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“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.

 

 

 

The Western Landscape is a classic subject for American Photographers ever since the invention of photography—one might even argue that photography invented our vision of the American west, with views by O’Sullivan, Muybridge,  Edward Weston, and Ansel Adams (and many others).

Lee Friedlander has turned his delightful eye on this subject.  In the 2005 epic retrospective book, “Friedlander”, the last section (68 photographs) is devoted to “Landscapes”.  This work seemed to be something of a continuation of “The Desert Seen” (1996) in that iconic views are frequently relegated to the background of photos that seem to feature sharply focused rocks and trees in the foreground.

Lee Friedlander, Yosemite National Park, 2004

Lee Friedlander, Yosemite National Park, 2004

In 2008, Friedlander published “Recent Western Landscapes”—a book I pre-ordered on Amazon, but never received a copy of.  Apparently the book sold out before any copies were shipped to Amazon.  I’ve never managed to find a copy at a reasonable price, so have never held that book in my hands.

So when “Lee Friedlander:  Western Landscapes” was available for pre-order on Amazon in mid-summer, I ordered a copy, fingers firmly crossed.  It arrived a few weeks ago, but I gave it to my wife so she could wrap it as a Christmas gift.  Weighing in at 7 pounds, and 14 X 15 inches, with 189 full sized plates, each reproduced at 12×12 inches, the book feels epic in both scope and size.  The printing can be described only as perfect, in the sense that one cannot imagine that looking at an original silver print could offer more pleasure than the reproductions presented in the book.   (Given my modest means as a collector, purchasing an original Friedlander print is well beyond me, but purchasing a second copy of this book and desecrating the binding with a razor so I can frame and hang at least some of these images may be a temptation I can’t resist.)

Lee Friedlander, Point Lobos, 2012

Lee Friedlander, Point Lobos, 2012

The book begins with a series of images from Point Lobos—the neighborhood playground of Edward Weston.  There are many other easily recognized places—Yosemite, the Grand Tetons, the Grand Canyon, Death Valley, Monument Valley, Canyon de Chelly, Zion National Park, Arches National Park—as well as numerous images of seemingly anonymous tangled trees.   There are a handful of images from the Canadian Rockies, and one from Mexico.

I must confess one disappointment with the book, albeit a personal one.  My first reading of the book was to look at the pictures, one by one, hoping to find some Alaskan Landscapes.  In “America by Car”, Friedlander included eight images from Alaska, all dated from 2007, so it seemed reasonable to hope that a few of Alaska’s majestic views caught his attention.  I did not see any recognizable views on my first reading, but examination of the captions at the back revealed one image was from Alaska—plate 145.

Lee Friedlander, Alaska, 2007

Lee Friedlander, Alaska, 2007

At first glance, this image is, in my humble opinion, one of the least interesting images in the whole book, a disappointment to someone who has spent a significant part of his life attempting to photograph the Alaskan Landscape.  The foreground appears to be a grassy bank—not typical of Alaska–it looks like a road cut—which occupies more than half the frame—and beyond that, some scruffy trees, and a sliver of a river in the distance.  Only after looking at the image for a few minutes did I recognize the view—one I’ve seen many times, though never photographed in the way Friedlander did—it is a view of the Susitna River from a tourist pull-out on the Parks Highway about 130 miles north of Anchorage.  The pull-out was built to provide a view of the south face of Denali, a splendid view when the weather is cooperative, with the braided channels of the Susitna River in the foreground and the mountain in the distance, a view that could be seen—in clear weather—by pivoting ninety degrees to the right from the Friedlander picture, and walking a few hundred feet to the tourist viewing area.

My question is, why did Friedlander include this picture, rather than one of the iconic mountain?  The simple answer, and probably the most likely, is that the mountain was hidden by clouds during the time Friedlander was there—a guess suggested by the clouds that appear in the upper right corner of the frame.  From the “America by Car” images, Friedlander includes two pictures of rain on the windshield of his car—weather typical of late summer.  While, on average, the “mountain is out” one day out of five, there are streaks of bad weather where the mountain might not be out for weeks at a time.

So why did Friedlander include this picture at all?  Is it intended as a snub at Alaska—a “this place is really overrated” statement?  Or is it an admission of defeat—between the weather and the almost exhausting array of possible subjects, he walks away without an iconic frame to include with the others?  Or is this picture an inside joke–a deliberate look away from the iconic view?   Of course, the picture is mute.

There have been multiple books on the American west that don’t include a single image of Alaska—so having one—even boring—picture included is perhaps a way of saying that Alaska is included in his view of the west.  There are at least two other states represented by a single image in this collection—Nevada and Idaho.   Maybe “the West” is too big for any single photographer, or single book.  But he includes two photographs from New York—hopefully at least west of his house.

Timothy O’Sullivan was the first great photographer of the western landscape, but began his career as a cameraman for Mathew Brady, photographing the American Civil War.

Timothy O'Sullivan  Tertiary Conglomerates, Weber Valley, Ut, 1869

Timothy O’Sullivan Tertiary Conglomerates, Weber Valley, Ut, 1869

Which is a dramatic photograph, well seen, but only a few years before, O’Sullivan made a similar composition

Ruins of Richmond

Ruins of Richmond

And his use of figures in the landscape

Timothy O'Sullivan, Hot Sulphur Springs, Nevada, 1869

Timothy O’Sullivan, Hot Sulphur Springs, Nevada, 1869

which uses a figure of the same scale as a photo from a few years before

Timothy O'Sullivan, Harvest of Death, 1863

When Robert Adams wrote that early explorers considered the western space to be sublime, a redemptive landscape, he must have been referring to the experience of O’Sullivan, who saw (and smelled) the horror of the American Civil War.

For those of us born after Ansel, the western landscape conjures images of majestic pristine wilderness–but O’Sullivan is nearly a century older, with pictures full of silver mines and farms–he began photographing twenty years after gold was discovered in California, before Little Big Horn, but concurrent with the building of the transcontinental railroad.  Part of the success of O’Sullivan may have been due to his ability to travel into a bleak landscape and photograph, but then to get on the railroad back to civilization, to look at his photographs, in safety.  Another part of his working methods was his use of the colloidal plate, that required exposure and development of the negative while wet, requiring the need for a portable darkroom in the field, but providing  instant feedback of an image.