Robert Adams has photographed the United States during some of its darkest decades, from the mid-1960s to the present day, documenting the decline and recklessness of the United States through the specific lens of the landscape and the human impact on it. A comprehensive National Gallery of Art overview of his work, “American Silence: The Photographs of Robert Adams” is one of the most moving and important exhibitions at the museum in a long time. It convincingly demonstrates that Adams is not only an important photographer with a major impact on contemporary art, but also a great artist whose nearly seven decades of work is an essential document of national conscience, and a thing of majesty.
Adams was born in New Jersey in 1937 and moved with his family to Denver in 1952. He began shooting in 1963 and much of his work has focused on the interface between new suburbs and open land along what is known as the Front Range urbanization. corridor, which includes Denver, Boulder, Fort Collins and sprawling interurban conglomerates. In his earliest photographs, he created images reminiscent of Ansel Adams, moments of poetry carefully extracted from the natural world and rendered so perfectly that their beauty is more ethereal than real. He photographed landscapes, trees, wide open plains, stormy desert skies and evocative architecture, rendered with the geometric precision of Paul Strand, another early influence.
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But the world around Adams was changing and he felt he was in crisis. Even as he was figuring out how a camera could help him explore uncharted areas of beauty in Colorado, including ancient Latin American cities and pioneer settlements, the land was being chewed up and overrun by housing projects. He felt the need to “achieve a kind of reconciliation with the landscape that I thought I no longer loved,” he said in a 1982 interview. Adams had used a large 4-by-5-inch camera, which required a tripod. was, and which produced beautifully detailed images. But he moved to smaller, more portable formats, often creating small, square black-and-white images drenched in sunlight and full of stark tonal contrasts.
Adams struggled with the tendency to despair by looking straight at it. In 1975, he was included in a now legendary exhibit in Rochester, NY called the New Topographics, which presented an invigoratingly unsentimental view of our “man-altered landscape” (the show’s subtitle). He now photographed suburbs, houses on the tract, treeless neighborhoods, malls, parking lots, highways and pollution.
These are the images for which Adams has remained most famous, and they are generally perceived as somewhat chilly, objective and aloof. But they aren’t harsh, and they don’t seem to be made out of anger. They certainly have no trace of the gothic horror with which later artists, including too many film directors, have portrayed the surreal alienation of the American suburbs. Even when Adams captures the most abject and brutal destruction of the environment, such as in photographs he took years later of forests decimated by logging in Oregon, he never raises his voice or hectors the viewer.
Adams’ objectivity is not a lack of emotion, but more of a kind of etiquette. The polite thing to do, which will make the viewer feel most at ease with the truth of the image, is to speak softly and stay away. That doesn’t mean his images aren’t loaded with intent and meaning. In a 1973 photo of a mansion in Longmont, Colorado, Adams shows us the back of the building and patio, with all but one of the seats facing inward, toward the split-level house, as if the people who live here can can’t bear to face the world that has destroyed their prosperity.
A 1969 image of a basement being dug for a new home in Colorado Springs equates the large, rectangular hole with a grave and the man standing in it with a gravedigger. A baby in a wheeled wheelchair outside a Denver house looks like an alien, with four spindly metal legs, left behind on Earth after the mothership fled our failed piece of planet. A 1983 photograph taken along Interstate 25 – the unforgiving concrete backbone of the Front Range cityscape – is a masterpiece: a few spindly flowers or weeds can be seen in the foreground against the sky, while in the blurred background the trunk of a half rolls along a tilted horizon.
And despite his reputation for being unsentimental, Adams can be the most sentimental of photographers, a license he grants himself so sparingly that when he does, the effects are heartbreaking. A 1972 image of a child’s headstone, showing a roughly carved lamb at rest above a pedestal with the simple text “Sofia Martinez: B 5-1-1928, D 12-8-1934”, feels a bit like a confessional: Like this tombstone, so is my art, unadorned, wise but sad and devastatingly direct.
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In the most recent works on display at the National Gallery † images from the Oregon beach — Adams gives in to the same impulse, shooting a dead albatross in one and in the other what looks like a children’s ball, small and isolated in a sea of silvery sand and water.
These most recent works are included in a series the photographer calls “Tenancy,” for which he cites Webster’s Dictionary definition, “the temporary possession of what belongs to another.” The exhibition, and curator Sarah Greenough’s subtle and in-depth catalog essay, pays close attention to Adams’s religious life, and tenancy is fundamental to his spirituality. God, however defined or understood, is immanent in all things, which is why we must look so directly at the world, even when the world accuses us of being terrible tenants.
This has consequences for a photographer. Making the world more beautiful than it really is, as so many landscape photographers before Adams routinely did, is unfair. But so does the tendency to make it uglier than it is.
One view of God is that God made and rules the world, and if we are lucky and very good, He will take care of us. Another view is that God is simply the world and everything else, and that we have to take care of her, him or her. The work of Robert Adams proves that this vision too is American and our best hope for survival.
American Silence: the photos of Robert Adams Until October 2 at the National Gallery of Art. nga.gov†