MARC SILBER: Hello, I'm Marc Silber. We're here with Michael Adams. Where are we Michael? Good morning.
MICHAEL ADAMS: We are in Carmel, California, at the home of Ansel and Virginia Adams, which we now own.
MARC: This is an amazing place. Can you show us around?
MICHAEL: Certainly, where would you like to start?
MARC: How about this screen here? That --
MICHAEL: OK. This screen is a photographic screen. It's a relatively unique process, and we'll talk about it in the dark room, but it's a three panel screen, and each of those is a photograph. It was taken from one 8x10 negative, and it was -- they were able to divide it into the three panels and go through the process of developing and drying and ultimately mounting them on this panel -- three panel screen. There are several in existence. There are actually a couple that he built with both sides photographed, but they're far and -- few and far between.
MARC: How many would you say there are total?
MICHAEL: Oh, there's probably a dozen, and if you look at a program that was done by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, they had a whole segment in their show and in the book that's coming -- on screens, and I could show you that afterwards.
MARC: Great. Alright, now we're at the centerpiece here. Tell us this story.
MICHAEL: This is the centerpiece and probably Ansel's most famous picture
. And I was very fortunate to be there when it was taken. I was seven years old. We were coming back to Santa Fe from north, and Ansel saw this image. He pulled the car off the road very rapidly, got out -- got us -- there were two of us also with him, and we were trying to get the tripod, and he got the camera on it, and he had made the, you know, looked at the uh... the picture and then he wanted his exposure meter, but he couldn't find it. So, he knew that the luminance of the moon was 250 foot-candles
, and from that, he derived the exposure. He took that picture, put the slide back in the film holder, turned the film holder around. Before he could pull the slide to take a second one, all the light in the foreground was gone.
MICHAEL: So, it's one of a kind. Thing that's interesting about this, and it's something I can show you later. If you look at the plain image, just the straight image of this, and then you look at this final print, there's a huge difference, and this was part of Ansel's magic is what he could do in the darkroom, and I can demonstrate that to you with the computer here in a few minutes, but ... this is -- I can't tell you the date this was done, but the later images had a darker sky than some of his earlier images.
MARC: Uh-huh. He changed didn't he as he reprinted, he -- ?
MICHAEL: He changed. He, I think in many ways, a lot of the contrasts became greater, darker skies, darker parts of the image in the later photographs as compared to some of his earlier ones.
MARC: So, the thing that he always talked about is the negative was the score, and the print was the performance.
MICHAEL: He used that musician's... sort of a feeling that... Yes, he could do the score on the negative, and then you interpreted it as the actual final performance for the print.
MARC: Amazing. So just backing up here for a second, so Ansel's the dad, driving the car, with you and other -- ?
MICHAEL: Another fellow, Cedric Wright, good friend of the family.
MARC: [overlapping] ...with Cedric Right, OK, another world famous photographer, and he's -- so he's just being a dad driving down the road, and all of a sudden, he catches this out of the corner -- or, he sees this image.
MARC: Amazing. Just like you were --
MICHAEL: Spur of the moment type thing at the end of the day, and I've actually -- he mentioned that it had been a pretty dismal day as far as getting pictures prior to finding this.
MARC: Well, that's an amazing shot.
MICHAEL: It is. In talking about the "Moonrise Hernandez" image, probably Ansel's most famous one, there was quite a difference between the plain film, or the straight picture, compared to the final result. This was coming back from northern New Mexico toward Alberquer -- towards Santa Fe that day. This is the image that we all recognize as the, you know, the famous one, and you notice how dark the sky. This now is the straight print, which is what he got out of the picture, you know, and this -- from this, he did the work in the dark room, the magic in the darkroom, but it's all there, the moon. You'll notice there's a lot of, a lot of clouds in the sky. He moved -- removed most of those. There's the final, but additionally, he did this for himself to know how we was going to do the various exposures. Now, I cannot interpret this, but "Moonrise Hernandez," says 2-22-80 so that's when he was last doing a lot of these images or doing some of them, and this is what he was using as his exposure and noting on this formula what he wanted to get out of it.
MARC: We have so many pictures. I don't know where to look next except of course --
MICHAEL: I think we should probably move around to "Half Dome". Fortunately, we were up there last week -- not at that site but looking across at it. "Monolith: the Face of Half Dome" was done in 1927, and it's an interesting story. My mom, before they were married, again, Cedric Wright.
MICHAEL: And a couple of other friends climbed up what's known as the LeConte Gulley onto the diving board, which is the shoulder of Half Dome. You can see a segment of the diving board here. And on the way up, he took several pictures. Now, these were glass plates and pretty heavy. He -- his next-to-last picture, he used the yellow filter of this image, and he realized after he took that, that it wasn't going to get the final result that he wished to get, so he changed to a red filter and took this image, and the difference is like night and day, and I can show you also on the computer the comparison between the yellow filter and the red filter.
MICAHEL: Again, Ansel stated that he was just amazed that when he developed it later that day or that night, he really felt good about it and that this picture and what he thought about it and what he thought about taking it was the first time he really pre-visualized what he'd have in the final image, and this was about the time that he was deciding that maybe music wasn't his future and that photography certainly could be and that he was onto something. He knew what he needed to get in at end, and this was the first real example of that.
MARC: So, that's -- in the photographic history, that's a very significant turning point.
MICHAEL: Very much, very much for him.
MARC: Amazing. What else can we look at here? This is --
MICAHEL: Well, we have-- this is Marceed [?] River, cliffs, autumn in Yosemite, done in 1939. This again is an enlargement, I mean, a mural size. That's fairly, well-known image. Coming down the wall: "White House Ruin in Canyon de Shay National Monument in Arizona". I was there when that was taken, 1941. That's a very --
MARC: [overlapping] Amazing.
MICHAEL: [overlapping] enjoyable place to go.
MARC: Amazing. Can we see the darkroom?
MICHAEL: Certainly can.
MICAHEL: We are now in the dark room in the house, and I'm standing next to the enlarger that runs on a railroad track.
MARC: This is a railroad track?
MICHAEL: This is a, sort of a homemade railroad track.
MICHAEL: But the actual original enlarger in the San Francisco house ran on railroad tracks, and this is, to my understanding, the basic camera and set up that was brought to Carmel in 1961 for this. This is where he was able to do a lot of his work -- I should say most of it -- from the 60s on, and with this setup here, he could do the murals that we were looking at and the screens where this area here could have a roll of paper, and it could be brought down, and then using magnets to hold in place, a large image could've been -- could be exposed and then it could be developed in these tanks that you see to the side.
MARC: I've never seen a dark room like this before. Did he figure this all out?
MICHAEL: Oh, yeah, and he had a lot of experience with it. I mean, he played with this kind of a thing in his darkroom in San Francisco. He had this horizontal set up to do big images in San Francisco, so when he moved down here, this was absolutely going to be a part of it.
MARC: Amazing. This is -- by the way, this is the darkroom. This is the man's darkroom.
MICHAEL: This is where he did the work that we, for the most part, we know today. And he also had some more standard type enlargers around the other side of the room, but this is where he did a tremendous amount of work, and what else can I say? This is spectacular. This runs on the tracks, and the nice thing is that you could move the paper position as well as the camera positions, so you had quite a bit of play.
MARC: So, he engineered this stuff and then he would just have somebody build it?
MICHAEL: It was his idea. I'm sure, and he had someone help in putting the thing together, and I know that John Sexton was involved in this machine, I think especially with the cooling capability. When you see the light source, it's a pretty amazing piece of equipment.
MARC: And this, what do we have here?
MICHAEL: This is for dodging, and when the paper was illuminated here, if you wanted to cut the actual exposure to certain areas, he could use this, you know, to reduce the exposure in certain areas, and he had a piece of cardboard with a hole in it so that he could use that hole to let light through for areas he wanted to increase the exposure. Pretty simple tools.
MARC: Traditional darkroom stuff.
MICHAEL: [overlapping] Traditional darkroom work.
MARC: [overlapping] But what's amazing is... so he cut this out, obviously, by hand himself and just stuck it on a piece of... little thin wood.
MICHAEL: And what his -- he would come in here in the morning, and say he was going to do this image. He was going to print this in a large size. So, he would have the negative. He'd place it into the camera and then he would decide on the size usually he was using standard paper, 11x14 or 16x20 paper, for these images so he'd basically set it up to do that size image, do the focusing, then he would start the development. Now, if he hadn't done this in a long time, it was like starting from scratch, and he would -- I don't have a piece of paper, but he would take, take an exposure, start an exposure and then move this piece of paper up the paper here so that there were different exposures then he would develop that.
MICHAEL: And from that, he would select the exposure that he really felt was important. One of the interesting things was, when he developed it and washed it, he would take it into the kitchen in the microwave and dry it.
MARC: [overlapping] I saw that on --
MICHAEL: [overlapping] because the actual color -- the, the -- what he was looking for in the final was best seen as dry rather than the wet image. So from that information, he could then come back and he could do the exposures that he wanted. Sometimes, it took half a day to get set up to get the right exposure for the image he was going produce, and it was time consuming.
MARC: Once he figured it out --
MICHAEL: Once he figure it out, then he could do multiple.
Most the time in the earlier years, he'd only to a few because he wasn't getting many orders. Then later on, when his business manager said we're going to cut off orders at December 31st, 1975, people had to order by that date or they were or they were out of luck, so there were huge orders coming in from galleries and individuals. So, when he printed one he knew he had to have fifty of, that -- he could get started with that and then the process became a little more rapid.
MICHAEL: But, if you're only doing two or three images and then going to another one, the setup time to get the right exposures was time consuming.
MARC: OK, now. Tell us a little bit more about this cutoff date. You got my interest there. So, what happens? What was the story?
MICHAEL: So, Ansel was working his tail off doing these individual orders for a picture here and a picture there. And it wasn't -- it was putting more work onto him without much remuneration, so his business manager thought that this would be a time to do that, and Ansel was getting on in years. This would be 1975, so he was 77, and it probably made sense. So, it got him out of the darkroom in one sense; he wasn't going to be coming back in for a few here and a few there, and it also allowed him to get large numbers pictures that he then could sell because they were all orders, and it was some ridiculous amount. I think you paid $125 for an 11x14, or $250 for a 16x20.
MARC: Don't you wish we'd ordered those? [laughs]
MICHAREL: Yes, I wish we'd order a lot more. [laughs]
MARC: Can we go back in time?
MICHAEL: No, but once the print was -- once the exposure was made, he'd use these tanks and these trays to develop, and then he had these large fiberglass trays that he could wash the -- effectively wash the prints, the final prints for eight hours or whatever was required.
MARC: How much time do you think he spent in the darkroom on a daily or weekly basis?
MICHAEL: He spent a great deal of time in the darkroom. It became -- in his later years, when he wasn't going out photographing as much, he was either writing or in the darkroom, and he had these -- this obligation for -- it took several years to clear up those orders after 1975.
MICHAEL: It just -- it was such a huge process, and he had some assistants that helped him, but he did the exposure, and he did essentially the development on everything.
MARC: I'd like to thank Michael Adams for inviting us to his home and for generously sharing stories about his dad.