Robert Adams: The Place We Live
(Yale University Press/Steidl, 2013)
Since the late 1960s, Robert Adams has documented the American West with a consistency and clarity that is rare for photographers. From his influential photography books to his writings, Adams has produced a complex body of work about the land we live in and inspired several generations of photographers. Largely concerned with the development of the American West, Adams’s work is decidedly reserved, yet fiercely passionate. Working in black and white with a variety of camera formats, Adams’s many subjects have included the expanding suburbs, the Midwestern prairie, the outskirts of Los Angeles, cottonwood trees, parking lots, and the Pacific Northwest. By no means exhaustive, this list reflects his concern with the natural world and our place in it. A puritanical truth-teller, Adams’s austere pictures continually search for beauty in the midst of our mutilated world, but are also a reminder of our failed stewardship and what we’ve wrought on the world around us. Published as a three-volume retrospective set, Robert Adams’s The Place We Live gathers together almost four decades of work by this master photographer and further asserts his continuing significance and importance.
Adams first gained attention as part of a larger movement known as the New Topographics, so named after a famous landscape photography exhibition held in Rochester in 1975, which included Adams’s work, along with such photographers as Stephen Shore, Lewis Baltz, and Joe Deal. The work in the show eschewed the romantic traditions of landscape photography and focused instead on the “man-altered landscape,” as the show’s subtitle phrased it. Although the movement’s name suggested a mapmaker-like sensibility, this was a misleading interpretation of Adams’s work. While Adams’s early work may have appeared dispassionately objective, like the casual shots of a surveyor, it was born out of an abiding frustration with the rapid development of the Western landscape. Although this driving passion became more apparent as Adams developed and explored his subject, the distanced gaze that appeared in his early work was a functional tool that allowed him to clearly state the problems and concerns that motivated him.
Adams was inspired early on by a quote from Dorothea Lange. Believing that photographers needed to be making a document of the American suburbs, Lange declared that any such record should “be concentrated on what exists and prevails.” Heeding her advice, Adams set out to record the rapidly evolving Western landscape where he lived. Working in what little free time was afforded by a teaching position, Adams began photographing in earnest in the late ’60s and early ’70s. He produced two books in the early ’70s, White Churches of the Plains (1970) and The Architecture and Art of Early Hispanic Colorado (1974), but it was not until The New West: Landscapes Along the Colorado Front Range (1974) that he truly found his subject and developed an approach that would remain largely consistent throughout his long career.
Bathed in the beatific sunlight of the Colorado high plains, the images in The New West depict a landscape overwhelmed by cheap construction, mobile homes, and emerging strip-malls. People are rarely seen in these images—indeed, they are rarely seen in any of Adams’s photographs. In The New West, the few people he documents are found seeking shelter in the shade of cheap ranch houses, moving through parking lots, aimlessly shopping for goods in drably lit stores, standing silhouetted against windows, cruising by in automobiles. In Eden (1968), a more modest series that predates the work in The New West and held the seeds of Adams’s subsequent work, Adams focused his attention on a humble rest stop ironically bearing the name of the Biblical garden. Ironically named and quaint by today’s standards,
everything in the rest stop, from its small diner and its patrons to its parking lot and concrete exit ramp, was shot by Adams with careful attention.
Given how such places have grown and metastasized along our highways and interstates, one is hard-pressed to feel the same disgust that Adams did at the time. The clapboard houses that once merely dotted and formed small constellation-like clusters on the Colorado prairie have since been transformed into sprawling and densely packed McMansions, and the haze of pollution has blunted the crystalline Colorado light that infuses his work with an otherworldly clarity.
At the heart of Adams’s work is an unresolved ambiguity that is central to its success and enduring effect. It contains what photographer and writer Leo Rubinfien described as a “perfect uncertainty”—a search for redemptive beauty amid a heartfelt disavowal. Because Adams so often uncovers the beauty in even the most forsaken scenes, he often seems to be withholding absolute judgment in his images, but he is clearly distraught by the willful disregard with which we’ve paved and bulldozed the natural world. This is made clear in his writings, where he scorns the reckless developers who plow over rivers, the landowners who uproot cottonwoods, and the people who fecklessly throw their trash wherever they please.
But Adams finds no comfort in simply condemning the harm we’ve done. As he wrote in the book denver (2009), his pictures only work “on the basis of a radical faith in inclusion.” In this sense, Adams convinces us not by being demonstrative—although his words often are—but by being truthful. He asks that we look closely and consider, as in the title of one of his most powerful books, not only what we bought, but also how we can remain in a damaged world.
It is worth noting in any assessment of Adams’s career that he began as an English professor and briefly flirted with becoming a minister. Although he ultimately abandoned both his interest in the priesthood and his teaching position at a college in Colorado to pursue photography full time, his literary and spiritual interests infuse his work and account in some measure for the eloquence of his texts. Adams writes in a characteristically direct manner that avoids jargon and theoretical digressions. Discussing landscape photography in his essay “Truth in Landscape,”
Landscape photography can offer us, I think, three verities—geography, autobiography, and metaphor. Geography is, if taken alone, sometimes boring, autobiography is frequently trivial, and metaphor can be dubious. But taken together . . . the three kinds of representation strengthen each other and reinforce what we all work to keep intact—an affection for life.
Written in the ’80s and early ’90s, Adams’s writing served as a balm for many photographers who had been on the defensive against the critical language of postmodern critics. In contrast to what many photographers perceived as postmodern critics’ excessively vicious attacks on the truth-value of straight photography, Adams’s words spoke to the struggles and rewards of being a photographer committed to engaging the world in a documentary tradition. Although the essays are not included in these volumes, they are worthwhile reading for anyone interested in the medium and a crucial aspect of his work and legacy.
This volume’s title, The Place We Live, comes from John Szarkowski, the former director of photography at MoMA, who championed his work for years and identified an important theme in Adams’s work. Writing in 1974, Szarkowski states,
Though Robert Adams’s book assumes no moral postures, it does have a moral. Its moral is that the landscape is, for us, the place we live. If we have used it badly, we cannot therefore scorn it without scorning ourselves. If we have abused it, broken its health, and erected upon it memorials to our ignorance, it is still our place, and before we can proceed we must learn to love it. As Job perhaps began again by learning to love his ash pit.
Adams may point out the ashes that surround us, but the difficult views he shows are just as often tempered with quiet beauty and solace.
The Place We Live concludes with recent work that takes a more overtly romantic turn, such as Boddhisatva: A Gandharan Face (2001) and Questions for an Overcast Day (2007), which include images of a single Buddhist statue and close-up shots of mottled leaves silhouetted against the sky. Other recent series have concentrated on such subjects as sea birds, the Pacific Ocean, and still lifes. While this work is not atypical of Adams, and certainly reflects his unapologetically romantic sentiment, it lacks the edge of his best work, which maintains a balance between quiet anger and consoling beauty. But for fans of his work, this is easily forgiven. Recent series, like Turning Back (2005), which retraces Lewis and Clark’s journey in the Pacific Northwest and chronicles the deforestation of old-growth forests in the region, demonstrate that he has not lost his edge or impassioned eye. The photographs of devastated hilltops and mangled trees burn with an anger and intensity that is rarely matched by even his earlier work. Moving through a landscape of deforested hilltops that resemble battlefields, Adams eventually leads us to the Pacific coast and ends with images of families picnicking on a beautiful sunlit beach—a glimpse of hope and calm after the destruction.
The challenge of any retrospective is not only assessing a life’s work, but also containing the complex arc of a large body of work. Even for an artist like Adams, who has been notably consistent in subject and tone, this presents its challenges. While The Place We Live is a beautifully crafted and edited series of books and contains a wealth of additional information, it lacks the coherence of his individual works. Adams’s most powerful books and series, which thrive on their singular focus, are herein truncated and re-edited, reduced, and woven into a larger narrative. This is inevitable in such a retrospective study, but it is hard to beat the focus of the work from his most prolific period between 1974 and 1989, which includes The New West, What We Bought: The New World; Scenes from the Denver Metropolitan Area (1977/1995), From the Missouri West (1980), Summer Nights (1985) and Los Angeles Spring (1986). Most admirers of his work will already have some, if not all of his books, which may mean this new volume is unnecessary. Nevertheless, The Place We Live offers a thoughtful and broad assessment of a long and fruitful career and gathers several excellent assessments of Adams’s work—notably, Tod Papageorge’s essay that accompanies the book What We Bought, John Szarkowski’s introduction to The New West, and a new biographical essay by Joshua Chuang.
As the second edition of the books, which originally came out in 2011 at the start of Adams’s travelling retrospective, the new Steidl version is almost entirely faithful to the first edition, save a new box and the removal of dust-jackets. Since 2011, Adams has published a few books, including Skogen (2012), and Light Balances / On Any Given Day In Spring (2013). While this work is not included in this edition, spreads and info about those books have been added to the third volume’s bibliographic section, which includes images of all Adams’s books to date. Reprinted by Steidl, the images look fantastic and faithfully reproduce Adams’s photographs.
Although all photographic truths are contingent and partial, Adams’s work feels more truthful because he seems to include what most would exclude or deem unworthy of inclusion. Never merely satisfied with beauty or scornful condemnation, Adams has always sought an uneasy balance between hope and hard truth. Through careful attention to the light and overlooked poetry of these ignored places, Adams transmutes his subjects, reminding us of things we’ve seen but never fully noticed. As beautiful and tragic documents, the images are meant to inform and compel people to look. Given his enduring influence, it is hard to imagine anyone has forgotten or needs reminding of his importance, but it is always nice to see such a beloved artist receive the treatment he deserves. Now in his late 70s, Adams shows no signs of slowing down. These volumes remind us just how far he’s come, and for that we should be grateful.
ADAM BELL is a photographer and writer.