and these little cabinets!
I said, "Do you drive this car from New York every year?" (Because
she spent winters in New York.) "Oh no," she said, "I have the
exact duplicate of it back there." [Laughter] Albert Bender was
horrified, shaking his head. He always thought such great affluence
was rather silly. Mrs. Stern entertained beautifully and was always
doing something for people, but very seldom if ever would have just
a stupid social party. It would be a dinner for somebody like Diego
Rivera. And when she put on a dinner, there was probably none
better. Just great style.

And Albert Bender would have entertainment, but he didn't
drink. He was an Irish Jew. His father was a rabbi and his mother
was an Irish woman. And he came over as a boy and worked in his
cousin's insurance business. But he never drank I don't know
whether he didn't like it or why. But he always had liquor in his


Adams: He had an old lady housekeeper who didn't know anything about it
all. She'd cook him this disgusting-looking plate of scrambled
eggs for dinner. He'd come home after a big day and there 'd be
two pieces of toast and scrambled eggs. When he had a dinner, he'd
get somebody in. But he would have parties, and she would have
scotch and ginger ale and no ice. She'd always forget the ice.
[Laughter] So his friends gradually learned and they'd bring some
ice,, you know, and put it in a bowl. But she knew so little, she
thought ginger ale and soda were the same! Of all the horrible
concoctions in the world, it was that. So there were these funny
little lapses.

That Tibetan scroll was his he eventually left that to us.
Teiser: Oh, hanging there.
Adams: Yes, that's handsome.

Teiser: Very. He served a function apparently in bringing artists of all
ages and kinds together.

Adams: Yes. And he was very important in the creative printing world.

Teiser: You said he got the Grabhorns to print the text of your first

Adams: Yes. But when it came to the Taos book [Taos Pueblo] , he asked

Nash to do it, and I had a preliminary talk with Nash.* He was going
to cover the inside with Spanish parchment sheets. He had a whole
lot of Spanish parchment sheets music sheets. And I said, "Dr.
Nash, this book has nothing to do with Gregorian music; this is
Indian Pueblos Southwest." And he said, "Pueblo Pueblo's
Spanish, isn't it?" [Laughter] I went back to Albert and I said,
"It's impossible. He wants to do something that's just impossible!"
He was an ass, I must admit really stupid. I said, "Can't we get
Grabhorn to do it?" So Grabhorn completed it, with the paper all
made to order. Half of it was coated by Dassonville, on which I
made the prints, and the rest of it went into the text which
Grabhorn printed. But Grabhorn didn't have that big a press, so
he printed the four-page sheets (two to a side) one page at a time.
Hazel Dreis was doing the binding, but the columns did not line up,
and they couldn't be bound. I mean if she kept on folding, the
columns would tilt further and further apart. There was no way of
making the fold parallel. A very complicated thing. So that was a
terrible blow. We just had enough paper left to print it properly.

*John Henry Nash.


Adams: But Grabhorn* would say, "You're crazy; it's printed perfectly."
And they were beautiful pages to look at!

Albert Bender had come to Grabhorn 's studio. And Hazel laid
them out and got a ruler and a T-square. She said, "All right, now,
Grabhorn, is that straight or isn't it?" "Well, it is off, I guess.
Yes. We'll have to do it over." Well, what are you going to do
when you've got a special run of paper? There was just enough paper
to do it. I don't think there were six signatures left over.**

Then she wanted a special grain leather and she just ordered
it and never asked the price. It arrives, through customs from
Algeria or somewhere, and there's $480 due on it. I didn't have
eighty dollars. Who pays it? Albert Bender. So I tried to pay
Albert back. I went and worked and things, but he was never he
always said, "Well, you just do your work. That's all the payment
I want." He didn't consider me a business investment. [Laughter]
And he was very, very kind. So he did give me the entree to a
whole stratum of society and cultural level in San Francisco I
never would have had otherwise.

Cedric Wright

Harroun: You said when you met him at Cedric Wright's that you were still in
the field of music?

Adams: Yes, I was still an active pianist.
Harroun: Was this a turning point then?

Adams: Well, yes. This was almost it really was the turning point, but
I didn't know it. I tried to practice and keep up everything else
too until 1930. Well, there's a very hazy point there, because
even in 1932 I was doing accompaniments, and photography. And then
it just came to the point that I couldn't do both.

*By correspondence:

Teiser: When you talk about Grabhorn, you mean Ed, don't you?

You didn't deal with Bob [Robert], did you?

Adams: Dealings were usually with Ed, but I knew Bob quite

**See also other references to Taos Pueblo as indexed.


Adams: Cedric Wright, a violinist, was an old friend. He was the son of
my father's lawyer. My father's lawyer was not very ethical,
unfortunately, but Cedric was one of my dearest friends. I met
him first in 1923 on a Sierra Club outing, and then we'd see him
often, and he liked the way I played and I liked the way he played.
He made some photographs too, and pretty soon he switched over,
because he had a fairly large personal income. He never had to do
anything, which seems always a curse. I will say he was very
diligent. But at an ego level I mean he just had to do these
mountain pictures. He was very anxious always to get them out and
to get applause. He wasn't a very good violinist. His first wife
was a much better one, and I guess that's one of the reasons why
they split, because she was obviously a very superior musician.
He could have been a grand pianist he had great big "piano" hands.
But, he tried to get quality out of his fiddle, and the intonation
wouldn't be ideal. But he had a very fine musical spirit. I mean,
he could really bring things to life, like Ernst Bacon.

So that was my friendship there, and then he got into doing
more and more portraits; finally did chiefly portrait work, except
for his summer work in the mountains, and he did very well. And
then he got older and more difficult and married a lady who really
didn't help too much and had two kids who were difficult one was
very difficult, the other was all right. So he developed high
blood pressure and had a terrible doctor, and they didn't take care
of it, and he went a little off his bat. He had this kind of
paranoia about education and public schools. He'd write reams of
expository texts. When he finished this book, it was a foot thick.
I said, "Well, you've got to have it edited. You can't print this."
I said, "Get Nancy Newhall to do it." She boiled it down to some
really very good writing. But he wouldn't accept that at all. He
thought she was missing all the important points. I don't know
what's happened to the text of the thing. It had some very fine
passages in it kind of Thoreau-esque. But otherwise just as
screwy as you can get.

And then he finally had a stroke and never really recovered.

Teiser: Helen Le Conte was speaking of him, saying he was a genius without
a field to express it.

Adams: Yes, that's good. He had the genius tendency, but he never

realized it. I think music was right; he was very happy in it.
But he picked the one instrument that his physique wasn't favorable


Musicians and Artists

Adams: Now, in a sense I've got a lovely violin hand. My fingers are very
strong and light very small. But I'm a pianist, see. I could
never get the power, the richness somebody like Ernst Bacon can get,
or my late friend Victor Babin. I suppose I'd have been an ideal
harpsichordist. It's a very important thing we don't think of
those things often but I didn't have the ear for the strings. I
have beautiful relative pitch but absolutely n absolute pitch.

Teiser: I suppose it was hard to break away from the piano. People had
encouraged you in it.

Adams: I could I still can, if you'll pardon the conceit produce a very
beautiful tone. I was trained in tone control and voicing. I
still amaze myself at times by the sculptural effect, which was my
basic training. It was largely impact control, and of course the
arthritis has knocked that. But it's interesting that there is a
legato and there is an impact. You can especially hear it in
fugues; I can really make the voices completely stand out, which is
much more difficult with "weight" playing, to give the full color.
The impact, touch I had that, and it's really stayed with me all
these years. I mean I play terribly now inaccurately but it's
just interesting how lasting the training you sometimes get can be.
And so, up to that point, I could have gone on and I could have been
very fine in a very limited field, but when it came to doing the
greater Beethoven and Brahms and the heroic Scriabin things, why
my fingers couldn't manage them.

Teiser: Did you realize that? Was that part of your decision?

Adams: I began to realize just part of it. But people encouraged me and
said, "No, don't worry about that. Think of Laurie [Lawrence]
Strauss." You remember him. Tenor. He sang French and German
lieder and had a very meager voice, but such style you wouldn't
believe. You still remember him. And the question is, what is
music? This man could create he was simply wonderful. It was
something like [Vladimir] de Pachmann. I don't think de Pachmann
ever played anything very massive beyond Chopin. Farthest I got
with Scriabin that I could play was the C-sharp minor etude and
that really taxed me. I really didn't have it in my hands to do

V. Adams: [Entering] How're you doing?
Adams: Pretty good I



Adams :

Adams :


Adams :


Then of course I was very close to Sara Bard Field and Colonel
Wood Charles Erskine Scott Wood.

How did you meet them?

With Albert early, 1927 or '28. And of course I met Bennie Bufano.

Did all of these people in the other arts add to your creative
vision or whatever?

Oh yes, very much. Very definitely. Not that I imitated. You
couldn't do that with them. But you just had a support of your
convictions. I mean, here are people creating beauty in other
ways Maynard Dixon, Dorothea Lange, Robert Howard, the Puccinellis-
oh gosh, I can't remember all the people.

That's Raymond Puccinelli?

Yes. I know very few of the contemporary artists.

Of these artists, I don't suppose you admired all of their work?

No no. Some more than others. Bufano' s drawings were simply
magnificent; some of his sculpture was pretty corny. Sara Bard
Field's poetry was better than the Colonel's. [Ralph] Stackpole,
I think, is a fine sculptor; beautiful massive work. Ray Boynton
did an encaustic for the Woods, which was absolutely beautiful,
more so than his paintings.

For the Woods at their home?

Their home. An outdoor mantel. But they had not sealed the stone
and the water came through and it flaked.

And Maynard Dixon was a great man, a character. (I don't
know. You can't really remember all these things.) Piazzoni was
a great stylist; very quiet. I think I like his paintings better
even now than I did then. They looked flat to me.

Did you like some of Maynard Dixon 's work?

I liked his drawings much better than his paintings,


Oh, and then another contact which was very valuable to me
was William Zorach, the painter, and his wife, Marguerite. We have
two Zorachs downstairs, one by him, one by his wife, watercolors in
Yosemite. He was there one whole summer and went on trips. He was
really marvelous a creative thinker.


Adams: And then of course Diego Rivera and [Jose C.] Orozco. And many of
the printers. [Interruption to discuss a photograph with Adams's
assistant. ]

Arnold Blanch, the painter; Maurice Sterne.
Teiser: Did you talk about aesthetics with these people?

Adams: No. When you're in the art world you don't talk about aesthetics;

Online LibraryAnsel AdamsConversations with Ansel Adams : oral history transcript / 1972-1975 → online text (page 9 of 76)