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Photographer Robert Adams, in the beginning of his retrospective “The Place We Live”, notes that the “details of one person’s journey through the art world are mostly not worth the trees to tell them”—a comment on both Adam’s love of trees and his antipathy for much of what passes for art.   That his own retrospective, in three volumes (twelve pounds of paper for each copy) has required the lives of so many trees is, we must assume, quite embarrassing to him, but the project is executed with such beauty and grace that it honors not just the trees incorporated into the paper, but all trees.


Robert Adams, Harney County, Oregon


For the committed readers of this blog (I assume there must be at least a few), my appreciation of the work of Robert Adams is no surprise.  I first became aware of his work in 1982, when I saw an exhibit of “The New West”  photographs at the Philadelphia Museum—a group of about 50 relatively small (5×5 inch) black and white prints simply presented—photographs so straightforward and clear that they seemed to be like life itself—that changed both the way I saw photography and the world around me.  Many of his images referred to the suburbanization  of the west—in the naked landscape of the high plains around Denver—but I had just left the farm in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, after my father, failing to make a living, had sold much of his land for building lots.


Robert Adams, El Paso County, Colorado


What is most revealing in this retrospective is the depth of the moral and political force behind Adam’s work—from his initial attraction to the ministry, diverted to a career in teaching English, eventually turning to photography—beginning with images of the natural landscape (he purchased a print of “Moonrise” from Ansel Adams in 1966), but turning to the open plains rather than to the mountains—but eventually focusing on the man-made landscape around Denver in 1968—the height of the Vietnam war—in a place being changed by the impact of returning veterans.   Over the years, he has occasionally played an overtly political card—like the essay in “Our Lives, Our Children”—but mostly he has silently played his cards—like the savaged trees in “Turning Back”—images that seem to be intended to invoke the dead in Iraq—now followed by the empty boots of the fallen (though the broken trees remain profoundly more eloquent).    Buried in the chronology section at the back of volume 3 is a group of photographs of the Peetz table, a landscape perforated with intercontinental ballistic missile silos, but a place that remains open and beautiful despite the intrusion.

When “Beauty in Photography” was first published in 1981 (about the time I became aware of his work), Robert Adams was best known for his pictures of the damaged landscape—“The New West”, “The New Topographics”, and “From the Missouri West”—photographs that were not pretty—so his discussion of beauty seemed somehow at odds with his body of work.    But “The Place We Live” is full of images of grace and beauty, in neighborhoods and meadows—a testament to the balance that sometimes survives despite our errors.


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