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Ansel Adams: Language of the Camera Eye

Take a dive into the ALL ARTS Vault and join Ansel Adams in conversation with Beaumont Newhall, the then director of the George Eastman House, as the two discuss several of Adams’s photographic influences. Whether you’re a fan of photography or new to the art form, this program is a fantastic introduction to the landmark images and photographic principals that have informed generations of photos.

AIRED: December 01, 2019 | 0:32:12
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TRANSCRIPT

Welcome to the ALL ARTS Vault.

I'm Shanelle Gabriel.

The Vault is the place to go to for special access

to all things arts.

So we're going into the archives

to uncover some of our greatest gems

and share these programs with you

as they would have been seen decades ago

when they first aired.

Today, we're presenting the first part

in our five-part series from 1960

featuring American photographer Ansel Adams.

In this episode, titled "Language of the Camera Eye,"

Adams is joined in his studio by Beaumont Newhall,

the then-director of the George Eastman House.

In this wide-ranging conversation,

the two discuss several of Adams' photographic influences,

including works by Edward Weston,

Dorothea Lange, and Alfred Stieglitz.

Both Adams and Newhall also use this conversation

as an opportunity to dive into the history of photography

and to re-examine some of their favorite photographs

from such giants of the field as Paul Strand,

Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Julia Margaret Cameron.

And of course, you'll see iconic photographs from Adams, as well,

a photographer known

for his sweeping, naturalistic landscape images

and deft use of natural light.

Whether you're a fan of photography

or new to the art form,

this program is a fantastic introduction

into the landmark images and photographic principles

that have informed generations of photographers,

including Ansel Adams.

We hope you enjoy

this illuminating and educational conversation.

Here's "Language of the Camera Eye."

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Adams: "Isn't it remarkable how photography has advanced

without improving?"

Narrator: Ansel Adams -- author, musician,

teacher, conservationist, master photographer.

In Ansel Adams' San Francisco studio,

one of his two homes -- The other is in Yosemite --

we find him in conversation with Beaumont Newhall,

director of George Eastman House,

foremost museum of photography.

You know, Ansel, looking at a fine daguerreotype,

such as the one you just showed me,

makes me realize how true Charles Sheeler's statement

that you quoted earlier, "Isn't it remarkable

how much photography has advanced without improving?"

That quality of the daguerreotype

is such a fundamental, delicate detail

and such a wealth of detail.

And when I look at some of your photographs,

particularly such a picture as this portrait

of Carolyn Anspacher,

I'm reminded that you are working

in the tradition of the daguerreotype.

Adams: Well, I think the relationship is not only

in the exquisite detail

that the straight photograph can give

compared to the daguerreotype

but also the fact that the daguerreotype

and the straight photograph has not been affected

by manipulation or retouching.

That of course is extremely important,

because the daguerreotype

was absolutely impossible to retouch.

But you don't like to retouch, either.

No, we only take out a few chemical blemishes

that have nothing to do with the basic characteristics,

the structures of the subject.

It's a matter of ethics and policy to a certain extent.

Well, maybe retouching would interfere very strongly

with the other characteristic, both of the daguerreotype

and your photography as shown here, of texture.

Yes, because the photograph is very quick

to reveal an accurate texture

as against a phony texture.

And the manipulation of the textures or the lines

or the formal relationship of the details

can certainly -- could create a very unsettling effect.

Yes, I remember it was Edward Weston

who said that the beauty of a fine photograph

is that flesh is flesh,

and stone is stone.

This book that you published of Weston's,

"My Camera on Point Lobos,"

is full of this wonderful stone on stone.

I've always liked this one of the eroded rock.

Well, in this case,

you have a fragment of nature.

It is in itself a shape.

It becomes form when it is completely organized in space

by the selection of camera viewpoint

and of course by the control of tonalities.

This whole subject of composition

was something that Weston --

He called it the strongest way of seeing.

And of course so many of the pictorial people today,

the salon people, are striving to follow certain

pictorial rules and regulations, you might say,

which are more or less based on conventional painting,

which have validity in the domain of photography.

Well, Weston's famous statement

that composition is the strongest way of seeing,

I've often thought that it's a question of seeing what.

For instance, we have this one of a lettuce field

which certainly is a strong way of seeing a lettuce field

as a form of design.

Well, I think of course you cannot break down

the various compositional elements.

You can't say design or pattern or textures or scale.

They all come together

in a more or less appropriate relationship.

And here is a relatively commonplace thing

in which the experience is recreated in the photograph.

It's almost what we could say is a near-far composition

where you can look down into the close lettuce plants

and off into practically infinite distance

and then everything arranged

with a very subtle balance of values,

and, well, we say placements,

which reinforce the basic design of the field itself.

Well, then, Ansel, what's the difference

between this picture of Weston's

and this one of yourself of a lettuce field?

Well, I'm not sure it's a lettuce field,

but certainly, it's a field.

Itis a lettuce field.

The interesting thing here is that while Weston's picture

was only a personal assignment

in which he made the photograph

to satisfy his own aesthetic attention.

This became a practical, or was a practical assignment

for the American Press Company Centennial Book,

and we had to have a photograph of irrigation

in this particular part of California.

But you can't just tell me

that this is a picture of irrigation, Ansel,

with this beautiful foam down there

almost as if it's been put there.

Well, it was a very happy accident the foam was there,

and in a few minutes, I would've lost it entirely.

But I had to do a lot of looking around to find a field

that would tell the story of situation and the landscape.

And I tried to intensify my --

the impression by moving in very close,

even closer than Edward did, on the immediate foreground

and yet giving this sense of environment and space.

Well, here's still another picture of a plowed field.

Well, this one by Dorothea Lange, of course,

is very stark, quite beautiful,

is an assignment of another kind.

She was doing a general photographic interpretation

of the Dust Bowl conditions.

The seeing and the organization,

the tonality and the very bleak, white sky

all tends to reinforce the mood

of weakness and desolation...

And of course also here... ...poverty.

...we have the subject matter of great importance,

the fact that here is an abandoned house

in the middle of a plowed-out field,

a worn-out field.

This and documentary photography is of course

of tremendous importance,

the story side of it.

Well, it's the narrative and the dramatic content

which the photographer carries as an overriding mood

and overriding aesthetic pattern.

And in this case, everything is appropriately organized

and related to reinforce this particular mood,

as well as being highly informative.

Ansel, what do you think of a picture like this one,

which is of an artifact of something that is built,

something that is made?

Subject matter certainly is there.

Well, this could be, I suppose, an example of American folk art.

It's the detail of a grave in New Orleans, I believe.

It's a very handsome thing,

seen in a very handsome way by Brett Weston.

The difficulty here on subjects of this type

is that they are already created,

and they become the --

an actual production of man.

They're not a found object.

But seems to me that here we have really made

almost an abstraction by the isolation, by the placement,

by the cutting down of this picture.

And just what is the relationship of photography

to the whole pattern of the abstract kind of approach?

Well, I think, in this case,

Brett had a very sensitive reaction

to the object itself and its environment.

And as you said, it's really highly stylized.

Comes through as a very beautiful image.

It's very beautiful upside down.

It has an internal balance.

It is not a found object as so many of Edward's photographs

and some of mine are

where we see

a disorganized aspect of nature

but which we can immediately perceive

the potentials of organization.

You've been doing some work recently which fascinates me

with sort of whitewashed fence

and of big close-ups of nature.

Yes, but very often in set cases with that,

the negative itself contains a certain aesthetic value

where the negatives are positive.

I'd like to show you one of the negatives.

Fine.

The moment I put out a negative to show you,

it's carried out, I think,

the idea of the abstraction quality of semi-abstraction

where the negative itself,

the scene of this particular character,

can become very exciting.

Well, the object of this negative

was to make a large print,

and it carries out fine in texture and tonal values.

But I consider the negative to be pretty much the score

or related to the composer's score

whereas the print can be considered the performance.

So the print is not always the same.

We can improve prints, but we have

all of our basic qualities in this negative itself.

That's a magnificent performance, Ansel,

and so large.

2 1/2 times or 3 times the original size.

Whitewashed boards on an old building

in which the hardwoods became the whitewash,

and the softwoods eroded off.

I'd say that the very fact that you've enlarged this

so big, beyond life-size,

has given this a certain abstract quality,

a certain character which is quite different

than as if you've printed in a smaller size.

Well, I think the term abstraction,

which I don't like too much, at least in photography,

we could call this stylization perhaps.

Well, I think that's a beautiful job, Ansel.

Well, you want to see some more photographs, don't you?

I'd like that much, Ansel. Alright.

We can come right in here

and just take your pick.

Well, what have you got here?

Let's get this stack out and see.

Oh, this frozen --

Frozen lake and cliffs here in Nevada.

That's one of your early pictures, isn't it?

That's an early one, very long-focused lens,

just a fragment of nature.

The whole scene is impressive

but not interesting in the formal sense,

because we had all of these shapes

perfectly obvious to the eye,

which can pick out very small areas

and become conscious of them.

And then we visualize the photograph

according to what we see and what we feel,

and we proceed according to the --

Well, I call it the visualization.

You know, the funny thing about this photograph

and the one we just looked at and other pictures of this type

in which you see a pattern first,

and it seems like, oh, something abstract.

Perhaps you can't even recognize

what the subject matter is at first glance,

and then as you look at it, as you look into it,

you realize that this is a piece of nature.

A portion of it is rooted in reality.

It's always seemed to me that this is one of the things

that photography can do so very beautifully

is to emphasize the form, to help us to see,

to help us really to use our eyes

and to see what's about us.

Seems to me that a photograph

is created on an analytic basis,

whereas painting, we might say,

is created from a synthetic basis.

Mm-hmm.

I mean that in the best sense of the word.

Of course, the recognizable elements of photographs

may sometimes be obscure

unless you're familiar with the subject.

But it reminds me in a way of that story about Picasso.

At a show, and a lady came up to him and said,

"Mr. Picasso, the title of this picture,

'Fish,' but it doesn't look like a fish to me," and he said,

"Well, why should it, lady? It's a painting."

[ Chuckles ]

Well, in another age and an earlier time,

it's like Whistler when he was painting a sunset,

and another lady came up and said,

"Why, Mr. Whistler, I've never seen a sunset like this."

And he simply answered,

"Well, don't you wish you could?"

Yes.

So, a photograph is an intensification of experience.

Well, now there's some other things in here

talking about abstractions and semi-abstractions.

This camera work, the Strand issue.

That's marvelous.

I think that's got a picture in it

that's so close to what we've been talking about,

that famous picture of the white board fence.

There we are.

I think this of course is really

one of the great milestones of photography,

that I know of nothing before this time.

I guess this is 1916,

published in 1917.

I know of nothing before this image,

which seemed to divorce photography

from the imitation of romantic painting.

Most scenes were in a sense conceived

or thought of as what might have been done

in the medium of painting or mythography of drawing.

But here we have a beautiful, direct stylization,

feeling of space, symbols.

Nothing is revealed in entirety,

and yet one feels a magnificent relationship

with areas and intensification of subject.

I guess we call it the very presence of the fence.

And as we look into it in a very subtle way,

we get all kinds of very delicate relationships,

which carry our eyes through it

and create a very high art of aesthetic experience.

Of course, Ansel, some people might say that this photograph

and so many of the others that we've looked at

are of static subjects

and that it's a relatively simple thing to control

this kind of a subject matter,

whereas something, oh, like this photograph

by Cedric Wright of the surf is --

Well, it's really a cascade in the mountains.

And of course, it's a very, very short exposure,

but I think we have to trust our unconscious mind

not only to perceive the essential exciting moment

but to anticipate it

so that the lag between the desire to photograph,

the operation of the shutter, release,

and the actual taking of the pictures

are all in a sort of a pattern of sequence,

and the end result is pretty much

what the person desired to get.

Well, perhaps not only desired to get,

but he had a kind of intuition

that enabled him to foresee what was coming up.

Of course, here's another one, image of Cartier-Bresson,

which the children playing in the ruins,

it's quite a famous photograph in many respects.

And here again, the clear revelation

of one figure against another

and the sort of the logic of movement,

which there's no time for contemplation

in the ordinary sense, but we actually have to trust

explicitly this intuitive reaction.

This of course was done with a 35-millimeter camera.

At the eye, held to the eye, too, which is important.

And was very mobile,

because he could move around with complete freedom,

which of course we can't do with a tripod.

Well, Cartier-Bresson made this photograph,

oh, in the '30s.

Here's a picture made a little bit later

in which we have something of this same quality

plus a subject matter interest

which, least as far I'm concerned,

is a much more intense and much more human approach.

Well, I think it's intense

because of its human significance.

I don't believe it has any of the organization

of the one we first saw, but the important thing is

that a great many people,

spectators and photographers, too,

go through the photograph

as a statement to the subject as reality.

So in here, you have a very intense situation.

And I don't think of this as a photograph.

I think this is a documentation of the situation.

Well, perhaps it's photojournalism.

The important thing here

is telling the story of Cardinal Pacelli

and the adoration of the people of Paris at a certain moment.

And Cartier has in an extraordinary way

got the emotional expression on the faces.

That is right, and he also was able to see camera-wise

so that certain faces were revealed and not obscured.

And it's a very impressive photograph,

but it is not, in my opinion,

the work of art that the second one,

one of the photographs in the sequence,

the "Spanish Village" by Smith.

This was made forLife magazine.

This is, again, is a little different

from the other pictures we've seen,

because this was taken on assignment.

But it was not the hectic assignment

that so much photojournalism happens to be,

when there is no time,

and there's a news event, has to be caught in a moment.

He did have some chance to study his subject

and to work with it on a considerable period of time.

Plus, to me, it seems somewhat posed.

It's -- There's quite a different character

than the Cartier-Bresson pictures we've seen.

I don't think the figure is posed,

but I think probably the camera was a bit.

He had the time to select a more or less ideal camera position

such as he did here.

This is a wake. A wake.

That's that same series of pictures of the Spanish village.

And it is quite an extraordinary composition in every respect.

However, it does have a certain picturesque-ness

relating to a different race,

to different costumes, a different period.

Now, we have one in here of Smith,

the steel worker in Pittsburgh, part of the Pittsburgh series,

still has that marvelous, tragic quality

and pure aesthetic quality

which is lacking in so much photojournalism.

And it also shows you

that you can find subject matter all around you

and that it's not the exotic subject matter

which makes a great photograph,

but the photographer's handling of it,

his appreciation of the situation

and his sympathy towards the subject

in the case of photographs of people.

This is of course quite apparent in the work of Paul Strand,

the more recent work that he's been doing.

We had -- Well, in this book, "Masters of Photography,"

we have reproduced some of Paul Strand's

more recent pictures.

And in particular, I was thinking of one here of --

Here we are, of the family

at Luzzara in Italy.

Here, this was not taken by Paul Strand on assignment

for a magazine. That was taken by him

because he wanted to photograph the village.

For years, he'd been hunting for a village

which would give him photographic opportunities,

and he finally found it in the natal village

of the Italian film writer Zavattini,

who did the text for the book

and arranged for Paul Strand to come to know these people

and approach them with great sympathy.

Well, I would say that a photographic project

or a photographic objective

might come from within the photographer,

but that an assignment in the ordinary sense of the word

comes from without, and I personally feel

that the more intense the aesthetic expression,

the more convincing the human elements

and human qualities of the subject

will be revealed.

Well, how about portraiture? We had some other things in here.

We have --

Oh, and these wonderful things, yes.

This is marvelous.

This says Sir John Herschel.

And Julia Margaret Cameron brought to her portraiture

sympathy towards the people.

They were all his friends. She brought to it

a kind of devotion as she wrote in her book,

"Annals of the Glass House,"

that, "When I had these great men before my camera,

it has been almost the embodiment of a prayer."

Well, here you have a technique of 1867 --

cumbersome wet plates, extremely slow, awkward.

The amount of sheer physical effort involved

in making a photograph, I think, had a reaction

upon the intensity of the secured image

and that many of the earliest photographs

do represent a terrific power,

a terrific devotion.

Let's look at some other portraits.

Let's look at one by Steichen,

that very famous one, the --

Oh, yes, the -- Yeah.

Famous one of --

Morgan! Morgan. Morgan! There we are.

There's a good --

Of course, this was done pretty much

as a stand-in for a painting,

so it is probably illuminated in a little romantic fashion,

somewhat as the painter would choose.

An amusing coincidence of shape --

The hand holding the rail of the chair

gives the impression of a knife.

People think it's a knife and read that into it chiefly

because of some association between Morgan

and his rather ferocious financial operations.

But still remains a very fine and striking photograph

with enormous power.

And there's another one here that I've marked out

to discuss with you.

This is one of the great Stieglitzes,

Alfred Stieglitz's portrait of O'Keeffe.

That's a palladium print,

which of course is a type of printing material

that Stieglitz liked so much in the 1920s.

Of course Stieglitz was the great moving force

in photography,

I guess the greatest figure in the history of the art.

I had the great privilege of knowing him very well

and of having a one-man show at his gallery.

It was called "An American Place" in 1936.

He's been a terrific influence throughout my life.

On this page is one of the "Equivalents."

Well, the "Equivalents" actually,

a whole opening of a new field of photography.

The "Equivalents" is so subtle in tone

and so delicate in the gradations

that they should be looked at in the originals.

As I understand it, it was said

that the power of Stieglitz's portraits

was due to his personality

and that he could influence his sitters,

almost had a hypnotic effect on them,

and so he then turned his camera to the sky

and said, "Clouds are here for everyone.

You can't influence clouds," and made this tremendous series

of picture after picture of clouds,

but to call them cloud photographs

is missing the point.

They have no particular orientation.

They're just in a sense fantastic dreams,

imaginations of a very deep spiritual --

Would you call this abstract photography?

No, I would call it very highly selective,

stylized, very perceptive,

and I guess the world symbolic is as good a term as we can use.

They still are clouds,

although we are not dominated by that fact.

Stieglitz felt that, through these clouds,

through these shapes, he could create a kind of

equivalent to his feelings at the moment,

which could then be recognized by other people

and which would have a definite emotional significance.

Very important thing is that

he was not dominating the spectator.

He did not demand that the spectator read

a particular emotion or quality

or enjoy a particular reaction.

He felt that if his statement was powerful enough,

that the spectator would then be liberated

to create his own interpretation and his own vision or dreams

when confronted with these images.

Ansel, do you consider your work equivalents?

Well,

I would say that this photograph here

is certainly not done with any literary sense.

There was a very strong emotion involved.

I saw it, very intense visualization.

My mind just took -- worked out

just about the way I had thought about it,

and as emotion was felt,

I would assume that emotion would be transmitted.

It happens to be the theme picture of the new book,

the Sierra Club publication, "This is the American Earth."

Newhall: It's an interpretation of nature,

which is something that you've always been interested

and which you've done with such sympathy

and such love of the world.

Well, it's in a sense a departure from reality

because the intensity of the sunlit leaves

is really a very quiet light,

but the control of techniques increased the scale of the image

over the purely literal.

Now, see, we have a large landscape over there, Ansel.

Well, now here again, you have the problem

with mood versus reality.

And this was a very intense thunderstorm light.

Very deep in tone, rather gray.

Any literal photograph would certainly not have

conveyed the emotion of the scene,

so I visualized it in a rather dramatic manner

and applied the appropriate techniques

to increase the scale and give you this,

which I think is a pretty intense, dramatic expression.

Well, I certainly would agree with you, Ansel,

and your photographs make me think

of the definition of poetry that Walt Whitman made,

that it is the ultimate vivification of fact.

Well, I think that's a perfectly wonderful term,

and I would subscribe to it.

I think it applies to all the arts.

And every art, no matter what medium you choose,

has to stand on its own feet,

present itself as the most intense

and the clearest expression that the artist can make.

♪♪

NARRATOR: Our thanks to Magnum for permission

to reproduce the photographs by Cartier-Bresson,

to Imogen Cunningham for her portrait of Alfred Stieglitz.

Our thanks also to the San Francisco Museum of Art,

Beaumont and Nancy Newhall, George Eastman House,

American Trust Company, Larry Dawson Productions,

and the Sierra Club.

Scriabin's "Prelude" was played by Ansel Adams.

♪♪

This is National Educational Television.

One of the most illustrative moments of this episode

might be when Ansel Adams and Beaumont Newhall

compare how three photographers --

Edward Weston, Dorothea Lange, and Ansel Adams --

chose to photograph a simple lettuce field.

To see how these three artists can take the same subject matter

and create images that communicate

different emotional and intellectual ideas

arrives at the heart of what makes photography

such a fascinating medium.

With photography, even the mundane can become

an opportunity to present abstraction, geometry,

and even poetry in the world around us.

Thanks for joining us for this episode of the ALL ARTS Vault.

We'll see you next time.

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