A publication of the Center for Documentary Arts, an independent, nonprofit initiative to integrate art, culture, and humanitarian awareness. The Center promotes narrative and lyric forms of photography, film, oral history, radio, theatre, paintings, poetry, etc. that address social themes and bear witness to the human condition. A full description can be found on the About page. Curated by Timothy Cahill.

29 November 2012

Into quiet and light: The photographs of Robert Adams

Photography is inherently fragmentary,
and I find I base my faith on perfect moments.  
  ~ Robert Adams

In 2001, Robert Adams published Bodhisattva, an artist's book of thirteen images of a Buddhist prayer statue from the second or third century CE. The sculpture, depicting a bodhisattva, or “wisdom being,” was from the Gandhara region of eastern Afghanistan, where Buddhism mixed with Hellenistic culture as the farthest point of Alexander's exploits in Asia. Stylistically, there are influences of both Chinese and Greek art in the figure's tranquil countenance and ringlet hair, which Adams observed in a series of intimate close-ups. It seems appropriate to call the resulting photos portraits as much as studies; Adams clearly presents the deity not merely as an artwork to be admired, but as an entity with a life force of its own.

In Adams’s book, each photograph floats in the center of the right-hand page, opposite a blank white leaf. The eye instinctively reads the spread as a single entity, left to right, and this whiteness affects the experience of the pictures. The blankness is not blank at all; it is, indeed, the atmosphere of the bodhisattva, part silence, part radiance. The thin book takes only minutes to page through, but like any good epiphany, multiplies its impact long afterward. Bohdisattva is the slightest and most obscure of the more than thirty monographs Adams has produced since 1970, an outlier and an anomaly, and yet it reveals an underlying spiritual agenda to his work that goes largely uncommented on. 

The subject of spirituality has never been foremost in discussions of Robert Adams, who is widely considered among the most influential landscape photographers of the late twentieth century. He is best known for his stark black-and-white images of housing construction and suburban sprawl in the American West, photographs that Ken Johnson aptly described in the New York Times as “dispassionately objective, as if made by an insurance adjuster.” The aggressive detachment of Adams’s documentary-style images was startling and subversive when he emerged in the mid-1970s as one of a group of upstarts who revolutionized American landscape photography. In those days, Robert Adams seemed a kind of anti-Ansel Adams (no relation), the widely popular photographer of Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks. Where the older Adams portrayed the Western wilderness as a sacred, pristine paradise, his younger namesake exposed the destruction of the West’s open spaces by rapacious and unregulated exploitation.

I'd first seen Adams's work when I was a young photographer in the mid-1980s. His photographs created a significant frisson of admiration and uncertainty in me, an influence that, if I could never quite emulate it, I could also never forget. To a twenty-something photographer still developing his voice, I intimated something deeply penetrating and courageous in Adams’s work, which combined searing commentary with an eye for the significant banality. More than any other early influence, Adams taught me to look to the commonplace as subject matter. So I thought I understood him when I made it to New Haven last month for the closing weekend of Robert Adams: The Place We Live, a forty-year retrospective at the Yale University Art Gallery. But there I encountered a far more nuanced artist than I had known, with a broader range and far different artistic program. Included in the exhibition were selected images from the Bodhisattva book, and it was these photographs that clarified and confirmed what I take to be Adams’s larger mission, and helped me see his landscapes anew.

Adams was nearly 40, and had been photographing less than ten years, when he came to prominence in the 1975 exhibit New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape at the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography, in Rochester, New York. The exhibit title reveals the new aesthetic it championed. In contrast to photographic landscapes of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston—then the reigning masters of the genre, whose heroic style of sweeping vistas and dramatic light was inherited from the Hudson River School and European Romantic painting —the artists in Rochester affected the detached, analytic attitude suggested by the geographic term “topography.” Curator William Jenkins summed up the new philosophy thus: “The pictures were stripped of any artistic frills and reduced to an essentially topographic state, conveying substantial amounts of visual information but eschewing entirely the aspects of beauty, emotion and opinion.” To say New Topographics impacted landscape photographers would be an understatement. Overnight, it rewrote the playbook and rendered the old style passé. One of the exhibitors, the German husband-wife team of Bernd and Hilla Becher, birthed a new school of postmodern photography with their work and that of their students, which included Andreas Gursky, Candida Hofer, Thomas Ruff, and Thomas Struth; the other exhibitors, among them Lewis Baltz, Frank Gohlke, and Nicholas Nixon, have enjoyed equally influential careers as artists and educators.

New Topographics was part of a movement in the 1960s and '70s that transformed photography’s conception of itself—and eventually changed how we all think of the medium, right up to our iPhone apps. The Big Bang moment of the new ethos was the 1959 American publication of Robert Frank's The Americans, the book that did for photography what Leaves of Grass did for American poetry: opened a door where there had seemed a solid wall. The Americans disregarded photography’s assumptions about narrative and composition, borrowed largely from traditional genre painting, and flouted its notions of craft. The Swiss-born artist’s grainy, seemingly off-handed black-and-white images of juke joints and drive-in theaters, elevator girls and empty roads, made on a driving trip across the USA, possessed a mordant melancholy that distilled his view of American alienation, aggression, and spiritual debasement. 

Frank’s anarchy made the old guard howl, but younger artists, more tuned to modernism and rock 'n' roll than American exceptionalism, quickly took up the cause. The work of serious photographic artists became increasingly deadpan, random, brooding, aloof, sardonic, irreverent, and anti-sentimental.

When Robert Adams took up the camera in the 1960s, this zeitgeist was in the air, along with assassinations, Vietnam, Dylan, the Pill, pot, Nixon, and, a few years later, Watergate. That the “establishment” was an empty shell seemed not opinion but irrefutable fact, and exposing the mainstream's perfidy became an act of conscience. It is not hard to imagine Adams, who had been a teen-ager amid the pre-sprawl grandeur of the Rocky Mountains, looking with horror and contempt at its degradation and photographing the overdevelopment as a way of condemning it. J'accuse! That alone did not make Adams an iconoclast—it was, in fact, more in the tradition of Lewis Hine’s photographic campaign against child labor—but Adams's inclusion in New Topographics placed him squarely with the insurrection. And his pictures did seem to share a similar ethos. Not only were they openly critical of so-called "progress," they were also not classically dramatic or formally heroic. And they often seemed to be of, well, of nothing, really.

As with the bodhisattva, that apparent nothingness was full of meaning. “The pictures record what we purchased, what we paid, and what we could not buy,” Adams wrote in 1995, reflecting on his work of the ’70s. “They document a separation from ourselves, and in turn from the natural world that we professed to love.” For all the affinities Adams shared with the other Topographic artists, however, he is far from an exemplar of the new paradigm. Like the Gandharan sculpture, Adams shows influences of varied, even opposing cultures. If his pictures do often seem, as William Jenkins put it, “stripped of . . . artistic frills and reduced to an essentially topographic state,” they can hardly be said to eschew “beauty, emotion and opinion."

Indeed, regarding beauty, Adams is something of a latter-day romantic. On this point he has been especially eloquent. Far from “eschewing” beauty, he has pursued it throughout his career, as he explained in the title essay of his book, Beauty in Photography:

“[T]he word beauty is in practice unavoidable. Its very centrality accounts, in fact, for my decision to photograph. There appeared a quality—Beauty seemed the only appropriate word for it—in certain photographs and paintings that opened my eyes, and I was compelled to learn to live with the vocabulary of this new sight, though for many years I still found it embarrassing to use the word Beauty, even while believing in it.

“If the proper goal of art is, as I now believe, Beauty, the Beauty that concerns me is that of Form. Beauty is, in my view, a synonym for the coherence and structure underlying life. . . . Why is Form beautiful? Because, I think, it helps us meet our worst fear, the suspicion that life might be chaos and that therefore our suffering is without meaning.”

Adams goes on in the essay to explore beauty’s relationship to the worlds of religion, philosophy, and theory.  

“Art’s beauty . . . does not lead to theology or a system of ethics (though it reminds me of the wisdom of humility and generosity). William Carlos Williams said that poets write for a single reason—to give witness to splendor (a word also used by Thomas Aquinas in defining the beautiful). It is a useful word, especially for a photographer, because it implies light—light of overwhelming intensity. The Form toward which art points is of an incontrovertible brilliance, but it is also far too intense to examine directly. We are compelled to understand Form by its fragmentary reflection in the daily objects around us.”

Adams is an elegist, a poet of loss. This reference to poetry is not merely figurative; Adams has a Ph.D. in English from the University of Southern California and taught literature for several years before devoting himself entirely to photography. He has a scholar’s appreciation and command of poetics. An elegy is typically constructed in three parts, lament, praise, and consolation, and all of these elements are in Adams's work: a cry against destruction, a celebrating evocation of what has been lost, and a sense of redemption through the rigorous, if stark, beauty left behind. In 2010, Adams wrote about returning to revisit “a number of marginal landscapes I had taken for granted when I was a boy,” where he fell into a dialectic between despair and gratitude:

As I walked through them I sometimes asked myself whether in coming years they would survive overpopulation, corporate capitalism, and new technology. On those days when I was lucky, however, my questions fell away into the quiet and the light. 

It has been many years now since I left Colorado, and occasionally friends there tell me of what has been lost. We share our griefs, but not infrequently the conversation turns to recollecting scarcely believable glories—near miracles—and we pledge to look again.

An elegist interrogates death, seeking whatever meaning can be found in destruction. To compose elegies is to believe in meaning and imply purpose. Adams is opposed to nihilism and jaundiced expressions of irony. “If we come upon innocence, beauty, caring, joy, or courage, even in the lost places, are we not obliged to acknowledge them in defiance of ironists?” he asks. What is the caustic irony Adams evokes here but an intellectual hedge against the pain of being human? Over the course of nearly fifty years behind the lens, Adams’s solution to the tragedy of life has been to expand the capacity of his heart, to employ his work less for lament and more for praise.

Steadily since the 1980s, his photographs have pointed increasingly toward Aquinas’s and Williams’ experience of splendor. In Beauty in Photography, Adams invokes William Carlos Williams’ edict, “no ideas but in things,” a philosophy that has led more than one poet into labyrinths of abstraction, but takes a photographer to the specificity of light—especially natural light—and the flux and flow of unstaged life. As the decades have passed for Adams and he has slowly inhabited his chief mission, light and life have converged in stunning fragments of transcendence. These exist in sequences from the early 1980s on families in Colorado parking lots; in his landscapes from the Pawnee National Grassland in eastern Colorado; in his meditations on waves along the Oregon coast from the 1990s; in his studies of a friend's garden in eastern Oregon in 2003; and in his recent seascapes from 2008.

In the progression of his vision, Adams has revealed himself not as a topographical photographer, not as a documentary witness, not as a commentator on environmental destruction—though he is all three of these—but as in essence a seeker, a soul in search of the sacred. Read again his comments on beauty above. Is the Form Adams describes not another name for the Divine, whether we call it God, Providence, Creator, Source, Atman, anima mundi, or the Ideal? In his later photographs, Adams seems bent on capturing nothing less that that “light of overwhelming intensity,” the “incontrovertible brilliance” that is “far too intense to examine directly.”

Adams evokes this transcendence it in his volume on the Buddhist deity. A bodhissatva, the photographer notes at the beginning of that book, is “the representation . . . of an ideal . . . a person who understands but who has chosen to remain involved in life on behalf of others.” Robert Adams has made much the same commitment.

All images via Yale University Art Gallery/ Robert Adams: The Place We Live 
All photographs by Robert Adams
Page spread from Bodhisattva, Nazraeli Press, 2001
New tracts, west edge of Denver, Colorado, 1973–74
Colorado Springs, Colorado, 1968
Colorado Springs, Colorado, 1968
Denver, Colorado, 1973
New development on a former citrus-growing estate, Highland, California, 1983
Palmer Creek, El Paso County, Colorado, 1984–87
Pawnee National Grassland, Weld County, Colorado, 1984
Looking into Pine Valley, Baker County, Oregon, 2003
From the South Jetty, Clatsop County, Oregon, 1991
Nehalem Spit, Tillamook County, Oregon, ca. 2008