Artist Biography: Robert Adams (1937)
“Art historian Kenneth Clark remarked in one of his books that the thing that distinguishes a landscape painter is an especially intense emotional response to light,” Robert Adams commented.
“When I spend days, months, working in my darkroom in Colorado, throughout the day I swear I can tell when the sun goes under and then comes out from behind the clouds, even if I can’t see it.”
Adams was born in New Jersey but moved to Colorado as a teenager. He taught for several years but eventually left the profession for two main reasons: he discovered his passion for photography, and he began to feel that the effort of always trying to be entertaining and pleasant in the classroom was too strenuous. Even so, the artist admits that the most interesting aspect of teaching for him is still the kids, and that if he had known how lonely he was going to be as a photographer, he doesn’t know if he would have had the strength to go down that same road again. An essayist as well, Adams underscores the fact that human beings require words in order to understand, and that we find facing the image alone without any explanatory notes terrifying. The details of his career are laid bare by his own voice, and it is impossible not to appreciate the clarity of his discourse, his use of pauses, his awareness of the fact that we speak so that someone can understand what we are trying to communicate.
Robert Adams has spent forty years documenting man’s impact on nature and vice versa. As a very young man he participated in the seminal group show New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape, curated by William Jenkins and held in 1975 at the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House. This was a landmark exhibition as it featured ten photographers (Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Joe Deal, Frank Gohlke, Nicholas Nixon, John Schott, Stephen Shore, Henry Wessel, Jr. and Bernd & Hilla Becher) who presented a worldview that was apparently neutral and scientific as opposed to emotional, and yet portrayed man’s invasion of the environment and its consequences with unparalleled rawness. The show’s impact was so great that it has since been recreated on several occasions, most recently by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2010.
Adams’s work focuses almost exclusively on the American Midwest, and it is a history of the transformation of the land, a transformation reflected in our present-day concern with issues such as climate change, deforestation and environmental conservation, mass consumerism and the shortage of resources, developmentalism and its consequences.
Some of his most important books and exhibitions are The New West (1974) with text by John Szarkowski, From the Missouri West (1980), To Make It Home (1989), What We Bought: The New World (1997), Turning Back (2005), Summer Nights, Walking (2009) and Gone? (2010), as well as the volumes of collected essays published as Why People Photograph and Beauty in Photography. He has received numerous distinctions, including a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowship, a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize and the Hasselblad Foundation International Award in Photography in 2009.
Adams has become a chronicler of the changing American landscape, visually expressing his concern about the urban transformation and depletion of resources generated by humanity through the years. The suburbanisation of Denver and the changes experienced by Los Angeles in the 1970s and 80s have been captured by his camera. There is no drama in his images other than that inherent to the reality he portrays: highways, scarred green landscape, supermarket parking lots or a child in the middle of nowhere. As Adams noted, quoting Loren Eiseley in From the Missouri West, “Nothing is lost, but it can never be again as it was”.
This photographer’s approach to the landscape is the exact opposite of that employed by Ansel Adams. While Ansel Adams did not accept the ordinary as a limit of photography, instead seeking the extraordinary and its relevance to the landscape, Robert Adams does accept it as something that limits and is part of the landscape, acknowledging the latter’s intrinsic banality. His photography must be interpreted in light of the work of 19th-century research photographers like Jackson and Timothy O’Sullivan, who travelled the Midwest with teams of topographers after the American Civil War to document and name the different territories with a view to attracting settlers. In fact, one of them was Adams’s own grandfather, who took panoramic photographs of the Dakota prairies.
Adams’s photography allows us to reconnoitre that which is too large to take in, following in the footsteps of those 19th-century pioneers, because it names the space, rendering it less menacing, less unfamiliar and easier to assimilate. His photos do not deliberately seek the beauty of what the camera captures, but beauty can be inevitable. Adams lived near the Colorado Springs Fine Art Center, which had a large library. There he found a copy of Alfred Stieglitz’s Camera Work, which he recalls devouring in the early days of his career. He also remembers two phrases word for word: “All true things are equal” and “I want to die living”.
In the autumn of 2010, the Yale University Art Gallery organised the largest retrospective of this artist’s work to date, The Place We Live, which opened at the Vancouver Art Museum in British Columbia and travelled to the Denver Art Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid and the National Media Museum in the United Kingdom.
“It’s the light. Light is the reason why we photograph and the reason for how we photograph.” And so Adams’s words bring illumination.