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I purchased a copy of Robert Adam’s book, Beauty in Photography:  Essays in Defense of Traditional Values in the early 1980s, one of the first photography books I ever bought (when I began a database to track my book collection, this book was the first book I entered).   I have probably read this book at least 50 times, and my copy is far from pristine—a soiled and torn dust jacket, multiple underlinings, and notes scrawled on the insides of the covers.    The book discusses not only photography, but Art, beauty, truth—all the big ideas—in a way that makes sense, but requires careful attention from the reader.   In Adam’s two additional books of essays, Why People Photograph and Along Some Rivers, additional ideas are added to the core created in Beauty in Photography,  but the earlier book is central to his thinking.  And the most central essay is that titled (surprise) “Beauty in Photography”.

8-0551 Selawik River, 1990

Adams argues that the proper goal of art is beauty (page 24), and that the beauty he is most interested in is Form.  “Beauty is, in my view, a synonym for the coherence and structure underlying life…”  and then goes on to ask “Why is Form beautiful?  Because, I think, it helps us meet our worst fear, the suspicion that life may be chaos and that therefore our suffering is without meaning.  James Dickey was right when he asked rhetorically, ‘What is Heaven, anyway, but the power of dwelling among objects and actions of consequence.’”

I grew up in a culture that did not value Art (a farming community) largely, I think, because art was not seen as being useful—the coherence and structure underlying life was imposed on the community in the Sunday sermon, and the fields and pastures of the farms provided enough visual pleasure for anyone.

I no longer believe in the sermons, though the form of the fields and pastures of that landscape still give me pleasure (there is something entirely sensuous about the green of a cornfield in evening light in May—why would one want to waste money on a painted canvas?).    I began making photographs right about the time I left the farms, and I remember thinking that what I liked about photography was that I could discover things without struggling with words—I wouldn’t have described it then as a search for Form, but now I think that was precisely what I was after—some way of describing coherence and structure.   Photography was, for me, very useful—a tool to help figure out the world.

The question remains remains—is Art enough?  Adams speaks in other places of the consolation offered by pictures, but when faced with suffering, pictures seem so ineffective.   But I offer them anyway.  Visiting my mother is easier when I turn on the digital picture frame I left in her room—sometimes the pictures will stir her failing memory.  And I have, on occasion, offered prints to family and friends going through rough times—I’d like to think that the pictures help.  I’d like to think I’m doing something useful.

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