05 June 2007

Robert Adams

A while back I picked up a copy of Robert Adams' recent book Along Some Rivers: Photographs and Conversations (Aperture 2006). This is the third short collection like this that Aperture has published, the others being Why People Photograph (1994; 2nd Edition 2005) and Beauty in Photography (1981; 2nd Edition 1996).

Adams is on the list of people I'd really like to meet. His work focuses on the ways economic and social and demographic forces intersect with what remains of the natural environment, mostly in the Western United States. It provides a focal point for a complex set of aesthetic, political and personal commitments. Adams manages to hold these commitments together in a provocatively coherent way. In aesthetic terms he is a traditionalist, what one sometimes might call downright conservative. Politically he seems admirably liberal, especially on matters of deep concern like environmental degradation and human rights. His work focuses on the ways economic and social and democgraphic forces intersect with what remains of the natural environment, mostly in the Western United States. (He puts his money where his mouth is. As I noted some time ago, when he won the 2006 Deutsche Borse Photography Prize he donated the $50K award money to Human Rights Watch.) Personally he seems remarkably self-reflective and wryly self-effacing.

"Irrigation Canal, Larimer County, Colorado, 1990"
© Robert Adams

This recent volume sandwiches thirty pages of photographs (taken from 1984 through 2001) between two sections of collected interviews, each twenty-something pages long. I will simply lift a few passages that illustrate what I am talking about.

“Q: What Then is Art?

RA: Basically it's an attempt, by fond attention to the world, to find redeeming metaphor in it. Ultimately, art’s gift to us is the pleasurable implication of coherence, of meaning, of consequence”
“Art has traditionally recognized two obligations: to tell the truth and to affirm the truth. The problem currently is that many artists are saying no, that isn’t my job - I can’t do that, and won’t try. And so they are largely ignored, or held up in the press as jokes. And why not? Who needs more nihilism? Anyone can arrive there without help.

The challenge for artists is just as it is for everyone else: to face facts and somehow come up with a yes, to try for alchemy. No wonder the instances of artistic success are costly and rare and impure. And deeply loved.”
“Q: With all of the pictures and all of the books, what are you trying to accomplish in your life of photography?

RA: I suppose to learn how not to complain. Robert Frost said that the best achievement in life is to learn to be good-natured. That sounds pretty close. And very hard. I’m like that woman who took her little boy to the beach and saw a wave each him out to sea. She promised God that if He’d return her child she’d never ask for anything else., and the next wave deposited the boys safely back on the shore. She ran and hugged him but then noticed that he’d lost his cap. ‘The hat Lord!’ she demanded, ‘What about the hat?’.

Q: You’ve always struck me as being good-natured, so apparently you’ve succeeded.

RA: For the odd millisecond [laughs]. Some of the best times are when I’m photographing. It helps me to pay attention to the beauty of what has been given. Photographers, unlike philosophers, tend to focus on what’s there rather than what isn’t.”

“Student: I like art with intellectual complexity.

RA: So do I, in some respects. But it’s easy to confuse philosophy and art. They’re not the same. It’s an easy distinction to forget in school ... where you’re urged to live an active life of the mind. A great picture is a concretized universal. The strength of that is that it can and has to be cross-referenced out to life in the street. Philosophy carries within itself no such test.”
“There aren’t many big rivers in the American West, but there are a satisfying number of washes, creeks, and irrigation ditches, the roots and branches of rivers.

Should I, having photographed this landscape, try to talk about it? By what right or obligation? Perhaps only by privilege of having seen the West when it was more open, so that nothing that has happened since then, no matter how bad, can entirely obscure its promise.”

So, Adams weaves his views about himself, the landscape, art, photography, writing and philosophy together through these interviews. As I sit here I imagine a lively conversation about these themes - in part, because I think we disagree in different ways about the "nature" of both art and philosophy. The last passage, though, strikes me as being about hope, about a concern for what is not, or at least is no longer, there but might well be and, also, for what remains. I suspect that Adams and I might agree about the importance of that topic.

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Blogger tim atherton said...


I read it recently and thought it was very worthwhile. But I couldn't help coming away from it with something of a sense of melancholy...

In aesthetic terms he is a traditionalist, what one sometimes might call downright conservative.

Ha - don't mention R Adams on the Large Format Forum or APUG - he seen as the epitome of threatening post-modern contemporary photography!

05 June, 2007 15:44  
Blogger tim atherton said...

mark... hmmm - Jim

I shouldn't try and post on two blogs at the same time

05 June, 2007 15:47  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...


I agree a bit about the melancholy. It is difficult to show the things he is showing (e.g., clearcuts in teh Northwest) without a sense of loss. But he also has this continuing sense that there is something to be recalled - in that sense he may be a real conservationist.

I thought it might beinteresting to contrast Adams with someone like Burtynsky on various dimensions (i.e., b&w vs color; print size; subject - Adams often focuses on the mundane vs EB focusing on the spectacular, etc.). Adams' standards for art and his technique seem quite traditional to me, even if he might juxtapose techonoligcal develeopments in standard landscapes in a vaguely pomo manner.

05 June, 2007 17:32  
Blogger Stan B. said...

It's surprising to find the words art and truth mentioned in the same sentence, and stranger still to hear that those artists who don't equate the two in their work "are largely ignored or held up in the press as jokes."

05 June, 2007 19:57  
Blogger Richey said...

Adams makes some really good points about accepting art for what it is and not trying to make it into something that it's not. He admires and respects the simple beauty of the world and shows his gratitude through beautiful landscape art photography..

20 August, 2010 15:30  

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