136. Ansel Adams-The Last Interview by Milton Esterow
ART NEWS Volume 83/No 6
ANSEL ADAMS-THE LAST INTERVIEW
Two months ago, I spent two afternoons interviewing Ansel Adams at his home in Carmel, California. It was one of the most memorable experiences I have ever had. He was warm, brilliant, imaginative, sensitive, funny. We talked about everything from music to Georgia O'Keeffe to the glories of Point Lobos to how to unload my camera. I had planned to return to Carmel for further sessions, but he died on April 22. Following are excerpts from his last interview.
Who among contemporary photographers do you admire?
I like Joel Meyerowitz for color. I think he has superior color sense. Mary Ellen Mark is tremendous. The trouble is that a great deal of new photography seems sort of experimental, without any great motive. I feel very bleak about a lot of it. So many don't care about craft. I like Olivia Parker. Don Worth is good, and Nicholas Nixon. George Tice is very subtle. Bill Clift, yes, he's something. Roy DeCarava is very important.
How about among the older photographers?
Brett Weston is the best tie-in between the past and the future. His craft is wonderful. But he's 72, I think. He's just a kid. I like Wright Morris, Arnold Newman, Elliot Porter. One man I love dearly is Bill Brandt. I think he had wonderful breadth. That's really quite a stable of the most excellent people. But the question is, how do you get photography to be thought of or mentioned in terms of what we call art?
Is it happening?
It's happening more and more, but it's coming in through the rear attic window for some reason. It doesn't seem to be a real basic feeling yet. You wouldn't believe it, but today there are several art schools where they're having problems-and not only with getting funds from the government. The trouble is the opposition of other artists, the painters and the sculptors putting photography down.
It's not exactly a renaissance, but more and more museums are putting on photography exhibitions and appointing photography curators throughout the United States. There's still a long way to go, though.
If they have an old master like Edward Weston or Paul Strand or even yours truly, who's been around for so long, it's really like showing a 19th-century character. If they show him, they're reasonably safe. And people appreciate it. But when it comes to something new or something up to date, we don't seem to be able to compete with the painters as well as we should-not at the same level of perception or concept. I don't know why we don't.
Could you spell that out a bit more?
Well, you have your abstractionists and you have your conceptualists, you have your nonobjective painting, a lot of very neat categories. And people are trying to achieve the same variety of expression in photography, but it doesn't seem to be having the impact. Have you heard of a photography show recently that has attracted the same attention or critical praise as a painting show? One of the problems is the teaching of photography. In England, I was told, there's an institute in which nobody can teach photography until they've had five years' experience in the field, until they've had to make a go of it professionally.
Would you recommend that?
I think that teachers should certainly have far more experience than most of the ones I know of have had. I think very few of them have had practical experience in the world. Maybe it's an impossibility. But most of the teachers work pretty much the same way. The students differ more from each other than the teachers do.
Have you been amused at all through the years by interpretations of some of your photographs?
Oh yes, I've had some lulus! I made a photograph in 1939 of a cemetery statue and oil derricks in Long Beach, California. At that time we'd all been bitten by the Surrealist bug, and we were finding incongruous juxtapositions everywhere. I was out near Long Beach and drove by a cemetery, and here was this white marble angel of death behind some oil derricks. Well, it was a very strange juxtaposition, so I made the picture. Years later I showed it to an environmentalist. "Oh, my gosh," he said, "where's that photograph been? That's the whole symbol of pollution." So that photograph has been used on many occasions as a symbolic illustration: the angel of death before the polluters.
Some critics are in the habit of reading the artist's mind.
The worst example of that is the program notes for symphonies. You read all this stuff-and what? It has absolutely nothing to do with what happens. As a kid, I went to a concert by Paderewski. He had just returned from Poland. Here was this gigantic San Francisco auditorium, and I had seats in about the third row. There were two girls sitting next to me with the score. When Paderewski came out, everybody just stood up. No clapping, nothing, everyone just stood. He turned a pale ashen color. If someone had clapped, it would have been a godsend. He just stood there. Finally, he went to the piano and sat down. Then there was the sound of thousands of people sitting down. And he was obviously very moved; you could see it. He was going to play a Mendelssohn sonata. Well, these girls had their score open, and he saw them. He looked over and said, sort of sotto voce, "You will not find it there, my dears." Boy, they closed that score! And then he proceeded to play.
When did you decide to become a photographer?
In 1930 I was in Taos, and Paul Strand showed me his negatives. They were so gorgeous, they confirmed my urge, and I said, "That's it. I want to be a photographer." Some friends said, "Oh, don't give up music. [Adams had been studying to be a concert pianist.] A camera cannot express the human soul." The only argument I had for that was that maybe the camera couldn't, but I might try through the camera. Anyway, it worked. I seemed to have an eye, and everything went very smoothly. I had no wracking problems. I progressed. Study in music gave me a fine basis for the discipline of photography. I'd have been a real Sloppy Joe if I hadn't had that. So before I knew it, I had done some jobs and begun to make a go of it. And here I am.
If you had to choose one work of art, either a painting or a sculpture or a photograph, to live with, what would you pick?
Well, the most beautiful painting I've ever seen is Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.
Oh, just the quality. I can't verbalize about it. It just seems as perfect a thing as I can imagine. And the next choice would probably be one of El Greco's paintings of Toledo, with those amazing shafts of light.
What about Picasso's Guernica, which you photographed for the Museum of Modern Art?
That grew on me. Every time I'd visit I'd make a beeline to see Guernica. That is an incredible painting. And there are several Georgia O'Keeffes that move me deeply-and a handful of Arthur Doves. And I'm also very fond of John Marin.
What if you had a photograph to pick?
Well, I had one-a Stieglitz, The City at Night. I gave it to Princeton in honor of [friend and inveterate photography booster] David McAlpin.
Are there any photographs that you wish you had taken?
Oh, gee, I liked some of Edward Weston's. Weston was a very close friend, we had an excellent mutual understanding. He did some beautiful things-the peppers and a few tide-pool pictures here at Point Lobos. Some of his portraits are marvelous.
Very reliable sources tell me you're still a workaholic. Is this true?
Yes, I think I like to be called that. I sometimes have a hangover now.
How do you spend your days?
I get up, I move around, I go to bed. I get up fairly early, usually have breakfast at eight o'clock. I like to spend my mornings in the darkroom. I'm trying to catch up on the negatives I've got that I've never printed.
How many negatives haven't you printed?
I don't know. There are thousands, but I think there must be 500 that simply have to be printed.
How has music affected your life?
Well, in music you have this absolutely necessary discipline from the very beginning. And you are constructing various shapes and controlling values. Your notes have to be accurate or else there's no use playing. There's no casual approximation.
You've said that when you're printing there's a metronome in your head.
You make tests, preferably with the soft paper. Just take a strip test and that shows you everything that's in the negative. Suppose that I start with a new negative for me, one I haven't seen for 20 years. I just make a print and see, and then I can revisualize the image that I wanted. Then I build up contrast. Of course, I have to get the print to have all the correct feeling. Then I write down how I did it, so no matter how many duplicates I have to make, I have my basic instructions. And then I'll remember that I have to shade in here, maybe five seconds during the exposure, and burn it a little and…that's all written out, it's all charted out, you see. And I use an electric metronome in the darkroom rather than a clock timer. Rather than having to look at a clock I can watch the print. I can watch for three seconds here and burn for five there. And all the time there's a timer going in my head.
You've been quoted as saying that when you photograph you hear music, not in a sentimental sense but structurally. You said, "I don't try to do it, it just sometimes comes." Could you talk about that?
You see relationships of shapes. I would call it a design sense. It's the beginning of seeing what the photograph is.
How about the score?
That's another approach. You visualize the print, and then you have to work backwards to feel out what kind of a negative you need that will give you that print. And then you work on the zone system.
What is the zone system?
It's the codification of sensitometry. Sensitometry is the science of the action of light on sensitive material. It's a very complicated physical science. You can liken the negative to the score and the print to the performance. You see the picture, and then you get the negative, with all the information you need. Since I know about the film, I know how I will have to control development to keep the high values, the textures and all that. I can vary my prints to a degree. I never go beyond the original concept, but I can certainly refine it. And there's a difference between how I would play it today and six months from now. There would be slight variations, differences in emphasis; the playing would be an individual matter. But I'm still playing the notes. We are not taking liberties at a destructive level. Does that make sense?
Yes, of course it does. Your preferences in music, I understand, are in line with your preferences as a photographer -large structures and the commanding themes, plenty of color. In other words, Beethoven and Bach and Chopin and Scriabin. Is that so?
Yes, there's some evidence of precision and structure, nothing amorphous. I don't react to Debussy.
What about rock 'n' roll?
I just can't stand it. It's not a matter of disliking it intellectually, it just does something to my digestion. Lots of contemporary music, I think, is marvelous. There are some wonderful things in electronic music. It has great power, great structure. I don't like rock 'n' roll, though, or punk. To me, that's entertainment, not music.
Your photography career, according to what I have read, began with the first trip you took to Yosemite with your father and mother, back in June of 1916, when you took along a Kodak Brownie camera. Could you talk about that trip, when you went to Inspiration Point and saw the view?
It was just kind of a revelation, something I'd never seen or imagined, and it stayed with me. The effect of Yosemite, the structural quality of the rocks as compared to the long, lazy Rocky Mountain slopes, remains a very wonderful experience. You can't explain it, it just happens. And there's something here at Point Lobos that's very rugged. You have a gentle background, but you have some magnificent detail.
You've gone back to Yosemite almost every year since then.
You've even staged mock dramas in the woods there.
Oh, that was just a crazy thing with the Sierra Club. Back in the early days we'd go out for four weeks in the real wilderness. I remember writing these pseudoplays in 1933. They were very funny out in the wilderness but horrible given anywhere else… The Trudgin' Women and Oh Rest Your Fannies, wild plays on words. But they're not worthy of comment, really.
The first picture you took that you think of as "fully visualized" was a photograph taken sometime in 1927 of Half Dome from the West Ridge. Wasn't there a dark red filter involved?
Yes. I only had two filters: my main yellow one and a dark red one. Conventional photography practice in Yosemite was to use the yellow one, the K2, as it was called. I set up for the conventional picture. Then I realized it wasn't going to look anywhere near how I felt. I could see all these things in my mind's eye -a dark sky and a clean horizon and a shape. If I hadn't had the red filter I couldn't have done it, but I had it and I knew what would happen. I call that my first satisfactory visualization.
You have used the word "visualization" to describe the process of deciding in advance how a photo will look rather than just shooting away in the hope of getting something lucky. Would you say that's the essence?
I'd say that's the essence. There are two approaches. One is the contrived approach-when you're in the studio and you set up your backgrounds and your subject and you work with lights, or when you arrange things in nature and try to make that work. The other approach-which I think is the more productive in the end-is straight photography. You come across a phenomenon in nature that you can visualize as an image. Then, if you have the craft, you proceed to make it. Without failure. In theory, I have no excuse for ever making a mistake. I might not have an expressive picture, but at least I should capture everything I want-providing I don't make some misjudgment or some stupid arithmetic error. I can be working on a close-up subject and forget to account for the extension of the limb. And I can put on a filter and not give the proper exposure factor and all that. Those things happen to everybody -to me, too- and it can be very embarrassing.
I think of Stieglitz's definition of photography -a paraphrase of what I heard him say many times. In the earlier days, when people were very scornful of what he called "creative photography" or "photography as art," they would ask: "Mr. Stieglitz, how do you go about making the creative photograph?" He would answer, "When I have a desire to photograph, I go out in the world with my camera. I come across something that excites me emotionally and esthetically. I'm creatively excited. I see the picture in my mind's eye and I make the exposure and I give you the print as the equivalent of what I saw and felt." The word "equivalent" is very important. It's two things-what is seen and what is felt about it. That's why the naturalistic element in photography is very important. When you intentionally depart from the natural situation you can get into trouble. Unless you depart far enough.
I'd like to read from a letter you wrote to your father in 1920: -I am more than ever convinced that the only possible way to interpret the scenes here about is through an impressionistic vision. A cold material representation gives one no conception whatever of the great size and distances of these mountains. Even in portraying the character and spirit of a little cascade, one must rely solely on line and tone. Form, in the material sense, is not only unnecessary but sometimes useless and undesirable." How do you respond to that now?
Well, I'd been subjected to a little pictorial photography. And I'd done a lot of reading. James Huneker on music. And a lot of poetry-Milton, Shelley, Whitman. Robinson Jeffers came along in the '20s or later-he was tremendous. I liked Milton for the same reason I liked Jeffers, the sound and the structure. I don't believe anything that Milton wrote about, but it has a wonderful presence.
Do you still read poetry?
Who have you read lately?
I guess I go back a ways. I've tried to read contemporary poetry, but it's very difficult. I liked Edna St. Vincent Millay very much, she was simply marvelous. I also have an interest in science. I'm no scientist, but I am deeply inquisitive as to what's going on.
Tell me about your interest in science.
It all began with my father's interest in astronomy. He was a lay astronomer, but he became very active in the Astronomy Society of the Pacific. He actually put it on its feet, increased its membership and programs. The top astronomers of the world would come to Berkeley to lecture. Every once in a while we'd go to Mt. Hamilton, where they have the big telescope. So I developed a great interest in astrophysics and the new physics. Of course, there's a difference between really understanding and having a great interest. I just want to know as much as I possibly can.
I understand you've become a champion of magnetic-fusion power.
Well, that's partly philosophical. I'm not against nuclear power, because I don't think it's as dangerous as pollution. In England and France and Italy they've had great luck with it. And here we've just had avaricious, stupid planning and bad technology. But the next step, the one that makes real sense, is fusion power. I've been to the Livermore magnetic-fusion research center twice. These incredible machines, for lasers and magnetic fusion, are very impressive.
Can you tell us what you have been photographing in the last couple of years?
Just what I've always photographed-chiefly the natural scene and a few good portraits. I did one of O'Keeffe just three years ago that turned out very well.
Have you done any shooting in the last couple of weeks?
I haven't really done anything very serious.
You haven't done anything serious? What do you mean by "serious"?
Well, I mean really going out with a camera and really working hard at it. You have to have a lot of energy to photograph. Just to get the camera around and to get yourself around, too. One of the things holding me back is my conscience. I have all these negatives that have never been fully realized, never been printed. I feel I should print them, because every time I pick one up it all comes back.
In the last year, how many negatives have you printed of works that have never been shown before?
Maybe 30 or 40.
To go back a bit, I understand that the Adams family was rather well off before the turn of the century. Much of late 19th-century San Francisco was built with lumber from the Washington Mill Company, which your grandfather owned.
Around the turn of the century, however, there were some hard times. The family lost some mills by fire and lost ships at sea.
Yes, they had bad luck and no insurance. I guess bad management. Everything went to hell.
And your father, who was a mild, benevolent man -at least that's the way he has been described- made a career of life insurance. You grew up as a middle-class kid, and you had the piano, of course, Somebody said that you once described yourself as a hyperactive brat. Is that right?
Yes, that's true. Maybe I haven't grown up. I know I'm hyperactive. I don't know if I'm a brat.
You were educated at home, weren't you?
Yes. I had a very sporadic education. That couldn't happen today. The educational system wouldn't allow it.
What were the manifestations of your hyperactivity as a kid? I understand you couldn't sit still in a classroom.
I had a terrible time with that. One time the whole thing seemed absolutely ridiculous, and I burst into the most hilarious laughter, uncontrollable laughter, and of course I was escorted home under suspicion of dementia.
Was music the first thing that gave you order in your life?
Yes. I had an extraordinarily patient teacher. He knew nothing of contemporary psychology, just sent me home time after time with Bach's "Invention No. 1" until I knew the notes. Theoretically, that should have completely shattered me and put me in the loony house, but it saved me.
What did your father instill in you?
A kind of conscience. I hate to use this funny word, but a "service" conscience, I guess, would describe it. Being useful and contributing. That's why I've had this continuous interest in the environment and in the advance of photography.
You were just talking about your first portfolio, mainly prints of the High Sierra, which was privately published in 1927. At that time, I think it's fair to say, you were considered a fine technician who was not that outstandingly versed in the history of your medium.
You were not aware, for example, of the work of your 19th-century predecessors-western landscape photographers like Carleton Watkins and Timothy O'Sullivan. And you disliked the painters of the American sublime-Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran, for instance. Is this a fair assessment of Ansel Adams at that time?
Yes, that's really pretty good. I had seen a lot of the early photographs, but I thought they were pretty dismal. I remember quite a collection of Watkinses in Yosemite-big 20-by-24-inch prints. The thing that bothered me was that if the emulsion couldn't pick up white clouds against a bright sky, they would print ones from a special cloud negative. It seemed a little phony. Then I began to see more of the old stuff, but it wasn't influencing me. The best photographs of Yosemite were by a man named George Fiske. I printed some pictures from his 11-by-14-inch glass-plate negatives -absolutely gorgeous!
You were at that time trying to find a modernist vision in photography. And you saw the vision in 1930 in the work of Paul Strand, who was then about 12 years older than you. What happened?
His photographs were extraordinary. The wonderful, efficient space and the purity of his edges. It's very trite to try and talk about it, but these really excited me. I arrived back in San Francisco all fired up. I immediately went into the straight phase of photography, using an 8-by-10 camera and getting sharp negatives, getting the pure photographic image.
Then you met Weston and saw his work.
Oh, yes. Going back to 1930, Imogen Cunningham and Willard Van Dyke and a few others were all working along pretty much the same lines I was. Not exactly Imogen, who was still more inclined to the earlier type of work. But it seemed that we ought to get together and make a manifesto. So we formed a little group called f-64, which is the popular small lens opening for achieving great depth of field and allover sharpness. We had a couple of exhibitions and made ourselves known, then we disbanded within the year because we didn't want to establish a cult.
This was f-64, which stood for straight photography as opposed to the fuzz?
The fuzzy-wuzzies. That's what we called the Pictorialists. Which meant the people who tried to imitate the effects of other mediums. The salonists, the academic types.
What did your group do? You cropped and isolated?
The idea was that these microscopic revelations of the lens had an esthetic of their own. Instead of contriving and putting things together to set them apart, we tried to organize what was out there in nature, to create forms out of the random shapes. We called that the "external event" and the imagining of the picture the "internal event."
So you cropped, you isolated your subjects-driftwood, seashells, the worn rocks here at Point Lobos.
Anything that has an inherent shape. These we would perceive in a different way from just casual observation. And each stop to the lens means a reduction. When I first met Stieglitz, he said, "What's the name of that group you've got there?" I said, "Oh, we're the f-64s." And he said, ''Yes, that's it. Well, I'm f-128.''
You visited Stieglitz's gallery in New York in 1933. Can you tell us what happened?
I went there in the morning. It was a gray April morning, and Stieglitz was depressed. He wasn't very cordial. I gave him a letter from a friend he knew very well in San Francisco -in fact, they were distantly related. He looked at the letter and said, "Oh, this woman has a lot of money, but if this keeps on much longer"-meaning the Depression- "she won't have any. What do you want?" And I said, "I'd like to show you my work." He said to come back at 2:30. And he walked off. I was a little bit upset with what I thought was not a cordial welcome. I was a naive westerner. My wife persuaded me to go back, and I did and gave him my portfolio. He sat and stared at the book spread on the table, and I sat on the radiator, which was the only thing a guest could sit on.
He went all through the portfolio and never said a word. He spent about a full hour. Every time I'd try to say something, he'd wave me aside. He didn't want to talk. After he'd tied up the photographs and looked at me, he opened them again and went all through them again. And then he gave me some praise words. Said he wanted to continue seeing my work.
Was Stieglitz something of a father confessor to you?
I recall a letter you wrote to Strand in which you said, "I am perplexed, amazed and touched by the impact of his force on my own spirit. I would not have believed, before I met him, that a man could be so psychically and emotionally powerful."
He indicated that I had a potential and that I had a great responsibility to develop that potential. That was the first thing. And Strand advised me, "Just never ask for a show. If he wants to give you a show he will, but if you ask for it you won't get it." So I never asked him for a show. Then he asked me in 1935, and he showed me in '36.
So he gave you a show three years after you met him. In the '30s you made a living from commercial work of every kind. You were doing advertising photography and journalistic work for Fortune and industrial brochures. And in the meantime you were earning a reputation as, in the words of one critic, "the least socially committed of serious American photographers." And Henri Cartier-Bresson once said, "The world is falling to pieces, and Weston and Adams are doing pictures of rocks."
Then you were quoted as saying, "I am ready to offer my services to any constructive government, right or left, but I do not like being expected to produce propaganda."
Photographers with the Farm Securities Administration did marvelous things. Dorothea Lange, in my mind, was really tops, first-rate. Walker Evans also. But then there developed a school in which there was nothing but the Marxist idea of photography. Landscape was wrong. Weston's photographs on the beach were supposed to be bourgeois. Well, that made us very mad. But I did think that great photography could be done of a social situation. I did a whole book on the Manzanar Japanese relocation camp in California in 1943 and 1944.
All the commercial work you were doing obviously helped you perfect your craft, and craft is central to your achievement.
You know, Edward Steichen's "Family of Man" exhibition put photography back about 20 years. It was a very dynamic use of photography and would have been wonderful if it had been shown in the United Nations. But it was up in the Museum of Modern Art as representing photography. It treated photography as an illustrative medium. In a spectacular way. But the images were gross in their printing. They were blowups. It was very corny. And from that time on the print quality of photographs dropped in this country.
Do you consider Steichen a great photographer?
No. He was at one time, he did some beautiful things. And then he became trapped in the commercial New York milieu, in the advertising world.
You virtually stopped taking pictures for public consumption nearly 20 years ago. Why?
I just went into a phase in which I had no urge to make photographs.
But you have been taking photographs?
Oh, yes, but I didn't have the driving urge. I also lost considerable physical energy. When you get old you can't pack things around so freely. Elliot Porter's been something of an exception to that. Anyway, my conscience was urging me to publish, to print the works I had done. You see, I have all these negatives. Each one was important to me and was done as a creative effort. And here I am now and have not printed them.
How long does it take to print one of your negatives -Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, for example?
Well, knowing what I have to do with that one-which I've printed many times-not very long. It always takes a certain amount of time to set up the darkroom and check the paper for speed and so on. But when I get a new negative, it sometimes takes quite a while.
Oh, I've spent a day, two days. Sometimes without even getting the one that's right. The prints have to dry down, and then they appear different. I'm not drying proofs in the microwave oven.
In talking about the reasons for the differences in prints from the same negative, John Szarkowski, MoMA 's director of photography, said, "Ansel likes to look simpler than he is. He prints differently because he's a different man. In some contexts, he'll admit that printing isn't ultimately a technical problem. But when you say that the changes in his prints imply changes in him, he denies it. He's a more interesting artist than he knows."
John is somebody who always has ideas. And explanations. I think that one is as good as any. Monolith: The Face of Half Dome of 1927, for instance, was intense -dark skies, dark shadows. Several others from that period are also very dark, very dramatic. And then I went through the f-64 period, during which things were approached on a more intellectual plane. And then I switched from that again, trying to become a little more fluent. I felt that my prints were not strong enough. So I started printing for maximum impact -no intellectual processes were involved.
I had a great argument once with Minor White, who was a very dear friend and a remarkable photographer. I had done a photograph of a wooden grave marker in the shape of a black cross. The wood was very highly weathered, and the visualization was much more powerful in tone than the original. In fact I really enhanced the values tremendously in my mind, and I remember the whole process of doing it at the minimum exposure and maximum development. The prints were spectacular, very rich. And Minor was quite impressed. He said, "Now tell me exactly how you made that photograph. What was in your mind when you made it? You must have had something of significance that you wanted to get." That struck me as odd. I kept telling him that it was a found object. The visualization was very intense, and the final result was exactly as visualized. That was as clear an explanation as I could give. And in a sense it tied in with Stieglitz's definition: I give you the photograph, the print, as the equivalent of what I saw. But Stieglitz would never analyze a photograph. He talked all about art and artists and the American spirit. When it came to a particular painting, he never would give it any meaning. It was always, "Well, look at the painting."
In talking about Frozen Lake and Cliffs, your superb photograph of the Sierra Nevada in Sequoia National Park in 1932, you wrote, "I am interested in why I see certain events in the world about me that others do not see, while they respond to different events." And you mentioned how a colleague of yours who was also there that day exclaimed, on seeing your print, "Geez! Why didn't I see that?" And you said that some of his prints have evoked the same comment from you.
You went on to say that "with all art expression, when something is seen it's a vivid experience -sudden, compelling, inevitable. The visualization is complete -the seemingly instant review of all the mental and imaginative resources called forth by some miracle of the mind computer that we do not comprehend. For me, this resource is not of things consciously seen or transcriptions of musical recollections. It is perhaps a summation of total experience and instinct. Nothing modifies or replaces it." Has anything occurred to you since that you would like to discuss?
Well, it's interesting. Everything works about the same as it did in the beginning. I'm just more in practice. I mean I'm always thinking of things sort of in relationship to each other. Looking at you as a portrait, I suddenly see you as an image. And I see certain design elements in the chair and on you; I'm instinctively trying to figure out how to place you or to obscure something behind you. Maybe you see me moving around like a cobra coming out of a basket.
So you're always working?
I don't know if you'd call it that, it's just a constant state of searching awareness. Is that the right description? Not too pompous?
Even silly things like how the angle of this tape recorder is in line with the angle of that table. And the book is all out of arrangement. I can pull the book so that -there, now the whole thing pulls together and I've got a good composition. The painter, in his synthetic approach, could take a million impressions and distill them in one canvas or on a piece of paper. But in photography, the tendency is analytic.
Aren't you distilling in the process you just described?
Yes, but I can't change the subject itself, you see. I only change the subject in relation to my point of view. We fudge sometimes doing portraits. When I had President Carter, I had to get him in a certain place next to the wall so that a tree wasn't coming out of his ear.
Basically it's an analytic approach, as compared to the synthetic or structural rhythms of painting. I don't mean "synthetic" in a secondary way. But I remember seeing John Marin paint. One morning in Taos he did about 15 or 20 watercolors, one right after the other. He did a very famous, beautiful picture of the Taos Mountains, with those three black peaks, sometimes using his thumb. I asked him, "Am I bothering you?" He said, "Hell, no-I mean, thanks for the company. Thanks a lot. Come!" So I sat down and watched. It was just amazing to see all the stuff that would come into his mind, weeks' worth of just sitting around Taos and walking out by the Rio Grande. And suddenly it comes to you. With photography I suppose you do accumulate ideas, but I've never had that particular feeling of "Well, that's what I've been looking for."
Let's talk about some of your artist friends. How about Charles Sheeler?
There was a wonderful man. He was very New England, made a very austere impression. It took him quite an effort to smile, but when he did it was fine. He worked just the opposite of John Marin-very slowly, consistently, and his pictures would take weeks and months, you know, absolute perfection.
I remember the Golden Gate Bridge picture, which he was commissioned to do by some big company. He made all kinds of Kodachrome snapshots of the details of the bridge, and he made lots of sketches. He didn't show the size of the bridge at all, though, just the essence of it. It was very interesting. And his photographs were beautiful, but they were of the turn-of-the-century period in print quality. I always wished I could have gotten hold of the negatives and printed them to look just a little more lively.
Tell us about O'Keeffe.
I was a little scared of O'Keeffe at first.
She can be very severe.
When did you first meet?
Around 1929 or '30, I think.
You were nearly 30 years old. And you were a little scared of her?
She'd say certain things that sounded a little ferocious.
Such as, "Well, I think you and Dave McAlpin are just a couple of shutterbugs, and you should be ashamed of yourselves." Stieglitz was still the top photographer, and she liked Strand. But she thought most photography was just trash.
When did she lose her severity in your eyes, or did she ever?
Once she knew Stieglitz liked me, well, then we were just family. She lost all that grim patina.
In Wallace Stegner's foreword to a collection of your photographs, Images 1923-74, he talks about the fun side of Ansel Adams. He says, "Photography is not button-pushing; the camera does not make its pictures automatically the way a lighthouse blinks its light. In a gamesome party mood Ansel will sometimes play lighthouse, rotating slowly on his axis, now and then emitting a low, intense, foghorn moan, and at every full rotation gleaming upon the company with teeth and eyeballs that seem to project through the beard a beam visible for miles. That is fun, and also art, for the playfulness of genius is still genius." Do you still play lighthouse, and do you rotate slowly on your axis and beam?
Well, sometimes I have some fun story that comes out. There's one about a Newfoundland fisherman that's told with all the sounds of the waves, the boat and the foghorn.
Why don't you give us a summary of it.
Well, the fisherman goes out to sea. He's just been married a little while, and his wife's expecting a child. But he has to go out on a job. So he's out on the big fishing boat when the baby's born and they decide that someone should go out and tell him. Then there's a long episode of going through the fog, with the sound of the waves and the boats and the foghorn. It takes a certain amount of gymnastics to tell it. Finally they arrive and they shout to his boat, "Is Tom Jones aboard?" Wave sounds, foghorns, the wind and the pop-de-pop of the engine. They bring him to the rail. There's a lot of shouting back and forth, and when he finally hears the news he says, "Fine, how much does he weigh?" They answer, "Eight pounds, three ounces." Another foghorn. Then, after all this, he says, "You hardly get your bait back, do ya?" It's a nice drunk story. You get a little high at a cocktail party and keep adding to it, and it's really beautiful.
Any other entertainments?
I used to play the piano with oranges. I could do key studies, in fact. The left hand did the piano, the right hand the orange. It's an extraordinary illusion, and it's so funny when it's done well. But you have to have the left hand perfect. The orange plays the black keys. All you need is the proper bounce, and you just roll it across. You learn the weight of the orange in relation to the weight of the keys, and it's amazing. But it's all pure fun. Nothing to do with art. I understand Picasso was a great prankster.
If you had it to do all over again, would you change anything?
You said earlier that you'd work harder.
I'd work harder. I realize now I wasted time more as a young person.
There's a very beautiful comment of yours that's quoted by Stegner. He is writing about the circumstances under which you took one of your best-known images, Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico. He says that it's a vision translated, the concept realized and done in 60 seconds or less. And then he quotes you as saying, "Sometimes I think I do get to places just when God is ready to have somebody click the shutter."
I think it's apocryphal, but it sounds good. I better be careful I don't begin to sound like a prophet. I think I might have said it in a conversation, and Nancy Newhall quoted it in her book. She wrote very fluently and very poetically. And the quote has been repeated. It's a little apocalyptic.
Let's talk about the environment. I think you said some time ago that you feel we're on a disaster course.
Well, it boils down to the fact that the world is in a state of potential destruction. There's no use worrying about anything else. The evidence of the destruction is in the pollution of the natural resources. With the Reagan Administration, especially when James Watt was secretary of the interior, the attitude has been terrible, completely exploitative.
People ask me why I am so presumptuous as to write letters to the newspapers and all that. Somebody has got to do it. I would like to get more people to write letters. So I keep my promise of doing at least one thing a day, one thing related to the environment in some way.
What did you do today?
What I did today was to write a letter to the governor of California expressing appreciation for Senate Bill 18 for state parks and recreation. A publisher once said to me, "Mr. Adams, I have a bit of advice for you about publishing. The secret is to get talked about. Good, bad, indifferent, anything, just get talked about. So-as long as you keep your integrity-whether you do things that irritate people or please people, you're helping.
Playboy once asked if you had photographed nudes, and you said, "I don't think many bodies are really very attractive when they're photographed. I'd rather keep my eyes shut." Is that quoting you accurately?
Just about. I think what I said was that the physical test would be to make a silhouette of a nude figure as against a line drawing by a great artist and you would see the difference. The nude figure is just the nude figure, although you can read whatever you want into it. I know very few photographic nudes that interest me at all.
What about O'Keeffe's paintings?
I don't find them erotic. I look at them for what they are. People say they're very sexy, but I don't.
Did you ever discuss that with O'Keeffe?
Yes. I said, "Georgia, some people think your work is very sexy." And she answered, "I wouldn't mind if they thought I was, but I don't think my paintings are."
Is there anything you haven't done that you would still like to do?
I wish I had gotten into the environmental work earlier because I think that's a citizen's fundamental responsibility. The channeling of creative arts in that direction has been very difficult. As I said, I never made a picture with a direct environmental objective, but if they can be used for that, that's fine. I think young people are pretty aware of the dangers, but they're sort of pessimistic. They think everything is set up and it doesn't make a difference who they vote for. They don't realize they have to go out and vote themselves.