NEW HAVEN — Every retrospective poses two implicit questions. Is the work worthy of summary? Is the summary worthy of the work? For “Robert Adams: The Place We Live, a Retrospective Selection of Photographs,” the questions are effectively rhetorical, the answer so plainly being yes. In fact, the show, which runs through Oct. 28, can be a bit overwhelming. Taking up two floors of the Yale University Art Gallery, it includes 259 photographs.
The place in the subtitle is the American West — Colorado, in particular, especially during the late ’60s and ’70s. The we is the human race. The interaction between the two — between the natural environment and the most aggrandizing creature to live within it — is Adams’s abiding subject. Ansel Adams showed the Sierra Nevada pure, monumental, exalted. His namesake shows the Rockies and environs impure, diminished, yet still somehow exalted. Mountains may be mined. Tract developments may mar the plains. But always there is that astonishing light — and even more astonishing sweep of space. Their relationship to space, even more than their relationship to light, sets apart Adams’s best photographs. He has an almost-architectural awareness of the proportional relationship between space and object or site.
Adams is, in a sense, trapped in his artistic vocation. He cherishes nature unblemished and undiminished. Yet he has an unrivaled eye for that awkward, compelling cusp where the man-made and natural environments intersect. His camera has patrolled this American frontier. It’s not the frontier as usually understood, as settled East and unsettled West, civilization and wilderness. Adams’s frontier is a fault line. It lies between unspoiled nature and, as he puts it, “what we purchased, what we paid, and what we could not buy.” His pictures “document a separation from ourselves, and in turn from the natural world that we professed to love.” Could any word be more damning than “professed”?
“Pikes Peak, Colorado Springs, Colorado,” from 1969, puts Adams’s frontier front and center, quite literally. Frontier is the name of a gas station chain in the West, like Mobil or Gulf. Even if you didn’t know that, you wouldn’t need to see every letter to recognize what the word on the sign is. That Adams crops it is a nicely deadpan touch. However unintentionally, the sign designates that other frontier which he concerns himself with. What’s most arresting in this utterly arresting image is the play and clash of light. The mass of Pikes Peak, one of the most famous mountains in a region full of them, looks all the more magnificent barely illuminated by a setting sun behind it. Note, though, how a trick of perspective makes that mass appear hemmed in by utility lines. Note, too, how the artificial illumination at the service station — the overhead lights at the pumps, the lit-up smaller sign against the garage, the glow from the interior — offers its own mild measure of the sublime.
ROBERT ADAMS: The Place We Live, a Retrospective Selection of Photographs
Adams is too intellectually honest — and aesthetically alert — not to acknowledge the very different, but no less striking, beauty that the made world can offer. He recognizes that violated beauty doesn’t stop being beautiful. It’s that aspects of the beauty alter, as do our responses to it. The title of “Burning oil sludge, north of Denver, Colorado,” is self-explanatory. What one wouldn’t otherwise imagine, though, is how beautiful an image of such an appalling disregard for the environment can be. The plume of black smoke is like a gash across the sky.
And at least the sky remains open. It’s the many photos of tract houses, ranch houses, mobile homes, trailers, commercial strips that carry an even greater burden of sorrow. “Pueblo County, Colorado,” from 1968, shows a large “For Sale” sign planted in the middle of nowhere. On one level, the sign looks so meaningless there as to be a joke — on another, it’s an even more potent metaphor than that Frontier sign.
The immensity of the landscape can exact a human price in isolation. If Edward Hopper had been a photographer, his finest (which is to say most Hopperesque) photograph could have been “Colorado Springs, Colorado,” from 1968. It isn’t just that Pueblo County for-sale sign that’s in the middle of nowhere. This other nowhere is emotional, or even spiritual. Anomie and mystery mingle amid a succession of rectangles. They form an inhuman geometry, like cells in a sort of prison, with a woman’s profile captured in the middle. The light in the sky, the light on the lawn, underscores the interior darkness surrounding her. Taken a few years later, there’s the comparably Hopperesque “Longmont, Colorado.” It’s a reversal of the earlier photograph. Now it’s night outside. Light streams out from inside a screen door. It’s like a Cyclops eye in the darkness. Brightly lit loneliness is more piercing somehow than loneliness in shadows.
(On the subject of interior shadows? Many of the titles in the show, which are stenciled on the wall, are in shadow. Track lighting is a fine thing. It’s even finer when the tracking has been properly adjusted.)
It’s common practice among photographers to give a photograph the title of the location where the image was taken. It’s a convention Adams generally follows. When he doesn’t, he always includes the location within the title. Doing this is more than a convention for him; it’s a statement of purpose. Sense of place is central to his work, and never more so, paradoxically enough, than when it’s absent, as in the blankness and interchangeability of those exurban developments.
The Colorado pictures represent a rare coinciding of time, place, and talent: a region of remarkable natural beauty, undergoing a period of remarkable change, recorded by a photographer of remarkable talent. Adams, who turned 75 in May, brought fresh eyes to Colorado. When he was 15, he moved there with his family from Wisconsin, having been born in New Jersey. So in his person he embodies our national progression westward. Then he went farther west, going to college and graduate school in California. Adams returned in 1962, to teach English at Colorado College. He bought his first 35mm camera the next year. Over the remainder of the decade, he became increasingly serious about photography.
The early work is slightly fussy. The pictures strive to be as unflawed and pure as the light and landscape they celebrate. Adams was still a man of the word as much as of the image — maybe more. He was an English professor, after all. The show opens professorially, as one might say, with a photo essay on Eden, Colo., from 1968. What drew Adams there wasn’t the town’s appearance, per se, but its name (and that name’s irony — the community was named after an individual with that surname, not the biblical paradise).
Adams would retain his literary bent. Among the more than 40 books and monographs he’s published are two essay collections. The show includes seven cases displaying copies of various titles. More important, Adams has a talent for writing rare among photographers — or, for that matter, writers. The prose is precise and elegiac. “All that is clear,” he writes of Southern California, “is the perfection of what we were given, the unworthiness of our response, and the certainty, in view of our current deprivation, that we are judged.” Only a very principled man would have included either “certainty” or “judged,” let alone both.
That sentence comes from a photo essay in the show, “Los Angeles Spring.” Some other photo essays are on unexpected subjects: parents and children, a statue of the Bodhisattva, a protest against the Iraq war, memorials to the striking miners murdered in Ludlow, Colo. Other subjects are less surprising: clear-cut forests in Oregon (Adams now lives in that state), the mouth of the Columbia River, the Pawnee National Grassland, cottonwood trees.
Adams loves trees. Who doesn’t? But Adams, really, really loves trees.
Cottonwoods, palms, alders, eucalyptuses, poplars, citrus trees. You can feel in the pictures how deeply he responds to them. They move and renew him. In so many of these images the presence of a tree redeems the man-made environment. The sight of a sapling is a promise made. A 1980 photograph from the photo essay “Summer Nights” shows the shadow of a small tree delicately traced on a garage door, as if it were growing through or within the structure — like a bedpost in the “Odyssey.” Conversely, there are stumps in the clear-cutting essay that have the heft — and suggest the desolation — of funerary monuments.
Two trees at twilight, in “Aurora, Colorado,” also from “Summer Nights” exhibit a luminous perfection. It may be the single most beautiful image in the show. Yet now the photograph serves as a reminder of the limits of an artist’s control. The title has acquired an association Adams could not have imagined just weeks ago, let alone in 1979, when he took the photograph.
The “Summer Nights” pictures stand out because of the contrast with so many of the other images with their mountain light bright to the point of harshness. Darkness conceals, but it also softens — and no more so than in a region where light’s implacability is the price of its being so immaculate. The softening can also extend to the handiwork of man. A carnival ride looks like some kind of enormous plant, marvelous in its photoluminescence.
A similar sense of dislocation, of the man-made made to seem natural, informs “Northeast from Flagstaff, Boulder County, Colorado.” Beyond a dark vertex of treetops (again, the presence of trees) lies a flat expanse that’s considerably lighter. It looks like nothing so much as . . . the sea? The sight is thrilling and inexplicable. The ocean has come to Colorado? No matter: Reason defers to a sight so beautiful, and one recalls Keats’s lines about “stout Cortez when with eagle eyes / He star’d at the Pacific.” There’s a comparable feeling of unexpected discovery.
Well, Keats got it wrong, of course. Balboa had the first European glimpse of the Pacific. And with this photograph, we are the ones who get it wrong. A closer look reveals this “sea” to be a plain, much of it filled with trees and buildings. But even as our error recalls Keats’s, so does our sense of excitement and revelation recall the conquistador’s. At its best, Robert Adams’s work offers a similar experience of excitement and revelation, whether born of appreciation, dislocation, indictment, or all three. His photographs from the ’60s, ’70s, and early ’80s, taken as a whole, are one of the great 20th-century American documents, in any medium, and he is among the few living artists, again in any medium, who deserve the title of American master.