"Robert Adams: The Place We Live, A Retrospective Selection of Photographs 1964-2009"
on view until October 28, 2012, Yale Gallery of Art, 1111 Chapel St., New Haven, (203) 432-0600, artgallery.yale.edu
In one of the more evocative photographs from the magnificent Robert Adams retrospective on view through October at the Yale Gallery of Art, the ghostly shadow of a tree appears framed against a wide white garage door. The garage door belongs to a newly-built tract house somewhere in the swelling Denver suburbs in the 1970s; the tree may be the last remaining vegetation on the lot — or any lot in a surrounding landscape that has been defoliated by developers. The result is an image that is both beautiful and melancholy, and it reflects the competing tension in Adams' work — maybe the competing tension in all of contemporary art.
On the one hand, Adams conveys what curator Joshua Chuang and gallery director Jock Reynolds call "the startling eloquence of trees"; on the other he uncovers the too-often destructive cacophony of mankind. On one level, we all know we're part of a greater whole, but on another, we can't accept that subservience. About this tension, Adams writes, "I wanted to record hope … along the way, however, the camera also caught evidence against hope."
The massive exhibition — which takes up two floors at Yale — opens in "Eden." No, not the Garden of Eden, but Eden, Colo., named for a railroad owner though the double meaning was surely not lost on the 19th-century settlers. The "spirit" of biblical Eden, however, is absent from the photographs taken by Adams at a truck stop. Of these, an empty, altar-like booth lit by a window opening on a parking lot displays the real power of Adams' work: That is, his most effective photographs are the ones without people but which retain the presence of mankind.
Next up is "The New West," the first sign of "newness" being a photograph of a billboard proclaiming, "For Sale or Lease 1340 Ft. Frontage," followed by several others documenting the chockablock spread of suburbia. The shoddy tract homes rise from a craggy, desert-like landscape that no doubt was characterized before their arrival as a "waste land." Suburbanites spread their wings further in "Summer Nights," with carnivals, shopping centers, new roads, culverts and giant holes in the earth. It's the photographic equivalent of Robert Crumb's cartoon "A Short History of America": open spaces slowly giving way to car dealers, graffiti, burger joints, drive-ins, hey, next thing you know, it's civilization! In "Frame for a Tract Home, Colorado Springs," 1969, we see a half-finished construction site, in the foreground a street sign. If you look closely, you can see it's the intersection for a future suburb and it is, perhaps ironically, named "Darwin Place."
Serving mute witness to this transition are Adams photos of empty mismatched lawn chairs in front of an apartment and a baby left in its stroller on the front stoop like a foundling.
"Robert Adams is coming from a background as an English literature professor and he is very attuned to language," said Reynolds, pointing to one photograph that features a "Think" wall sign and another inside a downscale department store that says "We're Glad You're Here." "He is big on 'visual literature.' He's a favorite of the students and faculty at Yale's art school, which is one of the reasons we acquired a master set of his photographs for our collections."
Adams was born (1937) and grew up in Orange, N.J., but his family moved to Denver when he was 15, before that area was inundated by waves of new arrivals and suburbs. After getting his Ph.D. in literature, he became a professor of English at Colorado College. Driven by his concern over the rapid changes taking place in Colorado and feeling that someone should bear witness to them, Adams began in the early 1960s to take black and white documentary photographs, in the manner of FSA icons like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. As he wrote, "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."
Adams' relationship with the Yale Gallery of Art began in 2000, when the photographs from his book What We Bought: The New World were purchased and exhibited here. In 2002, the gallery bought a master set of all of Adams' photographs and began collaborating with him to organize the current retrospective, which debuted in Vancouver, moved to Denver and Los Angeles and will go from New Haven to Spain, Germany, France and Switzerland. This is the only East Coast exhibit of Adams' retrospective.
Conveniently, if serendipitously, Adams' name offers clues about his vision. The "Adams" part is easy, seen in the vast land-, sky-, night- and sea-scapes of the American West that serve as backdrops for his roving lens. Though Ansel Adams is no relation to Robert Adams (and was 35 years his senior), the two corresponded, and echoes of the former are seen in the latter; both brilliantly explore the artistic nuances of black and white photography. The "Robert" part is tougher, but equally telling, seen in the truck stops, suburbs, homes and roadsides of the West, the exact same terrain that inspired Robert Frank, especially in his classic 1958 book The Americans. Frank's impact shines through in images like "Floral Setting $27.97," a shot of a store's shelf stuffed with pre-packaged, pre-framed landscape "paintings." Oh, the irony.
Cementing Adams' legacy in a way, The National Gallery in Washington DC recently set about acquiring 169 prints of Adams work to add to its vast collection, which already houses significant works by Alfred Stieglitz and Robert Frank, among many others.
"Robert and I both grew up in these towns out west that were suburbanized but no one documented the transition as it was going on," said Reynolds, originally from Davis, Calif. "He wavers, like all of us, between absolute joy and despair about what is happening to the earth. But even in despair beauty appears; despair is commingled with hope. He has not given up."
This is made clear in the second half of the Adams exhibition, which is housed on the 4th floor of the gallery. Here, you find photographs from more recent years, including images from outlying Colorado counties that delight in the wide open spaces and random shots of landscapes through which Adams and his wife Kerstin have passed, counterbalanced by ominous shots of a jetliner interjecting itself into the upper right corner of an Edenic landscape near Colorado Springs or rotting remnants of clear-cut old-growth forests in Oregon.
Adams has grown more spiritual, and less harsh, as he has gotten older, which isn't to say he has lost his edge. The show ends with a series of Pacific seascapes, with the waves off Oregon so lulling you can almost hear the dull roar, drowning out the whining children and revving Hummers in the parking lot and almost prompting the question, "So, where do we go from here?"