Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Robert Adams and The New West

Along with an interview and a few ephemeral items from the career of Robert Adams, here's a review of his book The New West: Landscapes Along the Colorado Front Range from Popular Photography, 1974.

Mathew Marks Gallery, NYC, 2000
23.25 inches by 5.25 inches, stiff card stock
Folded twice to produce a 7.75 inch by 5.25 inch announcement that opens twice horizontally


Open once

Fully open


Roth Horowitz, NYC, 2003

6 inch by 4 inch postcard

Mathew Marks Gallery, NYC, 2006

17 inches by 22 inches, poster on heavy paper
Folded twice to produce an 8.5 inch x 11 inch announcement


In 1974, Popular Photography reviewed Adams' book, The New West. They didn't like it. Here's the page from the magazine, though I'm afraid I neglected to note the issue date, followed by the text of the review.

BOOK REVIEW IN BRIEF--The New West, Landscapes Along the Colorado Front Range, written and photographed by Robert Adams, foreword by John Szarkowski, Director, Department of Photography, The Museum of Modern Art. The Colorado Associated University Press, 1974 (distributed by Light Impressions, P.O. Box 3012, Rochester, N.Y. 14614); 121 pp., hardcover, $15.

It seems as if social concern, even illegitimate social concern, warrants a book these days. It also seems to me that wherever John Szarkowski's name appears, the viewer is in for a lot of meaningless rhetoric about photography and art. The New West has both problems. Szarkowski even admits in his foreword: "Some viewers might find them [the pictures] dull." He's right.

The book is a series of photographs of life in the new West, where tract houses and roads break up the once wild and woolly terrain. Where once vast, uninterrupted prairie and mountains reigned, today small houses sprout. The photographer-writer tries to make a statement that the West is in worse shape now than before, merely because houses are being built, and not beautiful examples of architecture.

Adams apparently doesn't know that change is inevitable and that people, who take up space, have to live somewhere. Whether or not he likes the architecture of their houses is not important. People wouldn't live in these areas in these houses if they didn't like the area or didn't have to live there for one reason or another, and what right does he have to protest? That the photographs are meaningless and dull just points out that he isn't a good photographer, not that the new West is becoming meaningless and dull.

Rows and rows of endless roads take up space in the book. These pictures are not pretty, rarely enlightening, and not even striking. They are merely dull.

-Alice S. Williams

And finally, PBS runs a series called Art: 21 that explores artists and their work. The fifth season, featuring, at different times, Cindy Sherman, William Kentridge, Carrie Mae Weems, Jeff Koons, John Baldessari and more, premiers this October 7, 2009. On a previous show, Robert Adams was interviewed and what follows is the transcription of that interview.

Photography, Life & Beauty

ART:21: What would you say making art is about for you?

ADAMS: Recently I saw someone, I can’t remember who it was, who said that the essence of the creative act is determining what the question is. Once you have the question then it’s all pretty much in the can. I believe if your list of questions is long, that shows you’re on top of this.

ART:21: What exactly is the job of someone who makes art?

ADAMS: It seems to me that what art has historically, traditionally focused on are these moments of recognition and insight. By looking closely at specifics in life, you discover a wider view. And although we can’t speak with much assurance about how this is conveyed, it does seem to me that among the most important ways it’s conveyed by artists is through attention to form.

The notable thing, it seems to me, about great pictures is that everything fits. There is nothing extraneous. There is nothing too much, too little, and everything within that frame relates. Nothing is isolated. The reason that becomes so moving is that the artist finally says that the form that he or she has found in that frame is analogous to form in life. The coherence within that frame points to a wider coherence in life as a whole. Why is that important? I think art is the sworn enemy of nihilism. And nihilism is a great downward tug that we all feel.

Sam Johnson, a great hero from the literary world back in the 1700s, said that in life there is much to endure and little to enjoy. To the extent that that’s true, life is hard to accept. And I think that the reason people flock to museums now and did so during the twentieth century was in large measure because of their hope that art would help reconcile that very difficult truth. My fear is that we in the art world are not consistently and ardently enough addressing that old traditional job of art—to reconcile us to life.

ART:21: I’m going to cry...

ADAMS: No, no. That’s, that’s really why I am proud to say that I’m in this field. And I take heart from artists as a group, more than most. We have a serious job.

ART:21: And not just visual artists...

ADAMS: No, for sure. One of my heroes is [Russian poet] Anna Ahkmatova, who was, one of the exemplary figures of the last century. Her determination to continue, to survive, and to even do better than survive is Homeric in its scope I think.

ART:21: And to continue, to survive is part of your work too.

ADAMS: My subject for forty years has been the American west. It’s a region for which the country had great hopes and something very distressing has happened in the course of that effort. We’ve got to try to fix it, but not lose heart. There are some things that can never be recovered now, but we’ve still got to work to find the country that we hoped was here.

ART:21: Talk about the connections between your work and your life.

ADAMS: The nature of photography is to engage life. It’s made of life. Life is complex, and I often think photography is similarly complicated. At least it seems so to me. The early twentieth-century photographer Lewis Hine, who photographed child labor problems, said at one point that what he wanted to do was to show what was good so that we would value it, and what was bad so that we would want to change it. And in somewhat the same way that’s what I’ve always hoped to do. I’d like to document what’s glorious in the West and remains glorious, despite what we’ve done to it. I’d like to be very truthful about that. But I also want to show what is disturbing and what needs correction. The best way to do that—and it’s the way every artist dreams of—is to show it at the same time in the very same rectangle. You’re always in quest for the picture which will catch both, and occasionally that happens. There’s a picture of mine that I’m happy with, taken above Boulder, Colorado . . . We’re up on a foothill, probably a thousand feet above Boulder. The bottom of the picture is a kind of bowl of dark trees. And in this bowl is the city of Boulder and beyond it a view of the plains. To me that’s an unusually successful picture because it suggests some of the contradictory nature of the Western experience.

I took a picture once of a woman silhouetted in a tract house window. And in one sense that’s a picture of the saddest kind of isolation and most inhumane sort of building. But also raining down over this picture onto the roof and the lawn is glorious high-altitude light. Nabokov said there’s no light like Colorado’s, except in central Russia. And you can see it in this picture. It’s absolutely sublime.

ART:21: You love beauty.

ADAMS: Beauty, which I admit to being in pursuit of, is an extremely suspect word among many in the art world. But I don’t think you can get along without it. Beauty is the confirmation of meaning in life. It is the thing that seems invulnerable, in some cases, to our touch. And who would want to do without beauty? There’s something perverse about ruling out beauty. It’s not only in nature, incidentally. It’s in people. I took pictures in suburbs surrounding a nuclear weapons plant in the 1980s. And a number of things came clear as I went over the contact sheets where I printed out small pictures of all the film I exposed. One was the burden of sadness which seemed to be on most people’s faces. I was shocked. I was also shocked by how many people are in one way or another deformed. But I also discovered that, if I looked hard enough, there were an amazing number of people with resilience and courage and who, for a moment or two, had something in their eyes that was very admirable. And all of that, I think, is worthy of the term ‘beauty’. I hold onto that word; I refuse to surrender it. It’s the traditional end of art. And tradition is part of this occupation as far as I’m concerned. Creating out of nothing is something only God is reputed to have done.

ART:21: Do you often feel at odds with the values of the art world?

ADAMS: Eisenhower talked about the military-industrial complex. I’m a little distressed by what I would call the museum-gallery-academy complex, which has tended to seize the scene. I think the sadness of this is that it has given generations of young people some of the wrong ideas about what art is. I wish they would read, for example, [American painter] Robert Henri’s book, “The Art Spirit.” I wish they would read lectures by [American painter] John Sloan. I think art is better than the magazine “Artforum,” for example, would lead us to believe many times.

ART:21: How do you go about finding the photograph you want to take?

ADAMS: The process of finding a picture I want is a long one. Ansel Adams talked often about pre-visualizing everything down to the last level of gray, when he was looking out and making all his calculations before he made the exposure. That has not been my experience. You do try to get as much as you can right there on the spot when you make the exposure, but there are a lot of surprises in photography. If you’re not interested in surprises you shouldn’t be a photographer. It’s one of the great enlivening blessings of the medium.

In the case of the pictures of people that I was taking near the weapons plant, I was actually shooting blind. I determined before I started the project that I did not want to have just pictures of people who were staring at me, who were fully conscious that I was working on them. I wanted them to be unaware. So I strapped a wide-angle Hasselblad onto my hand and set the focus for between about three and seven feet, which I could do because of the brilliant light. I carried a bag of groceries on my left arm and as I approached people I would try to assess whether they had a promising expression or were in promising relation to each other. Then, as I got within the range for which the camera was focused, I would pretend to shift the weight of the bag of groceries with my right hand, which also held a camera, and I would make an exposure. So there were pictures that I didn’t fully know I had. But life is full of blessings that you have to work for, and they’re a wonderful surprise. That happens in landscape photography, too. You never know on a given day when you’re going out whether it’s going to be one of those utterly dead days or whether the sky is going to be something you couldn’t have dreamed of.

ART:21: But you also make a lot of pictures where you are particularly conscious about the composition.

ADAMS: The majority of the work that I do involves very close concentration on framing. When you watch a photographer work, what’s going on is that seemingly almost demented search . . . moving a little this way, moving a little that . . . looking from a little higher, a little lower. The effort is to find that perfectly balanced frame where everything fits. It’s not exactly the same as life. It’s life, seen better. Weston said that composition was just the strongest way of seeing. It’s true, but you have to mean it in a little more serious way than I think he meant it. It’s the strongest because you’re seeing the most lasting—the truest—way you can, assuming you believe that ultimately things do fit. And of course not all us, most of the day, would want to subscribe to that. Life is too chaotic. But the thing the artist is trying to give you is a reminder of those rare times when you did see the world so that everything seemed to fit—so that things had consequence. The majority evidence is for chaos, let’s face it. Most of the time things don’t seem consequential. But the value of art is that it helps us recall transforming times that are of such a quality that they last.

ART:21: Can you talk about your book, “Turning Back”?

ADAMS: The book is fundamentally about deforestation in the northwest. And as such it’s a grim journey. I nonetheless believe that one is obliged to try to find an affirmation, even in tough circumstances. And so the book concludes having gone through the coast range of Oregon and the deforestation that’s there. There’s a clump of popular trunks, pretty much clear to the horizon that stands at a crossroads. We spent about eight hours over two days photographing this tree in different lights, at different hours. And this was a new thing for me: we enlisted the help of a plate maker to make four gravures of the trunks.

It’s my stab at trying to say it’s not all over. Granted one poplar is not a replacement for the rain forest that once lined the Oregon and Washington coasts, but it’s minority evidence in favor of hope. And I think we don’t pay attention to that kind of thing at our peril.

ART:21: The book takes you on a kind of a journey...

ADAMS: The book basically starts at the ocean, goes through the industrial forest land where there used to be a rain forest and ends on the high deserts of Oregon. It ends in a small town where Kerstin and I were unexpectedly befriended by a person we did not know who invited us to stay in her house, which we did for some time. She had about ten acres in this valley called Pine Valley. And sad to say, we returned there the following year and while we were there a catastrophe struck. Perhaps I should just read the text:

“As it happened, we were in Hathaway on September 11, 2001. For a time thereafter we found it impossible to focus on any but those events, so we returned home early. Clear-cutting appears to me to be what most of us see in the world most of the time. There are not many people as kind as our benefactor in Hathaway and not many places as whole. Of what significance is minority evidence? Photography is inherently fragmentary and I find I base my faith on perfect moments. Moments like this. It’s the quality of those moments that weighs in and finally I think wins out over the quantity of bad times.”

ART:21: How has spending time in Oregon changed your work?

ADAMS: When we moved to Oregon I spent time continuing what I’d begun in the ‘90s, which was to photograph westward, toward the ocean, and basically to photograph what is conventionally beautiful. And it was great. I think I discovered a few ways to refresh the subject a little. But as we approached the bicentennial year of the Lewis and Clark expedition, I began to ask myself, where is the frontier? Is it to the west or the east? And clearly the answer has to be the frontier now is to the east. And I would submit to you that it’s just as dangerous as the western direction used to be. So it seemed to me that on the occasion of the bicentennial, the real job was to remind people what we’re up against now: having to return and look at our own creation and try to correct it, value it, so that we create the country we thought we were creating as we went west, but neglected to do the right things.

Looking west is what Lewis and Clark did throughout their journey. And then they stood on the beach and continued to look west, I assume. As it happened, when Lewis and Clark turned to go back that’s when they began to make mistakes. They killed at least one or two Indians. One of the party took a needlessly risky side trip. And then, as you know, one of the leaders—they think Lewis—
committed suicide.

It seems to me that we are now compelled to recognize that we have no place to go but where we’ve been. We’ve got to go look at what we’ve done, which is oftentimes pretty awful, and see if we can’t make of this place a civilized home. We’ve in a sense built a house, but we haven’t made it a home.

I’m told that Pete Seeger gives us a 50-50 chance of being here at all in a hundred years. That’s probably a rather generous estimate. But if we’re still here, job number one is clearly to learn how to get along with each other and, and live richer, more peaceful lives. Richer in spirit.

ART:21: Why make such a big deal over trees?

ADAMS: The importance of what’s going on in terms of clear-cutting is that there is no indication that this can go on forever. If you turn the globe you see a history of deforestation that changed societies and from which there has not been, in many cases, a complete recovery—in some cases, no recovery at all. The nub of it is that if you keep cutting (and bear in mind that the cutting now is sustained by the use of artificial herbicides and fertilizers), the soil is eroded more and more. It’s a major contributor to global warming.

I think it’s also a terrible example of violence and heedlessness to offer to each new generation. If you don’t care about what your grandchildren and their children are going to inherit, what do you care about?

I’m not just concerned with a beer can on a stump. I’m concerned with the disappearance of one of the world’s great rain forests. It’s not just a matter of biology or of exhaustion of resources. I do think there is involved an exhaustion of spirit. I can see it amidst my fellow citizens here in this small town and in this region. They go to great lengths not to visit and not to confront what is happening. And I think from that accrue other cases of cultivated blindness, civically.

ART:21: Sometimes it’s hard for people to see the bigger picture...

ADAMS: I am deeply disturbed that the only thing we want to really get concerned about is something we can quantify, something we can put in terms of dollars and cents. Every one of us knows that the things that are most important to us cannot be measured in that way. So if you haven’t loved a tree enough (if not to hug it, at least to want to walk up to it and touch it as if you’re touching a profound mystery)—if that experience has eluded you—I feel bad for you because you’re not going to live a happy life.

The thing that distresses me most is that there appears to be no likelihood that we’re going to do it. We appear to have the best legislature that money can buy. Twice since we’ve lived here there have been attempts to stop this by initiative. One would have applied regulations prohibiting clear-cutting throughout the state. That lost 80% to 20% after a television blitz in the last couple of weeks that cost millions of dollars and for which the proponents of limitation had no financial recourse. My own belief is that you cannot have a democracy if you don’t give everyone the right to get to the podium. Capitalism is locked in a death struggle with democracy and capitalism is winning. The second effort was more recent and much more limited. The proposal was to limit to 50% what could be clear-cut in two state-owned forests. That’s all they wanted. Just don’t clear-cut half of two state owned forests. That too went down to defeat 60% to 40%, again, after a TV blitz for which there could be no answer. It isn’t that there aren’t large numbers of people who want to see ecocide stopped, but the question is whether our political system as it is combined with the economic system is going to allow that to happen.

ART:21: Where have things gone wrong? Do you see any hope for change?

ADAMS: Thomas Jefferson said, you can’t have democracy if you don’t have an effective education system. And that I think is the core of what has gone wrong—combined with the economic structure. Our educational system is in a free fall. And unless we can teach children how to resist the devastation worked by what they see on television, advertisements, we’re never going to be able to protect ourselves.



Blake Andrews said...

Great interview. Also thanks for the Popular Photography snippet which is pretty interesting.

Denton said...

Wow, that is some review in Pop Photo. Its lack of environmental concern is stunning, but I guess typical of the time. The reviewer seems to have disappeared.

jeff ladd said...

I should have been an English major. Great interview from Art 21 and I love the Pop Photo review. "Adams apparently doesn't know that change is inevitable..." Priceless! I'd like to know who's work from the time she appreciated. Or for that matter what she would consider to be "good" and "bad" change.

Thanks a million.

Don said...

When I can find it, I'll post Pop Photo's review of the New Topographics show.

J. Wesley Brown said...

One of the best interviews I've ever read. I just posted a link to it on my blog. Thanks!

Yger said...


Eddie said...

It blows my mind how anyone could look at Robert Adams' photographs and not see something resembling beauty......I swear to G*D just about every time I look through "Summer Nights" I darn near tear up.....absolutley stunning..........thank you Mr. Adams.