Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Robert Adams: A Short Summary

Adams can reasonably stake a claim to being one of the great figures in the history of photography. Born in 1937 he first attracted attention in the mid-1970s with his book The New West (1974) and, perhaps more significantly, for his place in the exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape (1975) which helped re-shape the photographic approach to American landscape in particular and landscape photography in general. He is primarily recognised for his landscape work in the American West, which he has been photographing for more than 40 years, but retrospective collections such as What Can We Believe Where?: Photographs of the American West, 1965-2005 (Yale Art Gallery) show that his imagery has a very human side to it.

Compared to the dramatic – perhaps even overblown – presentation of his namesake, Ansel Adams, Robert Adam’s photo’s are pale – sometimes even high key – slices of ordinariness. The very banality of much of their content sets them in opposition to the romanticism of much landscape photography up to the mid-70s. Adams’ (R) is concerned with an alternative view of the west – one in which the hand of man is visible everywhere and is probably not a benign presence. Compared with Misrach it is a more obvious, yet perhaps more subtle, more nuanced environmental concern that shines through – there are no grand statements here – just image after image catching the tedium of 70s/80s/90s developments and malls and casual environmental desecration. And yet, for all that, his people pictures suggest a real affection and concern for the inhabitants of theses areas: See here for example.

In the opening to “What can we believe” Adams says that he started photographing because he wanted to collect evidence of hope, but that in doing so he also found evidence to the contrary, and felt that too should be captured. This goes a long way to explaining his approach.

Adams is also a skilled write – although rather amusingly he decries his own ability in an essay on Writing in "Why People Photograph: “I remember once working through more than a hundred drafts of a four-paragraph statement for a catalog, all to find something that would just keep out of the way of the pictures.” Indeed the whole of this essay reflects quite interestingly on some of the discussions on the student forums on the subject of “Art English”. Reading the artists statements in his Wikipedia entry is a joy – if he really wrote a hundred drafts the end result was worth the effort.

It seems difficult to understate his legacy – the photographic style that emerged from the New Topographic exhibition, and which he played a huge part in shaping, is still relevant today. His quiet understated photos ask questions about truthfulness and challenge us to look past what we would like to see, to what we actually see. For that reason they will probably be less popular than images interested solely in light or aesthetics, but ultimately prove more important.


What Can We Believe Where?: Photographs of the American West, 1965-2005 (Yale Art Gallery)
Review of “The New West”: Ahorn Magazine: http://www.ahornmagazine.com/issue_2/review5_shea_adams/review_shea_adams.html - retrieved 05 March 2013
Writing: Cited in Thinking about Art: http://thinkingaboutart.blogs.com/art/2008/02/writing-by-robe.html - retrieved 05 March 2013
Sean O’Hagan: Robert Adams: A photographer with a profound sense of place: The Guardian 16 Feb 2012: - http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2012/feb/16/robert-adams-photographer-sense-place – retrieved 05 March 2013
Robert Adams: the place we live - http://artgallery.yale.edu/adams/landing.php – retrieved 05 March 2013

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