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Regional Oral History Office
The Bancroft Library

University of California
Berkeley, California

Ansel Adams

With Introductions by
James L. Enyeart

Richard M. Leonard

An Interview Conducted by
Ruth Teiser and Catherine Harroun
in 1972, 1974, and 1975

Copy No.
(c) 1978 by The Regents of the University of California

All uses of this manuscript are covered by a
legal agreement between the Regents of the University
of California and Ansel Adams, dated September 15,
1978. The manuscript is thereby made available for
research purposes. All literary rights in the
manuscript, including the right to publish, are
reserved to Ansel Adams during his lifetime or, if
deceased, to the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust
until December 31, 1989. No part of this manuscript
may be quoted for publication without the written
permission of the Director of The Bancroft Library
of the University of California at Berkeley.

Requests for permission to quote for
publication should be addressed to the Regional
Oral History Office, 486 Library, and should include
identification of the specific passages to be quoted,
anticipated use of the passages, and identification
of the user.

The legal agreement with Ansel Adams requires
that he or, if deceased, the Ansel Adams Publishing
Rights Trust be notified of the request and allowed
thirty days in which to respond.

It is recommended that this oral history be
cited as follows:

Ansel Adams, "Conversations with Ansel
Adams," an oral history conducted 1972,
1974, 1975 by Ruth Teiser and Catherine
Harroun, Regional Oral History Office,
The Bancroft Library, University of
California, Berkeley, 1978.

Photograph by Pirkle Jones

Ansel Adams receiving honorary degree from the University
of California, Charter Day, 1961.

Left to right: President Clark Kerr, Ansel Adams, Professor
Joel Hildebrand


INTRODUCTION by James L. Enyeart i

INTRODUCTION by Richard M. Leonard vii


INTERVIEW I 12 May 1972 1

Education and the Creative Process 1

Family Background and Childhood 2

Studying the Piano 6

Beginning in Photography 7

Youthful Experiences 9

Visualization and Music 12

Anticipation in Music and Photography 13

Mariner Photographs of Mars 16

"Monolith, the Face of Half Dome" 17

Literary Titles for Photographs 18

Portraiture 20

Manzanar 23

Early Days and Scientific Concepts 26

The 1915 Fair 28

Religious Concepts and Cemeteries 32

Aesthetics and Ecology 36

INTERVIEW II 13 May 1972 37

Photographic Equipment 37

Photography and Technology 40

Innovations and Patents 43

Innovations and Aesthetic Demands 44

Making Photographs and Printing Negatives 44

Photographs as Commodities 47

Photography and Politics 49

Group f/64 49

INTERVIEW III 14 May 1972 52

Stieglitz 52

Influences 56

Taste, Perspective, and Distortion 58

The Photogram 62

Nuclear Bombs and Photographic Materials 63

Nature Photographs: Points of View 64

Quality Levels and Portraits 67

Albert Bender 69

Commissions 70

Albert Bender and His Friends 72

Cedric Wright 75

Musicians and Artists 77

Cults, Controls, and Creativity 81

Prints: Tangible and Intangible Aspects 83

INTERVIEW IV 19 May 1972 87

The Group f/64 Exhibit 87

Meters, Lenses, and Film Speeds 91

Brigman, Van Dyke, Edwards, and Cunningham 94

Parmelian Prints 97

Noskowiak, Weston, Swift, Holder, Kanaga, and Lavenson 99

Brett Weston and Edward Weston 102

Applied Photography 104

Giving Photography Museum Status 105

Camera Clubs, Groups, and Galleries 110

The Golden Gate International Exposition Exhibit 113

Timing in Photography 115

Edwin Land and the Polaroid Camera System 117

INTERVIEW V ~ 20 May 1972 121

Mortensen 121

Vision and Photography 122

Flash Mishaps 125

Photographic Printing Papers 127

Writing the Basic Photography Books 129

The Zone System 131

Meters and Automation 133

Technique in Relation to Aesthetics 137

Science and the Creative Photographer 138

Sensitometry as a Creative Tool 142

Contemporary Images 146

The Nude 147

Contrivance, Arrangement, and Simulation 149

Meaning, Shape, and Form 151

Time and Reevaluation 153

The Photo League and Politics 154

Working With Dorothea Lange 158

Early Visits to New Mexico 159

INTERVIEW VI 26 May 1972 159

Indian Art and Architecture 165

Ella Young 168

Santa Fe People 172

Taos Pueblo 175

Paul Strand and a New Approach 181

Santa Fe People, Continued 183

Taos Pueblo, Continued, and The Land of Little Rain 186

More Southwest Friends and Experiences 190

INTERVIEW VII 27 May 1972 197

The Reproduction of Photographs 199

Viewing Photographs 206

Light Sources and Light Measurement 209

Technological Advances in Photographic Films 211

"The Negative is Like the Composer's Score" 215

Beauty or Therapy? 220

Astronomical Photography and Videotape 221

INTERVIEW VIII 29 May 1972 227

Early Years in Yosemite 227

Mountain Trips With Francis Holman 232

Perils and Close Calls 236

Sierra Club Trips 240

Yosemite, Continued 244

Photography Workshops and Aspiring Amateurs 246

Joseph N. LeConte in the Sierra 249

The Half Dome Cable 252

Logic and Faith 254

Panchromatic Plates 256

Dreams and Heavenly Bodies 261

Concepts of Conservation and Wilderness 264

Yosemite Concessions 265

INTERVIEW IX 2 June 1972 266

Sierra Club Photographers 266

Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail 267

Skiing in the Mountains 276

The Sierra and Other Ranges 279

Alaska 281

Aerial Photography 283

Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada 287

Yosemite Photography Workshops 291

INTERVIEW X 3 June 1972 296

Skill in Music and Photography 296

The Friends of Photography 301

Museums and Critics 305

Proper Disposition of Photographs 311

Financial Practicalities 313

Original Prints 314

One-Man Shows 318

The Creative Intention 320

Exhibit Prints and Archival Factors 321

INTERVIEW XI 4 June 1972 324

Printing Earlier Photographers' Negatives 324

Eastern Visit, 1933 328

The Stieglitz Exhibit and the Adams Gallery 335

35 Millimeter and 2 1/4 Cameras 337

Photographs for Magazines 342

Assignments 346

Working With Dorothea Lange, Continued 348

Wartime Work 351

Problems Encountered 353

"Making" and "Shooting" Photographs 359

Printing and Papers 361

INTERVIEW XII 30 June 1972 363

More on Photography Workshops 363

Teachers and Critics 369

The Development of the Zone System 372

The Art Center School 372

The California School of Fine Arts 374

Large Photographs 375

Photographing a Potash Mine 379

Photographing the Carlsbad Caverns 381

Preserving Negatives 383

The Late Thirties and the Fair 386

Photographic Industry Attitudes 387

INTERVIEW XIII 1 July 1972 389

A Pageant of Photography 389

Land, Kennedy, Stieglitz, Norman, and Steichen 391

A Pageant of Photography, Continued 394

Aspects of Edward Weston 398

Landscape Photography and Taste 400

The Museum of Modern Art 401

"The Family of Man" 403

Nancy Newhall 404

Various Exhibitions 405

Geraldine McAgy and Lisette Model 409

Frank Lloyd Wright 411

Civil War and Frontier Photographs 413

More on the Manzanar Photographs 415

Museums and Galleries 417

Yosemite Today 422

INTERVIEW XIV 2 July 1972 423

Richard McGraw 423

Publications 425

Guggenheim Fellowships 431

Morgan & Lester, Morgan & Morgan 436

Color in Photography 440

Portfolios and Publishing, 1948-1952 444

Aperture Edited by Minor White 449

Beaumont and Nancy Newhall 456

Traveling Exhibits 459

"This is the American Earth" 462

Ecology and Rationality 471

Book Publishing 473

INTERVIEW XVI 8 July 1972 478

Work in Progress 478

The Pageant of History in Northern California 479

Making Photographs, 1972 488

Reproduction Rights 490

More Books 493

Government-Sponsored Exhibits 496

Photography Critics 499

Honors and Hawaii Books 501

INTERVIEW XVII 9 July 1972 503

Photographing Wineries and Vineyards 503

Pirkle Jones and Ruth-Marion Baruch 508

"Images and Words" Workshops 511

The Design of Printed Material 513

Scientists and Optics 515

Working With the Polaroid Corporation 521

Revising the Basic Photography Books 527

Hawaii Books, Continued 529

Signed Prints and Limited Editions 532

INTERVIEW XVIII 14 July 1972 534

Dreams 534

1963 Exhibition and The Eloquent Light 534

Traveling Prints and "Theme Shows" 538

Honors 541

Fiat Lux 543

Illustrating Jeffers and Other Writers 558

What Does a Photograph Do? 561

Conflicts and Friendships 562

INTERVIEW XIX 15 July 1972 565

More on Reproduction Rights 565

Darkrooms 569

Darkroom Tour 572

Formulas and Procedures 578

INTERVIEW XX (Sierra Club Interview I) 16 July 1972 582

Early Aesthetic Impact of Yosemite 582

"Some Wild Experiences" 585

Animals and People in the National Parks 587

Sierra Club Indoctrination, 1923 594

Concepts and Techniques of Conservation 595

Forces For and Against Conservation 601

Balancing Preservation and Recreation 606

INTERVIEW XXI (Sierra Club Interview II) 11 August 1972 608

Sierra Club People 608

Hetch Hetchy 613

Atomic Power Plants 615

Private Interests and the Public Interest 617

The Sierra Club and the Government 622

The Park Service and the Forest Service 624

Trans-Sierra Highways, Continued 632

The National Geographic and the Sierra Club Bulletin 636

INTERVIEW XXII (Sierra Club Interview III) ~ 12 August 1972 637

Sierra Club Outings 637

More Sierra Club People 643

Sierra Club Campaigns 646

Protection and Overprotection 653

Citizens' Campaigns 659

The Sierra Club and Its Chapters 661

INTERVIEW XXIII (Sierra Club Interview IV) - 13 August 1972 664

Sierra Club Publications 667

Zoning 671

The Sierra Club Decision-Making Structure 672

Leadership Conflicts 675

Publication Problems 680

Conservation Conferences 683

Gifted People 684

Conflicts, Continued 686

Preserving Wilderness Through Legislation 690

INTERVIEW XXIV (Sierra Club Interview V) 8 September 1972 691

The Sierra Club Foundation 694

Dams and Reservoirs 696

Transferring Properties to Public Ownership 699

A Western Club or a National Club? 705

Protecting and Administering Public Lands 706

The Alaska Pipeline 708

"The Conscience of the Board" 709

A Publications Program 714

The Future of the Sierra Club 716

INTERVIEW XXV 19 May 1974 721

Recent Exhibits 721

Polaroid Prints 725

Lighting Pictures 725

Plans 726

INTERVIEW XXVI 23 February 1975

Art Festival at Aries 727

Images 1923-1974 729

White House Visit 735

Park Problems and Solutions 736

Death of Nancy Newhall 740

More on the Friends of Photography 741

Future and Recent Events 743



INTRODUCTION, by James L. Enyeart

Ansel Adams has often said that he is "incapable of verbalization on
the content" of his photographs. "If a photograph does not say it, words or
explanation cannot help." However, as the following interview will reveal,
Ansel Adams is a most capable spokesman on his work and a great many other
topics. When he says "verbalization," he means his inability to interpret
or put into words the meaning of his photographs and, in that, he is not alone.
Eloquent words by critics or historians may compliment, describe, or serve in
other ways an artist's creations but, in the end, must yield to the muteness
of the pen when applied to the visual arts.

Two series of events early in Adams' life stand out as significant land
marks in the development of his aesthetic predilections. Chronologically, the
first of the two was his chance meeting with Paul Strand in Taos, New Mexico,
in 1930. Strand had at the time only negatives to show Adams and, as he held
each one up to the light of a window, a dramatic transformation took place in
Adams' understanding of the medium. He felt he understood for the first time
the poetic strength and structural power potential to the photographic medium.
Up to that point, Adams felt that he had been "mostly adrift with my own spirit,
curiosity, and vision." This revelation was of sufficient intensity to inspire
Adams to give up a growing career in music and to devote his life to photography.
(He had for many years trained as a concert pianist.)

For Adams, a commitment to photography encompassed the whole of photography
and all its possible communicable aspects: commercial, documentary, political,
and most important, aesthetic. This experience also revealed to him for the
first time the relevance, spirit, and intent of the work of his friend and


peer, Edward Weston. Prior to his meeting with Strand, Adams had become a
friend of Weston's but had not liked his photographs; however, two years later,
he, Weston, and several other photographers (Willard Van Dyke, Imogen Cunningham,
Sonya Noskowiak, and Henry Swift) with similar aesthetic ideals founded Group f.64
a visual manifesto of what they believed the straight photograph to be. In that
same year, Adams had his first important one-man exhibition at the M. H. deYoung
Memorial Museum in San Francisco.

The second series of events which most affected Adams and his subsequent
life as an artist took place between the years 1933 and 1936. In 1933, he made
his first trip to New York and met Alfred Stieglitz with the purpose of showing
Stieglitz his photographs. Stieglitz was supportive and encouraged Adams in
the direction manifested in his photographs. In 1936, Stieglitz gave Adams
a one-man exhibition at An American Place, making him the first young photog
rapher to be shown at Stieglitz 1 gallery since Paul Strand in 1917. Following
the opening of the exhibition, Adams wrote a letter to a friend which detailed
the success of the show and the impact Stieglitz was having on his life. The
following is an excerpt from that letter: "To describe what Stieglitz is and
what he does is impossible. He has dedicated himself to an idea and he has
worked like hell for forty years to put the idea over. And it seems to be
going over now with all the inevitability of the tides. The Marin show at
The Museum of Modern Art exceeds anything of its kind shown in America. The
work O'Keeffe is doing now is remarkable. Stieglitz promised me a picture of
New York that will send chills up and down your spine when you see it. And
here is Mr. Adams suddenly handed the most important assignment of his short


lifeto maintain photographic standards as one of the Stieglitz group. I was
quite a little stuck-up over the obvious material success of the Chicago show
but what has happened to me here has thoroughly deflated everything but a
sense of humility and responsibility. Nobody has conceit when they are with
Stieglitz. The essential honesty transcends everything. You are or you are
not. The pattern-sequence seems to indicate that I am." Humility, a sense
of responsibility, and a commitment to the art world are all important aspects
of Ansel Adams' character, as is his immutable sense of humor reflected in
his love for puns and limericks.

As an artist, Adams gained an understanding and appreciation of the
"equivalent" concept from his association with Stieglitz. Combined with his
stylistic preference for the straight approach and his love for nature's
grandeur, the "equivalent" aesthetic became for Adams an idea and mission
uniquely his own which remains unrivaled today. Although his famous "Zone
System" serves the science and technology of the medium, its primary purpose
was one of providing a means for attaining the highest quality representation
of the philosophical implications inherent in the straight approach and one's
own personal vision. Equally important is Adams' attempt to make his photo
graphs "equivalents" of his experiences, emotions, sensations, and thoughts.
It is Adams' forging of the straight and equivalent photographic concepts into
a unique style and philosophy of his own that has brought him the many admirers
and honors he enjoys today.

One of Adams' greatest supporters and technical collaborators, Edwin Land,
has said better than any other just what this unique Adams aesthetic is: "Adams
realized that even the most precisely representational photograph is so far


removed from external reality that he was free to use such photography as a
point of departure for his own kind of abstraction. That Adams has chosen
what appears to be the most representational of media and subjects most
prone to be represented, that he has chosen these to be the basis of his most
abstract perceptions, is the first essential step in his genius. The challenge
of making a non-sentimental statement about a grand insight into the abstract
is multiplied a thousand-fold when the components of the subject have names
and reminiscences to characterize themtree and twig, rock and boulder-
components assembled furthermore not as accidents but in their natural habitats
as ordinary 'beautiful' arrangements. The greater the photographic skill brought
to bear, the more elegant the technology employed, the more serious the threat
to the artist who would lead us step by step in his own direction. For, as
compared with the forms in ordinary abstract art, the direct derivatives from
reality are distractions of deadly power.

"Thus the challenge which Adams undertook to meet was to show that these
meticulously beautiful photographs, these instruments of distraction, could be
directed by him towards unified new insights. He demonstrates that there is
no greater aesthetic power than the conversion of the familiar into the
unbelievably new."

Aside from the inventors of the medium, there have been few photographers
who have made greater or more lasting contributions to the field of photography
than Ansel Adams. His books on the aesthetics and technology of photography
(including those books of his own photographs) are basic to the literature of
the medium. Since 1949, he has been a consultant to Polaroid Corporation,
and he was a major force in the creation of the Photography Department at The
Museum of Modern Art, the Photography Department of the San Francisco Art

Institute, the Friends of Photography in Carmel, and the Center for Creative
Photography at the University of Arizona in Tucson. He has helped to establish
major collections of his work and the work of others at major museums and
recently, with his wife Virginia, established the Beaumont and Nancy Newhall
Fellowship at The Museum of Modern Art. In a different vein, but still through
his photography, Adams has been a major spokesman for the Sierra Club (Board
Member 1934-71) and remains today an ardent conservationist; that is, an
active advocate of the preservation and protection of the natural environment.

Ansel Adams is perhaps the most well-known 20th century photographer
throughout the Western world. In fact, his name is probably more familiar to
a greater variety of people (and thereby a greater number) than any other
visual artist, regardless of medium. This fame is not based on the murmurings
of an elite art world and economy, but is the result of fifty years of pub
lishing and exhibiting his photographs in those forums which allowed him to
reach the broadest spectrum of society possible.

If Stieglitz and his circle are considered the pioneers of photography
in modern art, then Adams may be considered the master of those earlier horizons.
His legacy to the art world will be the institutions he helped create, the
technology he subdued, the photographers he inspired and, most importantly,
what he terms his "affirmation of life" - his photographs.

September 14, 1978 James L. Enyeart


Center for Creative Photography
University of Arizona, Tucson


INTRODUCTION by Richard M. Leonard

The life of Ansel Adams is happily condensed and exemplified in a photo
by his close friend Cedric Wright. "Sermon on the Mount" shows Ansel with
tripod and large view camera on the summit of Mount Whitney speaking with almost
religious fervor to a large group of Sierra Club friends. He was telling of the
gentle beauty of the "Range of Light," Muir's favorite subject. Ansel continued
his love of the Sierra Nevada for more than sixty years , to a culmination in the
[forthcoming] publication of his great scenic book Yosemite and the Range of Light.

Ansel always was, and is, a very generous, outgoing person. Hundreds of
his finest prints have been given, without charge, to "the cause" any
publication that would help public appreciation of the beauty of nature. One
time Ansel and my wife, Doris, were on photographic business in Yosemite. At
Valley View, the great scenic vista of the valley, two little old ladies in
tennis shoes approached Doris asking her to take their pictures with their
camera. Doris suggested the kindly man with the handsome beard. They did, and
Ansel calmly analyzed the controls of the box camera and took a truly beautiful
picture of them. They never knew the fee they missed.

For almost sixty years Ansel has been a member of the Sierra Club. It has
been one of his greatest joys, and in later years one of immense frustration.
He was of the old school, with views similar to the founders of the club and to
Colby, LeConte, and Farquhar. He loved the knowledgeable negotiations for more
park protection, based on facts as to the beauty and importance of the areas
involved. It hurt him to see the leadership of the club pass for a while into
bitter antagonism to the land protection agencies, "kicking their shins," as he
called it, instead of supportive negotiation based on reason.

He comments in his text that I called him "the conscience of the Sierra
Club." That is true. Frank Kittredge, Regional Director of the National Park
Service, told the board of directors of the club one time that "the administrator
almost always has to make financial and political compromises. If the Sierra
Club's position is not far to the 'white,' then the compromise may be a darker
shade of gray."

So at page 67 of my own oral history I stated in a discussion of the
"purists" of the environmental movement that:

"Ansel is so pure he tried for at least ten years to resign (from the
club) before he finally accomplished the resignation after his (1971)
heart attack. Every time he would want to resign, he knew me so well
and seemed to respect my views that I was always able to talk him out


of it. He would say that nobody paid any attention to him and his
views. I would say, 'Yes,' quoting Kittredge again, 'but you don't
know how much more closer to the black we would have voted if it
hadn't been for you arguing for the absolute pure white position.'
In those days the Sierra Club did compromise much more than it does
today. Ansel was an absolute purist and still is."

Upon Ansel's retirement in 1971 the board of directors, in appreciation of
his thirty-seven years on the board and his exceptionally high quality contribu
tions, unanimously elected him an honorary vice-president of the Sierra Club.
Because of Ansel's objection to the new "shin-kicking" method of negotiations,
Ansel refused the honor. In 1974 he was again unanimously elected honorary
vice-president, and again refused the honor.

Finally, in 1978 Ansel had "mellowed" a bit, and the Sierra Club had
matured beyond the strident attitude of the past few years and had clearly
accomplished an immense amount of environmental good. So Ansel graciously
accepted the honor, a fitting rapprochement in the fine work of Ansel and the
Sierra Club over so many years.

Richard M. Leonard

Honorary President, Sierra Club

A July 1978
Berkeley, California



The interview with Ansel Adams was held in twenty-six sessions. The
first twenty-four began 12 May 1972 and concluded 8 September of that year.
Of them, the last five were devoted to Sierra Club affairs, although the club
had been referred to and some aspects of it discussed in earlier sessions.
The final two sessions in the series were held on 19 May 1974, and 23 February
1975, and were concerned principally with events recent to those dates.

All of the interviewing was done in Ansel Adams's home at Carmel
Highlands, California. Most were held in the comfortable living room; the
only exception was the darkroom tour described in the interview. All of the
sessions were held in the late afternoons on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.
Most lasted about two and a half hours. Mr. Adams, who had usually spent the
day working in his darkroom, viewed the interview sessions as periods of
relaxation. He preferred not to consider the subject matter in advance but

Online LibraryAnsel AdamsConversations with Ansel Adams : oral history transcript / 1972-1975 → online text (page 1 of 76)