“…a landscape into which all fragments, no matter how imperfect, fit perfectly”
With these words opens the latest retrospective on Robert Adams’ work, “The Place We Live”. The argument of the exhibition, which curator Joshua Chuang is at pains to emphasize over and over again, is that Robert Adams’ work is dictated by balance, makes attempts at documentary neutrality, is marked by mixtures (rather than absolutes), and is dedicated “to discover[ing] a tension so exact that it is peace”. Does Adams’ work, and the exhibition, achieve what it sets out to do? There is plenty of tension in this exhibition, but the kind of perfect tension towards which Adams strives — the exact, peaceful kind — is only achieved sporadically, in his very best works.
Tensions were ever-present throughout Robert Adams’s intellectual and creative development. At a young age, he professed a desire to become a minister. After abandoning this dream, he studied for a PhD and became a college English professor. He settled down to university life in Colorado Springs, Colorado, while innocently taking up photography as a hobby. After just a couple of years, his pastime became serious. Within a few years, he would stop teaching altogether. The turning point came upon returning to Colorado after a trip to Sweden, when he saw the environment around his home in a new light. In particular, he felt that nature’s delicate balance was in jeopardy (or had been destroyed already) in the quickly developing, booming western United States. Whereas his American landscape photographer forefathers (Timothy O’Sullivan, William Henry Jackson, Ansel Adams) captured unspoiled, unparalleled beauty, Robert Adams was confronted by rampant commercialization, short-sighted greed, and insatiable materialism.
But Adams, from his very earliest works, knew that he wanted to capture not only what man had destroyed but what remained of nature. He wanted to show how nature adapts and how we could become better stewards. In short, he wanted to show how “all fragments, no matter how imperfect, fit perfectly.”
Try as he might, his long career is a testament to the difficulty of expressing this delicate aesthetic vision. His attempts at striking the perfect balance between judgment and impersonal critique, hope and despair, equanimity and anger reach varying degrees of success.
At their worst, or least balanced, Adams’ photographs are argumentative, definitive, and self-righteous. Whether overtly partaking in environmental, political campaigns or judging an entire region’s way of life, these photographs sound an undeniable note of judgment. Despite my personal agreement with his opinions, the pictures that he makes in the name of a cause, to stake out an argument, or for a single purpose are consistently flat, mean, and sad. Whether one-linerish (“man litters, man is bad”), old-fashioned, or isolationist, these photos present nothing new to the viewer. A picture of a chopped down tree, while certainly a tragedy, is not necessarily a good picture. The cover (below) of his seminal book What We Bought epitomizes this strain in his work: while the series overall contains many great, balanced, subtle photos, the front cover shows a trash littered fast-food restaurant parking lot. Are fast-food parking lots pathetic monuments to human waste? Absolutely. Is taking an ugly, angry picture the best way to do something about it though?
No. At his best, Adams presents a balanced, calming way forward. In these photos, we can feel that he is at peace with his surroundings, and in turn, he makes us feel at peace too. What’s particularly striking about Adams’ masterpieces is how they perfectly, better than any words, convey Adams’ description of a “tension so exact that it is peace”. While his “angry” photos contain the very straightforward tension of argumentation, the best photos are immeasurably simpler and more complex.
While all the prints in the exhibition are quite small (especially given the landscape genre), the best photos are unparalleled, compact studies in composition, form and light. These masterpieces, although simple at first glance, work their magic at any distance. They are harmonious wholes whether scrutinized inch by inch or taken as a grandly (yet minutely) unified whole. They contain equal measures of hope and despair and yet leave us feeling refreshed and enlightened on the other side. They neither fume nor rage, they merely present — and in doing so, leave us the better for our short time spent with them.
Robert Frost’s poem, “The Oven Bird”, ends with some relevant lines:
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.
For straightforward, unabashed splendor, Ansel Adams’ luscious landscapes have few peers. For mind-numbing, extravagantly presented environmental crusading, the work of Edward Burtynsky is an excellent place to start. But when Robert Adams is able to harness his (justified) anger and find a way to balance and mix it with the fragmentary beauty that remains in this world, he achieves something much more nuanced than zealous, monocular change-mongering. He counsels us in peace, calm, acceptance and balance. His best pictures, “in all but words” help us feel our way towards what to make of a diminished thing.
Editor’s note: The exhibition is accompanied by an impressively comprehensive catalogue, “The Place We Live: A Retrospective Selection of Photographs,”, published by Steidl.