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Interview

August 2003

For more than 40 years, Al Weber has been a successful commercial photographer, a respected artist, and one of the most revered educators in photography. Jim Kasson interviewed Al Weber at his studio in the Carmel Highlands.

JK: How did you get interested in photography?

AW: I grew up in Colorado, and was into mountaineering. My Dad was a hunter and fisherman, and I went along. I didn’t hunt or fish, but I brought along a camera as a way of dealing with what I was seeing.

JK: Did you develop your own pictures?

AW: I started right away. We lived in Denver, and there was a little camera store down the street. They were good to me and helped me with things, and pretty soon I was working for them.

JK: What made you seek formal training?

AW: I was going to go to USC. I had a track scholarship, and I really wanted to run for the coach there. But the coach quit, and called me saying he was going to a new school, and asking me if I’d like to go there with him. Damned if it didn’t turn out to be the University of Denver. I was so looking to go to California. When I got to the University of Denver, I didn’t know what to take, but they had a photo major, so I did that. The curriculum was classic studio portrait photography, like you’d see in Hollywood in the forties. The faculty was very good. I got my degree in photography in 1950, and I still had two years of eligibility in track. They told me that I could stay on and continue my scholarship, but that I had to major in physical education. So I did, but they let me split the major and take part of it in PE and part in secondary education. The secondary education courses really paid off for me later on.

JK: Then the war came.

AW: Yes. I was in the Marine Corps, and I was at Camp Pendleton on the way to Korea. I had a couple of days free time, and came to Carmel to see my aunt and uncle. When I got up here, I thought, “Boy, this is pretty nice.” My uncle suggested that I stop by and take a good look when I came back from Korea, and that’s just what I did. I worked for theMonterey Herald, and then I started doing commercial work: small local stuff at first, then industrial and commercial work. It fed me well, and the money gave me the freedom to go off in the desert and do my own work.

JK: Did you always do photography for yourself?

AW: No. After college I was of a mind that I was strictly a commercial photographer. When I came here, I met people like Steve Crouch and John Livingstone and Wynn Bullock and they got on me about doing other things.

JK: How did you get to be an educator?

AW: My degree in education paid off rather quickly. I moved to Carmel in 1955. In 1959 or 1960, the photo instructor at Monterey Peninsula College went on sabbatical, and they hired me to take his place.

JK: Is that how you met Ansel?

AW: Ansel moved here in 1961, and invited me to bring some of the students from MPC down to his house. He liked what I was doing, and in 1963 he invited me to come up to Yosemite as an instructor. I started off doing just one workshop a year, and ended up doing five or six. Ansel ran half a dozen workshops a year in Yosemite, and I was pretty much a standard fixture there. I stayed through 1981, the last year he did the program at Yosemite.

JK: How did you get started with the Friends of Photography workshop program?

AW: I joined the FOP board a couple of years after the organization was formed, in the first expansion of the board. My job was to start the workshop program.

JK: That would have been 1969 or 1970?

AW: That’s right. We ran our first workshop at MPC. I had all the trustees work for nothing. I had Ansel, Brett [Weston], Wynn [Bullock], Imogene Cunningham, and Minor White for five days, and the cost was $35. We had a mob.

JK: How did you organize the workshops? You couldn’t just give everybody carte blanche to do whatever they wanted.

AW: I’m pretty organized, and I had my education background, my time at MPC, and my experience at Ansel’s workshops. The idea was to have workshops that were inexpensive, and to take advantage of the people I could bring in using Ansel’s name. The idea was to keep it modest, so that most people could afford to come. We had a gigantic assistant program, so that if I saw someone out there who I thought should be in the program that couldn’t afford it, I could call them and invite them to be an assistant. Some programs had 15 or 20 assistants.

JK: How many workshops did you do a year?

AW: We did about six a year. We’d do one or two big ones, with several instructors, and the other four or five would be with one person. One time we did Barbara Morgan, and she just sat in Ansel’s living room for two days and talked to students. Everybody had the opportunity to sit for two days in a relaxed setting with this magnificent woman.

JK: The Adams connection gave you such a great entrée. You could just pick up the phone and ask almost anybody you wanted to teach in a workshop, and they’d at least think hard about coming.

AW: You hear all this criticism about Ansel—and I’ve probably criticized him as much as anybody—but he was a force, he was a good guy, and he was a friend. When I called someone, it was easy. It was fun working with the people. Most of these strong people were very interesting. Even the difficult ones were interesting.

JK: The workshops seemed to be more about art than craft.

AW: Very few of the workshops were heavy on actually doing photography. We’d have demonstrations, but it wasn’t like Ansel’s workshops in Yosemite, where the students went out in scheduled shooting sessions and did exercises and assignments. It was more to get contact with inspiring people like Brett. Brett said he couldn’t teach anybody anything, but just his ambience was enough. The first couple of years we just had Cole [Weston] talk about Edward. Then it occurred to me that Cole had a lot more to offer, and so I said, “Let’s forget Edward this year and why don’t you talk about your own work?” A few years later Cole started his own workshop series.

JK: How’d you get started with the UCSC program?

AW: After a year or so of the FOP workshops, the University of California at Santa Cruz said they wanted to start a program. They had a young PhD named Gene Rumrill who they put in charge of the program. He went to Ansel, and asked for his help and advice. Ansel recommended that he contact me. It was a great partnership. Rumrill was one of the best educators I ever bumped into in my life. I don’t think I’ve ever worked with anyone who was more qualified. I stayed with UCSC for about 12 years.

JK: Didn’t the two programs compete for the same clientele?

AW: Gene and I worked very hard to make sure that there was no conflict. There only conflict that I can remember was when UCSC wanted to have a workshop at Yosemite, and some of the FOP people saw that as an intrusion.

JK: Did you keep the roster of instructors separate?

AW: Yes. We didn’t use the same people at all. Instead of bringing in all the superstars, we relied almost entirely on photographers from the Monterey and San Francisco Bay Areas.

JK: And then there were your own programs.

AW: You can see this is kind of a circus. Pirkle [Jones] and I started our own program in 1969 because the Friends weren’t doing anything in color. We were both teaching for Ansel in Yosemite, and we went down to his house and told him we were going to start a program and wanted him to know about it. He just got up, went to his desk, and gave us his mailing list. Our workshops were almost entirely in color.

JK: Even though Pirkle Jones is not known as a color photographer.

AW: Right. Pirkle’s really a street photographer, even though he started with landscapes. We did a lot of workshops in Mill Valley and San Francisco in street photography. Pirkle and I worked together for quite some time. Then he went to work for the Art Institute. When he did that we kind of separated. We’ve always been very close friends, but he didn’t have the time for anything else, and I wasn’t interested in what the Art Institute was doing.

JK: The founders of the FOP had a pretty common vision of photography, pretty classic, but some of the instructors at the workshops didn’t share that vision.

AW: Yes, and that’s really the reason I left. There was a pretty substantial disagreement about the workshop program. We did a workshop called The Creative Experience. We had people like Allen Ginsberg, and several of the dance groups out of San Francisco – more people out of photography then in photography.

JK: What did the students say afterwards?

AW: They couldn’t wait for the next one. Jerry Uelsmann came the first year on the faculty and afterwards he said he wanted to come back, and if we wouldn’t hire him he was coming as a student.

JK: So the conflict was with the trustees?

AW: We put these people up in the homes of the trustees, and some of them didn’t like these guys running around in sandals and long hair. Fred Parker, Bill Webb and I were sitting around planning the next Creative Experience and in walked Bill Rusher, who was soon to be the President of Friends. He said Ansel had sent him there to monitor what we were doing and to make sure we didn’t “hire any freaks.” We had a long discussion, and the upshot of it all was that the three of us left. I have nothing against what Ansel did, and I think the Yosemite workshop was the start of everything, but I wasn’t interested in cranking out more Zone System zealots to the exclusion of everything else.

JK: Later you went on to start your own workshop program.

AW: I was traveling a lot doing commercial work, so it was easy for me. I would maybe have a job in Chicago, and I’d call someone at the Art Institute, and we’d tie a workshop into it. Then one day at Ansel’s workshop in Yosemite, a bunch of instructors were sitting around having a drink and feeding the chipmunks, and we agreed that the Yosemite workshop was great, but it really needed a facility: a studio and a good darkroom. Afterwards a group of us decided that we’d find a facility and start a workshop program. We started looking. I finally found this old school up in Colorado in 1977, but by that time none of the other people were interested. Susie and I bought the school, and said, to the original group: “You guys can come up and teach for us.” And they did. Halberstadt taught the very first workshop we ran. In the ten years we ran the program we had 100 different instructors. We started off with 18 or 20 workshops each summer, and grew to about 45.

JK: What did you do for a staff?

AW: All the staff were volunteers, and I’m still in contact with most of them. They came from all over the country. It was hardly ever planned. Somebody would walk in the front door, and somebody else would say, “Well, here’s a new staff person.” I don’t know how you could get luckier than we got. We got these incredible people.

JK: There had to be a lot going on, to run 45 workshops in a summer.

AW: We’d run two or three workshops a week. Regulars were Jerry Uelsmann, Todd Walker, and Marie Cosindas. Barbara Crane would come for the whole summer. Salt Lake has an incredible photographic group, and they all came over and taught for me. They were the hardest working group of people I’ve ever dealt with. We started off with the superstars: Morley Baer, Ralph Gibson, Uelsmann… But what I was driving for was to get to a place where people would come to a workshop with an instructor they didn’t know, because they trusted us. I was always on the prowl looking for really good instructors. Sometimes you found them in some pretty strange places. But when you found this instructor from Fort Lupton, Colorado, whose family were wheat farmers, you didn’t have to charge a lot of money.

JK: You’re still running a small workshop program.

AW: I’m down to about 8 workshops a year, and my students are 80 or 90 percent repeaters. It must work out; they keep coming back.

JK: Many highly talented photographers come to your workshops.

AW: I started a program in 1988 called A Rendezvous. It was for students who were sufficiently advanced that they didn’t belong in workshops anymore. They brought work. We camped together. We looked at work. When people got tired of looking at work, we’d go out and photograph, and have a nice weekend together. The only teaching that went on was the exchange that happened between people. One of my favorite things about workshops is the way the students bond with each other. Some one will come to a workshop, and at the end they have built a lifelong friendship with someone that three days before they didn’t even know.

JK: You’ve taught at all levels; do you have a preference?

AW: I enjoy working with anyone in photography. I don’t care if they’re beginning or advanced. I’ve taught several times for schools where I’ve dealt with only with graduate level students, and I’ve taught almost all elementary and I liked that just as much. My wife teaches first and second grade, and I’ve done several school programs. One year Polaroid gave me 24 camera and 7000 packs of film to do a program at Otera School. It was a riot. It was first and second graders and they couldn’t pull the pod. I was trying to figure out what to do about this, but they’d figured it out already. They put the camera on the floor and one of them stood on it and the other one pulled the pod with two hands. That was fun, and it was every bit as satisfying as working with advanced people.

JK: How’d you work for all those colleges without getting an advanced degree? Aren’t they usually pretty snooty about that?

AW: They are, but you can usually shout ‘em down. A lot of times they want a PhD, but they can’t find a PhD who knows what you know. Some schools have hired me as a troubleshooter: they have a program that’s not working, and they hire me to come in and see if I can straighten it out. I built a reputation of being able to do that. It was fun to walk into a school and find a mediocre program and to walk out a year later and know that it was OK, and that it was going to be just fine.

JK: How many students do you think you’ve had?

AW: Around 1980, the University of California said they ran a count of my workshops as best they could, and they said by then I’d run 1000 workshops.

JK: So 10,000 students would be a low number. Many of the Friends’ workshops had big lectures, but you broke up into smaller groups with a leader. I remember one workshop I went to and the guy who was assigned to my group to help us along was Chris Rainier!

AW: Chris first came to Yosemite as a student when he was just graduating from Brooks. Ansel snapped him up so fast… It was written on the wall that this guy had something going. You were lucky. But it was more than luck. If I go back through all the rosters from Yosemite for all the years I was there, I don’t remember many bad assistants.

JK: Is that because Ansel had a really good eye for people, or was he such a magnet for talent that great people showed up?

AW: He could sure pick them. Look at the last two: John Sexton and Chris. How many photographers have had the pleasure of having two people like that around? You can go all the way back to Pirkle Jones, and it’s a really impressive group. Ansel had more talents than some people gave him credit for.

JK: What was Ansel like in the early days?

AW: He was delightful to be around. In the early years in Yosemite, almost every evening, he would sit down and play the piano, and Virginia would sing. They’d only do a couple of songs, and it was just enough. That’s when the workshops were smaller, and the whole faculty would be there for dinner. You’d be sitting around this tiny cabin, just a handful of you, and it was like you were on another planet. When dinner was done, He’d say “Everyone to the bar,” and we’d go over to the Mountain Room and he’d close it up. It was a very personal relationship; it was a major part of my life and my education. He introduced me to some incredibly important people who really made substantial contributions to what I did and what I thought.

JK: Who?

AW: People like Halberstadt, and Glen Wessels out of Berkeley. Halberstadt may be the finest man I’ve ever known in photography. In the 50s, he was the hottest advertising photographer anyplace. God, he was good. At Yosemite, he would go into Ansel’s darkroom, drill a hole in the wall and turn the whole darkroom into a camera obscura. He’d take a Sinar camera apart, take the bellows off and throw it away, and turn the camera into an optical bench to show his students just how the image was formed. His students would come out with their mouths open. Bill Garnett was on the staff when I was there.

JK: Is that how you got interested in aerial photography?

AW: Yep.

JK: Who else?

AW: Dorr Bothwell was one of the most dynamic people I’ve ever known in color. I’ve never known anyone who had a color sense like she did. She really got on my case. She said, “You are on the wrong track, and I’mgoing to change you,” She did, and I’ve thanked her a million times. Why were those people there? Because Ansel picked them.

JK: Tell me about some of your students who have gone on to be successful.

AW: The majority of my students will never get a great deal of recognition. It’s that majority that I’m interested in, not the few that go on to fame. I feel very strongly about my open-door policy with my students. There’s never a time when they should feel that they shouldn’t come and see me or write me or call me.

JK: And they take you up on that?

AW: Oh, yeah. I don’t think there’s a day goes by that some student doesn’t call or come by. They don’t feel like they need to make an appointment. If I’m working, I stop. It’s what I’ve decided I want to do.

JK: You’ve been a commercial photographer, you’ve had your personal work, and you’ve been a teacher. Have they conflicted, and, if so, which one tended to win?

AW: The personal work has always been at the bottom of the pile. I’ve enjoyed the commercial work, and it’s been the thing that paid the bills, but the teaching is the thing that I’m most driven by.

JK: Your newsletter is great. [check it out athttp://www.stare.net/weber/newsletter/] Where did you learn how to write?

AW: At Victor school I had so many handouts to do that I thought I needed to improve. I bought books, and I took a few courses on technical writing at MPC.

JK: Do you have any writing projects in the works?

AW: I’m writing rather regularly for Photo Techniques. I’ve got an article coming out in the next issue on David Vestal. I’m also working on a series of articles debunking the Zone System. I’m going to explain it as best I can, but I’ll point out that’s it’s just about as contemporary as an outhouse. There are a limited number of working photographers who are comfortable with it and do a good job with it, like John Sexton – that’s his life, he’s great, and I have nothing against that. But for most people in photography, it’s time consuming, confusing, and a waste of their time to be fussing with it. They can get where they want to go without it. I did an article for Photo Techniques last year about making the move from traditional to digital photography. The point of it was that it’s a reasonable and obvious thing for any photographer to think about it. There’s nothing wrong with either way of making photographs. The move from one to another isn’t abandoning something; it’s just expanding your capabilities.

JK: You don’t have the self-absorbed, quirky personality that many people associate with artists.

AW: Something that really concerns me, not just in photography but in all the visual arts, is that too many people allow the art to take precedence over being human. I don’t think there’s anything that should come above your family, or your responsibility to the planet. When I se someone who sacrifices everything for their art, it bothers me. I’ve just had too much fun living. I want everybody to have the same fun I’ve had. I’ve really enjoyed being who I am, and being married to a fantastic woman, and having a house full of dogs and cats. I think so much more about that than I do about the making of art. That attitude doesn’t make me a lesser photographer. I think my photography is where it is because of the rest of my life.