Not quite halfway through Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov’s alternately funny and harrowing meditation on love, loss and memory, the narrator, Humbert Humbert, reflects on the deceptively familiar American landscapes the characters have travelled through. He realizes that they, like the underage girl at his side, possess an inner life unseen by the casual eye: “Gradually the models of those elementary rusticities became stranger and stranger to the eye, the nearer I came to know them. Beyond the tilled plain, beyond the toy roofs, there would be a slow suffusion of inutile loveliness…There might be a line of spaced trees silhouetted against the horizon, and hot still noons above a wilderness of clover, and Claude Lorrain clouds inscribed remotely into misty azure with only their cumulus part conspicuous against the neutral swoon of the background.”
Robert Adams: The Place We Live: A Retrospective Selection of Photographs, is on view at the Denver Art Museum through January 1, 2012. This is the first American venue for the retrospective, though an earlier iteration was on view at the Vancouver Art Gallery last winter. Seeing it in Colorado, where Adams grew up, and started taking photographs, where he produced what is arguably his most memorable work, only adds to its impact. Love, loss, and memory, embodied in the changing landscapes of the American west, are Adams’s themes as well. The photographs in the retrospective are animated by the yearning for a sense of place, of belonging and by regret at seeing that place forever slipping out of reach, as a consequence of environmental heedlessness and of the inevitable passage of time.
The literary reference seems appropriate, given that Adams earned his PhD in English literature, and was teaching at Colorado College in Colorado Springs when he began to photograph seriously. Much of his work comprises closely related series that gain by being seen as a group of images, allowing the viewer to register small changes and create a sense of narrative. As curator Eric Paddock points out, Adams originally conceived of his photographs more as pages in a book, — Adams has published more than thirty monographs – than as pieces hanging in gallery. His images are smallish size (by contemporary standards) and are more inclined to reward close observation than to dominate a space. But many of them are no less powerful for that.
In the first gallery, visitors are greeted by an inscription from the memorial of a Colorado rancher, buried in the tiny prairie hamlet of Keota, on the windswept and treeless plains northeast of Denver. The inscription celebrates the rancher’s sense of rootedness in that community. But it’s a community that just continues to exist, a flyspeck of a place that barely survived the dustbowl. I’ve been to the Keota cemetery and seen the small lot (smaller than the galleries holding this retrospective), the few carved stones imported from the city juxtaposed with handmade grave markers created by filling feedsacks with concrete, the seams and the weave of the fabric still visible, and — most touchingly — the weather-beaten stuffed animals carefully placed on all the children’s graves. The place is a testimony to both the fragility and persistence of a sense of belonging. In the gallery, the inscription is juxtaposed with a haunting photograph by Adams, more sky than earth, of a slim road bisecting the shadowed prairie. A fitting tribute, as roads leading elsewhere are by far the most prominent and enduring human feature of these plains.
The yearning for a more enduring and collaborative relationship between nature and culture appears often in Adams’s early work. There are the photographs of his wife’s family farm in Öglunda, Sweden, with its great trees and painted wooden architecture, the kind of place to which one could imagine the characters in a Bergman film returning for a traditional midsummer holiday. There are the photographs published in The Architecture and Art of Early Hispanic Colorado, recording perhaps the nearest equivalent Colorado can offer to the traditional rural landscape of Europe – thick adobe walls dividing light from shadow, the row of hand-carved santos on the wall of a rural church. Most poignant, and unique to Denver’s mounting of the exhibition, are a series of 27 photographs of the same aging, rugged cottonwood tree, west of Longmont, Colorado (just north of Denver). The photos capture the tree from all angles, in all lights and seasons. The last photo shows a stump – all that was left once the land was cleared for development.
This careless destruction in the name of short-term gain is one of the sources of the darkness and melancholy that hang over Adams’s most celebrated work: the pictures of suburban sprawl published in The New West and What We Bought: The New World, Scenes from the Denver Metropolitan Area, 1970-1974 (the former, ironically, appeared the same year as The Architecture and Art of Early Hispanic Colorado.) This is the work featured in the celebrated exhibition of 1975, New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape, which lent its name to an entire body of work de-romanticizing the American landscape, exposing the scars inflicted by just over a hundred years of consumption and “development.”
This is the only Adams that some observers, especially those on the other side of the Atlantic, seem to register, the one who depicts (to quote Nabokov again) “a dismal ex-prairie state, with the wind blowing, and the stars blinking, and the cars, and the bars, and the barmen, and everything soiled, torn, dead.” Yet even in this haunted landscape, Adams sought beauty. Curator Eric Paddock comments on this with an anecdote that also reflects Adams’s careful attention to technical detail. Adams had to send some of his work of the 1970s to Germany, to hang in an exhibition there, but he only had a single original print of many that were to be included. Reluctant to ship these overseas, Adams sought to have more prints made, and photographer William Wylie of the University of Virginia offered to make a print from Adams’s negative of a photograph of an empty bed in a motel in Longmont. It was clearly a cheap motel in the literal sense, all its elements prefabricated and hastily assembled. The textures of the room are all thoroughly synthetic. Yet the glow of the sunlight through the curtains, and the rippled patterns it creates on the cheap white bedspread — like water, notes Paddock — possess their own subtlety and beauty. By his own account, Wylie struggled and struggled with these effects, and was not satisfied with the print he finally offered to Adams. Adams accepted it politely, but tore it up as soon as he could, and sent his original off to Germany.
This attention to detail, and to the beauty in the everyday, emerge memorably in the Summer Nights series. In one of my personal favorites, a photograph of an old white-painted house in Berthoud, Colorado, taken in 1976. The silhouettes of the houseplants on an interior windowsill emerge in crisp yet miniscule detail. The shadows of the leafy branches outside fall across the plants but do not obscure them, the mingled foliage gently blurring the boundaries between inside and outside.
Paddock quotes Adams as saying that art should show what’s wrong with the world – and what’s right. In Adams’s strongest work, beauty and ugliness are held in a careful tension. The images of Los Angeles Spring may seem as dark as anything he’s done, the ultimate vision of a world “soiled, torn, and dead,” yet Adams himself wrote: “The pictures reveal a persistent verdancy that is unexpected. How could anyone explain the bird in the defoliated orchard, the suddenly clear day on a quiet road, or the astonishing silhouette of a eucalyptus in smog?” They are also a register of private grief and awareness of mortality; Adams had returned to Los Angeles to visit his graduate school mentor, from his days as a student at the University of Redlands, who was dying. This human context is also apparent in Our Lives and Our Children: Photographs Taken Near the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant, which demonstrate that while Adams may have been worried by the new suburbia, he never held its residents in contempt.
This animating tension, between the beautiful and the ugly, the human and the inhuman, seems less present in the work of Adams’s later years, made after he moved to Oregon. In part, an aesthetic developed under the pitiless high-altitude light of Colorado may not always transfer easily to the misty northwest. In the Vancouver exhibition, the succession of small galleries devoted to this later work seemed almost endless. Editing seems to have brought more coherence to this portion of the exhibit in Denver. However, it is the images in the early and middle galleries, of tract homes and chain stores, gas stations and diners, of weathered farmsteads and the endless sunburnt plains, that ensure Adams a lasting place in the history of American photography.