Robert Adams: The Place We Live, A Retrospective Selection of Photographs, 1964–2009
Now seventy-five, reclusive photographer Robert Adams currently has a touring retrospective exhibition on view with eight venues, a testament to his importance internationally. We were lucky enough to see Robert Adams: The Place We Live at its inaugural presentation at the Vancouver Art Gallery and this is the show’s last week at the Yale University Art Gallery, the place where it was conceived, before it travels to museums in Spain, Germany, France and Switzerland. This sweeping retrospective unites more than forty-five years of Adams’ work and at this venue features more than two hundred photographs. Together, these images offer an epic portrayal of the landscape of the American West, as well as Adam’s incisive and singular vision of contemporary American life in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
Adams began taking photographs in the mid-1960s documenting the rapidly changing landscape of Colorado, where he lived: “I began making pictures because I wanted to record what supports hope: the untranslatable mystery and beauty of the world. Along the way, however, the camera also caught evidence against hope, and I eventually concluded that this too belonged in pictures if they were to be truthful and thus useful.” Adams’ black and white images of the banal suburbs of his home state and its inhabitants, his soaring and poetic landscapes reminiscent of 17th Century Dutch landscapes and skyscapes, and his heart-wrenching photographs of the decimation of the rainforests looking much like the remnants of landscape ravaged by war, are all testaments to his stated purpose – his lens often leaves the viewer with a sense of the bittersweet, capturing both optimism and destruction. Having lived and worked in the American West for forty-five years, he has a deep knowledge of his subjects and uses his lens to better understand the geography that surrounds him, both literal and metaphoric. With precision and striking economy, he powerfully conveys a sense of tragedy, capturing the loss of space and the consumer-driven damage nature has suffered at the hands of humanity. Adams’ images stand as witness to his struggle with the contradictions and incongruities of contemporary society depicting the difficult relationships we have both with the environment and our neighbours, somehow managing to find a quiet, radiant and fragile beauty therein.
The Place We Live includes all of Adams’ major projects, including his iconic early series The New West featuring tract housing and gas stations, the luminous Summer Nights images demonstrating a poetic quietude and his masterful portrayal of light and shadow, as well as more recent bodies of work such as Turning Back, capturing the aftermath of the clear-cut forests in Oregon, and Alder Leaves, his poetic and abstracted close-ups of this simple subject matter. Seeing these photographs gathered is a powerful experience – Adams’ practice over forty-five years provokes profound questioning of our place in the world and gently prods us to consider our responsibility to it. We were particularly enthralled by his graceful and timeless landscapes – devoid of people and operatic in their grandeur, they convey the eternal, acting as evidence of the fact that this world existed before us and will continue to exist long after we are gone.
Robert Adams: The Place We Live, A Retrospective Selection of Photographs, 1964-2009, tour schedule:
Vancouver Art Gallery, British Columbia: September 25, 2010–January 16, 2011
Denver Art Museum: September 25, 2011–January 2, 2012
Los Angeles County Museum of Art: March 11–June 3, 2012
Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut: August 3–October 28, 2012
Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid: January 22–May 13, 2013
Josef Albers Museum Quadrat, Bottrop, Germany: Summer 2013
Jeu de Paume, Paris: February 10– May 18, 2014
Fotomuseum Winterthur, Switzerland: Summer 2014