Interview with Ansel Adams, 1976 December

Web Video Text Tracks Format (WebVTT)


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Ansel Adams: diary pure diary and the image began to mean something other than just diary
Jan Butterfield: And can you remember paintings or painters in particular in that 1915 show that made a difference to you?

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Ansel Adams: Uh I can't remember their names

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Jan Butterfield: But it had to do with a sense of, modernity in terms of

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Ansel Adams: Oh yes.

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Jan Butterfield: Where, where, it was very interesting times!

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Ansel Adams: Uh, the Cubists. Yeah
Unknown: And the Nude Descending the Stairs.
Ansel Adams: And the Nude Descending the Stairs.

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Jan Butterfield: And all the Futurists were in that show, which I just found out recently, I didn't know that.

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Ansel Adams: ....[[?]] Brancusi I think, but I'm not sure of that-- There was a very stunning Gershwin sculptures
Jan Butterfield: And how old were you then?

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Ansel Adams: Fifteen.

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Jan Butterfield: You must have had incredible parents. I can't imagine a father, when, my child who is sixteen now and would dearly love to be dropped off every day if a phenomenon such as that happened to exist, I don't think I would be that good a parent. Now obviously you had private training at home--

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Ansel Adams: Yeah, anybody's strict that way, but, uh, but 'course in those days you couldn't take somebody out of school. That may be illegal
Jan Butterfield:

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But he also knew you were going to get something out of it somehow.
Ansel Adams: But I said I want go into music, College of Music, well of course you'd have to study a language and study math

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Unknown: Ansel the fact that you were an only child makes --
Jan Butterfield: makes a difference
Unknown: of older parents and you didn't fit in with the routine, kids at school and things like that. So this was the --

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Jan Butterfield: Gifted children never do. That's one of the great crises I think of --
Ansel Adams: I'd have been in a retarded school [[laughter]] I mean [[laughter]]

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Jan Butterfield: But, don't, isn't that, you're laughing but it that's often true. That is true of at least three painters I know who are among the most brilliant people of their era and of their profession who can barely read and write because they never put the emphasis in that direction. Not even, not at all. We are still not set up to do that.

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Jan Butterfield: To this day Lowell, the best high school we have in the city, is teaching rote academics.

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JAN BUTTERFIELD: -- straight As to get in there. And there are gifted children - I was talking to Reena Branston because her youngest daughter goes there, my daughter goes there, my daughter's not happy with it --

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They're not set up to teach creative children. We have no place for those special children.

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And that your parents recognized that, and instead of whipping you with it said OK, you know --
UNKNOWN: Maybe they didn't know what to do with him - [[laughter]]

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JAN BUTTERFIELD: Maybe in desperation they - [[cross]] - dropped him off at the door and said, "Go find some --"
ANSEL ADAMS: That's quite true. -- That is quite true.

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UNKNOWN: Very interesting.
ANSEL ADAMS: Well I would say, I mean, I don't know if I've given you what you want at all.

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You can continue this any time you want. Not that I'm cutting you off now, but I mean that [[inaudible]]

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JAN BUTTERFIELD: No, I'm interested, I'm interested in --
ANSEL ADAMS: Whether I'm following your questions, or not. I don't want to intrude--

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JAN BUTTERFIELD: I'm interested in how those things, I'm very much interested in how people develop. I've gotten very interested in, let's say, familial situation. What family situation allows an artist to exist, instead of stepping on him?

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What kind of situation-- How come we have such a high percentage of artists from middle-class families--? Now you happen to have had a different situation where there was a whole pattern of artistic involvement -

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- but many families, middle-class families, with no art involvement at all and some strange child springs up like a flower in a field, you know -- And either somebody steps on that child before he's 10 or 11, --

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-- or somebody is sensitive enough to say "wait a minute, that's, maybe that's something -"
ANSEL ADAMS: Or exaggerates. You know, little kid --
JAN BUTTERFIELD: -- and makes --
ANSEL ADAMS: -- played to the house, down in Carmel the piano. Very gifted, but the family wants to kind of promote him.

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JAN BUTTERFIELD: That's terrible.
ANSEL ADAMS: Because they are, they're just crazy about him. I tell them, "Leave him alone, let him be normal. Let him take it--" Remember that had...
JAN BUTTERFIELD: And then they become obnoxious little children - [[laughter]]

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ANSEL ADAMS: Well, I've been to Calvert, an obnoxious prodigy you know.

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JAN BUTTERFIELD: But then after you spent all that time in the fair, then you had Maybeck design a house. That's interesting.
JAN BUTTERFIELD: That's interesting.

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UNKNOWN: 'Cause those were extraordinary buildings, those buildings.
ANSEL ADAMS: Well, let's, that's, that place, I went there --

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ANSEL ADAMS: I can give you one example - a strange situation. Now the, Polaroid people - I've been a consultant there for a long time,

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it's remarkable what they put out. Most of the work that they're really interested in, I'm not. I mean, they're interested in the diary.
JAN BUTTERFIELD: Mmm, mm-hmm [[affirmative]]

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ANSEL ADAMS: They put out the SX70 camera, which is a miracle. I mean, this whole process, it, it's unbelievable. I don't like the colours, it's too, far too short range -- I'm not happy with it --

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JAN BUTTERFIELD: -- But you're talking from another --
ANSEL ADAMS: Yeah. But, along comes this young man named [[Ronan?]] [[Blocks]] who was in our workshops. And he does the SX70. Then he, he edits it, he takes a tool like cherry wood fingers. Like a manicure, soft wood and he outlines certain things that shape the body and the face and object -

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- and then he puts it in the toaster for 5 seconds and the mylar separates. And it comes out as if it's ceramic tile.
JAN BUTTERFIELD: How extraordinary!
ANSEL ADAMS: It's absolutely unique. Fabulously beautiful. [[garbled]]

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JAN BUTTERFIELD: Isn't that interesting!
ANSEL ADAMS: It's unbelievable. So here's somebody who takes a process and does - it's been done by others, but never with such good taste and stuff so now those people in New York have done it and then they got it dirty, you know.

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I love the nude and I love the daring and I love the explicit and all that, but I don't like things that are dirty. And we, it just gets to the point where you want to open the windows.

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ANSEL ADAMS: It's got nothing to do with the quality of the work--
JAN BUTTERFIELD: What kept you in California?
JAN BUTTERFIELD: What kept you in California?

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ANSEL ADAMS: Oh, it was the home. And Yosemite.
JAN BUTTERFIELD: It's always been-- [[cross]]

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ANSEL ADAMS: I thought one time quite - the muse it [[music?]], I had to go sooner or later.

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And I went there first in 1933 and really wasn't very happy there. I mean, I met some wonderful people.
JAN BUTTERFIELD: Californians never are.

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ANSEL ADAMS: Then of course went back to the new halls and we set up an appointment with the Museum of Modern Art.

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JAN BUTTERFIELD: Yes, exactly.
ANSEL ADAMS: [[?]] I was always trying to get back here. I was a terrible father. I had a couple of kids. Virginia did all the familial jobs.

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JAN BUTTERFIELD: But California has always had a kind of pull for you, besides being home -- uh, what makes that more interesting to you, as a place to be?

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ANSEL ADAMS: Oh, I think it has interesting landscape and a big variety. In fact, when we decided we wanted to leave San Francisco, we looked at Santa Fe very seriously.

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JAN BUTTERFIELD: Yeah, it's beautiful. [[whispered]]

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ANSEL ADAMS: At that time, 15 years ago, it was just a little bit too big a break from the home base. I still had professional relationships.
ANSEL ADAMS: --and the distance to New Mexico would have been too much for that.

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JAN BUTTERFIELD: It's a long, long way.
ANSEL ADAMS: There's no opportunity there, there is a little more now, but there wasn't then.

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JAN BUTTERFIELD: Quite an art community there now, it's interesting, I mean a whole new generation of younger people have discovered, which is quite interesting.
ANSEL ADAMS: Taos is going downhill very fast, but Santa Fe and Albuquerque are very--

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JAN BUTTERFIELD: I have friends - the sculptor Larry Bell lives in Topa, and of course Dennis Hopper was down there, and another sculptor Kenny Price, is that - all of them were California, southern California-based people.

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ANSEL ADAMS: Well you have to divide Southern and Northern California, totally different areas.

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And the East--
JAN BUTTERFIELD: Why do you think that's true?
ANSEL ADAMS: When they pick 'California' - they - Oh! - think, 'Los Angeles' - and San Francisco is something like Washington, you know--

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JAN BUTTERFIELD: I know! Why do you think that's true?

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ANSEL ADAMS: Well, I suppose it began with the movies. The money came from New York, the business, the...

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And Hollywood was chosen for the weather. It was seriously thought of here in Mount Diablo, which is even better, in many ways. But that wouldn't have happened if the movie industry settled in Walnut Creek Valley, which was seriously considered.
JAN BUTTERFIELD: I didn't know that.

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And, but then that enormous development of the town by the big moguls, they - Clark and Hill - and they just really created, created Los Angeles out of nothing. Got the water, and advance needs, put in railroads, like the Pacific Electric Railroad, created the Port of Los Angeles, all that was absolute fabrication. It didn't exist.

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JAN BUTTERFIELD: Los Angeles. I was raised there.

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JAN BUTTERFIELD: -- where then 'til I began to travel a lot, and then when I went away and came back, I realized that Los Angeles had almost no reality. It did for me because I made a lot of my own, but it's still a very made up--

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ANSEL ADAMS: It's a strange place.
JAN BUTTERFIELD: --place. Now, why --

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-- not just that, in terms of, the what, the photography produced in Southern California was different, the paintings and sculptures produced in Southern California was different, the support base is different, and so on. But how come, -

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- in an area as sophisticated, quite sophisticated as the Bay Area, are we continuing to produce a kind of gentle, um, strain of humanism which runs all the way through all of our arts here.

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ANSEL ADAMS: I imagine -- that's hard to define. I think you - what's called a West Coast School based largely with Edward Weston, Frank Weston, myself, Imogene, and then came other people, who followed more or less in our tracks.

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JAN BUTTERFIELD: Who would you consider the second generation?

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ANSEL ADAMS: Well there's down in Amea, people like Garred, Gil Pettigrew -- Steve Crouch, who was very good professionally, several other young-, younger people - well at 66, I mean, he's no baby, you know. [[laughter]]
JAN BUTTERFIELD: Younger is all very relative depending on where --

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ANSEL ADAMS: Then, here you have Jack Wellpott. Don Worth is one of the most stable and important people that we've got.

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But again, comes the lack of personal force, of luck, association, personality - I don't know what it is. He should have been tops, but he just withdraws. And he teaches at the San Francisco State. Very fine, extraordinary person.

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Julia David, one of the top photographers. There's nobody like that in Los Angeles --

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JAN BUTTERFIELD: She's quite extraordinary.
ANSEL ADAMS: You go down to see that show at [[?]] Crustinea
JAN BUTTERFIELD: Any idea when that closes?
ANSEL ADAMS: [[?]] photography. It closes the first of the year. It's open this week.
JAN BUTTERFIELD: I wonder if I can get -- How much past the first of the year, is it open?

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ANSEL ADAMS: Oh, I don't know, I think it closes--
JAN BUTTERFIELD: We'll be gone through about the 5th.
ANSEL ADAMS: Of January? When are you leaving?

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JAN BUTTERFIELD: We leave - We don't leave until the, we leave a week and half from now.
ANSEL ADAMS: Oh, well, crimey, it's only 20 minutes by air. It's the quickest
JAN BUTTERFIELD: That's easy. Can you fly directly into--

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ANSEL ADAMS: -- meet you, and Giovanni can meet you. It's only 15 minutes, 18 minutes from the house.
JAN BUTTERFIELD: Well, it's also a nice drive too, just a -

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ANSEL ADAMS: Beautiful drive down the coast.
JAN BUTTERFIELD: And it is - it's not very long to get there.

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ANSEL ADAMS: I would try that, just let Jim know. He's going away, he's going East. He's on the endowment too.

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JAN BUTTERFIELD: The endowment's -- I'm, I'm, I must say I'm delighted to find that the endowment has gotten so deeply involved in photography as it has.
ANSEL ADAMS: It is very well --

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-- that's critical. Just as I am delighted to find out that they're getting deeply involved in criticism, because criticism has a similar problem - not in certainly being recognized as an art form, but maybe. But it also is not a living.
ANSEL ADAMS: Do you know Irene Lagorio?

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ANSEL ADAMS: She's fun. An Italian family, her brother teaches - teaches architecture?

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She's a fine painter and an excellent critic. She writes very perceptively.
JAN BUTTERFIELD: Lagorio -- Wonder who that it?

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ANSEL ADAMS: You must get in touch with her.
JAN BUTTERFIELD: What age range?
JAN BUTTERFIELD: Where is she?

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UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: She's 45 years old?
ANSEL ADAMS: Age? Yes, about -- But she, I never thought she used to be a [[?]].

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JAN BUTTERFIELD: Good critics are few and far between.
ANSEL ADAMS: Oh, I mean she's really perceptive, she looks at everything -- now this time you get an awful man, what's his name, I'm not [[?]]. Colbert. And anything that guy writes, I've really become sick.

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JAN BUTTERFIELD: Well, I really wonder, as we get more and more specialized that criticism isn't going to have to come out of individual areas.

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I think that's the problem with video criticism. I think it's perhaps the problem with photographic criticism --
ANSEL ADAMS: But are they --
JAN BUTTERFIELD: -- I think critics, are going to have to come up from within the --

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ANSEL ADAMS: But, are they critics or are they frustrated artists, are they trying to control? I mean, I have a feeling that - a critic is someone who takes you by the hand and says, "Look, I'd like to show you something."

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On the other hand, you find these people who are making these terrific pronouncements, like they were final. Look, when I was studying music we'd put on a concert...

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Jan Butterfield: It's very funny when you've been there, that's right.
Ansel Adams: Yeah.
Jan Butterfield: Yeah. I have a good friend who is the curator at the Whitney, Marsha Tucker, who calls herself an "elucidator." It's an awkward word but it's a better idea--

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Ansel Adams: Very good. Very good.
Jan Butterfield: --a better idea. Because, instead of saying, "I stand here, and I tell you, 'This is bad and this is good,'"

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it simply says, 'Somehow, I can,

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if I can open a door or we help you see a different way or tell you how I saw, maybe you won't see that way.'

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Ansel Adams: Well, if I try to photograph, um, criticize a photograph--I have to tell them, I said, "I don't know you, I don't know your background,

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I don't know your work at all, your [[??]] But it's--what do I do? All I can say is, "What did you see? How did you see it and how did you do it? Now, you want a comment--free comment?"

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Or, and you find if it's good, why you can help them humongously by just saying, "My gosh, I mean it's a perfectly beautiful thing you've done to this thing--but, let's take half an inch off the edge and see how that line becomes--" not that way exactly, "Does the line become--"

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Jan Butterfield: Better.
Ansel Adams: Better. Because I was taught in music-- none of my teachers ever played notes for me but they [[interviewer appears to whistle surprise]]I think they would always say, "Now, "Did you think he got that phrase or didn't he?', 'Did you hear that second voice?'"

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Jan Butterfield: That's interesting.
Ansel Adams: Or uh, you know, "Maybe I'm just listening to the piano but the bass sounded a little overpowering." I'm just making up things--

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Jan Butterfield: Sure. Sure.
Ansel Adams: That was the approach of dialectic. They made me inquire myself, you see--

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Jan Butterfield: Teaching now is really an art.
Ansel Adams: Instead of pounding on the table and saying, "It stinks. Tear it up and throw it out--"

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Jan Butterfield: Stinks for whom? [[Cross Talk]]
Ansel Adams: --and making you feel like a worm.

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Jan Butterfield: Yeah. [[Cross Talk]]
Ansel Adams: This is very bad behavior.

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Jan Butterfield: There's also, there's a thing that has to do with, criticism has to be relevant for that person at that point in his or her development in terms of what they are trying to accomplish, not in terms of some vague abstraction. Did you like teaching at the institute?

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Ansel Adams: Yes. I think if you can teach, if you can first get the craft over to them, enough craft so they can handle it--

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Jan Butterfield: Mhmm. Mhmm. [[affirmative]]
Ansel Adams: And you tell them, you're gonna like the devil, you're gonna learn fundamentals--

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Jan Butterfield: Mhmm. Mhmm. [[affirmative]]
Ansel Adams: --you gotta be able to make a photograph on their own with any condition, whether it's a picture or not, I'm not interested. But how do you read a meter? How do you--[[expose your skin?]]. You've got you tools. Now you go out and you give--

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ANSEL ADAMS: Still keeping within the medium. I mean, in the sense that you can control it.

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Jan Butterfield: Are you happy with what they are doing now? Are you familiar with, with uh, how photography is being taught at the Institute now? Do you have a-

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ANSEL ADAMS: I have seen very little of that I thought was any good and I haven't been there for quite a while. I remember, was it [[??]] Richard
JAN BUTTERFIELD: You mean, Jerry Richard, yeah.
ANSEL ADAMS: Richard. Now, is he in the, he in the Endowment, the director of the Endowment?

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JAN BUTTERFIELD: No. Of the photographic part? The red head? No, Jim Melchart is newly the Head of the Endowment.
JAN BUTTERFIELD: --If that is what you are asking?
ANSEL ADAMS: Yes, yes yes, somebody said...
JAN BUTTERFIELD: He is the young man, youngish, not so young, from Berkeley.

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JAN BUTTERFIELD: [cross talk]] --who's newly appointed.
ANSEL ADAMS: --Oh. One of the best people we got is uh--Bill Garnett.

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JAN BUTTERFIELD: I understand that.
ANSEL ADAMS: Marvelous, and a great inspirer of students.

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ANSEL ADAMS: Well, let me carry on for just a minute about the other photographers. There's Putzker, who is painting comes from

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JAN BUTTERFIELD: Putzker, oh right.

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ANSEL ADAMS: He's, I think, primarily a painter [[?]]. He's awful good in the sense that he sort of makes people see.

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You know, observing something you may never saw before whereas he just pointed something out, like some kind of, Emit Keminsky [[?]] style. Then you move on up into the Mendocino area with [[Dora?]] Bathbaill who's always helped us tremendously, [[another fantastic?]] person. I'm bypassing Peter, by the way. There is another photographer but I can't remember his name.

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Then there is a group up at the Arcata, Eureka, [[?]] area.

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JAN BUTTERFIELD: I understand that. I don't know them.

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ANSEL ADAMS: Very good. Pretty straight.

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JAN BUTTERFIELD: Uh-huh, uh-huh?
ANSEL ADAMS: And then you go on right up to Freemesser's group in Eugene, Oregon, Portland... And that's all I know. It should be a desert if you go East.

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JAN BUTTERFIELD: What about, there's a whole movement of conceptual photography that is beginning to take place, now, there is a loft gallery, called La Mammelle here, which is new, which is performing an interesting service in that it shows unsaleable works of a contemporary nature that are experimental, and so and so, and doing a great deal with conceptual photography.

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Um, which seems to me to be a bastardization.

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Jan Butterfield: But I, don't as a rule, write photographic criticism, and don't consider myself competent to deal with that particular area, and I've seen three shows now, all of which discouraged me and it's interesting. And there's nobody here really that's writing adequately in that area or, I feel the same way I feel about video.

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Ansel Adams: I don't know anything about this. So many things I don't know about. [[JB laughs]] I mean my position is, I do what I have to do or what I feel I do and I can't really consciously change my--
Jan Butterfield: Of course not and the more art you have to leave--
Ansel Adams: --But I have to support [[the artists?]]

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Jan Butterfield: --the more art begins to diversify the more--Henry and I were talking about that at dinner the other night.

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How in God's name can one keep up?

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As a museum director, a contemporary museum director he must keep some sense of, as a contemporary writer, I'm supposed to have some--why, these pockets of which [[laughter]] are springing up all over about which I know absolutely nothing, it's like it's [[laughter]]
Ansel Adams: --Well now,--

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Jan Butterfield: Can't cover all the bases, and shouldn't try.

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Ansel Adams: --well now, your field is the art of California.
Jan Butterfield: The art of California, ah specifically Contemporary Art. I teach Contemporary, I teach the art of now, uh, and specialize in the art of California, and the art of the 60's and 70's, but but teach at every other semester a course which begins essentially with the 30's and comes out, because that's kinda where the break comes

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Ansel Adams: You know about Howard

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Jan Butterfield: Very well, not very well,

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I know his work very well and I know him, we'll have lunch with him next week [[Cross Talk]]
Ansel Adams: You know the Spencers
Jan Butterfield: No I don't know the Spencers, no I don't know the Spencers at all.

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Ansel Adams: El Spencer? Eldridge T and Jeanette Spencer, they're marvelous people, should be old world people because they're in their 80s but they are absolutely contemporary. Their daughter who's, Valerie now [[?]]

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very far out, large painting, very good.
Jan Butterfield: Ah ha Ah ha.
Ansel Adams: And they live over at 1215 Lombard.

00:20:30.000 --> 00:20:40.000
Jan Butterfield: Now first name, their first name is
Ansel Adams: is, well it's Eldridge T
Jan Butterfield: Eldridge T Spencer
Ansel Adams: and Jeanette Dyer Spencer
Jan Butterfield: And Jeanette. Ah ha I don't know them

00:20:40.000 --> 00:20:46.000
Ansel Adams: And they're in the book and you'd find them absolutely delightful people and very knowledgeable and very--her great field

00:20:46.000 --> 00:20:48.580
Jan Butterfield: That's good to know.

00:21:02.000 --> 00:21:12.000
Ansel Adams: They knew all the artists and they would fit in most beautifully
Jan Butterfield: Well I am interested in is picking up some of the earlier history. We are just about ready to stop

00:21:12.000 --> 00:21:23.000
[[background chatter]]
Jan Butterfield: Adrian Wilson I dont know
Ansel Adams: well his wife was Joyce Lancaster in theatre [[??]]and he lived in [[??]]family's house for a while he [[??]] with Joan then when Bullock who died very recently [[??]] He was very important.

00:21:23.000 --> 00:21:45.000
Jan Butterfield: Now you worked with Perkel quite a bit didnt you?
Ansel Adams: Oh yes [[Cross Talk]]
Ansel Adams: [[??]] {Speaker 3} {Unknown Speaker} he was [[??]] he went to school there, the art institute when Ansel first started

00:21:45.000 --> 00:22:02.000
Jan Butterfield: Perkel was a student at the institute that's interesting The art institute family is a special family you know {Speaker 3} {Unknown Speaker} they were, he and the some of the others were on the GI bill and
Jan Butterfield: durning that period of time

00:22:02.000 --> 00:22:12.000
{Speaker 3} {Unknown Speaker} and [[microphone banging around]] [[??]] a lot of that group, they all came, you know they were just out of the war
Jan Butterfield: it was an interesting time
Ansel Adams: [[??]] SPEAKER name="Jan Butterfield"} It was a very interesting time

00:22:12.000 --> 00:22:15.000
[[Cross Talk]]
Jan Butterfield: It's crispy that's for sure

00:22:15.000 --> 00:22:25.000
{Speaker 3} {Unknown Speaker} Now umm, You might as well [[microphone turned off]] [[microphone turned back on]]
Jan Butterfield: Do this one left

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[[Clicking Sound]] [[Inaudible]]

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[[Microphone Turned Off]]