Skip navigation

Monthly Archives: February 2011

A friend just sent me a link to a lecture/conversation between Toby Jurovics and John Gossage about “The Pond”. It’s about an hour long, and well worth staying till the end.

I think I read a quote by John Szarkowski (I can’t find a reference, so maybe I dreamed this up on my own) calling Robert Adams “the greatest photographer of the western landscape in the second half of the twentieth century”—an interesting way of putting it—it leaves open who was the greatest in the first half of the 20th century—Ansel Adams might be in the winner’s circle there, but it also might be Edward Weston—but it definitely slams the many Ansel imitators who came later, much to their fury.  (Once Barry McWayne asked me, “what’s going on in the photography world?  Who is being called the next Ansel Adams?”—and I told him that I didn’t think that the people I knew were spending much time thinking about the second coming of Ansel Adams—he was here, he did his work, and he is dead.  He is not coming back.)

I raised this quote well into the discussion at the Robert Adams book party I held at my house a few days ago—and the volume in the room instantly went up.  Other names were put forward as possible candidates for the title—with vigor—but my own opinion remains unchanged.  I do think Szarkowski was wrong—I think he should strike the “second half of” from his statement.

Why does Robert Adam’s work raise so much ire among some photographers?   I think it has much to do with the subjects he chooses to photograph—the ordinary view rather than the grand vistas, the neighborhood rather than the national parks—somehow we have been conditioned by National Geographic that only the extraordinary and the unfamiliar are worthy of the attention of photographers.  Robert Adams is insistent in his avoidance of these subjects—he forces us to look with him at the landscape where we live—and we, like him, do not always like what we see.

But, as Richard Woodward noted, “At his best, … Robert Adams manages to balance perfectly love and disappointment.”   I think that some viewers, when encountering Robert Adams pictures for the first time, are so stunned by the sense of disappointment that they simply turn away.   It takes looking a little longer to see the love he feels for these places, even when they are damaged.

Robert Adams, Interiors 1973-1974

The discussions of the evening were focused by looking at the books Robert Adams has published during his forty year career—but the most intense discussions were while looking at “Interiors” (not a book but a portfolio of loose prints, passed from hand to hand—a wonderful experience—neither the private viewing of a book, nor a public event like a gallery show—more like a conversation), and “Turning Back”, both published in 2005.  The images for “Interiors” were made in 1973-74 when Richard Nixon was still in the White House and American troops were still in Vietnam, and when I was in high school—the pictures seem to vibrate with memories of childhood for me—the bareness of the walls, the triteness of the art, phones with cords, and bright shiny kitchen appliances.  The images for “Turning Back” were made during the second Bush Administration, and mentions September 11, but is silent about the invasion of Iraq, though the stumps in the clear cuts that dominate the book read as the dead we’ve never seen.

Robert Adams, from "Turning Back", 2005

Of course, this is interpreting these photographs as metaphor, but how else should one interpret the work of an English major?   Robert Adams’ love of poetry is evident from the way he incorporates in his books, which in turn encourage the interpretation of his photographs in the same way.

A friend recently described his frustration about how there are often critical discussions about writing by many people, but almost never about art.  Perhaps that is because so little of what we look at is sufficiently honest and complex to initiate either thought or conversation.  Robert Adams work is, of course, a splendid exception to this rule:  brutally honest on the surface, but infused with a love for both humans and nature.  An example to emulate.  The greatest photographer of the western landscape—ever.