Robert Adams photographed the United States during some of its darkest decades, from the mid-1960s to the present day, documenting America’s decline and recklessness through the particular lens of landscape and imposition of humanity. A National Gallery of Art’s comprehensive survey of his work, “American Silence: The Photographs of Robert Adams,” is one of the museum’s most moving and important exhibitions in a long time. It demonstrates convincingly that Adams is not only an important photographer with a significant impact on contemporary art, but also a great artist whose nearly seven decades of work are a vital document of national consciousness and a thing of majesty.
Adams was born in New Jersey in 1937 and moved with his family to Denver in 1952. He began photographing in 1963, and much of his work focused on the interface between new suburbs and the open land along what is called the Front Range urban corridor, which includes Denver, Boulder, Fort Collins and sprawling suburban conglomerates. In his early photographs he produced images reminiscent of Ansel Adams, poetic moments carefully extracted from the natural world and so perfectly presented that their beauty is more ethereal than real. He photographed landscapes, trees, 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 in crisis. Even as he was still figuring out how a camera might help him explore undiscovered corners of Colorado beauty, including old Hispanic towns and pioneer settlements, the earth was chewed up and crushed by housing estates. 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 used a large 4 x 5 inch camera, which required a tripod, and produced wonderfully detailed images. But he’s moved on to smaller, more portable formats, often making small, square black-and-white images that are awash in sunlight and full of striking tonal contrasts.
Adams fought the streak of desperation by looking her straight in the eye. In 1975, it was included in a now-legendary exhibit in Rochester, NY, called the New Topographies, which took an invigorating, unsentimental view of our “man-altered landscape” (the exhibit’s subtitle ). He now photographs suburbs, neighborhood homes, treeless neighborhoods, strip malls, parking lots, highways, and pollution.
These are the images for which Adams remains best known, and they are generally considered to be slightly cold, objective and detached. But they’re not harsh, and they don’t look like they were made in anger. Certainly, they have no trace of the gothic horror with which later artists, including too many filmmakers, rendered the surreal alienation of American suburbs. Even when Adams captures the most abject and brutal environmental destruction, as in the images he took years later of forests decimated by logging in Oregon, he never raises his voice or does not harass the viewer.
Adams’ objectivity is not a lack of emotion, but rather a kind of etiquette. The polite thing to do, the thing that will make the viewer most comfortable with the truth of the image, is to speak softly and stay away. That’s not to say his images aren’t loaded with intention and meaning. In a 1973 photograph of a house in Longmont, Colorado, Adams shows us the back of the structure and its patio, on which all but one of the chairs face inward, toward the two-level house, as if the people who live here can’t stand looking at the world their prosperity has destroyed.
A 1969 image of a basement dug for a new home in Colorado Springs likens the large rectangular hole to a grave and the man standing in it to a gravedigger. A baby in a wheel chair, outside a home in Denver, looks like an alien being, with four spindly metal legs, abandoned on Earth after the mothership fled our failed planet grain. A 1983 photograph taken along Interstate 25 – the unrelenting concrete backbone of the Front Range cityscape – is a masterpiece: in the foreground, a few spindly flowers, or weeds, are seen against the sky, while in the blurred background, the carcass of a semi rolls on a tilted horizon.
And despite his reputation as unsentimental, Adams can be the most sentimental of photographers, a license he gives himself so sparingly that when he does, the effects are heartbreaking. A 1972 image of a child’s headstone, which shows a roughly carved lamb resting above a plinth that simply reads, “Sofia Martinez: B 5-1-1928, D 12-8-1934 “, looks a bit like a confessional: Like this tombstone, so does my art, unadorned, wise but sad and devastatingly direct.
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In the most recent works exhibited at the National Gallery — Oregon beach footage — Adams indulges in the same impulse, photographing a dead albatross in one and in the other what appears to be a tiny, lonely baby ball in a sea of silvery sand and water.
These most recent works are part of a series the photographer calls “Tenancy”, for which he quotes Webster’s dictionary definition: “the temporary possession of that which belongs to another”. The exhibit, and curator Sarah Greenough’s subtle and deeply felt catalog essay, draw considerable attention to Adams’ religious life, and the location 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.
For a photographer, this has consequences. To make the world more beautiful than it really is, as so many landscape photographers before Adams regularly did, is dishonest. But so does the impulse to make it look uglier than it is.
A vision of God is that God created the world and rules it, and if we are lucky and very good, He will take care of us. Another view is that God is just the world and everything else, and we should take care of her, him, or her. Robert Adams’ work proves that this view is also American and is our best hope for survival.
American Silence: The Photographs of Robert Adams Until October 2 at the National Gallery of Art. nga.gov.