At the Vancouver Art Gallery until January 16
In the introduction to his recent book of photographs, What Can We Believe Where?, Robert Adams writes: “I began making pictures because I wanted to record what supports hope: the untranslatable mystery and beauty of the world.” Then he adds: “Along the way, however, the camera also caught evidence against hope, and I eventually concluded that this too belonged in pictures if they were to be truthful and thus useful.”
Implicit in this simple statement, especially in the words truthful and useful, is a profoundly moral sense of purpose. Adams’s black-and-white photographs of the American West—blasted trees standing grimly above a newly constructed freeway, graffiti spray-painted across rocky outcroppings at a sagebrush-dotted lookout, tract housing strewn like litter over a high plateau, a mesa top scored by the tracks of mining trucks, and mountains clear-cut to their ragged peaks—register his sorrow at the ways humankind has plundered and desecrated the once-majestic expanses of Colorado, California, and Oregon.
An acclaimed and influential senior photographer, often identified with the New Topographics movement, Adams took up the camera—self-taught—in the mid 1960s, after earning a PhD in English literature and pursuing an academic career. His early immersion in the written word reveals itself in his eloquent prose and his commitment to the book as the principal conveyor of his photographic art. This internationally touring exhibition, Robert Adams: The Place We Live, was organized by the Yale University Art Gallery, whose curatorial staff worked closely with the artist.
Compassing some 300 master prints chosen from his nearly 40 book projects, the show attests to the acuity of Adams’s vision, not only in the composing of individual images but also in their editing and sequencing. Photography, he has stated, is all about editing.
Adams’s shots of rapid and unpicturesque suburban development in the Denver and Colorado Springs areas, shot in the late 1960s and early 1970s when he was teaching English at Colorado College, launched his career. The exhibition winds a narrative and thematic line through his career-long investigation of the ways in which people are connected with or alienated from the land through the buildings and enterprises they undertake. A 1968 trip to Sweden with his wife and lifelong helpmate, Kerstin, suggested to Adams the possibility of a socially and environmentally responsible approach to the built environment. Such ideas, however, are in deep conflict with the beliefs that have ruled the American West during the past two centuries, especially the entwined religions of westward expansion, unfettered individualism, and unregulated capitalism.
The cult of the frontiersman is cleverly folded into Pike’s Peak, Colorado Springs, Adams’s shot of a Frontier gas station at dusk, its fluorescent sign glowing in eerie counterpoint to the dark mountains and ebbing evening light beyond. Other subjects—a single buffalo in a fenced field in Buffalo for sale, Pueblo County, Colorado; a massive old-growth tree stump in a wasteland in Coos County, Oregon—stand as lonely symbols of our unsustainable relationship to the natural world.
At the same time, Adams’s images capture the dazzling light and godly grandeur of these western landscapes. And his seascapes, many of them shot at the spot where the Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean, speak of the cycle of life and death and the converging of our individual destinies within the vast, oceanic mystery of existence. Against all the evidence of our wrongdoing, Adams cannot deny us some pearly glimmer of hope, some silvery grace note. His body of work is not a one-track condemnation of our condition; rather, it is poetically nuanced and mindful of the complexities of its themes and subjects.