Apr/May 2012

Species of Places

Robert Adams's poetic portraits of ordinary America

Michael Fried


Click to enlarge

Robert Adams, Eden, Colorado, 1968, gelatin silver print, 5 15/16 x 5 9/16".

Near the beginning of the third volume of photographer Robert Adams’s The Place We Live, a compilation containing nearly four hundred tritone plates (about half reproduced at full size), published to accompany a major traveling exhibition of Adams’s work (currently in Los Angeles), there are two images on facing pages, plus a brief caption signed “R. A.” The first photograph is of a cottonwood tree in a weedy field with a few buildings and another, different kind of tree further back toward the right-hand edge (the cottonwood itself is attended by two much smaller trees of another species); the second shot, taken from a reverse point of view, shows the same tree (and its companions) at a greater distance, toward the left-hand edge of the image, and a tractor giving off dirty exhaust in the right-center, near middle distance. In the second photo, the ground is leveled, devoid of grass or weeds—in fact covered with tire tracks from the tractor. Adams’s caption reads: “Longmont, Colorado, 1973–75: The cottonwood had many visitors during the years I checked on it, especially children and birds. One afternoon, however, a man parked his truck in its shade and, using a tractor and grader, destroyed the adjoining field in order to make way for new housing. Among the many losses that day was an irrigation ditch that sustained the tree.”

This is Adams’s note of quiet but unmistakable grief at what has been done, what in effect we have done, or have allowed to be done, to the glorious gift of American nature, especially in the West, his home of choice. (His family moved from Madison, Wisconsin, to a suburb of Denver when he was fifteen, because he suffered from asthma. Adams now lives in Astoria, Oregon.)

In fact, there is a telling detail in the first of the before-and-after photographs. In the distance toward the left, one discerns a tractor emitting the same dirty exhaust as in the second image (straight up, as if from a chimney). Now, there is not the least doubt in my mind that Adams, the most exquisite of moralists, fully intends the viewer of these pages to notice that tractor (albeit not immediately), and to draw certain conclusions from its presence. In the first place, the ethical conclusion that even when things appear to be going well for nature in the American West, the conditions for its desecration are never far off. And in the second, the aesthetic conclusion that Adams’s photographs aspire to sustain and reward the intensest scrutiny—of both the scenes they capture and, beyond that, in their eventual publication in a book. So, for example, that minuscule tractor in the first image would not signify as it now does without the second image, and indeed it might well have been too small and remote to have been noticed, even by Adams, before the former picture was printed in its definitive scale. But as the tractor appears in the two photographs in this volume, it is a stunning epitome of authorial intention—almost as if the photographer at some stage willed it to be there in support of his larger, elegiac vision. An impossibility, of course, but no photographer’s work, especially as presented in a book, could be more resistant to Barthes’s theory of the “punctum,” with its valorization of details that could not have been seen by the photographer. The cumulative impression made by Adams’s photographs, especially in book form, is that everything we see has been seen by him at one stage or another.

These two pages immediately follow the opening spread, with twelve smallish images of cottonwoods on each page; and it is succeeded by a square image of a cottonwood at night, bare of leaves, with low-lying houses in the background. The first two pages, with their profusion of two dozen small images, are wholly unexpected (there is nothing like them in the other volumes or indeed in the rest of volume 3) and strike one as joyous, celebratory; the night photo, a superb study in dark tones with bright touches (from moonlight?), is more equivocal, coming as it does right after the photos of the destruction of the field and Adams’s devastating caption. That is, the night photograph is beautiful, the deep blacks and grays are ravishing, and for all we know the cottonwood it depicts was thriving when the photograph was taken. But the houses are there, human beings are on the scene, and who can say what that ultimately portends? Nothing good, most likely.

More broadly, there is, as others have recognized, a kind of inbuilt contradiction in Adams’s enterprise (not always, but in much of his work), including that issuing from some of his best-known and most-admired projects: namely, between a documentary impulse to record the heedless ravaging of American nature, and an at least equally powerful artistic determination to produce sheerly beautiful photographs. Adams has always been aware of this, and indeed has recognized something of his situation in the work of the early-twentieth-century reformer Lewis Hine, individual pictures by whom, Adams wrote, “can appear almost self-contradictory; the girls standing tired in front of spinning machines in textile mills are, for example, sometimes beautiful—as are the photographs of which they are a part.” (This in an essay titled “Photographing Evil” in a collection titled Beauty in Photography.)

In his own work, Adams’s quest for perfection tends to bear down, first, on matters of composition, which in the introduction to his 1977 book, denver: A Photographic Survey of the Metropolitan Area, 1970–1974, he defines (citing Edward Weston) as “the strongest way of seeing,” and then glosses by adding that a photographer wants “form, an unarguably right relationship of shapes, a visual stability in which all components are equally important. The photographer hopes, in brief, to discover a tension so exact that it is peace.” And second, on considerations of light, more precisely of light in and from the sky—perhaps the decisive feature of Adams’s art—which again and again sheds a kind of grace over the multifarious desecrations of the landscape his images scrupulously, and, in a sense, pitilessly, record. As photographer Tod Papageorge has written, the great surprise of Adams’s small photographs of urban sprawl, which he first saw in a 1971 exhibition of Adams’s work at MoMA in New York (featuring photos from Adams’s breakthrough “New West” series), was “the way he had printed his photographs to distill the brilliant Colorado sunlight to a virtually nuclear intensity that, even as it glared down on the poor things it exposed, seemed to envelop and, occasionally, to succor them.” Papageorge goes on to discuss the technical means by which Adams achieved this: his “intentional wringing-out of the tonal range of his prints to the bright end of the photographic gray scale—roughly comparable to a composer writing for the piano at its highest octaves.” Adams himself acknowledges the “succoring” quality of daylight more than once in his various writings, never more explicitly than when he cites Raoul Coutard, Godard’s cameraman, as saying “daylight has an inhuman faculty for always being perfect.” Adams goes on to write, “It is one of the mercies, I believe, by which each of us is allowed to live.” Strong words, but Adams’s photographs give ample evidence of what it might mean to make such a credo the basis of one’s art.

• • •

Not all of Adams’s projects dwell on themes of urban sprawl, uncontrolled development, and heedless destruction of the environment. These are central to three of his most famous photo books, denver, The New West (1974), and What We Bought: The New World—Scenes from the Denver Metropolitan Area, 1970–1974 (1995), as well as to Turning Back: A Photographic Journal of Re-exploration (2005), the bleakest of Adams’s books, consisting of photographs taken in the Northwest along the Lewis and Clark trail, and described by Adams as “reporting on a slaughter.” But other books tell a different story, or at least seek a different resolution, such as the wonderful Summer Nights (1985), with its mingled air of “wonder, anxiety, and stillness” (Adams’s words), and Perfect Times, Perfect Places (1988), photographs made while walking in the Pawnee National Grassland.

Another splendid publication, Gone? Colorado in the 1980s (2010), includes a short afterword by Heinz Liesbrock that begins, “In many pictures by Robert Adams beauty and mourning are intimately bound together as perhaps in the work of no other artist of our time,” and goes on to explain that for this series, Adams, working not with a view camera but with a Nikon 35-mm instrument equipped with a 28-mm wide-angle lens (for the most part held so that the images that result are vertical), found his way to a new kind of picture, one “characterized by a lightness that arises when the photographer takes shots in passing.” Adams himself describes Gone?’s subject matter as “marginal but beautiful landscapes that I had taken for granted when I was a boy,” which he wonders “whether in coming years . . . would survive overpopulation, corporate capitalism, and new technology.” He continues, “On those days when I was lucky, however, my questions fell away into the quiet and the light”—and in fact the volume as a whole amounts to nothing less than an ecstatic record of, let’s just say, Adams’s luck.

Another helpful text here is Joshua Chuang’s essay “The Making of a Photographer,” in volume 3. Chuang, assistant curator of photographs at the Yale University Art Gallery, who served as point man both for the traveling exhibition and for the accompanying publication, singles out a series of photographs Adams made in the fall of 1968 in a place called Eden (forty miles south of his home at that time in Colorado Springs) as decisive for his development. Although the place itself was utterly nondescript, “Adams’s exploration of Eden . . . yielded photographs unlike any he had ever taken or seen before,” Chuang writes. “Dry and unflinching in their description yet evidencing a mysterious peace, even a radiance, they confirmed for Adams the discovery of a vital new way of seeing the world.” Ten of those photos are illustrated in volume 1, and they are everything Chuang says.

“Which is my favorite?” I have asked myself. I go back and forth, but in the end it may be a simple shot of four parked vehicles (two cars, a truck with an open pen-like structure at its back, and a camper) and beyond them the sign for a Gulf station and, somewhat nearer, one for . . . what? a roadside diner?—both seen mostly from the side. Indeed, the vehicles themselves are largely cut off by the right-hand edge of the photo even as they obscure one another by virtue of how they are parked. And yet it is precisely because the most prominent car has not been parked flush with the vehicles bordering it, but rather with more of its rear half sticking out, that we see as much of it as we do, without which fact there would be infinitely less interest to the photograph. Why? Who can say, beyond noting that the car’s sleek curves and indeed its rearward protrusion are in counterpoint to the otherwise rectilinear composition of the image as a whole. Plus, the entire scene is illuminated by bright sunlight (the shadows cast by the vehicles are dead black), and the sky itself is slightly darker toward the top of the image, thereby conveying (subliminally, as it were) a sense of atmospheric density—the way in the West the blueness of the sky darkens as one gazes overhead. On closer looking still, one becomes aware of extremely fine wires running from one side of the image to the other, and notices, too, that a wooden telephone pole, supporting them, stands between the Gulf and the other sign. (My description is clunky, I know, but in the first place, it doesn’t begin to exhaust what is there to be seen, and in the second, the ungracefulness of the prose casts into relief the extraordinary vividness and economy of Adams’s means.) The total effect is of a situation that one would barely have noticed had one been there, but which as framed and developed by Adams, and then as reproduced in this compilation, is fascinating to the point of very nearly refusing to allow one’s attention to move on to the next photographs in the group. Though I hasten to add that the facing photograph is, in a less fine-grained way, equally compelling: A man and, nearer to us, a woman with a head of thick blond hair are seated at a counter in a diner or café, his face eclipsed by her head and hers turned from us in a way that suggests that they may be in conversation. But the sense of interaction is minimal, and the scene as a whole is one of zero-degree ordinariness—except for the way in which untrammeled daylight streams in through the café windows and reflects off the countertop and the newspaper that the woman seems to have been reading, and indeed off the ceiling; only the space under the countertop escapes the flood. The total impression is of a kind of secular “transfiguration,” of the café interior if not of the man and woman at the counter, who are surely unaware of anything even the slightest bit extraordinary taking place, an impression that is in no way undercut—rather, it is strengthened—by our understanding that the invasive light is in large measure an artifact of technological limit­ations (there was no way in which the shutter opening could have captured both the man and woman and the views beyond the windows). Of course, it was an artistic decision to use those limitations for these particular ends.

In the intensely lyric “Eden images, as in many others in these volumes, one is in the presence of work that, whatever else might be said of it, is radically and, to my mind, thrillingly antitheatrical—a quality Adams persuasively attributes to the treatment of space in the stupendous photographs of his nineteenth-century predecessor, Timothy H. O’Sullivan, and other early photographers of the American West.

Lyric, not lyrical: The unrelenting perfectionism of Adams’s artistic ideal (“a tension so exact it is peace”) has much in common with that of a certain sort of lyric poem, one that similarly has not the slightest room for carelessness of any sort. And antitheatrical in that his photographs are virtually saturated with meaningful relationships—they offer themselves to be slowly and minutely grasped and experienced as what they are, not to be triggers for the viewer’s private associations—a quality that is only made more intense when they are gathered in book form. Altogether, I personally would have felt a lot better about the state of artistic culture in the 1970s and 1980s had I been aware of Adams’s example.

Michael Fried's latest book is Four Honest Outlaws: Sala, Ray, Marioni, Gordon (Yale University Press, 2011).

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