September 24, 2012

Quiet Poetry: The Photographs of Robert Adams

From The Plains; Genoa, Colorado, 1970

Are there affirmable days or places in our deteriorating world? Are there scenes in life, right now, for which we might conceivably be thankful? Is there a basis for joy or serenity, even if felt only occasionally? Are there grounds now and then for an unironic smile?  Robert Adams
Seeing the retrospective of the work of Robert Adams at the Yale University Art Gallery is an intense and revelatory experience. Adams is an intent observer of the everyday, bringing a remarkable clarity and richness of detail to views we might pass by without a glance. In his modest (his earlier photos are around 5 inches across) black and white images, he seems dispassionate, showing what there is to be seen without drama; he says "here it is" and we are invited to look closely, to have an intimate experience. The exhibition, though, brings us an impassioned artist whose words and body of work combine into a heartfelt and deep exploration of his world, the American West. He shows a land of openness, of grandeur, too often despoiled. 

From The Plains; Northeast of Keota, Colorado, 1969

I knew Adams' work only from his book The New West. His work is collected into over thirty books of images, each with a theme, and the exhibition brings us most of them. Seeing them in groups like this creates a narrative relationship between the images and enlarges their meaning. I strongly urge you to visit the website to get a better sense of what Adams is trying to do with his words and images. Their impact so much depends on their accumulation, in the way they build an argument. What surprised me most at the show was what a beautiful writer he is; his poetic texts that preface each book are ruminations on the contemporary landscape of beauty and loss. Of the plains he writes, so perceptively (I lived in South Dakota for over a year and his words bring back the feeling of being in that spacious landscape):
Mystery in this landscape is a certainty, an eloquent one. There is everywhere silence––a silence in thunder, in wind, in the call of doves, even a silence in the closing of a pickup door. If you are crossing the plains, leave the interstate and find a back road on which to walk; listen. 

From The New West; Colorado Springs, Colorado, 1969

From The New West; Colorado Springs, Colorado, 1968

Adams statement in The New West makes very clear his aims, ones I very much relate to:
Many have asked, pointing incredulously toward a sweep of tract homes and billboards, why picture that? The question sounds simple, but it implies a difficult issue––why open our eyes anywhere but in undamaged places like national parks? 
One reason is, of course, that we do not live in parks, that we need to improve things at home, and that to do it we have to see the facts without blinking.... 
Paradoxically, however, we also need to see the whole geography, natural and manmade, to experience a peace; all land, no matter what has happened to it, has over it a grace, an absolutely persistent beauty. 

From The New West; Colorado Springs, Colorado, 1968

This is one of my favorites of Adams photos. It is so matter of fact––a plain ranch house, a well manicured lawn, a curving path to the rectilinear building––yet so poignant in the dark figure captured indoors against the light of another window. It seems close to Edward Hopper's paintings of lonely figures in interiors.

From What We Bought; Outdoor Theater, north edge of Denver, Colorado, 1973-74

From What We Bought; Burning oil sludge, north of Denver, Colorado, 1973-74

The photographs in What We Bought document the damaging growth around Denver from the building boom of the 1960s and 70s. Many are overtly negative, such as these above, as Adams wrote in 1995
The pictures record what we purchased, what we paid, and what we could not buy. They document a separation from ourselves, and in turn from the natural world that we professed to love. 

Even in his image of burning oil sludge, Adams steps back and offers a restrained view of the damage wrought. I've been thinking about how different his approach is to someone like Edward Burtynsky, another great photographer with environmental concerns, who makes large, dramatic images. With one, you come close (with reading glasses for me) and look quietly, with the other, you stand back, awestruck.

From What We Bought; Mobile home park, north edge of Denver, Colorado, 1973

Adams' landscapes are mostly unpeopled, but when we see figures, they are usually at a distance, part of the world they inhabit, not dominating it.

From Summer Nights; Longmont, Colorado, 1979

From Summer Nights; Fort Collins, Colorado, 1980

Summer Nights is one of Adams' more reverie-inducing collections, as we think about the magic of warm evenings, darkly lit. He writes, again referencing silence
Still photographs often differ from life more by their silence than by the immobility of their subjects. Landscape pictures tend to converge with life, however, on summer nights, when the sounds outside, after we call in children and close garage doors, are small––the whir of moths, the snap of a stick. 

From Pine Valley; Baker County, Oregon, 1999-2003

Adams now lives in Oregon, where he has photographed the clearcutting of forests in the book Turning Back. He also captures completely ordinary moments, a scattering of apples on the ground.
Photography is inherently fragmentary, and I find I base my faith on perfect moments. 

From Sea Stories; North Beach Peninsula, Pacific County, Washington, ca. 2005

A syncopated line of birds along the shore; again the silence, and again the eloquent words of Robert Adams, pairing with his images to create a powerful life's work.
Stanley Elkin suggested that "all books are the Book of Job". Certainly many writers and picture makers want to repeat in a fresh way what the voice out of the whirlwind said, that we are not the creator, and that rather than ask an explanation we ought to attend an inventory of wonders––the Pleiades, the morning star, the sun, the rain, the grass, the raven, the whale. Common to each is beauty. And so a promise. 

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