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In plain view: When a camera isn’t a photographer’s only tool

Two new books from Robert Adams show him trying his hand at painting and sculpture.

Robert Adams, from "The Plains, From Memory." © Robert AdamsBarney Kulok

Here’s an oddity about photography. While there are notable visual artists who are also notable photographers, an aesthetic transitive principle would not seem to apply. Accomplished photographers don’t pick up a brush or chisel.

Charles Sheeler, Ben Shahn, Man Ray, Andy Warhol, and Chuck Close all did significant work as photographers in addition to their careers as painters and printmakers. In fact, you could argue — and you would be right — that Sheeler’s legacy and Shahn’s have been more lasting as photographers.

Ben Shahn, "Picking Cotton, Pulaski County, Arkansas, October 1935."Ben Shahan/Library of Congress

Edward Steichen, a giant of American photography, started out as a painter, and was a pretty good one, but soon enough gave up easel for lens. Although far better known as a photographer, William Christenberry also began as a painter. Photography for a long time was subsidiary to his painting and making assemblages, activities he never gave up.


Among current examples of painters who very memorably have dabbled in photography are Ed Ruscha and David Hockney (maybe it’s something about Southern California?).

Ed Ruscha, "Cineramadome on Sunset Boulevard photographed," 2007. From Streets of Los Angeles Archive, the Getty Research Institute,Getty Research Institute/© Ed Ruscha

As in so many other ways, Henri Cartier-Bresson is a category of one. Starting out as a painter, Cartier-Bresson soon turned to photography, becoming one of the medium’s supreme masters; then, in the final few decades of a very long life, he largely gave up the camera for painting and (especially) drawing. Rather than beginning he was resuming.

What inspires this observation about paintings and photography — and vice visual versa — is the appearance of two thoroughly charming and quite unexpected art books by one of America’s foremost living photographers, Robert Adams: “The Plains, From Memory” and, with Joshua Chuang, “Boats, Books, Birds.” The former consists of paintings, the latter of sculptures. Both are published by Steidl.

Adams, 85, is currently the subject of a major retrospective at the National Gallery of Art, “American Silence: The Photographs of Robert Adams.” It runs through Oct. 2. That title, “American Silence,” speaks to a quietude at the heart of Adams’s work: a reverence for nature; a surpassing sense of the immensity of the West, from eastern Colorado to the Oregon coast; and an acute alertness to the depredations upon that so often despoiled region.


Robert Adams, "Pikes Peak, Colorado Springs, Colorado," 1969.Robert Adams

The photographs Adams took of development in Colorado during the late ‘60s and throughout the ‘70s make up one of the great bodies of work in American art — in any medium. They are at once stalwart, lyrical, unblinking, melancholy, at times moving, at other times mysterious or meditative, sometimes celebratory, more often accusatory, profoundly moral but never moralistic. Nearly all of these qualities are to be found in “Pikes Peak, Colorado Springs,” from 1969, one of Adams’s most stunning images.

Robert Adams, "Ranch Northeast of Keota, Colorado," 1969.Robert Adams

Pikes Peak is in the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies. Adams has done comparably striking work in the eastern half of the state, which is an extension of the Great Plains. “Ranch Northeast of Keota, Colorado,” also from 1969, would be an example. It also connects with the 20 paintings found in “The Plains, From Memory.”

They are marvels of simplicity, evocation, and, yes, quietude. “In the year 2020,” Adams writes, “I was lucky to discover, in the grain of an old board, a landscape.” The paintings are on wood, rather than canvas. They are modest in size as well as simple in appearance, ranging from a little more than 6 inches square to 11¼ inches by 17⅜ inches. Adams uses the grain of the wood or cracks in it to indicate the contour of the land. The flatness of the boards mirrors that of the terrain: The picture plane is a version of the plains. Subdued colors add to the chaste visual effect. They also let Adams indicate sky or field, highway or horizon. In some ways, the paintings recall linoleum blocks, in others a deeply austere version of Richard Diebenkorn’s “Ocean Park” series.


Robert Adams, from "The Plains, in Memory." © Robert AdamsBarney Kulok

“The Plains, From Memory” (the eloquence of that comma is considerable) bears a subtitle: “Recorded in Wood.” Wood doubly matters to Adams. He is a man who dearly loves trees, a favorite subject in recent decades. And their absence from the plains makes them all the more precious there.

“Recorded in wood” also appears on the title page of “Boats, Books, Birds.” Adams’s father taught him woodworking, and the book includes 50 or so examples of his handiwork. Chuang, who curated the landmark retrospective of Adams’s work that Yale mounted in 2012, photographed the various boats, books, and birds. The affinity between his sensibility and Adams’s is unmistakable.

Robert Adams, from "Boats, Books, Birds." Photograph by Joshua Chuang.© Joshua Chuang

Adams is an exceedingly eloquent writer. (Save photographers as writers, a very rich subject, for another time.) Looking at these paintings and sculptures, two remarks he’s made about his photographs come to mind. Adams has said he seeks “not self-expression, but the simple recording of the sufficiency of what is.” And: “Photographs should look like they were easily taken. Otherwise beauty in the world is made to seem elusive and rare, which it is not.” No, it’s not, but renderings of that beauty as pleasing and unpretentious as these paintings and sculptures are very rare indeed.


Robert Adams, "Untitled," from "Boats, Books, Birds." Joshua Chuang

Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.