Art & Document (formerly the journal of the Center for Documentary Arts) is a project at the crossroads of art, ethics, faith, and social justice. Created by Timothy Cahill, Art & Document presents artists, writers, and thinkers whose work promotes the common good, bears witness to suffering, and manifests qualities of beauty, compassion, dignity, justice, and mercy.

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 containing thirteen images of a Buddhist prayer statue from the second or third century CE. The sculpture, depicting a “wisdom being” or bodhisattava, was from the Gandhara region of eastern Afghanistan, the farthest point Alexander the Great penetrated into Asia. There are Chinese and Hellenistic influences in the figure's tranquil countenance and ringlet hair, which Adams photographed in a series of intimate close-ups. It seems appropriate to call the results portraits as much as studies; Adams clearly regards the deity not merely as an artwork to be observed, but as an entity with a distinct life force. 

In Adams’s book, each photograph floats in the center of the right-hand page, opposite a blank white leaf. The eye reads the spread as a single entity, left to right, and the whiteness affects each image's tranquil presence. The blankness is not blank at all; it is, indeed, an atmosphere the bodhisattva inhabits, part silence, part radiance. The thin book takes only minutes to page through, but like any proper revelation, multiplies its meaning over time. 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 the critical literature about Adams, 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 tracts and suburban sprawl in the American West, photographs that Ken Johnson described in the New York Times as “dispassionately objective, as if made by an insurance adjuster.” The aggressive detachment of Adams’s aesthetic was startling and subversive when he emerged in the mid-1970s as one of a group of anti-Romantics who revolutionized our view of the American landscape. Robert Adams was a kind of anti-Ansel Adams, the widely popular photographer of Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks. Where the older Adams (the two men are not related) portrayed the Western wilderness as an heroic paradise, his younger namesake exposed the destruction of the West’s open spaces by rapacious, unregulated development.

I'd first seen Adams's photographs when I was a young photographer in the 1980s. His work produced a frisson of admiration and uncertainty in me. I could never quite emulate it, but could also never quite forget it. I was intimidated by its courage and its coldness, its searing commentary and its eye for the resonant 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 Bodhisattva, and it was these photographs that clarified and confirmed what I take to be Adams’s larger project 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 exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape, at the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography in Rochester, New York. The exhibit title revealed the new aesthetic it championed. In contrast to the vision of reigning masters Ansel Adams and Edward Weston—whose sweeping vistas and dramatic light were inherited from the Hudson River School and European Romantic painting —the artists in Rochester affected the dry, analytic stance 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.” Overnight, New Topographics 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 school of postmodern photography that produced the likes of Andreas Gursky, Candida Hofer, Thomas Ruff, and Thomas Struth. 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 iPhones. The Big Bang moment of the new ethos was the 1959 publication of Robert Frank's The Americans, the book that did for photography what Leaves of Grass did for American poetry, finding a door in what had seemed a solid wall. The Americans disregarded photography’s assumptions of narrative and composition, borrowed from traditional genre painting, and flouted notions of craft. The Swiss-born artist’s blurred, grainy, seemingly off-handed images of juke joints and drive-in theaters, elevator girls and open roads, possessed a mordant melancholy and distilled vision of American aggression, alienation, 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 was the zeitgeist at large, fed by assassinations, Vietnam, Dylan, the Pill, pot, and a few years later, Watergate. That the “establishment” was an empty shell seemed not a stance but irrefutable fact. Exposing the perfidy of the status quo was an act of conscience. It's not hard to imagine Adams, who spent his boyhood amid the pre-sprawl grandeur of the Rocky Mountains, looking with grief and contempt at its degradation. Depicting the rampant development was a way of condemning it. J'accuse! The act alone did not make Adams an iconoclast—in fact, it was squarely in the tradition of Lewis Hine’s photographic campaign against child labor—but his inclusion in New Topographics put him squarely among the insurrection. And his pictures did appear to share a similar ethos. Not only were they openly critical of the notion of "progress," they also looked starkly anti-aesthetic. So often seemed to be of, well ... of nothing, really.

As with the bodhisattva book, that apparent nothingness was shot through with 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, he is far from typical of the new paradigm. Like the Gandharan sculpture, Adams shows influences of divergent, 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 turns out to be 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 metaphysics and the divine.  

“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. Traditionally, an elegy is constructed in three parts—lament, praise, and consolation—and all these elements are in Adams's work. He raises a cry against destruction, a celebrating evocation of what has been lost, and a final redemption in the rigorous, 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.” There, 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. “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 corrosive irony Adams evokes here but the nihilist's hedge against the pain of being human? Over the course of nearly fifty years behind the lens, Adams’s solution to the pain of life has been to expand the capacity of his heart, to employ his work as much for praise as lament.

Since the 1980s, his photographs have pointed increasingly toward Aquinas' and Williams’ sense of splendor. In Beauty in Photography, Adams invokes William Carlos Williams’ edict, “no ideas but in things,” which has led legions of poets into labyrinths of banality, but takes the photographer to the specificity of light—especially natural light—and the flux and surge of daily life. As the decades have passed for Adams and he has lived fully into this mission, light and life have converged in stunning fragments of transcendence. These emerge in sequences from the 1980s of families in Colorado parking lots; in his landscapes in eastern Colorado's Pawnee National Grassland; in his meditations on waves along the Oregon coast from the 1990s; in studies in 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 to be not a topographical photographer, not a documentary witness, not a commentator on environmental destruction—though he is all three of these—but in essence as 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 a mystical “light of overwhelming intensity,” the “incontrovertible brilliance” that is “far too intense to examine directly.”

In his volume on the Buddhist deity, Adams notes in his introduction that a
 bodhissatva is, “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


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