My favorite movie of all time is Badlands Terence Malick’s classic independent, which has had a firm grip on my imagination since I came across it on late-night television as a teenager. It was not until several years later that I learned the movie had been made in my home state of Colorado, on the arid plains east of Pueblo and realized that part of its hold on me came from the fact that the landscapes – and above all the light – were more or less from the world of my childhood. I bring this up here because I cannot write about photographer Robert Adams – a retrospective of whose work was on display at the Vancouver Art Gallery, in Vancouver, British Columbia, for four months this winter at the Vancouver Art Gallery – without writing about Malick’s film. They share a similar aesthetic, “so spare and poetic it chills you to the bone” as the Los Angeles Times said of Badlands (a quote that now appears on the DVD case).
The hugely prolific Adams — he has published more than thirty books — may now live in Astoria, Oregon, but he is most strongly associated with the Denver metropolitan area. Adams was born in New Jersey, but came to Colorado with his family while a teenager; he later worked in the state as a professor of English literature before turning to photography full time. Adams recorded the ever-expanding suburban sprawl of the 1960s and 1970s, and his haunting, classically composed photos of tract houses and shopping centers engulfing what had been farmland helped define what was dubbed the New Topographics movement after the landmark 1975 exhibition. The New Topographic photographers, many of whom worked in the West, focused on exactly those aspects of the landscape which the idealized visions of Ansel Adams (no relation), Eliot Porter and others had neglected. By contrast, the New Topographic photographers and their successors — such as Richard Misrach whose images of nuclear test sites were collected as Bravo 20: The Bombing of the American West — aimed to expose the toll that a human presence was taking on the vast yet fragile landscapes of the arid West.
The Vancouver exhibition, which contained over 300 images, clearly traces the arc of Adams’s career. The first rooms contained the early work in which Adams recorded the traditional human landscapes of eastern Colorado – the main streets of tiny, half-abandoned prairie towns, the spare white wooden churches and modest farm kitchens of the high plains, the hand-carved gravestones and adobe walls of the state’s Hispanic south. Adam’s focus is almost always on the man-made elements of the scene, yet the sharp light and dry air of the near-empty spaces his subjects inhabit is always a presence. But the environment is never seen as hostile or alien – for Adams, the spaces of the west are always human.
It is tempting to label some of this work as a kind of American Gothic. There is some figurative darkness, even in Adams’s early work, but almost no literal darkness, except for the crisp, inky shadows cast by objects under a high-altitude sun. His treatment of his subjects, for me, does not recall Grant Wood so much as Vermeer. Adams’s images possess a quality of being still without being static, and there is a grace and balance to the compositions, even when the subject is the plume of smoke arising from burning oil sludge. Above all, they do not work to present this rural world as provincial, or marginal, or grotesque; Eden, Colorado, subject of an early monograph, may be as much the heart of the world as its namesake.
When Adams began to photograph the instant suburbs springing up around Denver and Colorado Springs, of which he strongly disapproved – his comments and writing make that clear – he seems to have adapted his aesthetic, rather than transformed it. This is perhaps what gives the celebrated New Topographic work its staying power. In his images, unfinished ranch houses take on a luminous presence. The bright sun and broad horizons light and frame all things equally, as does Adams. The persistent disquiet these images produce may spring from the contrast between the seriousness and elegance of Adams’s vision, and the cheap, transient materials of which these scenes are made.
Admittedly, my own reaction to Adams is strongly influenced by the fact I grew up in the time and place these photographs record, and, while Adams himself may regard these suburban landscapes as an aberration, to me they are, even more than the prairie, the world in which I once lived. I do not think this ambiguity is entirely my own projection. I find Adams’ most haunting work to be in Summer Nights, a series depicting— naturally enough– summer nights, in the not-quite-suburban, not-quite-rural towns north of Denver. The sidewalks, the lawns and trees and bungalows, are hopelessly mundane, yet somehow infused with an ominous beauty. An iconic image of a brightly lit carnival ride silhouetted against the evening sky is both garish and sublime. This sense of ordinary places immanent with the mystery of existence recalls Edward Hopper at his subtlest and most poetic.