On the occasion of a major touring retrospective that marks four decades of the artist’s work, Michael Famighetti considers the changing American landscape in the photographs of Robert Adams
In a catalogue essay accompanying his 1989 mid-career travelling retrospective, which opened at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Robert Adams referenced a scene from the 1970 film Five Easy Pieces in which a hitchhiker, when asked why he’s fleeing to Alaska, replies, because ‘it’s clean’. The character then summarizes the lower 48 United States in a single word: ‘Shit.’ For Adams, the scene was emblematic of the alienation and bitterness that comes with the loss of undeveloped, open space – a loss that has been the subject of his photography for more than four decades. Now aged 75, Adams has spent much of his career meditating on the transformation of a Western landscape once known for its capacious vistas and uninterrupted views – romanticized in the monumental still images of that other famous Adams of American photography, Ansel – as a result of rapid development brought on by an array of social and political forces: loan programmes and policies enacted by the Federal Housing Administration, a rise in single-family home construction and, of course, a newly minted highway system that made sprawl a viable condition.
Adams does little to conceal his disappointment with our mishandling of the environment. His carefully composed and sequenced books – of which there are more than 30 to date – are often accompanied by his own brief, melancholic statements. In the introduction to What We Bought: The New World (1995), containing photographs made in the early 1970s, he writes: ‘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.’ Adams, like a number of photographers, views the book as a unique expression and means of experiencing his work, on a par with an exhibition (so long as the printing is good enough). But even if what’s before his camera often distresses him, there’s plenty of visual pleasure for viewers – and one imagines in some way even for Adams – to be found in the stark geometries of tract houses, strip malls, office blocks and non-spaces collecting litter, all efficiently organized, presumably by corporate planners, in lockstep symmetry and sprouting up around western cities like Colorado Springs and Denver. As with his stated influences, Dorothea Lange and Paul Strand, Adams balances his political views – expressed mostly in his writings and interviews, if not directly in his objective, almost omniscient images – with a belief in the fundamentals of composition and form. He has remarked that the function of a good picture is to find order in the imperfect fragments of the landscape. Considering the tautness and clarity of his pictures, balanced like tight sentences, it isn’t surprising to learn that Adams came to photography after a stint in academia as an assistant professor of English at Colorado College. His literary background permeates his work, from his fondness for epigraphs, often by poets such as Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman and W.S. Merwin, to his fondness for the book as a form, to his volumes of writings on art and photography characterized by a deeply critical, sometimes rueful voice that defends unfashionable ideas. (One collection of essays is titled Beauty in Photography: Essays in Defense of Traditional Values, 1981.)
Even if Adams seems to set impossibly high standards for himself and others, and expresses alarm at our contemporary moment, his influence is felt and acknowledged by many contemporary photographers, including An-My Lê, whose photographic series – such as ‘29 Palms’ (2003–04), made on military training grounds in the Mojave Desert in California – are printed in a tonal range similar to that of Adams. Alec Soth, a post-sprawl native who documents the people and textures of contemporary America, admitted in a recent interview that Adams was an important initial influence on his practice, even if their temperaments are different: ‘While I admire his conviction, I don’t feel the same outrage. Part of what I love about [Adams’s 1986 book] Los Angeles Spring is that it teaches me to find beauty in difficult places. I’m more interested in that beauty than in the anger that fueled Adams to go out and find it.’1
With the rise to prominence of the group of photographers associated with the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in the 1990s came a renewed interest in the New Topographics. The Düsseldorf teachers, Bernd and Hilla Becher, had been included in the seminal 1975 exhibition ‘New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape’, along with Adams, Lewis Baltz and Stephen Shore, among others, whose work directly or indirectly influenced many students in the Düsseldorf school. ‘New Topographics’ has since come to serve as shorthand for describing an objective aesthetic (often read as ‘style-less’) in landscape photography, one that echoed the 19th-century geographical survey photographs by Timothy O’Sullivan and William Henry Jackson. But ‘New Topographics’, ironically, was an often-footnoted exhibition that few people seemed to have actually seen until it was restaged in 2009 in a touring exhibition that began at its original venue, Rochester’s George Eastman House, just in time for the collapse of the United States’ supposedly omnipotent housing market.
In the wake of that collapse, Adams’s pictures and his admonishments can rightly feel prophetic and it’s difficult not to draw parallels. In Los Angeles Spring he wrote: ‘All that is clear is the perfection of what we were given, the unworthiness of our response, and the certainty, in view of our current deprivation, that we are judged.’2 In What We Bought, comprising pictures from a changing Denver, Adams tells us that the area was founded in 1861 by gold seekers. Real estate was supposed to have the solidity of gold; after all, as commentators scoffing at the warnings that the market was a bubble reminded us, it was real. But homes have symbolic meaning; the American home has often been the benchmark for economic autonomy and success. The notion that everyone is entitled to his or her own freestanding private Idaho endures, and remains at the heart of a national identity narrative that appears everywhere from advertisements for banks to political stump speeches. But the foreclosure crisis that began in 2008, whose effects still reverberate, and the dubious lending practices that precipitated the crash were the next chapter in a long and complicated history of American housing, race, class and zoning. The complications of home as a concept are tied in to the meanings of Adams’s pictures. The words ‘home’ and ‘live’ appear in many of his titles, including ‘To Make it Home: Photographs of the American West’, his 1989 mid-career survey, and his current travelling retrospective, ‘The Place We Live’. The Museum of Modern Art’s John Szarkowski – the singular force in shaping a dominant narrative of American photography during his long tenure at the museum from the 1960s to the 1990s – was an early champion of Adams’s work and, in his foreword to Adams’s The New West (1974), he noted, when speaking of the developed landscape: ‘He 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.’3
Adams reveals the suburbs and housing tracts as places designed to alienate residents from one another. Homes are identical, each one as uninviting as the next. An illuminated window burnt into the night suggests the small miracle that someone made it home, or just decided not to venture outside. In the days of late-capitalism, the biblical or Romantic ideas of the wild and chaotic are no longer at the fringes of civilization: they are the version of civilization we see in some of Adams’s images. In one photograph, taken in Denver in the early 1970s, a sign hanging from the ceiling of a liquor store welcomes its customers by announcing: ‘We’re glad you’re here!’ The wall text for Adams’s current touring retrospective, organized by the Yale University Art Museum, articulates the dichotomy central to his work: a tug-of-war between hope and despair, a contrast that is literally illustrated in the exhibition by sequences of despoiled landscapes that shift into untouched landscapes – and, eventually, into a devastated landscape, from ‘Turning Back’ (1997), which includes grisly images of clear-cut forests in the Pacific Northwest, a ruined landscape that, Adams rightly observes, resembles one of war. The image of Adams walking through these landscapes and working through the implications of what he witnesses brings to mind W.G. Sebald’s novels, with their melancholic musings on the history of places as they are told through traces, evidence and markings on the landscape.
Adams takes us into other territories as well – quiet plains or a wide beach in Oregon bathed in his signature use of light. Fundamentally, the light in his photographs may be, as he has stated, their ultimate subject – a high-altitude sunlight of almost nuclear force that makes his images visible while almost appearing to obliterate what we see. Charles Baudelaire, famous for his antipathy toward photography, wrote that those enthralled with this new image-making invention were ‘sun worshippers’ – a moniker that might be applied to Adams and not be read as pejorative. In one well-known image from 1968, titled Colorado Springs, Colorado, a silhouette of a woman is framed within the front window of a single-story suburban ranch house. Of this picture, Adams comments that the house was the same as all the others in this particular housing development, and that he ‘felt the sadness of the figure’ but also ‘loved the light’4 – an observation that points to the many dualities present in Adams’s pictures: hope and despair, anger and compassion, and his need to be out in the world recording with a camera, ordering an increasingly alien and fragmented landscape.
1. ‘Alec Soth – on Influence, Summer Nights and Allen Ginsberg’, 8 November 2012, www.aperture.org/blog
2. Robert Adams, Los Angeles Spring, Aperture, New York, 1986, p.5
3. John Szarkowski in Robert Adams, The New West, Walther König, Cologne, 1974, p.xi
4. Robert Adams, To Make it Home: Photographs of the American West, Aperture, New York, 1989, p.34
Robert Adams lives in Astoria, Oregon, USA. His current retrospective, ‘The Place We Live’, is on view at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, Spain, from 15 January to 18 May 2013. In 2013 and 2014 it will tour to the Josef Albers Museum Quadrat in Bottrop, Germany; Jeu de Paume, Paris, France; and Fotomuseum Winterthur, Switzerland.
First published in Issue 152