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Robert Adam’s “Prairie” is back in print, more than 30 years after its first release.  The original version was a very small, slender volume, with 33 pictures, released by the Denver Art Museum, but sequenced and designed by Robert Adams himself.  His previous three books—“White Churches of the Plains”, “The Architecture and Art of Early Hispanic Colorado” (both published by the University of Colorado Press), and “The New West” (published by Aperture) were the results of not just Robert Adams efforts, but also those of editors and book designers—the way books are usually published.  “Prairie” is a different sort of book—something more akin to an artist book—the essay is very short but beautifully written, the pictures are small but full of stillness, and the sequencing is full of unexpected transitions that jar the reader to pay attention.

Robert Adams, Ramah, 1965

The photographs used in Prairie were made beginning in 1965, before Adams turned 30,  and so are the earliest published examples that we have of his work.  Some of the pictures could have been included in “White Churches of the Plains”, but “Prairie” shows that Adam’s vision was much broader than just the churches, and that his eye was attracted to the sweeping spaces, the light, and the stillness of the high plains of eastern Colorado.  Robert Adams was aware of the work of other photographers, including Ansel Adams, who he purchased a print of “Moonrise” from in 1966, perhaps in part to possess an example of a well printed silver gelatin print to set a standard for his own work.

The translation of a silver gelatin print (the object created by the 20th century photographer in the darkroom) to the ink of the printed page is considerably less straightforward than the uninitiated might suspect, especially before the advent of digital technology for the making of printing plates.  My first memorable encounter with Robert Adams‘ work was at the Philadelphia Art Museum in 1982 when I saw an exhibit of “The New West” hanging in a small gallery—it was many years before I saw a copy of the book containing the same images—but the quality of the relatively small prints (about 5×5 inches) was striking.  Over the years, I have encountered more than a few photographers who have dismissed the work of Robert Adams as uninteresting—but when queried about how frequently they have viewed his original prints, have admitted to seeing none.

Thankfully, printing technology has improved over the past few decades, and the reprinting of “Prairie” is a wonderful example of how what appear to be very subtle differences in the amount of ink on the page, the selection of the paper and its surface, and the color of the ink and the varnish can nudge the printed image to something more closely resembling the original print created by the photographer.  The inclusion of a dozen new images in the new version add substance to the book, but it still feels modest and precious.

But even more striking about “Prairie” is what it reveals to us about Robert Adams sensibility as a photographer before he began his work in the suburbs around Denver.  He started with light and space, and a deep affection for a landscape created by people living with the land.  Some of the images in “Prairie” edge towards sentimentality (which Robert Adams defines as “giving small consolations more importance than they deserve”), but the republishing of this book argues for the significance of these views.  Forty years after most of these photographs were made, we suspect that many of the scenes he photographed are gone, but the light and the space remain—and have continued to inform and tension his photographs over the decades.

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One Comment

    • Margie Root
    • Posted January 10, 2012 at 8:25 am
    • Permalink

    Dennis,

    I just want to thank you for your writings. I enjoy reading them and they make me stop and look and think about photography in a way I seem to rarely do these days.

    With much appreciation,

    Margie


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