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Tag Archives: Robert Adams

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.

“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.

***********************************

 

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.

 

 

 

Plaza Trees (200 of 214)

When I rise up
let me rise up joyful
like a bird.

When I fall
let me fall without regret
like a leaf.

Wendel Berry (included in Robert Adams collection “Prayers in an American Church”

Snow Drift, Kotzebue, 1989

Snow Drift, Kotzebue, 1989

 

Alaska As the Measure“, live on KickStarter

Richardson Highway, 2005

Richardson Highway, 2005

 

Alaska As the Measure:  Live on KickStarter

Karupa Lake, August, 1996

Karupa Lake, August, 1996

 

Alaska As The Measure:  a book project–on KickStater now

God knows there are too many web sites out there with too many pictures: I’ve tried to use this blog as a way of discussing photographers and photographs I like, with a bit of added discussion about my own ongoing process of living and photographing. It’s part of my attempt to participate in the conversation of photography, something I can do to hopefully add to others understanding and enjoyment of the art.

 

Alaska as the Measure Ad

Of course, there are other ways to participate in the conversation. I love books of photography—looking at them, buying them—and making them. So far, I’ve managed to publish two books—“Far to the North: Photographs of the Brooks Range” and “Front Street Kotzebue”.   Both of these were relatively small projects, with photographs selected from one place, but easy to sequence into a book.   But I lived in Alaska for 26 years, and made many photographs, including about 5000 with an 8×10 view camera. The question is how to turn them into a book.

Panorama Mountain, 1994

Panorama Mountain, 1994

When I first came to Alaska in 1987, the Ansel Adams boom was still echoing across the landscape, and the smart money in the “art world” was that the black and white natural landscape had “been done”, and a young photographer had better find some other niche to fill. My photographic hero was Robert Adams, who photographed the human landscape, avoiding the National Parks and the monumental landscapes. But the landscape I found myself in, hundreds of miles past the end of the road in northwest Alaska, was wild beyond imagination, and I found myself point my lens at landscapes without any human artifacts, beautiful.

Matanuska Glacier, 2010

Matanuska Glacier, 2010

 

What does one do with photographs of beautiful natural landscapes? For years, I did not exhibit them or show them to many other people—I put them in boxes and let them age. Then, in 1996, at the suggestion of a gallery director, I sent a group of photographs to Robert Adams. He responded with an encouraging letter, and responded most strongly to the natural landscapes. Eventually he offered to sequence and edit a book of the work.

 

Tanana River at Freeze-up, 1993

Tanana River at Freeze-up, 1993

“Alaska As the Measure” is the result of his generous offer—a book of photographs that attempt to show the scale and beauty of the Alaskan landscape. I’ve launched a Kickstarter campaign, in part to fund the design and printing of the book, but also to show people what I’ve seen. I realize that not everyone is a photographic book collector, but I think this book is worth making—and I’m hoping to find a group of people that help make this book become reality.

 

Tok Cut Off, 1994

Tok Cut Off, 1994

My son is a high school student, participating in the debate team.   I recently volunteered as a judge at a debate tournament, with one of the events being a “dramatic interpretation”, where high school students performed a piece that someone else had written, but that they had memorized and performed.   My first round involved five high school girls, and the readings they gave were shocking:  child abuse, sexual molestation, murder, suicide were all covered, in passionate detail.  Fortunately for me, my wife was in the room, and after the last girl finished, my wife asked them where they had found the pieces, were they in any way autobiographical?  And the girls started to giggle—no—they were not autobiographical—they were selected, perhaps because they were effective emotional stories.    A few weeks later, I judged another event where students read a piece of their own writing, and mixed in with some first crude attempts at fiction were at least two clearly autobiographical pieces, one dealing with the effects of a crippling emotional disorder, the other with the death of several high school friends in car accidents.

Walnut tree, March 23, 2014

Walnut tree, March 23, 2014

Life is not fair.  While a few lucky individuals seem to skate through life unscathed, there is no denying that sickness and death are part of life, and must be confronted.  More troubling is the suffering we bring down on each other, or on ourselves.

What is the connection between suffering and art?  It is very apparent that suffering can and mostly does happen in the ugliest of ways:  the history of the last century is full of concentration camps, ethnic cleansing, genocides, and the news is full of mass shootings.   The rational response to events like these is despair:  why does the world need to be like this?

Of course, suffering is a topic that arises in religion.  The atheists strongest argument against a benevolent supreme being is suffering:  how can a god that loves us permit (or cause) so much suffering?  And perhaps the greatest example of art arising out of suffering is the example of the Christian church—if the hand of god cannot be summoned at will to relive the suffering of the people, perhaps pictures of miracles from the mythical past can convince them that it is their own sins that cause the suffering.   Art has been used by the church to render the old miracles into physical forms through painting and sculpture.

Robert Adams, in his essay “Beauty in Photography” published in a book of the same name discusses the connection between art and suffering, between truth and beauty.   He argues that beauty is based on Form, and that Form is beautiful  “Because it helps us meet our worst fear, the suspicion that life may be chaos and that therefore our suffering is without meaning.”   He also asks the question, “is art a sufficient consolation for life?”  and goes on to point out that art can help, but it alone is not sufficient, that we also need human connections—“an anecdote, a jumping dog, or the brush of a hand.  All these things are disorderly, but no plan for survival stands a chance without them.”

What strikes me about Robert Adams’ essay is how he argues that art has a critical function, to convince us that our suffering is not without meaning, and are lives are not better off simply being ended.  In the end, art must be an affirmation.

Of course, the “art world”, still abuzz from the record price paid for a Francis Bacon triptych, seems to be interested in something else, namely, money and power.  There is no question that Bacon’s paintings reflect anguish of the 20th century, that his popes are images of powerful men in hell, but the question remains, why do collectors value his work so highly?  On the other end of the spectrum, the mass market seems equally committed to the work of Thomas Kinkade, who died recently of a drug and alcohol overdose, who called himself “the painter of light”, painting sentimentalized images of homes and churches bathed in unnatural glows.   Both men may have suffered, neither seem to have arrived at a truth that is affirming—Bacon fails by painting monsters, Kinkade though eye candy.

But there are examples of people who have suffered and transformed that experience into great art.  Shostakovich, the great 20th century Russian composer is one—his music is full of ambiguities and uncertainties.  Timothy O’Sullivan began his career as a photographer on the battlefields of the civil war before heading west to make sublime views of the landscape.  Frida Kalo suffered an unfortunate accident as a young woman, and a difficult marriage, but made compelling paintings.  All of them made great art.

John Szarkowski noted that the pictures that command our attention the longest are the ones that seem to hold some mystery.  Eugene Atget made amazing photographs, but it’s hard to know how much he suffered—he may have been a failed actor, but he made a living as a photographer.  He did have a very productive period at the end of his life, after his wife died, when he was facing his own mortality, but he made many great photographs before then.

Suffering is part of life—to live is to suffer—and life is not fair—but there are things that help, including art.  High school kids dealing with sickness and death are looking in the right place–sometimes, looking at a painting or listening to a piece of music or encountering a poem can convince us that we are not alone in our suffering, and allow us to experience moments of grace—where the suffering remains real, but finds a balance with beauty.

When I went to China, now just over two years ago, one of the things I experienced for the first time was the Chinese political speech.  These speeches were shouted from written scripts, one word at a time, as loudly as possible.  During the conference (which I and nine other American photographers participated in), many of the speeches were simultaneously translated into English for us foreigners.   I don’t remember much of what was said—I’m not sure if this is because the speeches seemed so trite when translated into English, or if the translation into English stripped all speech of subtlety, but either way, sitting through the speeches was moderately annoying, though the tea they served was very good, and the speeches ended soon enough.

Houston, 2008

Houston, 2008

I think all of the English speakers were somewhat concerned about how what we had to say might be translated into Chinese—one of my first moments after meeting my host at the airport was being asked if I would like any snakes—I politely refused—I’m not especially fond of snakes, and being offered them in plural form after 30 hours in airplanes and airports is not what I expected–but the offer was repeated until finally I understood that what was being offered was, in fact, snacks…

And one of my favorite moments in the conference was when one of my fellow conference attendees made a comment in his talk in which he stated that “the landscape is my mistress”, which another, more experienced international traveler, noted was probably translated as “I fuck the earth”.

Whatever.   I’ve had enough conversations with Chinese friends to appreciate the difficulties in translation.  What we say and think in English may or may not translate into Chinese or the Chinese mind…

But one thing I do remember from the speeches—the Chinese repeatedly referred to “great Chinese photographic theoreticians”.   In America, I’ve never heard of any photographic theoreticians, let alone a great one. We have ph0tographers, we have curators, we have gallery directors, we have photo editors, we have photographic critics–but none of these positions correspond with “photographic theoretician”.   It apparently is a title that offers neither salary nor tenure, at least outside of China.  I always assumed that photography was an empirical enterprise, defined by observation rather than by theory.

But, of course, just because there is no official title does not mean that we are lacking in photographic theoreticians.  In the short lecture I was expected to give, I referred to Robert Adams as a “great American photographic theoretician”, a title that I’m sure he would object to with vigor, but one I hoped would translate into whatever status was given to the Chinese photographic authorities.    I can think of no better discussion about the meaning of photographs and their importance to our lives than his wonderful essays.

Houston, 2008

Houston, 2008

I once studied Physics (let me be clear—I am not a Physicist—I once referred to myself and several other students as “Physicists” in front of one of my professors—he corrected me to point out that we were, in fact, not Physicists—I asked him what made someone “a Physicist”—he stated that it was when one had actually “done some Physics”—I asked him how one knew that they had “done some Physics”—he told me that someone would tell me when I had “done some Physics”—something that I can state with certainty has never happened—so I am not “a Physicist”—but I once was student of the discipline)—where theoreticians were many and experimentalists were few (due at least in part to the huge cost of experiments in high energy particle physics)…

But I know there are photographers that are working with photographic theories that I don’t understand.  Robert Adams, Lee Friedlander, William Eggleston, Walker Evans, Timothy O’Sullivan, and, of course, Eugene Atget have all made photographs using formulas beyond my comprehension.  But I do sometimes try to replicate their results…

Photographer Robert Adams once wrote that “what disturbs us most about development is not the destruction of some far-off wilderness, but the relentless destruction of those private places near to home where we became, and intend to continue becoming, ourselves.” ACEP (3 of 11)

Living in Alaska for 26 years, I heard, many times, of the impending destruction of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, about to be devoured by the evil oil companies.  Having never set foot on the Arctic Refuge (although my wife spent a summer there, once, a long time ago), I found it hard to get too worked up about that distant wilderness.  I had my own secret places, some of them distant, hundreds of miles beyond the end of the road, some of them much closer to where I lived, where I felt at home.

We moved out of Alaska this past year, sold the house in February.  When Rachel and I talked about the twenty one years we spent there (the longest either of us had ever lived in any place), we agreed that we had developed a grudging respect for the 1970’s tract house.  It was functional, but never our dream home.  There were things we did love about living there, though, including the quiet walks we often took in the nearby woods.

ACEP (6 of 11)

Rachel came back to Alaska to work a summer seasonal job—Ben and I came to visit for a couple weeks, arrived a few days ago—and we took a drive up to the old neighborhood.  It’s changed.  In the past few weeks, the road we lived on has been extended into the small woods at the end of the street—trees cut, a dirt path pressed into the earth—the extension of our street, where new houses will be built.

ACEP (9 of 11)

In many ways, this is neither unexpected, nor a tragedy.  We knew, before we bought our house, that every real estate map showed our road extending through those trees.  We bought in the neighborhood because it was very close to town—now with energy prices higher than ever, it makes sense that people would want to buy houses close to town—and therefore that builders would  eventually accommodate them by completing the development.

ACEP (2 of 11)

But during the 21 years we lived in that neighborhood, that small, quiet birch forest was one of the secret places that sustained me.  Rachel and I, later joined by our Australian Shepherd Suka and our son Ben, took hundreds of walks through those trees—walks often accompanied by conversations about our future, dreams, plans.   There was always something to look at—tracks in the snow, hoarfrost on the high branches, new leaves in the spring, yellow leaves in the fall, bare limbs in fading light of October—always different, but always beautiful and peaceful.

I took a short walk in the woods again a few days ago, late in the evening—it’s a bad bug year in Fairbanks, and I had on a short sleeve shirt, so it would have been an unpleasant walk even if the trees were all still standing—but the stumps, the sawdust, and the powdered silt all seemed to conspire to make the walk especially jarring.  Most of the old pathways through the trees were gone, replaced by a wide swath clear-cut through the forest.  It wasn’t just that some things had been removed and others remained (which was, in fact, true), but that the nature of the place had been profoundly changed.

ACEP (11 of 11)

On one level, it seems pointless to even mention the loss.  This woods was never set aside as a park or recognized in any way as being a special place of beauty.  It was just a piece of land waiting for the housing market to heat up again, enough to justify the cost of finishing the road according to plan.  And I don’t even live in the neighborhood (or the state) anymore—and I have other woods to walk in now—but still, I find myself thinking of what happened as something akin to the death of an old friend.  This woods, which I once knew, has passed on.  Conversations and memories remain, but there will be no new times together.  This walk has ended.