Are there affirmable days or places in our deteriorating world? Are there scenes in life, right now, for which we might conceivably be thankful? Is there a basis for joy or serenity, even if felt only occasionally? Are there grounds now and then for an unironic smile? —Robert Adams
Because I care deeply about place, specifically the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain West, I want to share my experience on Friday evening at the Denver Art Museum, where I saw a touring exhibition, “Robert Adams: The Place We Live: A Retrospective Selection of Photographs.” The organizers, Joshua Chuang and Jock Reynolds at Yale University Art Gallery, provide an eloquent description.
For more than four decades Robert Adams has photographed the geography of the American West, finding there a fragile beauty that endures despite our troubled relationship with nature, and with ourselves.
Adam’s photographs are distinguished not only by their economy and lucidity but also by their mixture of grief and hope. On the one hand, his pictures acknowledge an impoverishing loss of space and silence, and the opportunity they provided for focus; they also record the inhumanity of much that has been built and the ferocity of our attack upon the environment. On the other hand, they remain alert to the startling eloquence of trees, the signs of caring and joy in people despite their circumstances, and the redemptive power that sunlight continues to have even as it falls across sprawling suburbs.
The complex duality that tensions Adams’s individual pictures also resonates throughout his larger body of work, an aspect that can be uniquely experienced through the more than thirty photographic books he has published to date. It is from these volumes that the texts in this exhibition have primarily been drawn.
Taken together, Robert Adams’s pictures, books, and words are epic in their scope and at once urgent and celebratory in their tone. They invite us to consider the privilege of living where we do and the obligations that follow that privilege. In a compromised world, they find a balance, an unexpected calm that reflects his lifelong endeavor to describe accurately “a landscape into which all fragments, no matter how imperfect, fit perfectly.”
I will highlight some of my favorite photographs from the different galleries of the exhibition.
We tend to define the plains by what is absent, checking maps to find how far we have to drive before we get to something—to mountains in the West or cities in the East. What, after all, are we to make of wheat fields, one-horse towns, and sky?
Mystery in this landscape is a certainty, an eloquent one. There is everywhere silence—a silence in thunder, in wind, in the call of doves, even a silence in the closing of a pickup door. If you are crossing the plains, leave the interstate and find a back road on which to walk; listen. —R.A., 1978
The Pawnee National Grassland
The Pawnee National Grassland, where these pictures were taken, is a reserve established during the 1930s in northeastern Colorado to rehabilitate a part of the dust bowl. Though recovery has been incomplete, and though in the summer the land is rented to the cattle industry, in April and May it is spacious. It has a long history and future. The birds that rise from the grass seem almost weightless. —R.A., 1988
The New West
Many have asked, pointing incredulously toward a sweep of tract homes and billboards, why picture that? The question sounds simple, but it implies a difficult issue—why open our eyes anywhere but in undamaged places like national parks?
One reason is, of course, that we do not live in parks, that we need to improve things at home, and that to do it we have to see the facts without blinking. We need to watch, for example, as an old woman, alone, is forced to carry her groceries in August heat over a fifty acre parking lot; then we know, safe from the comforting lies of profiteers, that we must begin again.
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, an absolutely persistent beauty. – R.A., 1974
What We Bought
Denver was founded in 1861 by gold seekers. Its history has been a cycle of booms and depressions. Among the most startling periods of growth occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, when Colorado’s oil and military and tourist industries all prospered, and when businesses from throughout the United States relocated to Denver at the request of employees who were attracted by the region’s natural beauty.
In a few years, however, the area’s ruin would be testament to a bargain we had tried to strike. The pictures record what we purchased, what we paid, and what we could not buy. They document a separation from ourselves, and in turn from the natural world that we professed to love. —R.A., 1995
Still photographs often differ from life more by their silence than by the immobility of their subjects. Landscape pictures tend to converge with life, however, on summer nights, when the sounds outside, after we call in children and close garage doors, are small—the whir of moths, the snap of a stick. —R.A., 1985