Jim Kasson interviewed Don Worth at his home in Mill Valley, CA.
jim Kasson photo
JK: You were a musician before becoming a photographer?
DW: Yes, I was able to read music and play the piano from an early age, probably around eight, and I studied music all through my high school years. I hoped to become another brilliant performer, like Vladimir Horowitz. I went to the University of Arizona for a year, and I attended the Juilliard School of music for a year and a half after that. My two degrees—the Bachelor of Music and the Master of Music—are from the Manhattan School of Music.
JK: A striking number of photographers are also musicians. Why is that?
DW: I have two theories. Photographers and musicians are both accustomed to working in a precise way in a confined space. The darkroom and the practice room are both confining. Self-discipline and attention to detail are necessary to both pursuits. Those are the similarities, but there’s a difference, one that makes photography attractive to the performer. Music is a temporary or evanescent kind of art form, and in musicians, there’s a longing for a tangible, long-lasting result. When I was studying music, in the ‘40s and ‘50s, recording devices were not common, so there were no easy ways to make your performance permanent. It was frustrating to have it just disappear. It was comforting to turn to photography and have a tangible negative that you could put away, and to have a body of work out in the world that would last a long time.
JK: What got you started in photography?
DW: While I was doing my graduate work in New York in 1949 or ‘50, I saw a New York Times Book Review of Ansel Adams’ latest book, My Camera in the National Parks, and they reproduced a photograph of Glacier National Park, or maybe Rainer. I was bowled over by the photograph. The incisive clarity had a profound emotional effect on me. The very next day I went out and bought a serious camera. That was the beginning of it.
JK: What did you do after you graduated from school?
DW: I moved back to Tucson, Arizona, because I love the land there. I did engineering surveying for the Southern Pacific railroad for a while, and then I got a chance to teach music at Mills College, in Oakland, California, for a summer. While I was there, the chairman of the Music Department saw one of my 8x10 contact prints, and said, “You should meet Ansel Adams; he’s a friend of mine.” I went to Yosemite, I showed Ansel my prints, and he liked them. That gave me a big boost in morale. Somewhere along the way, I went to Carmel and showed my photographs to Edward Weston. He was appreciative also. I went back to Arizona for a while after that, but I finally decided that I had to live in the Bay Area, where all the activity was. I moved to San Francisco, with my 4x5 and 8x10 cameras, and worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad again. I maintained contact with Ansel, who eventually asked me if I’d like to come and work for him.
JK: Had he ever used an assistant?
DW: Pirkle Jones was a part-time assistant before then, but I was the first full-time one.
JK: You and Ansel had to create a working style; there wasn’t a model for the relationship as there was for those who came after you.
DW: It was easy with Ansel. We had so many interests in common; it almost seemed like we were made for each other. I was attracted to his approach to photography before I ever met him, and I had an interest in hard-edged, incisive images before I’d ever heard of him. I think it came from my attraction to the piano. The piano produces a percussive, exact, hard-edged tone. If you’re playing the violin, you can go a little bit to either side of the tone, but with the piano it’s a very precise tone. I enjoy that incisive quality in piano music.
JK: What was a day like?
DW: Ansel would be up early—six o’clock—typing letters, and I would be in the darkroom at eight, mixing chemicals, proofing things, getting the trays set up if we were printing. One of our big projects at that time was a portfolio of Yosemite. Sixteen images, 208 sets: more than 3000 prints. We spent days in the darkroom making the final choice of paper, the routine of dodging and burning, the proper density for a print, and all the rest of it. When we finally did a portfolio print, Ansel would expose the paper, and I would process the prints 15 at a time.
JK: He did all the dodging and burning himself?
DW: We had an Aero printer. It was a 10x10 contact printer that was used for aerial film. It had sixteen bulbs that we could turn off and on individually and a shelf down below the film plane where we could put pieces of tissue paper for fine controls of the burning and dodging process. It would sometimes take many hours to get it set up right, but once it was right, it was just a matter of opening the lid, taking out the exposed paper, and putting in new paper.
JK: Did you travel with Ansel and work in the field?
DW: We made several trips together. Once we were traveling in New Mexico—it was the same trip during which I did the Georgia O’Keefe portrait—and we were traveling down this dull-looking country road and Ansel said, “Oh, that’s where I did Moonrise.” I looked over and I couldn’t believe it. It was midday; the light was flat, no dramatic quality at all. I thought, “Well, that’s a good object lesson.” Light is everything. We traveled for commercial work as well. At that time, he was producing what were called Colorama images: 60 foot long images for Grand Central Station. He used a 7x17 banquet camera. That was exciting.
JK: Hard work, schlepping around a stack of film holders that big.
DW: Yes. I recall working on a Colorama image of wheat fields in Eastern Oregon, or maybe Eastern Washington. Incredibly hot temperatures: 110 degrees day after day. We traveled around trying to find just the right wheat field. Ripe, ready to be harvested, right background, right light… We were almost ready to give up when we found something that looked exactly right to Ansel.
JK: I haven’t seen any AA images in that format.
DW: He didn’t do what he called creative work with the banquet camera, only commercial work, and always in color.
JK: Did he ever do any color work that he considered art?
DW: Not very much. There were a few things published in the ‘50s and ‘60s, but he wasn’t very excited by them. He thought color was too close to reality. He liked having the more abstract quality that came with the black and white image. For me, at least, color photographs seem to be in the moment—they look like they were made yesterday—where black and white photographs seem to have a lomg-ago-and-far-away quality which is unlike our perception of color photographs. Ansel was aware of the emotional power of black and white photography. He thought of color photography as being somewhat frivolous.
JK: I’d be surprised if working with color allowed Ansel the freedom to manipulate the image that he required.
DW: Right. He said that he couldn’t control the color, and that most color prints looked like they were slightly out of tune. I know what he was talking about, because you are seldom able to get the kind of harmony that one sees in a painting, where the colors seem to fall exactly into place. Ansel was also concerned about the permanence of color prints. But there have been tremendous advances in color technology since Ansel’s time. Color rendition is much better, and so is the stability of prints. With some of the tools and materials available now, such as laser printing and Fuji Crystal Archive paper, it is possible to make amazingly beautiful prints. However, it is still a very complex process, and it requires tremendous amounts of time and patience. That’s the principle reason that I don’t work in color very much now. I’ve made forays into color—from 1985 to 1991 I did little but color—but I always go back to black and white. I like the idea of having more control of the process, personally, every step of the way, and I am pleased with the fact that a black and white image does not possess the seductiveness of color. It seems to be more removed from the real world, almost as if it were from another time and another place.
JK: How long did you work for Ansel?
DW: Four years, up until he moved from San Francisco to Carmel.
JK: Why’d he move to Carmel?
DW: Ansel had many friends who lived in the Monterey area. One of them was an affluent photographer, collector and patron of the arts who generously provided land in Carmel Highlands where Ansel could build his dream house and darkroom. Ansel was hesitant to leave San Francisco, where he had been born, and it appeared to be a rash decision. I thought he’d be unhappy down there, but it proved to be just the opposite.
JK: Did you meet many photographers through Ansel?
DW: He was very generous in showing his home and his darkroom. That was typical of him. He’d spend enormous amounts of time with people who just happened to be passing though town. He’d invite many famous and interesting photographers over for cocktails, which was great for me, because then I got to meet them. Paul Strand, Charles Sheeler, Margaret Bourke-White, Eugene Smith, Minor White… Minor White was around a great deal of that time.
JK: Before you met Ansel, what was your work like?
DW: I was doing landscapes, and plant photographs. There was a good correlation between my work and what Ansel was doing.
JK: What happened to your art in the four years you worked for Ansel? Did it take new directions?
DW: When I started working for Ansel, I was involved with both music and photography. During the time that I worked for him, I gave up music as a profession. In 1958 I wrote and performed the music for a documentary about Ansel, but that was the last thing I did professionally.
JK: You saw the possibility that photography could be the focus of your life?
DW: Before that, I never saw how someone could make a living in photography. Of course, I still wasn’t sure that I could do it, but it seemed more possible by seeing what Ansel, Edward Weston, Minor White, Imogene Cunningham, Dorothea Lange, and Ruth Bernard had done.
JK: How did your photographs change?
DW: I became much more proficient. Working around Ansel was immensely valuable in terms of technique. And it was also important to see the degree of Ansel’s commitment to photography as an art form.
DW: Did your vision change?
JK: I branched out and started doing things that Ansel wasn’t noted for, like close-up photographs and others that bordered on being abstract, and high-key landscapes. I made conscious—and subconscious—attempts to go into areas that Ansel had not explored. I started doing photographs that included plain blank, white skies. Ansel would never have done a photograph without something dramatic occurring in the sky. I didn’t want my photographs to look just like his.
JK: By the time you showed up in 1956, had Ansel completed the transition from a more conventional photographic printing style to the more dramatic style that characterized his late work?
DW: It was still evolving. He was more and more aware of the fact that people, and especially the museums, were beginning to accept photography as an art form, and he thought he needed to do something to enable his images to compete with painting, to be accepted on the same serious level as the more traditional art forms. He was more and more involved with the large prints. We did a lot of 30x40 images when I was with him.
JK: So the drama was twofold: a large print has more impact, and a printing style with higher local contrast is more striking. What did you do after Ansel moved to Carmel?
DW: I went to work for San Francisco State University, first as a photographic technician and slide librarian. I was responsible for making color slides of paintings and other art works for the art department. After a year there, I started teaching photography part time, which soon led to a full time position. I was fortunate to be on the faculty at the beginning of the big boom in the photography department at SF State. It was the beginning of a tremendous amount of interest being given to photography as an art form, all over the country.
JK: How long did you teach there?
DW: Over thirty years.
JK: Do you miss teaching?
DW: Yes. It was wonderful teaching graduate students: there was so much give and take. They were very stimulating for me. But, despite the joy of teaching people who had such a high degree of interest, there was still the problem of finding enough extra time and energy to do my own photographic work. The problem was lessened by the fact that, along the way, I received both a Guggenheim Fellowship and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. That gave me the time to leave my teaching for long periods, and concentrate on my own work.
JK: Did you have many students that became well-known?
DW: Oh, yes. A lot of very talented people came out of the program. Leland Rice, Dale Kistemaker, Judy Dater, Lyle Gomes, Catherine Wagner, Richard Lohmann, Mark Citret, Don Anton, Ted Orland, Marion Patterson, just to name a few. Many of them moved to other parts of the country to teach in universities. They’re teaching all over the world now, even in Australia.
JK: That must make you feel satisfied.
DW: Yes. Very gratifying. But Lyle Gomes, who is one of my closest friends, told me: “You know, Don, you created your own competition when you taught all those students. People may be less likely to buy one of your photographs now because they’re buying one of your student’s photographs.” That may be partially true, but there is also an increasingly large market for photography now. People all over the world have become more and more aware of the importance of photography as an art form. When I first began doing photography, it was purely for love. There were no galleries showing photographs, and both Ansel and Edward Weston were selling their prints for twenty-five dollars.
JK: There’s a long tradition of photographers as educators. If you’re an art photographer, there are three ways to make a living. One is, sell your art, sell a lot of it, and sell it for a high price. Hardly anybody gets to do that. Another is to teach, and the third is to do commercial work.
DW: Right. Lee Friedlander is one of the few who has been able to make a living at it.
JK: And then there are people who dance along the edge between art and commercial work: Richard Avedon, Annie Liebowitz…
DW: How would you categorize Karsh?
JK: I guess he could go either way, but I’d categorize him as a commercial portrait photographer at a high level.
DW: At a very high technical level, certainly.
JK: When you were teaching photography, you were teaching people who had aspirations to be artists. You yourself are an artist. You’ve developed your own style—it’s quite varied, but it’s still distinctive. How do you interact with a student who’s going off in a completely different direction? How do you make the distinction between what’s right for you and what’s right for them?
DW: First of all, you have to have a broad mind; you have to be accepting of different approaches to photography. You have to see the value in other kinds of images. What most teachers do is instill a kind of discipline in the medium, and a high degree of intensity.
JK: One way to approach teaching is as an academic discipline. You’re a photographer. You have your own work. You walk into the classroom, set all that aside. You talk about photography as dispassionately, intellectually, from an analytical perspective. Your work, your style doesn’t intrude into the classroom. However, great teachers have passion, so there’s a conflict there.
DW: You have to point that out to the students that their style might not be my style. One of the first things I did in a class, especially the beginning classes, was to show my own work to them. But I always said to them, “You don’t have to photograph like this. This is the way I see the world.” The students seemed to appreciate the fact that I shared my images with them. Some teachers of photography are reluctant to do that, because they are afraid they will affect the student too much. I think that’s nonsense really, because if the student is out in the world, looking at things, how can he help being influenced one way or another.
JK: If they really want to, they’re going to find a way to see some of your images.
JK: Are you a connoisseur of other people’s photographs? Do you own photographs quite different from your work, or do you really like photographs you’d never want to make?
DW: Oh, yes. I really like Cartier-Bresson. I think his photographs are wonderful. I couldn’t or wouldn’t photograph that way, but I think his photographs are marvelous. I appreciate many different ways of working.
JK: Let’s try somebody on the edge here: Joel Peter Witkin?
DW: I like his work very much. I think it’s morbid, repulsive, and decadent, but I find the images fascinating. On one level they are even beautiful, but I can’t imagine doing that kind of work myself.
JK: J. John Priola?
DW: Yes. I like the minimalism. I even wrote a short congratulatory note to the Fraenkel Gallery after his exhibition. I am very interested in what he has done. It probably doesn’t have a wide audience: it’s very subtle. But it is also very beautiful. If you sit down and meditate on it, it has a lot to offer.
JK: Why did you move up here, away from the city, and away from your work?
DW: I wanted space. I wanted a place where I could have a garden. I wanted a place where I could have a darkroom. I’d never had my own darkroom. I had to use the university darkroom, and school darkrooms are horrible places to work. When I first started doing photography, I had an 8x10 camera, and I worked in my kitchen with an overhead light bulb and a contact printing frame. I did that because I’d read about Edward Weston, and that was his approach. I thought I could do the same thing. I didn’t have enough money to buy an enlarger, and I didn’t have a place to put one.
JK: There are many different threads to your work. Do you have themes that you keep going back to?
DW: Plants are my most persistent theme, but, yes, there are certain kinds of photographs that I return to, work with them a while. When I become fatigued, I move on to something else.
JK: When you’re working with plants around the house, do you have a rigid schedule, or do you get up in the morning and see what you feel like doing?
DW: Something in the middle. I vary what I do with the weather, or how I’m feeling. To a large extent it depends upon what is occurring in the world out there—or how many letters need to be written that day.
JK: One of the things I like so much about photography: it’s partly out there and it’s partly in your head, and there’s such a tension between the two. It can be exciting when the world presents you with a scene, and you react to it in just the right way to produce a new image.
DW: Ithink that’s a large part of the power of photography, that strange tension between the real and the unreal.
JK: You have a lot of intriguing artifacts around the house, and many of them appear in your photographs. Do you collect them with the idea of turning them into photographic subjects?
DW: Almost anything I bring home is done with the idea of photographing it. That’s true of plants, an unusual leaf, a rock from the seashore … When I go to an art festival, and look at say ceramic pieces, I always think of making photographs.
JK: From 1952 to now: half a century. Do you see long-term trends in your work?
DW: I like to think that the work has become more provocative, more mysterious. The film-maker Bunuel once said, “The most important ingredient in any art form is the quality of mystery.” I’ve always liked his films, and I’ve been thinking about that in recent years, about how a lot of great art gets us involved because not everything is immediately explained in the image. I’ve begun to think more consciously about that over the years, and I think that adds depth to the work. My work is often complex, but the strange thing is that sometimes the simpler a photograph is, the more mysterious it becomes. I find in recent years I’m more and more attracted to simple things like a wet stone, a water-washed stone lying on sand. You can’t get much simpler than that. Put it right in the middle of the photograph. What does it mean? But I can sit and look at those for a long time. They become meditation pieces for me. They encompass so many other aspects of the world.
JK: Thank you for the interview, and thank you for being so open about your work.
DW: I’m never sure what is going to happen when I start talking about my photographs. And I think that is true of all artists. Sometimes it can be disastrous, and I sometimes feel that artists should never talk about their own work.