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A friend, an 89 year old woman, lost a son to cancer this week. I never met the man, but her grief is intense. She is a very private woman, and has refused visitors during this time, even though she is too old and frail to travel to be with her family gathering around the body.

Pond and Rain, 2005

When she told of us of his rapid decline and likely death, two weeks ago, my wife and I sat in stunned silence. This friend is one of the most composed and elegant people I have ever met, but she has seen death and madness before: her husband’s family fled the holocaust in Germany, her husband died of a heart attack at 48, and her mother was murdered in her bed, a crime that remains unsolved decades later. And now the death of her son. Words fail.

View from my kitchen window, 2008

A few months ago, this friend led a Sunday morning service at the small church we sporadically attend, and she read a poem, attributed to Meister Eckhart (1260-1328)

It is a lie
any talk of god
that does not
comfort
you

Thinking about that poem, I started looking at my photographs of the Alaskan Landscape in a different way.

Summit Lake

For some years, I have been consciously thinking about numinous landscapes, places where spirits exist, a term first suggested to me by Barry Lopez. In the landscape, I have sometimes felt myself to be in the presence of something that opens up and reveals itself to me, sharing secrets. I have tried to respond to this by saying thanks to the place, to what spirit I do not know, as I put my camera away.

Snow, Murphy Dome

Now, looking at my photographs, some of them seem to contain some ineffable presence that comforts. Perhaps it is no more profound than the headset offered by the dentist doing a root canal—a way of looking away, putting your mind in another place during a painful moment—but I’d like to think it’s something more. More than eye candy—perhaps as strong as morphine—something to soothe the pain.

Tasinia River, 2005

Robert Adams speaks of the purpose of art as “consolation”—a term very much associated with comforting those in times of death.

 

Tanana River, 1994

Of course, visual images have been part of religious worship for a long time. In my home, I have a Greek Ikon I found at an estate sale a few years ago—a picture of the Madonna and child—something that doesn’t hold much meaning for me. (Every time I look at it, I think of the Dylan line “my grandma prays to pictures that are pasted on a board”.) So perhaps the idea that some photographs can invoke thoughts of the divine is not so absurd.

In the Jewish tradition, a family sits in mourning for a week after a death, and receives visitors. These visitors are advised to be silent, to bring small gifts of food. Since our friend is refusing visitors, I’m trying to honor the tradition by sending her photographs by e-mail, one a day, each morning. I call it “sitting digital Shiva”. I can only hope it is a comfort.

Climate Strike, Spokane, Sept 20, 2019

 

Went to the Climate Strike event held in Spokane today–saw some signs worth commenting on–

 

Climate Strike, Spokane, Sept 20, 2019

 

Here are people on the front lines of what needs to be done–

 

Climate Strike, Spokane, Sept 20, 2019

 

The carbon fee (and a big one) and a per capita dividend is the only idea that I think works to properly price carbon–tax it when it comes out of the ground so it gets priced into everything, and give people a carbon quota–and a dividend based on that quota.  If you use more than your quota, you pay a stiff tax, if you use less than your quota, it’s like a guaranteed income.  But the “carbon fee” has to be high enough to change behavior–where we live, how we move around, how we heat and cool our homes.

 

Climate Strike, Spokane, Sept 20, 2019

 

And I love this sign–“don’t distract us with straws and light bulbs”–no kidding.  We have to start thinking about SUVs, cars, and central air conditioners.  Changing light bulbs is a very tiny step in the right direction, but it doesn’t get us anywhere close.  And straws are way down in the pixie dust.  And I love her T-shirt–“Make coffee, not war.”

 

 

“In order to make pictures that no one had made before, they [photographers] have to be attentive and imaginative, qualities partly assigned and partly chosen, but in any case ones that leave them vulnerable.  When Robert Frank put down his camera after photographing The Americans he could not so readily escape the sadness of the world as he recorded as could we when we closed the book.”

Robert Adams,  in Why People Photograph, Page 17.

 

“I’ve been wondering about Dostoyevsky. How can a man write so badly, so unbelievably badly, and make you feel so deeply?”

― Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

 

While living in Philadelphia in the early 1980s, I made an appointment to go look at photographs in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  I learned that they had a complete set of prints from “The Americans”, and asked to see them.  When the boxes were brought out, I discovered a set of neutral toned  black and white prints that looked for all the world almost exactly like the images printed in the book—a little bigger—but there didn’t seem to be anything in the prints that I couldn’t learn from looking at the book.   I later learned that Frank had many orders for those prints, which he never seemed to get around to making.  Eventually he hired another printer to make sets to meet these orders.  I have no way of confirming this—but I’m sure the prints I saw at the Philadelphia Museum were made by someone else.

In 1994, I went to see the Robert Frank exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in DC with a friend.  I recall the walls were painted something very dark, maybe black.  The whole gallery felt like a funeral.  But the prints were unlike the ones I saw at the Philadelphia—these were cream colored, printed dark—moody.  I felt like these must have been printed by Frank himself—they were far from perfect prints, but they were raw and full of emotion.   After going through the whole show in silence, I realized that I wanted to discuss one of the images with my friend—we went back to look it again.  I realized that we were speaking in whispers, and that everyone else in the gallery was equally hushed.

 

Robert Frank, Hoover Dam, 1955

The image I wanted to discuss was titled “Hoover Dam, 1995”, which showed a post card rack at a souvenir stand, with  three cards:  the Grand Canyon on top, the Hoover Dam in the middle, and a mushroom cloud on the bottom.  What was evident in the photograph—but not in any of the reproductions I had seen before—was that someone—probably Frank himself—had arranged the postcards in the rack for maximum effect.  The top two were the only post cards in their slots, and the mushroom cloud was two identical cards in front of something else, as could be seen from the edges that didn’t match in the cards behind.  Diane Arbus noted that some photographers try to arrange what’s in front of the camera, while she tried to arrange herself to get the picture.  Which is not to say that one way of making pictures is better than the other.  Robert Frank obviously knew what he wanted, and he got the picture.

I’ve admired the work of Robert Frank, but, as implied by the quote from Robert Adams, sadness followed him–the death of his daughter Andrea in 1974, and the mental illness of and subsequent death of his son Pablo in 1994.  For much of his later life, Robert Frank lived as a recluse. And who could blame him.  But I’m grateful for the pictures he left us.  Especially the Hoover Dam picture.  What a summary of the history of the Western Landscape–pure genius.

Freeman, Spokane County, September 2012

When I moved to Spokane in 2012, I realized almost immediately that I was living on the edge of wheat country, and there were grain elevators I could photograph.  I began almost immediately—I have a handful of photographs I made while waiting for my credit check to run on my first apartment in Spokane on my first day living here.

 

Near Lind, Adams County, July 2018

 

In 2017, I arranged to show photographs at the Whitman County Library in Colfax, and decided that I was going to try to photograph every public grain elevator I could find in Whitman county.  At that point, I realized that the 8×10 view camera I was using was just too slow for the job—and a friend had passed on to me a tilt shift lens that I adapted to fit the front of my Sony digital camera—so I had the ability to use the digital camera with the perspective corrections of a view camera.  By the end of August, when the show went up, I had photographed 62 sites in Whitman County.

 

Alston, Douglas County, March 2019

 

Once I was “done” with Whitman County, I started working documenting places closer to home, in Spokane county—then west to Lincoln and Adams Counties in the summer of 2018.  I discovered that many of the elevators in those counties were part of the new Highline Grain Growers association, and I decided to try to photograph all of them—a total of 52 sites, including some in Douglas, Grant, Stevens, Okanogan, and Chelan Counties.

 

Bruce, Adams County, March 2019

From there, I decided to complete my survey of every grain elevator I could find in the Washington State, or at least those east of the Cascades.  I found a list “Public Grain Warehouses and Grain Dealers” published by the State of Washington, but realized that this list is incomplete—several large co-ops are not listed in this document, and the list also does not include abandoned elevators.

 

Fairfield, Spokane County, March 31, 2017

I could cover a lot of the territory on day trips from Spokane, but this summer I did two overnight trips to get some of the more distant elevators, including one trip to Walla Walla County, and a second trip to the Yakima Valley.  Those trips required a bit of planning—mapping out possible sites with the lists I had on hand, and then trying to find those elevators on Google Earth.

 

North Prosser, Benton County, August 2019

 

I’ve reached a point where I’ve located and photographed most of the elevators I’ve identified.  Out of 317 sites identified, I’m missing photographs of about a dozen.  I think I’m done looking for new elevators in Washington State.

I’m sure the project isn’t done, though. I’ve been documenting the destruction of some of the abandoned elevators, and I’m sure I’ll stumble across a few new ones.  But the active search is completed.

 

Basin City, Franklin County, August 2019

I’m kind of sorry I’m done with the project—I think my favorite part of the project was driving down country roads I’d have no other reason to travel on.  And finding an abandoned elevator—that was the payoff.

As a farm boy myself, what strikes me after looking at all these grain elevators is the relentless drive towards bigger farms, bigger fields, and bigger grain elevators.  A century ago, farmers carried their grain in sacks to the elevator in horse drawn wagons–so having an elevator within a few miles of the field was essential.  Now, tractor trailer trucks carry bulk grain up to 40 miles to massive rail or river terminals.  The small, old elevators are being abandoned, but they were built to last, and so they persist in the landscape, monuments to a slower time.

The recent PBS show on Garry Winogrand got me thinking about my own very brief attempts at street photography, mostly while living in Philadelphia.

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Walter Mondale Rally, Philadelphia, September 1984

Garry Winogrand spent his entire adult life walking the streets with a couple Leicas around his neck, shooting hundreds of thousands of negatives. I was a poor graduate student, and my camera was a tiny Rollie 35 that I bought for $25 because someone had stripped the stop pin off the lens focus, and then put the lens back on the wrong set of threads. I think I got it back together right, but I had to preselect the focus, and my photos often are out of focus in the foreground. And I didn’t shoot that much film—a few dozen rolls over a few years.

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Walter Mondale Rally, Philadelphia, September 1984

I learned that a great time to photograph was during events—like the victory parade for the 76ers, or the annual Mummers Day parade. I learned that the audience was often at least as interesting as the event. There were also political rallies, but those had a more solemn tone.

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Penn Football Game, 1984

On July 4, 1985, the Beach Boys came to Philadelphia after Nancy Reagan said they weren’t welcomed on the mall in DC. There must have been a million people there, the biggest crowd I’d ever seen. After dark, they put up eight million dollars worth of fireworks.

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Beach Boys Concert, Philadelphia, July 4, 1985

So most of these photographs are 35 years old—most of the people in them are approaching retirement. And what strikes me about them is what isn’t there—no cell phones, no ear buds. Everyone is present and paying attention.

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Outside Live Aid, Philadelphia, 1985

So, I ain’t Garry Winogrand, don’t presume to be—but these photos seem to be aging well…

I sometimes wander into antique stores, hoping to find a treasure—but almost never do. But a few days ago, I hit at least a minor jackpot—three photographs from the great woods of the northwest, during the time they were being cut.

Antique store find–Photographer and date unknown

I’m familiar with the work of Darius Kinsey, but he arranged his photographs more formally, and worked with bigger cameras, and also labeled the negatives more carefully. I’m fairly certain that these pictures are not his.

Antique Store Find–Photographer and Date unknown

These pictures are not in great shape—the mounts are aging from acid, and the photos are water stained—probably from being thumbtacked to the wall of some poorly insulated cabin, the result being water condensing between the print and the wall. But, of course, that’s part of the charm of these photos—someone looked at these pictures every day for years.

Antique Store Find–Photographer and Date unknown

I have no idea exactly where these photos were made—if anyone has any idea, please comment…

 

North Pacific Grain Growers Terminal, Spokane, April 11, 2019

The North Pacific Grain Growers terminal in Spokane was built sometime during the 1930s, and remained an active grain terminal until the 1980s.  It has apparently been sitting vacant since that time.  It is currently being demolished, a task expected to be completed in a few months.

It appears that the North Pacific Grain Growers (the name painted on the tower of the building) was formed in 1930 in Spokane, but moved its headquarters to Portland Oregon in 1938.  In 1983, it merged with the Farmers Union Grain Terminal Association to become the Harvest States Cooperative.  In 1998, Harvest States joins with CENEX to form CHS, the current owner of the terminal in Spokane.

North Pacific Grain Growers Terminal, April 27, 2019

 

Two questions come to mind with regards to the demolition.  The first is that at least the concrete structure appears to be relatively well maintained—so why not keep the elevator in service?  And the opposite question—if the elevator has been out of service for more than 30 years, why has it taken so long to demolish it?

The answer to the first question appears to be that the elevator has become “functionally obsolete”, meaning that the structure as it exists does not function up to current standards, and that the cost of upgrading it exceeds the cost of replacing it.  For the Spokane terminal, there appear to be two likely culprits for the “functional obsolescence”—the short rail siding—far too short to accommodate a “unit train” composed of 110 grain cars with locomotives—and the rate of grain transfer—probably far below the 40,000 bushels per hour loading rate of new grain terminals.

North Pacific Grain Growers Terminal, April 27, 2019

 

So why wasn’t it knocked down before?  The answer is that it costs money to demolish these facilities, in large part due to the extensive steel reinforcement in the concrete structure—as can be readily seen in the demolition.  These silos were made to withstand  the pressure from the weight of the grains stored in them—which means that the demolition is time consuming and therefore expensive.  There are many grain elevators standing empty for similar reasons around the US.  Usually demolition occurs only when the site is sufficiently valuable to justify the cost of demolition.  In Spokane, there is no plan for using the land, but ownership of the land will revert to the railroad.

The start of the demolition of the grain terminal and the fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral occurred simultaneously.   I’ve never been to the Notre Dame Cathedral, so never have seen it in its glory (other than in photographs)—but like the cathedral, this grain terminal is massive, and towers over the skyline of Spokane.   The Notre Dame is 420 feet long and 158 feet wide—the North Pacific Coast Grain Growers  terminal dimensions aare 518 feet long by 50 feet wide.  The cathedral is 226 feet high—my guess is the grain terminal is perhaps 100 feet high.   So the elevator is not as tall or deep as the Notre Dame, but it is a bit longer, big enough to possess a sense of gravitas.

Smashed Silo, April 27, 2019

 

Building European cathedrals required centuries of effort, generations of stone masons working, never seeing the final product of their efforts, but believing that their efforts would last for centuries.   Notre Dame was constructed between 1160 and 1260—a century of construction.  Modern engineers understand that their structures have limited lifetimes, but many structures, if properly maintained, can be useful beyond the initial design lifetime.   The North Pacific Grain Growers terminal is 89 years old—its entire life cycle is shorter than the time required to build the Notre Dame cathedral.  Mercifully, those who built it are gone so they do not have to witness the destruction of their work, though there may be a handful of people in Spokane who remember its construction.

Smashed Silo, April 27, 2019

I once read a quote—it may have been repeated by John Szarkowski—who noted that “Midwestern towns don’t need church steeples because they have grain elevators”.   Of course, churches are built to glorify god, and grain terminals are made to store grain, so they serve different functions.  But the demolition of the North Pacific Coast Grain Growers terminal , in some odd way, strikes a chord of sadness in me.  The Notre Dame Cathedral houses relics including the “Crown of Thorns” which Jesus wore prior to his crucifixion and a piece of the cross on which he was crucified—though these relics were never mentioned in my religious training as a Mennonite boy–we thought they were all fakes.  But taking corn and wheat down to the grain elevator—food grown to feed people—that was something we did proudly—that was real.

The demolition of the grain terminal is not a disaster, and there is no outcry of dismay about its demise.  It’s just another casualty in the relentless supersizing of American agriculture.

 

Morning Light, April 28, 2019

 

As a beginning photographer, a long time ago, I struggled to understand why my photographs looked the way they did, and didn’t look quite like the photographers I admired.  And, of course, I tried buying bigger cameras and better lenses when I could afford them, but still it seemed like I was missing something.

Ansel Adams, Mt McKinley Alaska, 1948  (artblart.files.wordpress.com)

When I moved to Fairbanks, I noticed that there was a big print, close to 40×50 inches, of the Ansel Adams view of Mt. McKinley hanging in the student union building at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.  For a while I assumed it was a big poster–but eventually realized it was a silver print, made by god himself, Ansel Adams.  It’s a really famous image–probably the most widely reproduced and best known photograph ever made in Alaska.  It’s the cover image of the book “The Portfolios of Ansel Adams”, with an essay by John Szarkowski.

That print commanded the room–you had to look at it.  It was intimidating.  I recall the first time I made some big prints–about the same size as the Adams–including one of my images of Denali–though from a different camera position than Adams, and in different light.  I loved my image, but of course it wasn’t the same picture as Ansel’s, and I really didn’t want to make a comparison—but I knew others would.  So was my picture “good enough”–was it up to snuff?  How would it hang next to that famous Adams image?

In the introduction to the book, “The Portfolios of Ansel Adams”, Szarkowski writes about Adams’ “legendary technique”, in which he states “In fact, Adams’ photographs are no sharper–no more optically acute–than those of any other competent technician using similar tools.  They are more clear–a matter not of better lenses, but of a better understanding of what one means.”   (That essay, in it’s entirety is, is something I’ve read many times over the years.)

With that understanding, I took a special trip to visit the McKinley photo again, this time to look at it closely, the way I looked at my own image, close up and personal–from six inches away.  And what I discovered rather shocked me–from that distance, there were some black dust spots on the negative (a few, but they were there), some of the grain pattern was slightly out of focus–and the grain pattern clearly showed this was from a 4×5 negative.  And the image was warping and yellowing slightly.  Szarkowski was right–as a physical object, this print had problems–the usual ones that every photographer struggles with.

 

Dennis Witmer, Denali from Wonder Lake, July 4, 1996

After that close look, I walked past that photograph many times, but I wasn’t intimidated by it anymore.   It was like seeing an old friend.  And then, one day it was gone.  The place where it had been for years—it wasn’t there anymore.  Eventually, I discovered that it had been moved, back into some student offices in the same building—hung out of public view.  I have no idea why the print was moved—perhaps out of concern that someone would steal the image (god knows what that print would sell for)?  Or protect it from damage?  Or maybe it just became too “uncool” for current sensibilities?  After I found it in its new place, I would sometimes go to look at it.  The students in the office always wondered what I was doing there—“just looking at the picture”—they seemed to act like I was doing something weird.

But, in the long run, what impressed me most was how effectively Ansel had intimidated me for so long.  He had created an illusion–and a very effective one–that prevented me, and I suspect almost all viewers of that image, from looking to closely at what he had actually done.  He convinced me, for a long time, that his image was perfect and impossible to equal.  It was an icon.

That experience profoundly changed the way I look at almost all photographs, especially my own.  When in a museum or gallery, I take off my glasses, and look at photographs from six inches away, the way I would look at an image on the ground glass.  And in my own work, I think of my job as trying to create an illusion, not of replicating the world.  It’s magic–like a card trick–and sometimes I think I pull it off.

 

 

Calumet C1–First Pictures–New Jersey January 1987

I’m selling two 8×10 cameras on Ebay right now, along with about a dozen lenses. Feels good, at least so far. I promised  my wife I would do this when I bought the Sony A7 RII last fall—it’s time to let the stuff go.  Hopefully some other photographers can make pictures with these great tools.

I think I was drawn to the 8×10 because of the photographers I admired who worked in that format–Eugene Atget (OK, his camera was slightly smaller), Edward Weston, and Walker Evens.  I knew a few photographers who tried to make the step up from 4×5, but found the format just too hard–but George Tice seemed to think that 8×10 was the only “real camera” out there.  But I must admit being a bit timid about making the jump–which is why I first bought the Calumet C1–a very affordable, but dependable, 8×10.

There are some photographers who fetishize their equipment—they keep it stored carefully most of the time, and only take it out to use on special occasions—and you get the feeling that they care more about the amount of money they paid for a camera or a lens than the pictures they make with it. I’ve always been the opposite kind of a photographer—I want the pictures, and am willing to use the equipment hard to get them. In Alaska, I had a term for it: the “bottom of the river” camera. If the camera wound up at the bottom of the river, I didn’t want to care. The other mantra I had was that the best camera for making any picture was the one you had with you. The sharpest lens in the world doesn’t make any pictures sitting on a shelf at home. For years, I carried a Rollei Twin Lens Reflex (the cheaper Tessar lens version) camera in my backpack every time I went to the field—into the rain and the snow and the mud. I wore out that camera in about 5 years, and bought another one just like it. After a few years, the second one started falling apart, thankfully in a different way, so I took both of them to my camera repairman and told him to take the two cameras and make one useable one out of them, and keep the rest for parts.

I bought my first 8×10 in early 1987, after seeing an exhibit by a somewhat famous photographer at a local college, who was selling 8×10 contact prints for $500. I had just started a job at a big corporation, and thought about buying a print, until I went to the lecture by the photographer. His arrogance convinced me I didn’t want to invest in his work—instead I went out looking for an 8×10 camera to buy. I found a camera (a Calumet C1), a lens (a 16 ½ inch Goerz Gotar) and a tripod (a Davis and Stamford) for slightly more than the cost of a single print. Within about 6 months of making that purchase, my wife and I moved to Alaska, for the summer, but we stayed on, for 26 years.

Calumet C1–Front Street, Kotzebue, February 1988

Working with an 8×10 camera is in many ways, a deliberate act of frustration. Since the camera is so big, you need to find a safe place to set it up—no pictures from the middle of the road. There is often only a small number of safe places to set the camera up—so you need to find a picture from that vantage point.

The camera is big and heavy, hard to carry. It takes a big tripod to support the camera. Then the camera needs to be set up—a process that takes a few minutes, to adjust the front and back standards and attach the lens. Then the fun begins—open the lens, go under the dark cloth, and go through the process of focusing the image. In landscape, this usually means finding a plane that goes from the foreground to the horizon, an action that requires a simple tilt of either the lens plane or the film plane. Then the real moment of pleasure—looking at the image on the ground glass—upside down, of course—but somehow that transformation turns the subject in front of the camera into a picture—a two dimensional representation of the subject.

Ice–2005. 8×10 image–can’t remember the camera.

Then comes the actual moment of making the exposure. The light is metered, an exposure calculated. The lens is closed, the f stop adjusted, the shutter cocked. The film holder is inserted into the back of the camera, the dark slide pulled and sometimes used to shield the lens from the sun. Then the shutter is tripped. That’s it. Dark slide back in place. Film holder pulled. Camera disassembled and put away.
But there are a host of issues that can happen to ruin a shot. Light leaks in the bellows, or the film holder. An unnoticed slip of any one of the movements on the camera. Wind vibrating the camera.  And then the process back in the darkroom—developing the film (I used open trays in total darkness), labeling the negatives, doing a contact proof print. And then reloading the film holders for the next shoot.

Before Walmart opens, Fairbanks, 2004. First shot with Deardorff 8×10

And then there is cost. B&H is currently selling 8×10 sheet film for $4 a sheet, and then there is chemistry and negative sleeves. My guess is $5 a shot. When I shot 500 negatives a year, that’s $2000 in just film—about the price I just paid for that Sony 42 MP digital camera body.

Fairbanks, March 2006. Deardorff 8×10

And time. I figure that every 8×10 shot I make is an hour out of my life, between the camera time in the field, the darkroom time, and the scanning time. The agreement I have with myself is that if I make the shot in the field, I will make at least one proof print—even if it’s a bad picture, I want to try to learn something from it.

Gulkana Glacier, Deardorff 8×10, Summer 2008

So what makes working with an 8×10 worth it? The obvious answer is that the big negative gives a richness to the print that is difficult to achieve with other formats—but there are excellent cameras and lenses in smaller formats that also make splendid photographs. My own reason for liking the format have to do with the directness of seeing a picture on the ground glass that translates into the final image. I once said that the reason I use an 8×10 is because it’s the fastest camera I’ve ever used—the fastest way to a finished print. When working with smaller cameras, I had to first do a contact sheet, spend time editing, go back to the darkroom, make work prints, edit again, and then make finished prints—three trips into the darkroom, and lots of wasted time in the process. With the 8×10, one trip to the darkroom and a little luck can get you a print you can look at for decades.
That moment of seeing the image on the ground glass is often burned in my brain, sometimes for decades. When shooting with the 8×10, the last thing I do before falling asleep in the evening is to try to recall every shot I made with the camera that day—I can usually do it. I’ve never been able to do that with a handheld camera—too many pictures to remember. I can still recall some images that do not exist because of technical difficulties–they are still framed and still in my mind.
I don’t know if I’m done with the 8×10 yet—I’m working on a couple projects now (grain elevators, crowds) that are well suited for hand held work–the 8×10 is just too slow—but I haven’t sold all my 8×10 equipment. I am holding on to the Phillips—a balsa wood and carbon fiber camera—light and easy to carry, by 8×10 standards—and three lenses.

Last shot with the Deardorff 8×10, Grand Coulee, December 2016

What I think I have learned from working with the 8×10 all these years is the importance of taking time to find and frame a picture. Working hand held with a tilt shift lens is much faster—but I still find myself thinking about the pictures in the same way—find the light, find a place to stand, look through the camera—how does the image fill the frame—is it level—is it focused—is it worth pressing the shutter? And then, where’s the next picture…

“From the Missouri West” was first published by Aperture in 1980, and has been recently republished in a new edition by Steidl.    This book was one of the first photography  books I purchased.   (I recall sending $20 directly to Aperture to purchase a hardcover copy, and receiving a $15 softcover instead.)  I read and re-read this book many times.

Robert Adams    South from Rocky Flats, Jefferson County, CO

 

Robert Adams first gained attention with his 1974 book “The New West”, first published by the University of Colorado Associated Press.  It includes an essay by John Szarkowski that begins “As Americans we are scarred by dreams of innocence.”    This volume has been republished three times since then, in 2001, 2008, and 2016, each time retaining the original format, selection and sequencing of the photographs.   Why change perfection?

As published in 1980 “From the Missouri West” reads as an extension of the ideas of “The New West” but with the space of the west as the subject rather than the urban landscape near Denver.   While the public was wildly embracing the monumental wilderness landscapes of Ansel Adams, Robert Adams instead turned his lens towards the spaces found in Timothy O’Sullivan photographs.  With the single exception of a night shot lit by headlights in the parking lot of the Garden of the Gods, Robert Adams ignored the grand landscapes of the west in favor of spaces that could kindly be described as ordinary, though perhaps “depleted” would be a more accurate term.

Robert Adams   Clear Creek and South Table Mountain, Jefferson County, 1976

 

The 1980 printing of “From the Missouri West” included 47 photographs, mostly presented as facing spreads, filling most of the page.  The printing was done by Meridian Gravure with duotone separations done by Richard Benson—the best in the industry—but, by current standards, the printing feels a bit off—with skies and highlights blown out, and shadows a bit too deep.  (Worth noting—the earliest book I have in my collection done with laser scans is “The portfolios of Ansel Adams”, printed with new scans in 1981—digital printing technology has made printing much more predictable.)

In the Robert Adams retrospective “The Place We Live” (first published by Yale in 2010, but kept in print by Stiedl in 2014), the section titled “From the Missouri West (1975-1983)” has a total of 18 photographs—but of these, only 8 were included in the 1980 book.   The project obviously did not end with the publication of the book in 1980.

Robert Adams   Fontana, California, 1983

 

The new edition of “From the Missouri West” currently in print, published by Steidl in 2018 retains the title and about half the pictures from the 1980 version, but expands the project in almost every way.  First, the physical book is bigger—it is 13.8 x 15.9 inches, and weighs 5.8 pounds.  Each image is printed at 9.5×12 inches—approximately the size of a silver print produced on 11×14 inch paper.  The printing is quadtone, with at least one ink a warm brown, resulting in a color similar to the “old portriga” look.  (While any honest printer will tell you that it is impossible to completely reproduce the tonal scale of a silver print in ink, it is certainly possible to make beautiful reproductions—and these are.)

As for image selection—the new version contains 62 images, with 27 from the 1980 version, and 35 new images.  The new selection contains some images that would fit into “Prairie” or “Denver” or “What We Bought:  The New World” or “Los Angeles Spring”.   It feels like this book ties together much of Adams work in the Western Landscape, at least the human parts.

Robert Adams San Timoteo Canyon, Redlands, CA 1983

 

What is most striking about the new version is simply the size of the pictures.  Robert Adams photographs are typically small—my recollection of viewing “The New West” at the Philadelphia museum was that his prints were about 5×5 inches—but gemlike, perfect to hold in your hand. The larger pictures seem to both require and reward more attention.   As I age and my eyesight weakens, I find, when looking at photographs in a museum or gallery, I take my glasses off and look at images from a few inches away—there are often hidden pleasures in photographs when viewed this way.  I find myself looking at the photographs in this edition of “From the Missouri West” in the same way.

In the past, Robert Adams has been savaged by critics—when his “The New West” was first reviewed, a critic called the work “cold and unfeeling.”  He once spoke of going into the gallery the morning that review came out in the paper, and watching a young couple come into the gallery, go from picture to picture, repeating, “cold and unfeeling—yeah”.  When they came to the last picture, the man turned to the woman, shrugged,  and said, “Well, I don’t know.  It looks like Colorado to me.”   Which he thought proves that no matter how vicious the critics might be, the pictures can speak for themselves, if they are strong enough.  He then said that what hurts the most about criticism like that is that he can’t understand how people can’t see the love in the pictures.

What “From the Missouri West” has always been is a poem by a disappointed, but still faithful, lover of this landscape.  Like Frost, he had a lover’s quarrel with the world–or at least the western landscape.

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For me, almost as important as the pictures in the 1980 version was the short essay by Robert Adams included as an afterword.  This essay has been shortened and modified in the 2018 edition.   All I can say is that I have spent years mulling over some of the lines that have disappeared from the new version.  So, here it is.

 

Afterward (1980)

About the pictures

Exploration of the West began in the Nineteenth Century at the Missouri River.  On its banks pioneers understood themselves to be at the edge of a sublime landscape, one that they believed would be redemptive.  My own ancestors, as it happens, settled along the river, and my grandfather made enthusiastic trips into the Dakota prairies to make panoramic photographs.  For these reasons, and because I had lost my way in the suburbs, I decided to try to rediscover some of the land forms that had impressed our forebears.  Was there remaining in the geography a strength that might help sustain us as it had them?  I set one ground rule—to include in the photographs evidence of man; it was a precaution in favor of truth that was easy to follow since our violence against the earth has extended to even anonymous arroyos and undifferentiated stands of scrub brush.

As a “survey”, this one is not literally a cross section of the West, nor is it a catalogue of what is unusual there.  The scenes were chosen, first, because they were near where I had lived or often traveled—familiar places.  I cannot justify this beyond saying that I agree with a Seneca Indian chant:  “I know all about these different hills is all I know;  I know all about these different rivers is all I know.”

What, if such is the case, do the pictures mean?  Any answer must be as suspect as it is, unavoidably personal.  The last view in the book, for instance, was made in wonderful circumstances.   Clouds had obscured the mountains east of Arch Cape on the Oregon coast all day, but in late afternoon they opened and I drove far up a logging road to a point where I was able, before night fell, to use the one film holder I had remaining.  I value the picture because it reminds me of a time when I was allowed to be still—as we all are—and to see again, despite our follies, that the landscape retains its own stillness.

R.A.