A candid conversation with America’s “photographer laureate” and environmentalist about art, natural beauty and the unnatural acts of Interior Secretary James Watt.
Ansel Adams Interview
The Citation of the Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded him by President Jimmy Carter in 1980 probably says it best:
At one with the power of the American landscape and renowned for the patient skill and timeless beauty of his work, photographer Ansel Adams has been visionary in his efforts to preserve this country’s wild and scenic areas, both on film and on earth. Drawn to the beauty of nature’s movement, he is regarded by environmentalists as a monument himself and by photographers as a national institution. It is through his foresight and fortitude that so much of America has been saved for future Americans.
As America’s photographer laureate, Ansel Adams has made contributions to a relatively young art form that are hard to measure. Since he took his first snapshot in Yosemite National Park with a Kodak Brownie box camera in 1916, he has worked with the rapidly changing medium, developing his ability to create stunning images with light, film and creative vision.
When he began, photography was mostly a hobbyist’s novelty; on a climbing expedition, he snapped photos of his companions and the place at which they set up camp for the night. But he soon realized that photographs could be more: They could capture his emotion, a greater vision, rather than simply record a scene. As he learned the craft necessary to accomplish that creative photography, his hobby became a fine art. Since then, many of his images, particularly those of California’s Sierra Nevada range and the U.S. Southwest, are among the best known in photography. More than 1,000,000 copies of his books, including portfolios and a technical series, have been sold, and more than 5000 students have attended his workshops. In addition, his revolutionary Zone System of exposure calculation is now virtually a prerequisite to any serious study of photography.
But the proof, of course, is in the prints, and Adam’s are remarkable for the variety of emotions they can convey to a wide public: His “Aspens, Northern New Mexico” evokes serenity; “Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite Valley” suggests rebirth; “Frozen Lake and Cliffs, Sequoia National Park” suggests a kind of mysticism; “Monolith, the Face of Half Dome” reveals, beyond the power of the granite mass, both passion and a sense of purpose; and his most famous photograph, “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico,” is still ominous and chilling nearly half a century after it was taken.
Adams’ frequent trips to photograph the mountains and the coast line, rocks in a stream or the sunlight on an oak stump were part of his passionate love for the natural world. But over the years, he saw the wilderness threatened and the natural resources depleted, so became increasingly supportive of–then vociferously active in–the movement to protect America’s land, air and water.
He served on the board of the Sierra Club for 37 years. “It’s hard to tell which has shaped the other more, Ansel Adams or the Sierra Club,” David Brower, first executive director of the club, has said. Although Adams quit the club in the early Seventies, his environmentally related activity has been increasingly vigorous.
The current Administration in Washington has incited his considerable anger; in President Reagan’s policies, he perceives “the greatest threat to our environment ever.” He writes letters of protest on his word processor, telephones politicians and fires up others to work in the environmental movement. His attacks on Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, have received so much attention that Watt was asked about the “thunderous denunciations of his policies by Ansel Adams.” Watt replied with a shrug, “Ansel Adams never took a picture with a human being in it in his life.” Adams’ friend photographer James Alinder responded, “James Watt is no better historian of photography than Secretary of the Interior. Ansel Adams has not only made pictures of people, but his portraits form a major part of his photographic production.” In fact, the Carter Administration broke with tradition by having the Presidential portrait done not by a painter but by a photographer–Adams. Although the break with tradition was highly criticized, the Polaroid photo now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington.
Born in San Francisco in 1902, Adams lives with a reminder of his first encounter with the power of nature: a crooked nose he has refused to fix, the result of the great earthquake of 1906, which threw four-year-old Ansel into a brick wall. “The doctor told me to wait until I matured to have it fixed. Since I never matured, the nose remains,” he laughs. That and his now-white beard have become trademarks. Of the beard, he says, “The last time I was clean-shaven was in 1930 or so. I had come back from a month-long trip in the high country of Yosemite and there were god-awful things growing in there, so I decided to cut it off. But when my friends saw me, they said, ‘Please grow it back.’ So I did.”
In his youth, Adams was primarily interested in music, and he had become an accomplished pianist by the time he decided to experiment with photography. Now, although Beethoven is often heard on his elaborate stereo system, Adams can no longer be persuaded to sit down at his baby grand; arthritis has made playing too painful.
When he decided to take photography seriously, he soon learned that it was impossible to earn a living doing the creative work he enjoyed most. For years, he supported his wife and two children by photographing everything from china and baked goods to women’s corsets. “I learned more from the bread-and-butter photography than from any other source,” he says. The financial picture has changed, of course. When a print of his “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” sold for $71,500–the most ever paid for a photograph–Adams cracked, “Don’t they know I’m not dead yet?”
At 81, he’s still feisty; we thought it was time to take stock of his life and contributions. David Sheff, who conducted what became the last major interview with John Lennon and our extensive interview with Steve Jobs, reports:
“When we read that Adams had had some sort of heart failure and a Pacemaker had been installed, we were concerned that he might not be up to the rigors of a long interview. We called him at his house in Carmel, California, and inquired solicitously about his health. Impatiently, he cut us off: ‘So when do you want to start the interview?’
“It was only two weeks after the Pacemaker operation, and he was already on a formidable schedule. He was spending his mornings in the darkroom, preparing prints for two books in progress: his autobiography and a technical book on prints. After the darkroom sessions, he sat down at his word processor to write until lunchtime. He was supposed to rest after lunch, but he inevitably sneaked back to the word processor over the protests of Virginia, his wife of 55 years. After that, it was time for the interview sessions, which somehow always managed to stretch into the cocktail hour in the evening.
“Cocktail hour is a tradition at the Adams home. It’s an informal, salonlike gathering that has, Adams explains, gone on for as long as he can remember. In the early days, house guests such as Georgia O’Keeffe and Diego Rivera and friends such as Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, Paul Strand, John Marin, Dorothea Lange, Maynard Dixon, Robinson Jeffers and Mary Austin would join Ansel and Virginia for conversation. More recently, guests have included Gerald Ford, Alan Cranston, Garry Trudeau, Jane Pauley, Alistair Cooke and Arthur Ashe.
“Some of the best moments of the the interview occurred over Virginia’s dry martinis and hors d’oeuvres. But each evening, weather permitting, conversation stopped for a moment as the sun dipped into the Pacific. We all gathered around the huge picture window with a westerly exposure to witness the elusive ‘green flash,’ a spectacle only the trained eye can see. When it came, Adams broke into a wide grin and turned to us. ‘Well?’ he asked. But we shook our heads; we’d missed it once again.
“One more point: If it sounds as if Adams is so wrapped up in his art and in the environment that he has no time for a bit of fun and games, we feel obliged to point out that his old Cadillac, with license plates that read, Zone V, is equipped with a horn that blasts out ‘La Marseillaise’ and dozens of other selections. It’s quite an experience to see Adams nearly invisible behind the wheel of his huge car, with the French national anthem blaring cheerily as he pulls into his driveway.
“On the other hand, his eyes took on a dangerous glitter when we asked him about Secretary of the Interior Watt. As the discussion turned from photography to the environment, he warned, ‘Now the sparks will fly.’ And, indeed, they did. We began the interview, however, with a discussion of his art, and were not surprised that some sparks flew there as well.”
DS: There are cameras in more than 93 percent of American homes, and most of us probably think we can take a decent picture. What’s the difference between what we do and what you do?
ADAMS: People have always had the urge to keep a diary. We used to write reminiscences and letters. Now we take pictures. On Thanksgiving with Grandmother, on vacation in the mountains, the baby’s first steps. The pictures are a visual diary. They are reminders of the experience. That is how most people use their cameras. But when you are trying to make a statement that goes beyond the subject, it is another domain.
DS: And that constitutes the difference between a snapshot and art?
ADAMS: That’s right. I don’t condemn a snapshot for what it is. I do, however, object to people’s making a snapshot and then imposing an aesthetic value on it. It is not immoral or unethical, it’s just rather unreasonable. The same thing goes for many photographs from the 1860s, 1870s and 1880s that people insist on calling art. Those photographs are mostly just records of events and landscape–which are, of course, important in themselves. That does not make them art or imply aesthetic intentions, however. There are a few examples of their work that have another kind of vision in it–or you think you see it. That is a distinction between capturing an inspired moment on film and the shallow qualities of mere scenery.
DS: How do you define scenery?
ADAMS: Scenery just means the concentration on subject as is, without creative imagination or visualization of the final image. When someone goes to a national park and stands at a “picture place” and points his camera and clicks the shutter, he is photographing scenery. It’s a fairly subtle distinction, difficult to describe. You can talk around it, as you can talk around music–technically, scientifically, historically, as gossip–but only the music can actually tell you what the music is.
I’ll explain it this way: Both William Henry Jackson and Edward Weston photographed the American West extensively. But in my opinion, only Weston’s photographs qualify as art. Jackson, for all his devotion to the subject, was recording the scene. Weston, on the other hand, was actually creating something new. In his work, subject is of secondary importance to the total photograph. Similarly, while the landscapes that I have photographed in Yosemite are recognized by most people and, of course, the subject is an important part of the pictures, they are not “realistic.” Instead, they are an imprint of my visualization. All of my pictures are optically very accurate–I use pretty good lenses–but they are quite unrealistic in terms of values. A more realistic simple snapshot captures the image but misses everything else. I want a picture to reflect not only the forms but what I had seen and felt at the moment of exposure.
DS: Give us an example.
ADAMS: My Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico has the emotion and the feeling that the experience of seeing the actual moonrise created in me, but it is not at all realistic. Merely clicking the camera and making a simple print from the negative would have created a wholly different–and ordinary–photograph. People have asked me why the sky is so dark, thinking exactly in terms of the literal. But the dark sky is how it felt.
When photographer Alfred Stieglitz was asked by some skeptic, rather scornfully, “How do you make a creative photograph?” he answered, “I go out into the world with my camera and come across something that excites me emotionally, spiritually or aesthetically. I see the image in my mind’s eye. I make the photograph and print it as the equivalent of what I saw and felt.” That describes it well. What he called seeing in the mind’s eye, I call visualization. In my mind’s eye, I am visualizing how a particular revelation of sight and feeling will appear on a print. If I am looking at you, I can continue to see you as a person, but I am also in the habit of shifting from that consciously dimensional presence to a photograph, relating you in your surroundings to an image in my mind. If what I see in my mind excites me, there is a good chance it will make a good photograph. It is an intuitive sense and also an ability that comes from a lot of practice. Some people never can get it.
DS: Was photography always more than just picture taking to you?
ADAMS: When I started out as a kid–14 years old–I had a box Brownie and I just took snaps. On my first trips into the mountains, I was taking snapshots, records of the visits, which I would pore over in the winter, just waiting for the next summer to come. As time went on, however, I saw things better, more intensely. In my first photographs, from 1919 and 1920 or so, I photographed the ground near where I had laid out my sleeping bag, my companions and the mountains I had climbed; that’s all. Two years later, I was obviously beginning to see more of a relationship between the subject and the environment. In those pictures, there are the bag, the rock and the people but also the sense of space. Several years later, I began to see that maybe the rock and the tree and the tree shadows–each object–had certain relationships and values. I wasn’t using words to describe it; it was more of a feeling. Finally, after really going into photography deeply, I became very sensitive to relative shapes in terms of relative forms. I might have the same place, the same rock, the tree with its dead branches and a shadow of the same kind of branch on the ground. This time, the whole thing began to move. I was actually making pictures with a certain vision in them. The external world has nothing but shapes, but we see form, weight, balance and values. We also see and feel more esoteric and intangible things. I want to take photographs that have all that in them. Knowing it and accomplishing it, though, are two quite different things.
DS: When did you know you could accomplish it?
ADAMS: I had my first visualization while photographing Half Dome in Yosemite in 1927. It was a remarkable experience. After a long day with my camera, I had only two photographic plates left. I found myself staring at Half Dome, facing the monolith, seeing and feeling things that only the photograph itself can tell you. I took the first exposure and, somehow, I knew it was inadequate. It did not capture what I was feeling. It was not going to reflect the tremendous experience. Then, to use Stieglitz’ expression, I saw in my mind’s eye what the picture should look like and I realized how I must get it. I put on a red filter and figured out the exposure correctly, and I succeeded! When I made the prints, it proved my concept was correct. The first exposure came out just all right. It was a good photograph, but it in no way had the spirit and excitement I had felt. The second was Monolith, the Face of Half Dome, which speaks for itself.
DS: As you became more adept at seeing, composing and making better images, were you also becoming interested in photography as an art form?
ADAMS: Yes, but it wasn’t until I saw Paul Strand’s work in 1930 that I knew photography would be more than a hobby for me. Reproductions in those days were pretty awful. Worse, at the time, the popular photography was the horrible “pictorial” stuff, which I deeply resented. Until I saw Strand’s photographs, I was primarily interested in music. His convinced me. I felt those works. As Stieglitz once said, “Art is the affirmation of life.” The Strand photographs were life-affirming and inspiring.
DS: Besides Strand, who were your early influences?
ADAMS: It’s hard to say, because you don’t know or recall what your subconscious absorbs. The pervasive pictorial photography was a negative influence. I knew what I did not want to do. The influences on my standards came more from music and literature than from photography. As Ouspensky said, “All art is an expression of the same thing.” So I did have certain standards, standards of taste…. If I see a lousy lamp shade, it revolts me. When I have to describe why it is lousy, that’s another thing. It’s simply lousy in terms of my own experience.
DS: Don’t you believe there are standards that can apply to all photography?
ADAMS: I think there are, but it’s very tricky. One photographer I know is almost diabolically concerned with making poor images. The prints are terrible and the compositions are dreadful–the horizons aren’t straight and all is very casual and haphazard. However, his subjects have a very definite human interest–street scenes, families, bars. If they were presented simply as slices of human experience, that would be fine. But when they are mounted and put on a wall behind glass, they immediately take on the appearance of being more than they are. The photographer becomes the “in” thing, critics applaud, prices shoot up and books are bound. To me, the emperor still has no clothes. And I particularly resent the intentional lack of craft. The painter Arp is often misquoted as having said, “If I say it’s art, it’s art.” In fact, I am told, he said, “If I say it’s art, it’s art to me.” The first is a very arrogant, belligerent statement. The second simply states that art is personal and subjective. Well, you may say a photograph that is very carelessly composed and executed is art, but to me it is bad craft and little more than that. On the other hand, art, to me, is what strikes me in some very special way.
When we look at old art, we are seeing with a contemporary eye. We have no idea how it looked when it was made, what the maker intended. We look at the old Indian rugs and pots and consider them as art. Well, they were originally ceremonial and religious. We don’t know whether or not the Indians had any so-called aesthetic sense. We may be reading something into them, something that relates to our particular awareness and sensibilities. Sometimes, there’s undue praise given to things just because they are old and unique and rare. Rembrandt is one example. I’ve never been happy with his work, at least not with the paintings. Some of the etchings are marvelous, but I just feel that there’s something in most of the paintings that is very repetitive. Aristotle with a Bust of Homer, the one the Metropolitan bought for $2,000,000–I think that’s a terrible painting. But it’s Rembrandt, so it’s almost sacrilegious to say that. On the other hand, I think Norman Rockwell, after 100 years, will be viewed as a historical painter. He was a very fine craftsman and, at the moment, we may think his tastes corny and impossible, but we don’t know what will happen in 100 years. They’ll say his work represented his time and an aesthetic will be built up around it.
DS: You mentioned being influenced by literature. Naturalist John Muir wrote about the same parts of the West that you photographed. Was he an inspiration?
ADAMS: I read his works, but I wasn’t affected. Muir’s ideals please me, but little of his text does. I mean, it is not great literature. People have seen Thoreau in my pictures, too, but he’s always bothered me. He was a little positive and didactic, somewhat like Emerson. The poetry I like best is the poetry that sounds the best. I don’t react to Shakespeare; to me, it’s all rather bombastic and very contrived. To be honest, my reaction is, Why spend so much time with such a dismal bunch of people? Besides, it’s glib. I admit that some of his sonnets are beautiful, but I just get bored. For me, nothing happens. Now, I may be a complete ass for saying this, but I have to be honest with you. If you say it happens for you when it doesn’t, you’re a damn liar. That’s the terrible thing that happens in art. You’re supposed to enjoy Rembrandt, you’re supposed to enjoy Shakespeare. Unfortunately, many people enjoy them because they’re supposed to. Now, I love Milton. I don’t believe in anything he writes about, but his works have such beautiful construction. Same with Robinson Jeffers. Beautiful structure and sound.
DS: What place does craft have in the discussion of the art of photography?
ADAMS: Being a musician, I have to know my notes. If I gave a concert and didn’t know them, I’d be tomatoed off the stage. Even the free-form music, if it’s any good, is based on craft, repeatable craft. The other stuff–well, it is here today, gone tomorrow. Most people who are painting, photographing, performing are not artists. They are doing something else.
Take the many photographers of the dust-bowl period of the Thirties and the photographers who worked in the farm-resettlement project–what most people consider documentarists. There are quite a lot of good images from that period, but Dorothea Lange’s are outstanding among them. The difference is a magical thing, something poetic, the difference in perception, a more acute transfer of emotions.
DS: After you saw Strand’s prints and decided to become a photographer, were you successful right away?
ADAMS: I had previously met a man named Albert Bender, a San Francisco art patron, at a party. He said he liked my pictures and wanted to see my portfolio. Well, I didn’t have a portfolio, so I put together some of my mountain pictures and I showed them to him the next morning. He enthusiastically went to work and raised $6000 from friends, which was enough money to make all the prints and produce a portfolio in those days. Before that, I had sold very few prints. I gave them away to my friends. I’d maybe sold some fuzzy-wuzzies of juniper trees in Yosemite for ten dollars around 1920. That was it. I sold a few things to the Sierra Club people later in the Twenties, but Bender’s support allowed me to develop my craft. With that money, I completed Taos Pueblo, my book of photographs of that subject in New Mexico, with a monograph by Mary Austin. It received a great deal of attention.
DS: What happened next?
ADAMS: By 1930 and 1931, the importance of straight photography hit me. I worked on my technique and, eventually, I met others who were similarly interested in that kind of photography, including Willard van Dyke and Imogen Cunningham. We kept yakking it up and decided we should do something about it. We were all fired up with the new aesthetic. Willard and I were particularly eager to do something about it and, with Weston, Imogen, Henry Swift, Sonia Noskowiak and John Paul Edwards, we formed a group called f/64, which turned out to be a very important movement in photography. We felt we ought to get together and issue a visual manifesto–that was a big term. It was a whole new vision, a whole new aesthetic of photography. It was the crest of a wave.
DS: What was the philosophy of Group f/64?
ADAMS: It was devotion to the straight print, paper surfaces without textures that would conflict with the image texture. It was a belief in sharpness throughout the photograph. Good craft, in other words. F/64 is a small stop on the camera that gives great depth of field and sharpness. It was the concentration on images that were not sentimental or allegorical. It was a reaction, a strong reaction against the pictorialists, who were working their heads off to make a photograph look like anything but a photograph. In an attempt to be creative, they were retouching and diffusing the images. Hideous stuff! They were the ones Weston called the fuzzy-wuzzies. They would go out into the street and find some old bum with a matted beard, and they’d get a tablet of Braille and make the old man put his fingers on the Braille. They would place him in an old chair, looking up through a cloud of cigarette smoke that was illuminated by a spotlight. The title would be Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory. That must have been done a thousand times. There were also slimy nudes. Those photographs were horribly contrived, shallow works, terrible moods–just terrible stuff that completely lacked creative intensity, the very thing we were so excited about.
DS: So f/64 was a reaction against that. What did the group accomplish?
ADAMS: Well, it led to my first one-man show, in 1932, at the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco. People reacted strangely. They didn’t understand that kind of photography. The criticisms were actually very funny, since my work was completely new for most people, who had seen only the pictorialists’ photographs. The average person had not seen any photograph that had a sharp, precise image with a glossy surface. People scratched their heads and said, “This doesn’t seem to have any art quality–or does it?” And there were more letters to the museum director, saying, “What is photography doing in an art museum?” The same thing happened when I got the photography department going at the California School of Fine Arts, now the San Francisco Art Institute. The painters were moaning, “They’re taking space away from artists.”
DS: You’ve referred to Stieglitz. How did you meet him?
ADAMS: In 1933, a year after we started f/64, I traveled to New York specifically to meet him. When I arrived, he joked, “I’ve heard about that Group f/64 you’ve got out there. Well, I’m f/128.” In fact, he was very sympathetic to what f/64 was trying to do. We got along very well, and after that first meeting, we kept in touch. Every time I went to New York, I took him my newest prints. Finally, he said, “We have to show these.” At the time, Stieglitz was one of the most important movers and shakers in the art world. He was one of the few real taste makers. Among many other accomplishments, he introduced Rodin and Matisse to America and promoted such American artists as John Marin, Georgia O’Keeffe and Arthur Dove. He was unique in that he didn’t differentiate between painting and photography–it was all art.
DS: How did New York react to Ansel Adams’ art?
ADAMS: It was very gratifying. With Stieglitz’ support, the show was a great success.
DS: You were instrumental in getting photography accepted as an art at museums and universities. Almost half a century later, do you think it is accepted as legitimate art?
ADAMS: For the most part, but there are still people who are hard to convince, I’m afraid. There is a peculiar animosity between painters and photographers. University budgets are being cut, so painters in an art department will argue that they deserve more than the photography department, on the grounds that photography is a lesser art. It’s crazy. Well, that’s a typical result of all the budget cuts. [Lifts his martini] Thank you, Mr. Reagan. [Under his breath] I’d like to drown him in here! [Laughs] Oh, my! That went on tape. To the FBI, if you’re listening: That was only a figure of speech. He wouldn’t fit into my martini.
DS: With all the automation we have now, it’s easy to forget what a primitive medium you worked in.
ADAMS: Yes. It was all trial and error and experience. People worked like dogs until they got what they wanted. Unless they knew what the desired values were and really knew what the film would do, they were helpless. In the early days, I remember, I’d take maybe four, five pictures of a subject. I’d take one that I hoped was right, but I wasn’t sure, so I’d go up and down the exposure scale a couple of half stops and take a few more and then pick the best one. The meters gave only average readings. Not until the S.E.I. photometer came out did you have specific spot-area readings, and not until you could understand a curve could you figure out the exposure-density relationship, all necessary to have real control.
DS: It’s been acknowledged that your Zone System revolutionized photography. How did people react to it?
ADAMS: A lot of people were confused. They thought I was crazy. Edward Weston believed in his empirical approach. His son, Brett, said, “I can’t understand it. I trust my eye.” Well, there was many a time that his pictures, had he known what he was doing, might have been better. Basically, people didn’t want to go to the trouble of learning the technique.
DS: Can you describe the Zone System in terms that aren’t too technical and explain why it was important?
ADAMS: As I’ve said, I felt there was too much left to chance in picture taking and there was obviously a need for a proved, efficient, repeatable system that could be taught to people with individual styles. Simplified, the Zone System enables a photographer to anticipate and control the tonal range of a print. The zones are essentially shades of gray ranging from black, which is zero, to white, which is ten. They correspond to exposure settings on the camera and can be used to identify the relative brightness of separate parts of the subject being photographed as they will appear on the print. In effect, the Zone System is a more accurate extension of the visualization I described earlier.
DS: Is it universally applicable?
ADAMS: Yes; even to color.
DS: Let’s switch to the present for a moment. Are you still photographing?
ADAMS: Yes, after a long hiatus. The problem was that over the years, I had collected a great number of negatives–thousands of them–that I had never gotten around to printing, due to the pressures of my professional work. As I slow down physically, I’ve been getting back to the old negatives. I really have to catch up with them. Still, I always intend to go out and do new work. Now I’ve made up my mind that on every possible occasion, I’m going to go out into the field and try to make new photographs.
DS: Do you see things differently now when you look through a view finder? Do you look for different things?
ADAMS: Well, I just go along in the world and suddenly see something that I can visualize in a print. Then I work. As Edward Weston used to say, if I wait any length of time at a certain location, I’m probably losing something somewhere else. When I know that certain conditions are going to change within a very short time, I may wait. But to sit and wait for something to happen is a waste of time. Neither the moments of the vast aspects of nature nor the tiny aspects, equally important, will wait or occur more than once.
DS: Let’s talk about the photographs themselves. Do you consider the negative and the print as separate entities?
ADAMS: Yes, in the sense that the negative is like the composer’s score. Then, using that musical analogy, the print is the performance. Taking the negative first, remember that the eye has an amazing ability to see details that film cannot capture. Film has a very limited range, particularly in color. I am working within the limits of the materials. Within those limitations, I have many controls besides the initial composition. Visualizing the print, I know what values I feel. I may want to use a filter to change a value in a part of the scene in relation to another. I determine the appropriate camera settings and timing. All these things go through the mind automatically, very fast, like a computer. When I know what is required to capture the visualization on the negative, I also know what I will do to the print in the darkroom, though in the darkroom, I can experiment, enhance, embellish. First, however, you must get all the information you need in the negative. When you have it, you can print.
Now the performance. Just as I have great freedom when I perform a Chopin scherzo from a printed page, I have great freedom making the print. I can’t go against the basic music, but I can, as I said, enhance it. That is why the pictures I make of the same subject over the years will be very different. Each one is a felt expression that is tied in to the original score, the original visualization. A lot of people don’t believe that; they feel that photography is rigid, that you capture an image on a negative and merely repeat it in the print. Well, that is physically impossible and, certainly, aesthetically undesirable. Each performance is a creation, the creation of something new.
DS: When you make a print of an image you printed 20 or 30 years ago, do you intentionally make it different?
ADAMS: Not intentionally, inevitably. I have new ideas, I perceive something new in the negative, I discover values. I realize, Oh, my, I missed something. I might have missed something rather subtle, since I have a tendency to print too heavy in order to get things really rich and resonant tonally. Six months later, I may want to say something different.
DS: What are the differences between an early Adams print and a later one of the same image?
ADAMS: The more recent prints are less timid. The early ones are softer, some think more subtle. I have a sharply different vision now. The results are, perhaps, more dramatic. It’s a growth in vision or–who knows?–maybe a regression. [Chuckles] Anyway, it is different, just as a concert artist performs the same piece differently over the years. Quite a number of years ago, I heard the New York Chamber Music Society orchestra play a Haydn piano concerto with Rudolf Serkin as soloist. The last movement was particularly marvelous, and everyone was ecstatic. The entire orchestra was called back and the last movement was repeated. Serkin played it differently; he added a little magic to his interpretation, and the audience went bonkers. The orchestra came back for a second encore, and Serkin played the last movement again. And he gave it another twist. The rhythm was the same, the notes, the phrasing–just certain subtleties, a little emphasis here and there. Three subtle variations in one evening! It was wonderful. Such variations are the artist’s privilege. If my newer prints appear more bold and dramatic, it is because I became more confident and I was better at getting what I wanted.
DS: Will you ever change the notes–eliminate a part of the negative intentionally, thereby “improving” on nature?
ADAMS: Well, you don’t improve on nature; you reveal your impression of nature or nature’s impact on you. There is a three-dimensional object and some natural color in front of you and you’re creating a two-dimensional object in black and white, which in itself is quite an abstraction of what you saw. Part of the interpretation simply has to do with the sensitivity of the film. Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico wouldn’t have been possible 100 years ago. The film wasn’t sensitive enough to capture it. Moonrise is a good example of controlling the image on the negative to create the visualization. There were light clouds in the sky over the church that I felt were not attractive; they took away from the dramatic feeling of the scene. From the first visualization, I knew I could darken them, almost eliminate them. I had no chance to wait for anything to change, so I took the photograph, then printed the sky very deep, so that the high clouds are only about one percent visible.
DS: Moonrise is one of your best-known images. Do you recall taking it?
ADAMS: I was driving through the Chama Valley back to Santa Fe after a fruitless day trying to photograph a stump. I finally gave up and I was driving south, occasionally looking out of the window. Then I saw it: the church, the cemetery, the moon. I thought, Ditch the car! I started yelling to my friends to get out the tripod. I got my camera ready. I had to change the front lens component to the back and find the filter. I knew I had something wonderful, but I couldn’t find the exposure meter. Values are very difficult to judge, but I knew that the moon has a luminance value of 250 candles per square foot, so I calculated from there.
I was so excited with it that I wanted to make a duplicate–just to be sure. I turned the film holder over and, by the time I was ready to release the shutter, the light went off the crosses. The crosses in the cemetery had been illuminated by a very late sun trailing along the edge of the clouds behind me. With the sun gone, the magic disappeared.
Only now can I tell you the exact date and time I took the picture. I never was very good at keeping track of the dates when I made my photographs. I always wrote down the exposure, but it has infuriated the historians that I never kept track of the dates. In one book, I dated my Pine Cone and Eucalyptus Leaves 1936 and got a letter from historian Beaumont Newhall, who said he had a magazine with the photograph in it that was reproduced in 1934. I was never quite sure about Moonrise until two years ago, when an astronomer computed that there was only one time when the moon could have been positioned exactly as it is in the image: 4:05 P.M., October 31, 1941.
DS: Did you know at the time that you had taken a memorable photograph?
ADAMS: I knew it was an important image. I visualized this wonderful image and I just hoped I had captured it. When I started to develop it, I began to worry. First, I was going to give it a little less than normal-minus development. But I figured that if I did, it wouldn’t hold the shadows’ contrast in the foreground. I gave it water-bath development. I had worried that I had seriously underexposed the negative. I nearly panicked until I found that I hadn’t; I’d gotten it! The first print showed some scattered clouds in the sky that weren’t very favorable to the over-all scene. They weakened the feeling. So I kept printing the sky darker until I had it, the image I had seen in my mind’s eye.
DS: Is Moonrise an accurate representation of your body of work?
ADAMS: Well, it is a very intense visualization. It is an example of the best of my work. But if Moonrise hadn’t existed, something would have taken its place. I’ve got a stack of proof prints. Any one of many, given certain exposure to the public, might attract considerable attention. People love Aspens, New Mexico, which is a totally unreal picture. I think part of the impact of the photograph is its scale. There are values in my photographs from total black to total white, which gives a brilliant, dramatic contrast. Clearing Winter Storm is very popular. Monolith, the Face of Half Dome, of course. A few others.
DS: In 1976, you announced that you were going to stop taking orders for prints. It was suggested that you were trying to inflate the value of your work. How do you answer that charge?
ADAMS: It’s nonsense. The reason I stopped making prints was that, as I became more and more widely known, print orders were stacking up, both from private parties and from galleries. I found I was spending a good part of my time in the darkroom making five of this, two of that, seven of the other. Each time new orders came in, I had to make new tests for the particular emulsion of the paper I was using and, finally, I found I was so involved in the print making that I wasn’t doing anything else. I got advice from friends suggesting that I ought to work on the creative end of photography and not become a printing factory. We announced that we would take in a last batch of orders and that would be it; there wouldn’t be any more for sale after that. Since then, I can sell prints only to people who are going to donate them to colleges, libraries or museums. The prints sold for about $800 apiece. I expected orders for about 1000 prints. Instead, 3400 came in. It took two years to print those.
DS: Your commercial photography had always been profitable for you, but was your fine-print photography also profitable?
ADAMS: Oh, no. There was no market for photography as art until fairly recently. In the Thirties, Edward Weston sold his most beautiful prints for $15. At the time, he was selling more than anybody. That was expensive for a photographic print. Mine were selling for ten dollars, maybe $15. A couple of times, I got $25. Before 1970, there were very few prints worth any real money. Artists such as Frederick Sommer would make two or three prints from a negative and get $1000 or $1500 for each. Stieglitz made very few prints. He might occasionally sell one for $1000. Strand might have gotten nearly that much. That was when most of us were getting ten dollars. It wasn’t until about 1970 that prices shot up.
DS: What caused that to happen?
ADAMS: Photographs had caught on as valuable collectibles. People found they could afford original photographic prints for a generally reasonable price, while most of the original lithographs or etchings from the artists of the same period, including Picasso, were, comparatively, high. It was the beginning of the so-called photo boom that continued for almost a decade.
When we sold the prints in the portfolio for $800 apiece, it was high for the time but not out of line. It is a little embarrassing to have such high prices attached to your work–prices you never dreamed of–but it was good in that it encouraged the rise in price of allphotography. A lot of good photographers could finally make a living from creative photography.
DS: Since then, of course, the market has shot up well beyond that to the point that in 1978, photographs were appreciating faster than any other works of art.
ADAMS: Yes. Photographs became the new “in” thing, and prices reflected that.
DS: To the point at which a large print of your Moonrise set a record as the most expensive photographic print ever sold: $71,500.
ADAMS: It is rather absurd. I’ve joked, “Don’t they know I’m not dead yet?” I mean, it is perfectly ridiculous. People thought I was competing with the Arabs when they heard about those prices. I immediately went on a dozen mailing lists of people asking me for money. But I have nothing to do with those high prices. It’s like the stock market. Investors and speculators influence the art market. For the Moonrise that went for $71,500, I received something like $200 15 years ago.
DS: It has also been charged that you were involved in price manipulation of your prints at auctions. Were you?
ADAMS: Never. That’s not to say it doesn’t happen. Suppose a dealer has three prints of Monolith and he wants to sell them for at least $15,000. At the auction, he sees that one is going for $12,000. He’ll bid up and hold the price, even buying it back himself. He might even go higher–$16,000, $17,000–because that establishes the price. Suddenly, Adams’ Monolith is worth $17,000. That happens at all auctions, but I have nothing to do with it.
DS: When prices shoot up so high, can that hurt an art form? Can the artists be affected adversely?
ADAMS: When prices are overinflated, it just means that the high prices aren’t going to last. In general, however, higher prices mean that photographers can support themselves doing fine-art photography; they don’t necessarily need “real” jobs to support their art. I agree that the artist shouldn’t be extravagant, but he shouldn’t starve, either. I am not suffering. I live in a very creative environment. I’m comfortable financially, but the money has come in only fairly recently. For all the years I was struggling, however, it wasn’t out of principle. I find devotion to poverty a very strange thing. It is, I imagine, primarily a justification for the fact that some people can’t do anything else.
There’s a more important point to make here. I believe that the artist is entitled to a good life, at least a secure life. It is the obligation of a society to encourage art by supporting fine artists in all fields. It’s a crime that budgets to support the arts are among the first things to be cut.
DS: It’s also true that your signature enhances the value of both your books and your posters, isn’t it?
ADAMS: Booksellers should not charge more for a book because it has my signature. At auctions, however, where the money is going to charity, the signed Yosemite book has gone for $1200. A signed poster that costs $15 can raise $650. It is odd that the signature means so much. I’ve been asked to sign cards, pieces of toilet paper and even someone’s arm. At book signings, people have stood in line for hours for an autograph.
DS: You don’t mind doing it?
ADAMS: People depend on me to do it; I can’t say no. One thing I have done that makes people very angry is that I won’t personalize the signatures anymore. I just can’t. People come up and want one for their dear, great friend whoever and their mother’s aunt Laura on her birthday. Most people understand, but there are some who get all upset. I tell them to find me when I’m alone in some dark alley and there aren’t another thousand people waiting for my signature.
DS: To ensure that your prints remain limited editions, do you destroy the negatives?
ADAMS: No. Brett Weston says he is going to do that. O’Keeffe scratched a little X in the corner of each of Stieglitz’ negatives. They are to go to museums, but the little X won’t make them too easy to work with. My negatives are all going to the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, but I have specifically stated that I want them to be printed by advanced students, not just locked up in a case. When new printing techniques come along, it will be fascinating to see the results with those negatives. It links them, again, to musical scores, which can be used and reused and interpreted and reinterpreted. Consider that Bach and Mozart and even Beethoven had no concept of a modern grand-piano sound. We now have a chance to enhance the old music. Just as electronics has come into music, it is coming into photography. There is tremendous expressive potential. In ten years, I’m sure, they will come out with images from my negatives that I never dreamed of. Already, the technology is improving the final product. Already, I can’t make a print with the quality of laser-scan printing, and who knows what is going to come?
DS: You have had generally favorable reviews from critics, but in the later years, they have seemed less enthusiastic. Do you agree?
ADAMS: Critics are never comfortable with anything that catches on. Some people have said that I’m just a postcard photographer. I don’t even bother replying to them. Others have gone overboard the other way and have given all sorts of mystical interpretations to my work. There are very few critics who have understood my work or considered it fairly. As a rule, critics don’t get to the bottom of anything; they are superficial. It doesn’t really matter. Art critics are a sort of ridiculous bunch, for the most part. In general, I suppose I’m respected by critics and other photographers, but I also annoy a lot of young people. It’s perfectly natural that they oppose what they consider my conservative ideas about photography.
DS: Almost as quickly as photography has developed as an art form, the technology at your disposal has changed. How has it changed the art of photography?
ADAMS: One of the negative effects today is the tendency to fall back on the automatic features of the camera. When you rely on the camera’s automatic devices, you’re always going to get an image, but the camera can’t compose for you and it can’t change the values for you. It just works on the basis of averaging. On the other hand, with newer cameras, meters and film, one is much more in control of the exposure. The technology is greater, but the tendency is for people to think less. All you have to do now is aim and push a button. That’s fine if all you’re interested in doing is recording things.
DS: Have you ever been frustrated because you weren’t able to capture your visualization due to the limitations of the film or the camera?
ADAMS: That has happened, but mostly, the frustration came because I wasn’t able to see anything. A part of your mind tells you there is a picture out there, but you just can’t see it.
DS: Have you missed any images and kicked yourself for it?
ADAMS: Oh, yes. Driving, especially traveling, I see something, a possible picture, and a half mile down the road, I begin to worry. There have been times I’ve gone back. In the late Thirties, I was driving to a show in Santa Barbara with Edward Weston and I looked out the window and, across a field, I saw boards nailed around a desolate pigpen. We went on about half a mile and I turned to Edward and said, “I saw something back there. I have to go back for it.” He said, “So did I. What did you see?” We had seen the same thing. We went back, got out of the car, climbed over a fence and we both made the picture. I just came across a proof of that picture: They are different.
DS: There has been a great deal written about the Adams-Weston rivalry.
ADAMS: People have made that up, assuming we must have been competitive. On the contrary, we had a very warm friendship. In fact, Edward was intolerant of himself but quite tolerant of other people. If he felt you were really trying to express something and you weren’t an impostor or a dilettante or careless, he was very encouraging.
DS: Did you criticize each other’s work?
ADAMS: He didn’t react to many of my things; I didn’t react to his. We understood we were going in different directions. Each of us considered the other sincere and devoted. I did sometimes question his nudes, which he didn’t appreciate.
DS: What did you say?
ADAMS: I felt some were rather silly. I thought they looked weak. Edward had a pretty considerable interest in sex, but I don’t think his nudes were really erotic or effective, with a few exceptions.
DS: Have you photographed nudes?
ADAMS: No. I just never got into the model business. It isn’t out of any sense of propriety. I guess it’s having great respect for certain things that I believe are better expressed more abstractly in painting. Take a Picasso sketch of a nude. To me, that’s much nuder than any nude in a photograph. There’s a beautiful, stylized line. In a photograph, you get a literal image and–for me–it doesn’t have the same effect. With nudes, stark reality isn’t as effective as an artist’s interpretation.
DS: But you choose to portray nature relatively realistically. Why not the human body?
ADAMS: Frankly, because I don’t think many bodies are really very attractive when they’re photographed. I’d rather keep my eyes shut. You try to make them look better in Playboy, but, in fact, they’re probably all greased up and touched up.
DS: That’s not an accurate statement, but go on with your thoughts on nudes.
ADAMS: Some of Weston’s nudes, unfortunately, look like dead bodies. What bothers me also are those torturous positions that many photographers insist on for the women, which seem to be very contrived. I’d also suggest that the poses in Playboy are contrived, but that’s your business. Don’t get me wrong. There are some simply wonderful nudes of O’Keeffe by Stieglitz. Some of Edward’s earlier ones are very good. Some of his photographs of Tina Modatti are magnificent, full of life.
DS: If that’s how you feel about women in unusual positions, you can’t be much of a fan of Helmut Newton.
ADAMS: Terrible. Don’t ask.
DS: What about Diane Arbus’ work?
ADAMS: I think she was very sick. Her work bothers me terribly. She was a very good technician, but she seemed to take illth–you know the difference between health and illth?–and make it worse. She made an effort to take an unpleasant vision and make it more unpleasant. It all just leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
DS: So you’re diminishing whatever social statement Arbus made because of its unpleasantness?
ADAMS: Well, I don’t know if we need that. There’s a subtle line there and a lot of people will think I’m a Puritan goody-goody, but I believe you can better depict the social condition with a little more idealism.
DS: Let’s talk about your commercial work. What kinds did you do?
ADAMS: You name it. I did table settings, copies of paintings, clothing catalogs, architecture, an automobile, a horse, a dog, people, reports, businesses, wineries. It’s a very good discipline for any photographer to get top results under those tight deadlines. Photographing nuts and bolts is a challenge. Some people say that all professional work is a form of prostitution…. Well, Michelangelo was a professional. Professional work helps develop the craft for artistic work. The idea that an artist cannot work on assignments has nothing to do with reality, yet many photographers hold that idea. There is a romantic delusion that professional work hurts art. Well, I am not romantic in that sense. I made a living for most of my life doing commercial work. Even during the Depression, I was fortunate; I had something to do. I remember nearly killing myself for a magazine assignment–I was shooting begonias, of all things. It took me two weeks just to figure out the exposure and color filtration. Finally, I got some beautiful pictures and the story was scheduled, and some prominent figure was assassinated or mugged or something. They ended up using two of the eight pages that had been planned. I’ll never forgive that person for getting himself shot that month.
Another time, I was photographing a group of people for Fortune, powerful business leaders and politicians–the mayor, a Supreme Court Justice, the head of Southern Pacific and several others–who met at a sort of round table at San Francisco’s Sheraton Palace Hotel. They were very busy and they were pressuring me to rush. Finally, I had the shot set up and the electronic switch on the shutter broke. It was impossible to operate it manually, so I had an assistant run off to find a replacement. I was there with all these big shots who were in a terrible hurry to begin with. So I said, “Gentlemen, first of all, I have to get individual shots of you for the magazine.” I had them pose one by one until I got them all. Finally, my assistant got back with my switch, so I could do the shot I had been assigned to do. The men never knew it, but when I was doing the elaborate individual head shots, I had no film in my camera.
DS: Did you ever refuse an assignment?
ADAMS: In the early days, I would never refuse an assignment unless it completely repelled me. [His eyes light up] In 1980, a national magazine asked me to go to Santa Barbara to photograph the President at his ranch. Well, I hate Santa Barbara and, far worse, I hate Reagan. I can’t ignore my feelings and just make a pretty picture.
DS: But you agreed to photograph President Carter.
ADAMS: That was a pleasure and a great honor. It was the first time in history that the official Presidential portrait was a photograph instead of a painting.
DS: What was it like photographing him?
ADAMS: It was about six months before the end of his term. It was a rather tense experience. I used large-format Polaroid–20″ x 24″–which meant each exposure was a completed color print: no duplicating, no fooling around in the darkroom.
One of the first things Carter said was, “I have a very difficult smile. It’s always exaggerated in pictures.” I said, “I know. I don’t want to do that.” I told him he had to relax. I asked him to contemplate something pleasant, and he got a very nice expression. I was ready to shoot, but his arm was wrong; he had moved. I tried to explain what he should do, but he couldn’t get it. I went up to position him, and just as I placed my hand on his shoulder, I was grabbed by two Secret Service men. You do not touch the President.
Eventually, we did it. The whole thing took about 45 minutes. The portrait gallery in Washington has the best, Carter has the second best and I have the third best. We threw away about eight.
DS: Was there criticism of the Carter Administration for the decision to have the portrait done by a photographer?
ADAMS: Quite a bit. The painters, of course, were very mad. It was a break in nearly 200 years of tradition.
DS: Do you enjoy that kind of photography?
ADAMS: It’s not my preference, but that was, at least, fun.
DS: Was that your last commission?
ADAMS: Yes, and the first one in many years. I hadn’t done anything commercially since 1968, when I did a book for the University of California centennial.
DS: In 1980, Carter awarded you the Presidential Medal of Freedom for your environmental work and photography.
ADAMS: It was something. I was very surprised when they told me. The ceremony itself was quite an event. Tennessee Williams got the award at the same time. Also, the award was given to Hubert Humphrey posthumously.
DS: Despite the fact that you’ve taken a good number of portraits, there’s an impression that you photograph only nature. In fact, photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson once said, “The world is falling to pieces and Weston and Adams are doing pictures of rocks.”
ADAMS: It’s too bad we have to be swamped with dogma. But I would never apologize for photographing rocks. Rocks can be very beautiful. But, yes, people have asked why I don’t put people into my pictures of the natural scene. I respond, “There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer.” That usually doesn’t go over at all.
DS: Especially because you’ve criticized photographers who work in their own world, particularly studio photographers?
ADAMS: It’s a different point. I am bothered by what I call the cavern mood of studio work. You find it especially in big cities, where people may never get out of the studio. They work with contrived objects and with strange, almost continuous qualities of light. I’m very sensitive to artificial-light effects. In some examples, I see the light more than I see the subjects.
DS: What about color versus black and white? The majority of your work is in black and white. Why?
ADAMS: They are entirely different concepts. I did an awful lot of color when I was a professional. Most of them have faded. Kodachrome lasts, but Ektachrome doesn’t. In general, I never liked color prints. I think the only really beautiful color comes off the printing press, though Polaroid can achieve very good color. There is, of course, a lot of beautiful work that has been done in color, but I always prefer black and white as an expression. I don’t think I have a very good eye, or sympathy, for color. It is the difference between Stravinsky and some contemporary electronic music. The electronic music can be very beautiful if it’s handled well. To put it simply, I prefer black and white because I’m not obsessed with the dominating reality of color. I have a wide range of control and it is an abstract medium to begin with.
DS: Now, let’s run down a list of some well-known photographers who represent certain styles. We’ve talked about Lange, Cunningham, Edward Weston and Arbus. How about Walker Evans?
ADAMS: For me, he’s a strange person and he did what I would consider very important work, but I never cared for it.
DS: How about Weston’s son, Brett?
ADAMS: Oh, I know him very well. Brett is an extraordinary photographer, but his is very empirical work, not my style. He prints very dynamically, very black and white as a rule, very strong. And he has enormous productivity.
DS: Andy Warhol?
ADAMS: Oh, terrible. Ghastly. To me, he’s just an ass. His work means nothing to me. In short, repulsive.
DS: Are you reacting to the aesthetics or the social implications of the work?
ADAMS: Are there social implications? I think it’s just a put-on. If you have a hamburger and it’s slightly spoiled, the sensation is one of revulsion. Well, that is what I feel when I look at a Warhol.
DS: What do you think of the big-name fashion photographers–Francesco Scavullo, Richard Avedon?
ADAMS: Not much. I don’t know how creative fashion photography can be, anyway, because it’s done for a client. I think of their work as very contrived. It’s not to condemn them, but I don’t react.
DS: What about Antony Armstrong-Jones, Lord Snowdon?
ADAMS: He’s a very likable fellow and a good journalistic photographer. That’s all.
DS: Do you like any of the modern photographers?
ADAMS: When I started in photography, maybe five percent of all photographers were really serious and fewer than that were really good. Now it’s about the same, though there are hundreds of times more of them. Still, there is some wonderful work being done. Of the very contemporary photographers, I like Ernst Haas. Well, he must be 60. More contemporary is Joel Meyerowitz. In my mind, he is better than any of the other color photographers. George Tice has done some very subtle things. Jim Alinder is just wonderful. Olivia Parker. Jean Dieuzaide.
Many fine photographers are emerging. Chris Rainier. John Sexton. Don Worth is extraordinary. So is Paul Caponigro. Jerry Uelsmann is one of the top people. The late Wynn Bullock did many fine things. Minor White is one of the most important. Bill Brandt is one of my favorites. From Europe, there are Andre Kertesz, Josef Sudek, Lucien Clergue, Brassai. Eugene Smith was quite somebody. Eliot Porter. Philip Hyde made quite a contribution to photography of the American West. He and Ed Cooper have been doing landscapes, but they are a little derivative.
DS: Is there anyone specifically carrying on your tradition?
ADAMS: There are many people who are doing serious photography, which, I suppose, is my tradition. I don’t like it when they imitate me, which they do. They go to Yosemite and put the tripod down, sometimes in the same holes. I’ll grant that it is very hard to go to Point Lobos and see something that Edward Weston hadn’t seen, but there’s no point in doing what Weston has already done. There’s no point in doing what Adams has already done. Do something new.
DS: Yet you wouldn’t feel that way about locations you’ve photographed; you’d claim to find new things in them, right?
ADAMS: There are new pictures anywhere. If I were kept in this house the rest of my life, I could find enough to photograph here to fill my whole life. One of Strand’s best portfolios was On My Doorstep, just pictures of his garden in France. Some of them were very beautiful.
DS: You’ve spoken admiringly of Polaroid a couple of times, and you’ve been its consultant for a number of years. What do you do for Polaroid?
ADAMS: Polaroid is the only photographic corporation in this country that really supports creative photography. It has the Kennedy Gallery in Cambridge, a print-acquisition program that is very good. Kodak is just a big corporation whose interest is mass production. It does have high-quality film–there’s no question that its mechanical production is superb–but only Polaroid is actively concerned with photography as an art.
I became a consultant in 1949, after I met Edwin Land. We became fast friends. When he asked me to consult for him, I said, “I’m no scientist,” but he was interested in the problems a photographer has with the technology available. He paid me $100 a month to do whatever I wanted. The criticism of his cameras that I would give him would be very different from the kinds of criticism he got from his labs. I remember first trying a new Polaroid film in 1953. It was a beautiful prototype that never got on the market. Eventually, I did a portfolio for U.S. Camera using his camera. I felt it represented another side of development of the art form. Land felt that the real concept of his camera was for the average person who wanted to make instant pictures. I argued that the professional photographer and artist could do wonderful things with his technology.
DS: Such as?
ADAMS: There are certain things for which Polaroid is perfect. Although it has its limits, Polaroid color is superior to any other. The values are so beautiful that they’re the closest thing to pigment.
DS: Have you ever felt held back by the technology available at the time?
ADAMS: Yes. I have ideas many times that just won’t translate into film. I have an inspiration and can visualize my print, but then, when I take the photometer and measure it, I realize I can’t control the values and the film won’t hold them. Film cannot come close to capturing what the eye can capture.
DS: Will that change with new technologies?
ADAMS: I don’t think you’ll ever get that; the human eye is incredible. But in electronics, the technology we have now can do far more than film. As the world’s silver resources are depleted, these new technologies are particularly important. They’re coming already. I’ve seen a Kodak electronic disc that can be seen instantly after exposure on your television screen. The color is better than in a print. Sony has something similar, perhaps more sophisticated. The electronic image can be transferred to tape and then can be seen on a screen. From that, you can make a hard copy. It’s a major revolution. You could put the image on a large screen and have exhibits that showed an image as close to the original as possible.
DS: What else do you see coming in photography?
ADAMS: There’s no end in sight. Electronic photography will soon be superior to anything we have now. The first advance will be the exploration of existing negatives. I believe the electronic processes will enhance them. I could get superior prints from my negatives using electronics. Then the time will come when you will be able to make the entire photograph electronically. With the extremely high resolution and the enormous control you can get from electronics, the results will be fantastic. I wish I were young again!
DS: Something that’s kept you young is your passionate advocacy of environmentalism. Let’s start on that subject by asking you if your photography and your politics are related.
ADAMS: I never did a photograph of any importance for an environmental purpose. I just can’t go out and take a picture of a place because somebody needs it for a promotion of some political campaign. All the pictures I’ve done were done because I was there and I loved the mountains and I visualized a picture. However, I do feel very good about the fact that my photographs have been used in environmental campaigns a lot. I’m glad I can go to some places that have been protected that otherwise wouldn’t be there, but that is a separate interest from making a picture. There is, I suppose, an unconscious abiding desire to work in the natural scene. But the pictures of Kings Canyon Sierra, for example, were done well before I became involved in the fight to establish Kings Canyon as a national park. Same thing later with the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
DS: How were your photographs used in those fights?
ADAMS: When the Army released its control over the spectacular and vast land above the Golden Gate Bridge, the real-estate developers were ecstatic. They had plans to destroy the area as soon as they could get their hands on it. There were plans for condominiums, shopping centers and high-rises. Coincidentally, I had once photographed a great deal of that area in its natural state. I made some 40″ x 60″ enlargements of a very spectacular picture of the Marin hills and had an architect work from the plans that developers had submitted to the county for some ghastly high-rises in those hills. He drew those high-rises over my picture and we placed copies in several store windows. That started trouble. It was startling–and effective–to see the damage we were talking about. That played a part in the preservation of that area, which is now the Golden Gate Recreation Area.
Much earlier, in 1936, we were fighting to make Kings Canyon a national park. The very powerful grazing and timber lobbies were fighting us and had stirred up strong opposition throughout the state. Well, we sent copies of my book Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail, which included a great many images of the Kings Canyon area, to President Roosevelt, Interior Secretary Ickes, the governor of California and key legislators. Then I went to Washington and did some lobbying with a portfolio of prints of the area, saying, essentially, “This is what is at stake.” The images had a very strong effect. They helped swing the opinion in our favor. It was hard to argue against those images. The opposition claimed there was enough mountain land preserved in Sequoia, which is nearby, but it was perfectly obvious then, as it is now, that we must keep adding to the protected land as the population grows or end up with far lesspreserved land in proportion to the population. Secretary of the Interior James Watt’s decision not to add any park or wilderness area is terrible for the same reason. Had his logic prevailed back then, Kings Canyon would now look like part of the outskirts of Las Vegas.
Anyway, we won that one and we got a lot of feedback saying that the pictures were a part of it. In both cases, I took the photographs independently and, thank God, they were used constructively.
DS: There are, of course, countless specific environmental battles under way around the country, but is there an over-all issue that you feel is most important?
ADAMS: There is an over-all issue: If you have the proper definition of environmentalism and understand that, then all of the problems can be related to that. We must acknowledge that the environment is deteriorating. If we do not preserve it now, it will be too late. We must understand that this is not merely an aesthetic question but one that will effect our lives and the lives of our children.
DS: What is the most critical fight now?
ADAMS: To save the entire environment: wilderness protection, proper use of parks, breakdown of Federal operation of the parks in favor of private interests, acquiring new park and wilderness land, unrestrained oil drilling and mining on land and offshore, etc. First on the list now is that all the wilderness areas must be protected. It is very important. With the current Administration, they are gravely threatened. It means that the small inroads this country has made in protecting some areas, both for scenic beauty and for invaluable resources, are threatened.
Here is an important point: Only two and a half percent of the land in this country is protected. Not only are we being fought in trying to extend that two and a half percent to include other important or fragile areas but we are having to fight to protect that small two and a half percent. It is horrifying that we have to fight our own Government to save our environment. Our worst enemy is the person the President designated with the responsibility of managing the country’s environment: James Watt. No wonder it is a monumental battle.
There was a point at which it seemed we were getting somewhere. Watt agreed that he would stop trying to open up the wilderness areas, which former Administrations had seen fit to protect from any exploitation. But we read the fine print of his position. He said he would agree with the wilderness standards until 1990 or 2000, when the entire wilderness legislation would be nullified. He’s an incredibly slimy character. He wants to get rid of the wilderness concept. I’m convinced the entire Administration is dedicated to destroying the integrity of those areas. Those people have the same concept of land use that the Russians have: that national parks and forests and the enjoyment of nature are bourgeois indulgences. In Russia, they have parks they call rest-and-recreation areas that apparently can be used for any purpose the government dictates. They are looking at the very short term. Thank God, we have people fighting to protect our future. There is nothing like the Sierra Club in Russia.
DS: But with more than ten percent unemployment, are environmental issues that pressing, or is Watt correct when he suggests that you’re dealing with indulgent issues?
ADAMS: Luckily, there are many people who feel there are some values other than making a fast buck. I admit, however, that the people who are affected most by the economic problems are the ones who would be the hardest to convince that saving the environment should still be one of our highest priorities. But they have to be convinced to look beyond the obvious crisis. I admit it is easier for me to talk about these issues because I’ve never had that sense of real fear of having a family to support and losing a job not because of some local problem where you can go out and get another job but because of a depression that has eliminated many thousands of jobs. Still, people need to see how important these concerns are to them.
DS: How would you convince them?
ADAMS: We are not just talking about saving scenery. We are talking about the immediate future of our world. It could be a few short years before something drastic happens. Experts are predicting a catastrophic water shortage in the Southwest in the Nineties, because the water tables are going down so rapidly through uncontrolled use. Los Angeles could be in the midst of a disaster. The supply from the Colorado River could drop to a danger point, as it is being claimed by the states that it runs through and by Mexico. The water from the Sierra is just enough to handle the core of Los Angeles. But there are 10,000,000 other people. The picture is graphic. You can see the curve getting steeper. In relation to time, the increment of exploitation and destruction is bigger and bigger and bigger within a shorter and shorter period.
In the East, acid rain is a very serious problem. There are forests in Vermont and Massachusetts that are dying. There is no reason those forests should die, except for the acid rain caused by industrial pollution. In lakes, fish are dying. Canada is getting very mad at us, because our pollution is causing acid rain in its forests. The trees more than 10,000 feet above Bakersfield are dying from the pollution. The industry does provide jobs, but perhaps people would be better employed in jobs that didn’t threaten their existence.
The acid rain comes from power plants. Emissions collect in the clouds and eventually fall in rain wherever the clouds have blown. What right does the power plant in Ohio or Pennsylvania have to dump poison on the Adirondacks? Copper smelters in the East devastated hundreds of square miles with their acid wastes. They harmed people. Towns had to be abandoned. So what is the limit of rights? You may have the right to drill an oil well in the Mojave Desert or to build a power plant in the Midwest, but those big power plants produce fumes that put pollution over hundreds of thousands of square miles. Who has a right to do that? Who has a right to drill an oil well in the sea that may blow out, causing a spill that destroys so much life and coast line that the value of the damage can’t even be assessed? Still, they put wells right on fault lines, which means that the potential for more spills is tremendous. When we list those things, they sound overwhelming. A big revolution may be the only saving thing. Either we go to hell or we have a revolution. It may take a major disaster to wake people up–if it’s not too late.
When Watt and the Reagan Administration try to convince the people that environmental issues are bourgeois and play the environmental issues against the economic ones, they’re consciously deceiving the American people. It would be merely pathetic if the consequences weren’t so disastrous. Since they are, the Administration’s actions border on being criminal.
DS: If this Administration is so bad environmentally, why not concentrate on the next one? The election is not even two years off.
ADAMS: That could be too late. Too much damage could be done. The present Administration is basically concerned with those devoted to profitable exploitation without any regard for the future. We call them the rape-ruin-and-run boys–and it’s a very good and accurate term. Watt has said some incredible things about his specific lack of concern for the future. He’s brought in his strange religious beliefs. He can believe any way he chooses on his own time, but to impose his religious dogma on the Interior Department is dangerous. He’s a religious fundamentalist who, when asked by the House Interior Committee if he would save public lands for “future generations,” answered, “I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns.” He is saying, essentially, that we ought to use the land, as the Bible tells us, without regard for the future. Well, the Holy Land is a very good example of some lousy conservation management. In case Watt is wrong and the Lord does not return in the next few years, the earth may suffer irreparable damage.
Some of what Watt has done is truly unbelievable. Imagine sending a memo stating that no Interior Department official could meet or talk with any professional conservationist! Wasn’t this country founded on the principles of free speech and access by the people to their Government? Then there was his irresponsible letter last year to the Israeli ambassador, warning him that if U.S. Jews joined him in opposing President Reagan’s domestic-energy program, it would endanger America’s commitment to Israel’s defense.
Watt has said that “the vast majority of the conservation movement support our programs, as does Congress, the governors and the state legislatures,” but 40 members of Congress have called for his resignation. Newspapers in something like 30 states have asked for his removal from office. Western governors have vocally opposed his policies on wilderness leasing, coal leasing, water projects and land sales. Six coastal states, including Alaska and Florida, have filed suit against his outer-continental-shelf-leasing program. Just about all the national conservation groups, which represent some 6,000,000 people, have called for Watt’s resignation. A poll last summer done by The Washington Post showed that he had the lowest approval rating of any Cabinet officer other than Secretary of Labor Donovan. President Carter has summed it up nicely: “It is quite likely that the incumbent Secretary of the Interior will go down in history among our nation’s Cabinet officers as one who most seriously betrayed the public trust….”
It seems that there is a determined intention to destroy the integrity of the parks and wilderness areas to lessen their importance, which will eventually make it easier to invade them for commercial purposes. That would be tragic.
DS: Can you cite an example of that?
ADAMS: Right near Bryce Canyon, in Utah, they are planning to put in a strip mine. Eventually, we can expect an argument such as “We’re near the park already and it has proved very fruitful, so it makes sense to go ahead.” Something similar is occurring in Death Valley. The Administration also has plans to allow hard-rock mining in several national recreation areas and has even proposed changes in the surface-mining regulations that could lead to strip-mining of coal in 26 national parks. Watt wants to sell land to pay off the national debt, which is like saying, “It’s cold, so let’s set the house on fire.” He also wants to offer for lease 25 times the acreage offered during the 29-year history of a program that allows leasing of the outer continental shelf. Rape, ruin and run!
DS: Have Watt’s attempts to open up those areas to exploitation been checked or has the damage begun?
ADAMS: They’ve been checked to a degree, but he has no intention of giving up. For instance, we had thought we had the drilling off the California coast controlled; but the next thing we heard, Watt announced a new set of leases. In that situation, we don’t argue that the oil shouldn’t be available in an emergency situation, but there is a very small amount of oil off the central Pacific Coast. Watt just wants to get in there with the idea of promoting total availability. But he pays no attention to the intangible qualities, the scenic qualities and even the wildlife. One oil-company executive went so far as to say that he didn’t know why the people in our part of the country were worrying about the drilling rigs. He said, “They’re several miles offshore and they look mighty pretty at night, a lot like Christmas trees.” Those aren’t the exact words, but they are the essence. Well, that doesn’t even deserve comment, but even putting aside the view, the possibility of spills of oil and the irreparable damage that would be caused to that very fragile coast line is hardly worth the risk, unless those reserves were absolutely crucial. Remember what happened in the spill on the east coast of Mexico. It put 142,000,000 gallons of oil into the Gulf and the pollution is too terrible to speak of. The oil well was finally capped and controlled, but there was enough already out there in the water to do permanent damage to the Gulf coast.
DS: These days, how are you involved?
ADAMS: I try to do something every day–a letter, a phone call, an interview–something to promote the environmental cause. A letter a day may keep the Watts away.
DS: You are against nuclear weapons but favor nuclear power, which separates you from many of the environmental groups that are staunchly no-nuke.
ADAMS: That’s an apparent dichotomy and it disturbs a lot of people, but the danger of nuclear power is conjectural and the pollution potential, compared with the known pollution potential of burning coal and oil, is minute. When you consider the threat of acid rain and the general pollution of air and water caused by thermal-power production, it is terrible. There is general agreement that nuclear weapons are absurd, but I disagree with the view that nuclear power is bad. They have many reactors in England and they have never had any trouble. The problem here is that we just don’t have adequate training for nuclear technicians. We ought to use our technology to make nuclear power safe instead of fighting it, since it is the only practical alternative that we have to destroying the environment with oil and coal.
DS: What about the argument that we just don’t know enough to safely use nuclear power, which could potentially do far more harm than the pollution caused by fossil-fuel-energy production?
ADAMS: If we have that much caution, why do we allow the Four Corners coal plant, for instance? That can kill many more people than any nuclear plant. A nuclear plant is not dangerous.
DS: Even with the prospect of a meltdown?
ADAMS: We haven’t had any. Three Mile Island only scared people to death. I had my teeth examined when I was a little kid. I bet I had more radiation than I’d ever get around a nuclear plant for a year. Now, I am aware of the arguments against it. I believe technology can check those problems. In the meantime, with the depletion of oil, coal and gas, what else is there?
The better alternative to the fission reactors is fusion, which the Government isn’t pushing the way it should. It is a much safer alternative. It’s clean, efficient and not very expensive. The technology is inevitable. We have to have the water desalination that it will allow. It’s a necessity if we are going to avert a disaster. I just can’t be scared. Everything is a risk. When there is a big public squawk about fusion, it becomes evil. It is unfortunate that it has been clumped together with something as insidious as nuclear weapons, because utilizing nuclear energy is the future.
DS: That there hasn’t been a major disaster, such as a meltdown, doesn’t mean there won’t be one.
ADAMS: The risk is so low, it doesn’t scare me. We’re at constant risk of being hit with a meteorite or an asteroid. We’re at risk of a major earthquake, and the time for that is coming closer and closer. In Los Angeles and San Francisco, it’s going to be a tremendous disaster. The brand-new buildings may hold up, but there is a period of many decades, from 1906 through 20 years ago, whose buildings have no earthquake consideration in their construction. I think you are at infinitely more risk driving around in your car than you are around any nuclear plant.
DS: It’s not just radicals who fear nuclear power but many scientists, too. One concern is nuclear waste.
ADAMS: It is, indeed, a concern, but it is a solvable problem. Some experts have suggested shooting it off into the sun, which would be fine if the rocket worked. But think what would happen if it didn’t. The point is that waste is a solvable problem. There are a lot of scientists who are much more moderate and support nuclear power, but for some reason, they don’t get heard. Relating simple facts about something’s being safe doesn’t get the same attention as telling people that something is scary and dramatic and dangerous. If there ever were a proven hazard, I would be the first to admit it. But with all the information people have been able to give me, I have concluded that we are much better to go on with it than with the alternative. The danger is that most of the plants are privately operated and, therefore, under economic stress, and private companies are not likely to spend the money it takes to ensure that the plants are completely safe. Safety programs should be mandatory, which doesn’t say much. There should be rent control. There should be more rigid pollution control. But you have interests that just don’t want to pay the costs. I’m aware of the problems, but I still believe nuclear energy is a needed alternative that should be carefully developed and controlled.
DS: But you don’t support nuclear arms.
ADAMS: They are absolutely insane. I know people who witnessed the big displays in the Pacific who will never get over it. They had the feeling of seeing something totally beyond control that is totally lethal. They were very sobered people. Of course, people talk about the danger of a nuclear bomb hitting a nuclear reactor, but that’s a pretty silly argument. If a nuclear bomb hits anywhere, it doesn’t matter what it hits. There is enough destructive force and radiation to do unthinkable damage without any help. People cannot conceive that a multimegaton bomb falling on San Francisco would make a crater out of the entire city and do serious damage as far away as here, Carmel, 100 miles away. That is one bomb. It becomes a question of intent. Unlocking the atom can help save the race or destroy it. I have a metal letter opener that could become a murderous weapon if used with intent to murder. Anything used intentionally for destruction is terrible; nuclear bombs, of course, are worst of all. Biological weapons also terrify me. Those things are mankind at its worst. There is the other side, too, which includes art and creative technology–which is why I can find optimism amid such overwhelming odds.
DS: You’re something of a living testament to the wonders of technology, with your new cardiac Pacemaker.
ADAMS: Without it, I would have died. In fact, there have been four times I positively would have died if it hadn’t been for advanced technology in medicine. There have been four surgical episodes. The Pacemaker was the most recent. It’s a remarkable device. It’s like having a computer inside. It turns on only when I need it, when my heart rate falls below 50 or skips. The doctor can change that by waving a little magnet over my chest. There is a battery inside that lasts five to seven years.
DS: But that’s not all, we assume, that keeps you going.
ADAMS: You’re right. It’s a frame of mind. An objective. James Watt keeps me going; so does Ronald Reagan–God bless them. [He shudders] Even without them, though, there is always something to do. I’m amazed at the number of people who have no particular objective in life. They work only because they have to bring in money. That is a great part of what is wrong with our culture.
DS: Aren’t you being indulgent again? Can everyone be a creative artist and still make a living?
ADAMS: No, but you can be a creative technician or a creative manager or a creative artisan. It’s only the assembly-line ethic that inhibits the mechanic who is creatively building or fixing or making things work. The unions have tried to make people feel important, but they, too, have been trapped by a sort of big-business remoteness. If I were working for a corporation, I’d be looking for a slice of the proverbial pie, especially when I hear about the $100,000-plus-a-year salaries of the executives. There is no easy answer, but that, too, is what keeps me going.
DS: Do you exercise? What do you do in your leisure time?
ADAMS: I don’t see a difference between my work and my pleasure. I can’t consider wasting time on vacations or so-called relaxation. I get very impatient when I’m on a trip and there’s nothing to do. Leisure as a concept implies that the work you do is unpleasant. I might take a break from one kind of work to do another kind or to read or listen to music. I love to see people, perhaps over cocktails in the evenings. The doctor actually wants me to have a couple of drinks in the evening to relax myself.
DS: While we’re on the subject, that is some strong martini we’ve sampled. Will you share your recipe with us?
ADAMS: The martini I am drinking now is simply diluted–that way, I can have several. But the ones you’re sipping come from a Hotel Sonesta bartender in Cambridge. You take a good-sized glass and fill it with fine vermouth. Then you marinate some big lemon peels in there for days. As the vermouth evaporates or is used up, replenish it. All you need is a glass, ice, vodka and a lemon peel. Rub the lemon peel around the rim of the glass, drop it in, and you have a very dry martini.
It’s odd, but I don’t really think about being 81, except when I feel it. But I just keep on going, doing what I can do. I can’t do as much as I used to be able to, but I do all that I can. I was up near San Francisco a few days ago and I was looking around and thinking about how I used to scramble around the hill with all my equipment without any thought at all about it. Now I need help with all my equipment. Luckily, I have assistants. Sometimes, they tighten the screws on the tripod so much that I can’t even open them, which is rather embarrassing. I wear glasses now but can see better than ever. I have arthritis. It’s uncomfortable, but it hasn’t been too destructive. Since it hit my hands chiefly, it would have been very bad had I continued in music. But overall, I’m quite fine. I’m better off than I was before the Pacemaker. And I hope I’m around as long as the machinery will last; and then, when the final wash comes….
DS: The final wash?
ADAMS: You know–the final wash, the last rinse. It would be very presumptuous to think I will not join the great majority. That’s one political party you can’t escape. I have great expectations–I have a very good life expectancy, they tell me–but the last wash is a given. When I begin to lose my marbles, I think it will be much better not to be around, but the simple physical disabilities are tolerable.
When most people retire, either they die a year later or they are miserable in Sun City or some other self-imposed prison–all those elderly settlements have positively become equivalent to prisons. People go to those places and wait to die, scared and weak. They grow conservative, right wing, which puzzles me. It is an illusion that if you’re right wing, you are going to be more secure–that is, unless you’ve got an awful lot of money under your right wing. [Sighs] It’s a bit disheartening. It can’t stay this way. Disaster or revolution, whichever comes first.
DS: You said that earlier. We assumed you were speaking rhetorically. Weren’t you?
ADAMS: Definitely not. We are on a disaster course. A revolution may happen first; and, of course, that may be a disaster anyway. I don’t say it would be a Soviet revolution, but it could very well result in a different order of society. It could be a socialist setup that might work for a while. We don’t know. The point is, I think there may be a revolution if there is not greater equality given to all citizens. We have consistently considered the employer, especially the large corporations, as the most valuable part of the American society. We have consistently overlooked the enormous importance of the farmer, the technician, the educator, the artist, the laborer. I’m not calling for a revolution; I’m calling for greater equality to all citizens. If that doesn’t happen, something will.
You see, I believe in a Federalism under which you would pay your taxes to a properly elected and conducted central Government that would, in turn, provide essential services–which would include medical care and other essentials–to the population. I do think there is a basic obligation for everyone to make his maximum contribution to society, but we talk about opportunity for everyone, and the fact is that it is perfectly obvious that equal opportunity does not exist. It’s about time we woke to that fact and clarified the whole social-political structure. Or we’ll be awakened.
Remember, ten percent unemployment, no matter how high that is, is an average. There are places and segments of the population with much higher unemployment. People will not continue to tolerate those conditions. What we need is a new set of political commandments that call to attention some of the basic provisions of the Constitution that are often overlooked by our contemporary leaders. There are inalienable rights that are supposed to be guaranteed. It is absolutely criminal that our Government has consistently supported rightist governments that deny citizens’ rights while being paranoid about any liberal concept, which is the concept upon which our country was founded. But, remember, it took a revolution here.
DS: In the meantime, you’re working vigorously to correct the situation.
ADAMS: I think good things can be done within this system. I think there is more equal distribution in societies that pay more taxes and get more services from the government, such as Sweden. The big problem is to convince the people that all the public lands are owned by them, not by some big bureaucracy or some corporation. Literally everybody owns public lands. You can’t go up and claim your square yard, but if something goes wrong with the public land and resources, everybody suffers. A big corporation may make a great deal from exploitation of the environment and it may even create several jobs, but in the end, the public–that is, all of us–will suffer. But I wouldn’t continue my efforts if I thought they were hopeless. I wouldn’t write all those letters. There’s so much that is worth conserving. [Lifts his diluted martini] And I’ll drink to that.
Interview conducted with Vicki Sheff-Cahan