Robert Adams Retrospective: Almost too much of a Good Thing

Through January 1, 2012, the Denver Art Museum is exhibiting a wonderful retrospective of master photographer Robert Adams. The exhibit is entitled: “Robert Adams: The Place We Live, A Retrospective Selection of Photographs.”  The primary source material for the exhibit is Yale University Art Gallery’s collection of 1465 ‘master prints’ of Adams photographs. That gallery’s Henry J. Heinz II Director, Jock Reynolds, and Assistant Curator of Photographs, Joshua Chuang, organized the touring exhibit and publications.

Denver is the second of many scheduled world-wide stops for this exhibit. To the primary structure and logic of the traveling exhibit, Denver Art Museum Director of Photography Eric Paddock has added some prints from the DAM’s smaller collection of Adams photographs. The resultant exhibit is very large; it presents 244 black & white gelatin silver prints mounted on over 20 walls in DAM’s Gallagher Special Exhibition Gallery. Some prints are square, some rectangular, some are as small as 4×5 inches, others as large as 16×20; each print is simply and gracefully presented on a white mat in a white frame.

This is an exhibit with something for all patrons whether they are photography aficionados or not. Any patron, wearing any size thinking cap at all, will be stirred to at least consider the overarching environmental message in Adams’ body of work. And any patron who appreciates photographic art will have the added pleasure of immersing himself in the vision and craft of a master photographer.

The Robert Adams that draws most of us to this exhibit is the Adams of The New West – his groundbreaking landscapes of the urbanizing west. Taken in the late 60s and early 70s and focused on the Front Range of Colorado, these landscapes are not the pristine untouched-by-human-hands variety of an Adams of an earlier generation—Ansel Adams. No, Robert Adams captured landscapes undergoing assault by humans and their structures and detritus. Yet these images are not mug shots of muggings; the captivating thing about New West is that the images are beautiful in form and simultaneously tragic in content, a feast for the eye and an ache for the heart. Not surprisingly, a term often encountered when reading descriptions and reviews of New West is “duality”.  Another term often encountered is “truth”. For unlike Ansel Adams, who occasionally would forsake truth for beauty —as he did when he manipulated negative and print to eliminate a human-made scar on a hillside that would have ruined the otherwise pristine beauty of Winter Sunrise – Sierra Nevada from Lone Pine California, 1944, Robert Adams did not try to overlook the truth. Rather he found—and with a master craftsman’s skill captured—beauty , albeit a heart wrenching kind of beauty, in the ugly truth of what was happening to America’s beloved west. As Adams puts it in his note on New West for the exhibit’s massive, three part catalog: “Paradoxically, however, we also need to see the whole geography, natural and man-made, to experience a peace; all land, no matter what has happened to it, has over it a grace, and absolute persistent beauty.”

The exhibit does not deny what most of us our come to see. Four entire walls are dedicated to eighteen prints drawn from New West and twenty four prints from What We Bought, his early 70’s follow up to New West.  It is on these four walls that we find the essential Robert Adams. Here we find a print such as New tracks, west edge of Denver, Colorado, 1974.

In New tracks, the horizon bisects the image; the horizon itself is nothing less than the line-of-sight contour of the great eastern plains of Colorado. Above the horizon is a classic western ‘big sky’.  With these two familiar elements in place, our American cultural memory of the west (a memory established by 19th century photographers Timothy O’Sullivan and William Henry Jackson and others) prompts us to expect to see a prairie of grass stretching out to that horizon. However the view in the mid-ground of New tracks is not of a prairie of grass but rather of a prairie of houses that stretches from frame left to frame right and away from the viewer almost out to the horizon.  Dominating New Track’s immediate foreground is a still roofless house under construction; it is the newest house in a track of new houses. This house is the main player in the unfolding drama as it represents the ongoing metastasizing of human structures and the unabated transmutation of the landscape of the American west. New tracks reveals a harsh truth: our cultural memory of the west is no more than the faint remembrance of an Eden Lost.

But New tracks—itself and as a representative of Adams’ best work—reveals the genius of his art. Because for all of the harsh truth it reveals and the sadness this truth invokes, New tracks is beautiful to look at. You just have to look at it. It is masterfully composed, with lovely variations in tonality, lines and angles that draw your eyes across the image, and small interesting details (a stack of plywood here, a wooden brace there, the intriguing geometry of the house’s wooden skeleton) that command your eyes to stop and pay attention for awhile and then release them to continue their sweep across the image.

Reynolds and Chung, in their introductory words placed at the entry to the exhibit, described the best of Adams’ images this way: “The complex duality that tensions Adams’ individual pictures also resonates throughout his larger body of work.”

Despite the overall wonderful good news, the exhibit does suffer somewhat from a common problem of a large retrospective; such exhibits remind us that the body of work of a prolific artist—even a master artist such as Adams—inescapably is subject to what statisticians refer to as the ‘bell curve’: some of his work will be brilliant, most will be average, and some will be poor.  To be sure, the characterization of any of piece of his oeuvre as brilliant, average or poor is all relative to the artist’s own standards, and in the case of master such as Adams, that standard is very high indeed. So, in comparison to the photography of mere mortals, even his poorer work is still pretty good. Still, if we’re truthful about this exhibit (and I believe that Robert Adams more so than anyone would want us to be truthful about it) we must note that some of the prints in this exhibit are, at best, just ok.

The weakest work on display here (recall the bell curve, there aren’t that many and they aren’t that bad) are those prints that for whatever reason provide neither message nor visual delight much less their dual presence. One piece, from an eight print section of the exhibit entitled The Plains, in particular exemplifies his weakest work. The print is entitled Methodist Church, Bower Colorado, and it captures an image of a small, rural white clapboard church flanked on its right side by a tall tree. The church was photographed straight on and it was lit by a brilliant sun coming from image left. I could discern no ‘message’ associated with this image. On the other hand, the arrangement of directional light, white wood church and tree was certainly an opportunity to depict the scene in a lovely range of tones and fine details.  It didn’t happen. The sun side of the church has blown highlights while the high foliage of the tall tree on the shade side is blocked. Blowing out highlights and blocking shadows are mistakes novice photographers make. It was interesting to hear how some patrons rationalize such mistakes. Apparently under the impression that master artists are incapable of creating anything less than masterpieces, one patron was overheard to say that Adams, who surely must be aware of the blown out highlights and blocked foliage, was sending a deep message. Perhaps so, but the message I got was this: Adams is human, and hence occasionally makes mistakes—whether those mistakes are poor aesthetic choices or technical miscues is not the point. An image with neither message nor beauty is a mistake. If an exhibit, like this one, displays enough of his images you’re likely to see some of those mistakes.

In the great middle of the exhibit’s bell curve are images that carry varying degrees of message (from light to overwrought) and varying degrees of aesthetic beauty (from lackluster to mesmerizing).

A section of prints entitled The Pacific represents the images that are beautiful but light on message. The panel consists of five large (maybe 16×20) prints that form a study of the point where the Columbia River empties into the Pacific Ocean. Each print captures a scene of extraordinary peacefulness with an eye-pleasing orchestration of tones.  But without Adams’ nearby text, the patron would not be aware that Adams was concerned about pollution in the Columbia River. Unlike his New West images, man’s impact on the environment is not evident in these images, and hence for all their visual beauty, the duality is missing from them.

On the flip side, there is a section of twenty prints entitled Turning Back which represents images that are all message and little beauty. The images, taken in Oregon from 1999-2003, are of deforestation. Like a gruesome murder scene that features the bloody and butchered remains of the victim, it would be almost impossible to make these images appealing to the eye. Adams didn’t try, or if he did, he failed miserably.  Bereft of any visual beauty all that is left for these images is to convey a heavy handed message.

Representing prints with a modicum of beauty and a modicum of message is a section of twenty seven prints entitled Cottonwood. The images, taken in 1973 and 1974, are a study of a single cottonwood tree in Longmont Colorado. All but the last print in the panel are relatively small (maybe 4×5 inches), the last is larger, perhaps 8×10 inches. The significance of this size change is made apparent later.  The first twenty four prints portray the tree in various seasons and weather, time of day, perspectives, and degrees of residual human presence (denoted by the amount of detritus). The prints are neither particularly beautiful nor particularly dull. If the study ended with these twenty four prints patrons would be left to wonder about this obsession with an obscure cottonwood, with some patrons indulging a great artist while other patrons (me, at least) wondering why he wasted his time and film.

Then, finally coming to the last three prints, everything changes. In the next print, a trace of smoke can be seen rising from a hill behind the tree. In the following print—taken from that hill and looking back at the tree—it becomes evident where that smoke is coming from. It’s coming from a bulldozer, and that bulldozer is headed for, what by then will be for most patrons, OUR tree. In the last print—the 8×10—all that is left of the cottonwood is a stump, and the ground around the stump has been scraped and leveled presumably in preparation for a housing development. Ahh. At last! The message. At 27 prints, Cottonwood is almost too much of a good thing, but in the end it is well worth taking it in.

At 244 prints, I’ll say the same for the entire exhibit.

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