Robert Adams

at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, through March 23

By Stephen Longmire

Robert Adams is a photographer in love with wilderness who photographs only compromised and “inhabited” nature. For a quarter century, in his elegant black-and-white images and his humane, articulate essays, he’s spoken in defense of the vanishing Eden of the American West (a name he insistently capitalizes, as if it were a country all its own). Yet he has rarely, if ever, allowed himself to photograph places unspoiled by the scourge of “development.” Though his tools and techniques look familiar–the rich gray tones, the precise camera frame–Adams has helped engineer a revolution in landscape photography, making what had long been an idyllic preserve responsive to the politics of the land.

Adams’s images were first widely exhibited 20 years ago, at the influential “New Topographics” show at Rochester’s George Eastman House in 1975. These were minimalist studies of suburban tract houses around Denver, near where he lives. With their balanced large-format compositions and full scale of grays, they echo the neutral promotions of architectural photography but deliver a scathing rebuke of these bland emblems of conformity: the West is no place for this, they suggest–it deserves better. (Adams’s 1970 book White Churches of the Plains had shown a better way.) His 1984 book Our Lives, Our Children intimates the damage done to the region by his neighbor, the Rocky Flats nuclear power plant, and many, many other of his photographs show the changes “civilization” has worked on the land, from pollution to the landscaping of highways.

Adams’s elegant essays–Beauty in Photography: Essays in Defense of Traditional Values (1981) and Why People Photograph (1994)–explain that he does not photograph wilderness (“uninhabited nature”) because, in his view, it no longer exists. What survives in national parks is a mockery of the unspoiled openness he feels he was born just in time to glimpse. The environmentalist photographer, who’s 59, maintains that all places are sacred but that few people observe the rites of reverence to place. In the catalog to his 1989 Philadelphia Museum retrospective, To Make It Home, he writes of the land as if it were a badly needed but dying region. With poet Theodore Roethke, Adams thinks of America as a nation that has “failed to live up to its geography.” It cannot be easy to make compelling pictures in such a fury, and indeed Adams’s photography isn’t always easy to engage.

From the outset Adams’s critique of land misuse has been coupled with a deflation of the grand style of American landscape photography. His polite but pointed attack has been aimed primarily at Ansel Adams, who toward the end of his career was also deeply involved in environmental causes, which in those days consisted of conservation or preservation: setting aside national parks as exceptional samples seemed a sufficient goal. To this end Ansel Adams lent his imagery and his voice to the Sierra Club, a favor Eliot Porter later repeated for the Audubon Society.

But when Robert Adams reviewed Ansel Adams’s autobiography in the Times Literary Supplement in 1986, he lamented, “Like many of his generation…he seems never really to have faced what his country’s economic system meant for the land.” Writing in Aperture magazine (which Ansel Adams helped found) in 1978, Adams elaborates: “I am not questioning the value of photographs by Ansel Adams (two of whose prints hang in my home) or Eliot Porter. Their pictures of uninhabited nature are important exactly because they reveal the absolute purity of wilderness, a purity we need to know. Attention only to perfection, however, invites eventually for urban viewers–which means most of us–a crippling disgust; our world is in most places far from clean. Photographs that suggest an Arcadian landscape are recognizable from the city-dweller’s perspective as partial visions, and they make us uneasy…How can trees in Sequoia National Park save us from the concrete-and-glass brutalities of New York City?” The job of the new nature photography, he goes on, will be “to reconcile us to half wilderness…[to] teach us to love even vacant lots.”

These remarks prefigure a shift in Robert Adams’s photographs in the 80s, away from harsh satire toward a dull-edged love. What good comes from disgust? he seems to have asked himself and his viewers. The waste dumps, factories, and subdivisions remain in the background of occasional images, but the scenery is often oddly consoling, if mundane. The photographer seems to be caressing a wounded partner with slight hope of recovery. But disease, like the land, is finally unknowable. Though nature is reduced and ruptured, it survives people. The earth is protean, even Christlike, reviving in new forms, speaking a language its inhabitants can barely follow, more lovable and more distant for its unexpected survival.

Almost as scarce as wilderness in Adams’s photographs is a praiseworthy human relationship to the land–though one suspects photography is that for him. The lone churches on the prairie he recorded are another exception. In his writings he reveres Native Americans but skirts their lesson: that America has never been uninhabited. Though Adams is the photographer of inhabited nature, he still seems to see this state as a tragic contradiction. Yet to assert the sacredness of land regardless of human connection is futile: sacredness usually describes a relationship between people and place. And while industrial civilization’s ferocious depredation of the land threatens to obscure this sacred relationship entirely, so does the concept of “wilderness”–a concept uniquely possible in America, with its fiction of a vacant prehistoric land. Though Adams rejects this idea in the work of his namesake Ansel, he implicitly embraces it in his account of the lost Eden of the West. He cannot avoid setting his compass by such Protestant distinctions.

Adams’s recent photographs–like the mid-80s series “Listening to the River: Seasons in the American West,” the centerpiece of his current exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Photography–chart his passage through a fallen world. These photographs inhabit a personal rather than a public space: the space of looking. Each person must forge a private relationship with the land; the camera is Adams’s tool on his journey. Viewed in this light, these 75 small 35-millimeter landscapes documenting conspicuously unremarkable places all somehow touched by the human hand–in graffiti on a rock or a factory on the horizon–are less confounding.

Still, it’s hard to explain why these prints, grouped in clusters of two to six like packets of sketches, are engaging at all. The clusters are said to commemorate the artist’s walks in his home state, and each one is named after one or sometimes several Colorado counties: Mesa, Fairfield, Rio Grande, Arapahoe, Adams. The litany of names communicates a richness of place not readily apparent in the photographs. Indeed, one might recall that utopia means literally “no place.” In a wicked irony, Adams seems to suggest that that’s where America’s paradise has gone, and where he must follow.

In Listening to the River, the 1994 book associated with this series, Adams offers a couplet from Irish poet Seamus Heaney to explain these elliptical images, confirming that they’re a response to absence: “The riverbed, dried-up, half-full of leaves. / Us, listening to a river in the trees.” Attending to the land, one perceives what is no longer there. To Adams, this may be the contemporary definition of wilderness.

Adams’s pictures are more often seen in books than in galleries, and a slender 1994 volume from the Smithsonian entitled Cottonwoods is among the finest inclusions in the show. Here the artist tells the story of the cottonwood, beloved of the Plains Indians–the tree that holds the sound of running water in its leaves, dreaming of rain in times of drought. “The riverbed, dried-up, half-full of leaves. / Us, listening to a river in the trees.” In Heaney’s world, we dream of vanished water with the cottonwoods, as our roots search dry earth. Or have the trees gone with the river, leaving only the imagined rattle of leaves? Either way, the senses remember, restoring the water in the imagination just as the cottonwood’s gurgling leaves dream of water. In dry seasons leaf music–poetry, or the capacity to imagine absent paradises–consoles. Adams’s photographs attest to the imagination’s capacity to enrich the land, no matter how badly it’s been damaged. Poet and photographer alike mourn the absent river, extolling the tree’s memory; mourn the vanishing land, dreaming of human creativity in the landscape that remains. Imagination proves as resilient as the land.

One senses that these meditative images are secondary to the concentration they required. Walking, like photographing, is a model for that concentration, and these pictures seem to invite viewers to accompany Adams on his walks. The camera perambulates about its subjects: nondescript trees and telephone poles, distant factories and tract houses, fresh snow and wild flowers. Walking decenters viewing, and these images barely have subjects at all–which is at once their disappointment and their genius. Their subject is looking, no matter how mundane the scene, looking until form is revealed where it seems least likely. Wright Morris, another writing photographer, would call this an exercise in “real losses and imaginary gains.”

Landscape images tend to be horizontal, following the horizon, but the frames of Adams’s pictures are upright, like walkers or those stilled walkers the trees, and insistently bisected by the horizon as if by an article of faith. The human orientation, running counter to the land, is equally divided between land and sky, earth and ether. The few times Adams flouts this convention the results are unexpectedly refreshing: looking down through a bush can prove an exhilarating exercise in abstraction. (Ray Metzker’s recent square, bleached landscapes, shown at the Art Institute in 1991, are similarly caught in the underbrush–who could have known it would be such a clarifying place?) Often Adams points his camera into the sun as in amateur snapshots, as if to reorient himself or zero his compass.

Most of the miniseries in “Listening to the River” record the photographer’s approach to a place of local significance, perhaps a tree amidst prairie. But viewers of these photographs will rarely see the tree in its entirety. Instead they glimpse masses of branches from one side of the trunk or the other as they follow the photographer forward, then back, left and then right in his hunt for the “best” view, the one worth recording. But that’s a decision Adams will not make on principle. No place is more significant to him than another, he seems to say, no view is the most important. Adams seems to place his frame haphazardly, but perhaps it’s just gently–for the camera’s framing represents yet another expression of control over the land.

In this way Adams sidesteps, and perhaps refutes, an earlier tradition of American landscape photography. Formulated in the 50s by Minor White but practiced most notably by Ansel Adams, this was the quest for a “dominant image,” in which a place was said to record its spirit on film through the enlightened intervention of the photographer. For White, the process of seeking the dominant image was meditation, but his term suggests the risk that both photographer and place might be overpowered in the process. Ansel Adams’s photographs of Half Dome or El Capitan stand for those places so resolutely that the places themselves can disappoint, failing the apparently inevitable framing of the photographs. Robert Adams’s views are also meditative, but they’re partial, contingent on the moment of seeing and therefore implicit reminders of the photographer’s presence–and by extension the viewer’s. Adams’s unheroic miniseries insist that no one photograph can approach the presence of even the most ordinary place. So why photograph? Is photography an act of scrutiny or of sympathy? And how can viewers be drawn into such an uncertain experience? The surprise is that to a considerable degree they are.

To the degree viewers are convinced that they walk with Adams, he succeeds in making landscapes in the first person rather than the usual third–succeeds in making personal a genre that is often grandiose. Sometimes, however, his rotations in these sequences seem rehearsed, like a surveyor’s: first a long shot, then a move in on the “subject,” then turn 30 degrees left and right. Objects at the periphery of the frame in one image will be central in the next. Sometimes the series resemble 19th-century panoramic scenes, in which several views from a rotating camera would be pieced together to give an illusion of omniscience. In Adams’s work, however, there are ruptures of space or perspective from one frame to the next.

At their best, these groupings erode expectations of what constitutes a photographic subject, recalling that the walker’s field of vision is broader than the camera’s and less distinctly framed. Adams’s eye wanders to more than can be reproduced, so that one senses the absent as well. But despite the uneventful series of images, only a handful of which stand out, and the images recording places never fully apparent, Adams manages to imply the richness of place. These images only begin their work in the gallery: although few are individually memorable, their quiet angles persist, consoling with their gift of frames to support a world evacuated of purity. Adams has transposed his awareness of the loss of pristine landscapes in the American West to an attack on those traditions of photographic framing that have made the landscape image a pristine space apart.

The pictures in “Listening to the River” make it so clear that places are more compelling than their representations that they leave one wondering, why photograph at all? But at its best Adams’s modest sleight of hand teaches viewers to see their world with renewed vigor and acceptance. T.S. Eliot, whom Adams likes to quote, interrupts his final cycle of poems, the Four Quartets, with an astonishing announcement: “The poetry does not matter.” The gesture manages to reaffirm the necessity of poetry while confirming its subordination to other values. In a similar way Adams returns his viewers to the land, to the unresolved complexities of human relations to the land, to history and hope.