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Robert Adams
by Jay Mandel

Robert Adams, "Colorado Springs, Colorado" 1968

Robert Adams writes in the introduction to this show, "We are tempted to give up. How can we be truthful about our position and not reject where we live?"

The photography of this exhibition, a bevy of contradictions, awkward juxtapositions and elegant tension, answers this question. Adams's attachment to the natural world rarely plays itself out in the didactic fashion of that other Adams. Ansel strove for testaments of beauty and conservationist evidence. Robert takes a different approach (if also in black and white), striking at the heart of how human beings make our presence felt on this earth in all of our inspiration and crudity.

Greenberg has fabulously collected a myriad of Adams's work, all of which is tied by a preoccupation with humankind's invasion of the natural world (or nature's intrusion into our seemingly organized and subdivided existence). He is, as he says in his opening statement, preoccupied with the American West, "even now astonishing for its luminosity, its delicacy, its power of form, and for what Edward Abbey called, in Desert Solitaire, its "piercing strangeness." The operative phrase here is "even now," that landscapes cannot be completely shaken by suburban sprawl and tract housing. The proof is in the pictures.

Adams takes photographs of breathtaking rural American roads, pasted onto a landscape as if they had been ever-present--God's joke of symmetry. They are the quietest of spaces, always alarmingly uninhabited by cars. near pendleton, oregon 1978 is one of this show's stunners--acres and acres of perfectly plowed fields cut by concrete into two perfect halves. Adams's long exposure time enhances the contrast of land and sky, allowing us to feel the imprint an infinite landscape makes upon the mind.

The photographs in the show from Adams's book, Los Angeles Spring, are a more disturbing portrayal. Adams set out to depict the spaces between the canyon-riddled beach lands of pre-humanity L.A. and the awkward patchiness of human existence now in place there. Adams shot in Signal Hill and San Bernardino, juxtaposing a singular and defiant tree against a smoggy sky, or a series of palm trees over a drainage pipe. along interstate 10 reveals the awkwardness and manipulation required for California living--wild grasslands ruled over by huge eucalyptus trees are traversed by giant telephone wires. It's a simple irony, but one stated with just the right punch, in just the perfectly deceptive angle. Koala bears could be looming, but of course they aren't. I can't help but wonder where Adams was trespassing, what private property sign or guard dog he circumvented.

Adams's "Summer Nights" series moves us from the edge of nature to more direct markings of humanity. He is peering into a carnival from afar, admiring the ferris wheel. He is crouched low to the ground shooting weeds illuminated by headlights. He has taken fancy with an illuminated rock gently scrawled with graffiti or a TV antenna watching over a small patch of nature. The title "Summer Nights" suggests the musical Grease, or flirtatious beach stomping. Instead, Adams has given us only the shadows cast over our existence, the evidence that we were there, or someone else was. The photographs reflect this, every invasion of artificial light source treated like an unexpected arrival into the photograph. Never soft or easy.

Adams defies our expectations time and time again--where to find beauty; where to find culture; where do the two meet? In outdoor theater and cheyenne mountain (colorado springs 1968), the speakers of the drive-in become as mystifying in the daylight as the curvaceous mountains lining the background. It's spooky, not being able to check yourself without a film reel running and a Chevrolet. Perhaps the show's most impacting photograph, construction materials: new tract, denver, colorado, 1973, takes us to an outland development in the embryonic stages of formation. Particleboard litters the landscape, a strange reversal of the asymmetry that embodies the land and sky. It's prophetic--Adams has captured American architecture and real estate at its second great Post-War transformation. We are about to turn the land into a grid, something different than the softer quilt of the newly suburban 1950s. The houses here will undoubtedly all look the same. Yet, Adams again surprises us with the scattered human detritus. It's so weakly displayed and overwhelmed by the face of the landscape that we can imagine a sort of give and take instead of a simple raping.

It's quite telling that this haunting and inspirational photographic synergy takes a nosedive when Adams heads in either extreme. On the human end, various 1981 attempts at direct and hurried portraiture don't work so well. Adams uses a browner gradient in these works, somehow indicative of his discomfort and the subjects's distracted and skewed gazes. In one, a pregnant woman and her baby-toting friend leave a mall--it's not clear if their seemingly desperate visages are the result of living on the edge or frustration with unexpected paparazzi. It feels strangely inappropriate. The same goes for southwest from the south jetty, a sequence of five pristine shots of the ocean's changing tides. They enhance the connection one might make between Adams and Hiroshi Sugimoto who also shoots oceans and movie theaters. Hiroshi Sugimoto, however, derives meaning from comparative studies of predetermined human visions (how much different does your imagination look from mine?). By contrast, Adams is just getting ethereal and boring here.

His real power as a photographer is derived from the once-present and the still-disturbing. He stares into the vacuum-like face of our self-created geography and asks, "How, on God's earth, did we get here?" The resulting images are unforgettable.

Jay Mandel

New York, New York
1996

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