Photographer ROBERT ADAMS has documented the changing American West since the late 1960s. His black and white photographs, along with his significant writings, have explored the complex relationship of humankind to the natural environment. Adams’s photographs emphasize the tension that lies between human expansion and nature. His seemingly stark, documentary-style images capture the need for home, the inescapable destruction of the land in western expansion, and the resiliency of nature. These photographs record suburban housing tracks, desolate prairie highways, mountain overlooks, highway exchanges, beaches, and people shopping. Adams seeks out the ordinary and often overlooked, allowing the viewer to question their own place and behavior within society and their natural surroundings.
Adams has always had an interest and love of the land. Some of his earliest and fondest memories are of hiking with his family in the woods. In the 1940s, Adams began to suffer from asthma. This propelled his family to move first to Madison, Wisconsin, and then to Colorado, for his health. While growing up in Colorado in the 1950s, Adams continued to be very active in the outdoors, becoming an Eagle Scout, guide and camp counselor, and working for the U.S. Forest Service. The many natural areas Adams explored as a young man would later become the areas he would see so drastically changed and be compelled to document in his photography.
At age 19 and before going to college, Adams’s concern for societal issues led him to consider becoming a minister, as his great-grandfather had been in the Midwest. Although he did not pursue the ministry, his social concerns would be born out through his photography. Adams went on to study English at the University of Redlands in California, graduating in 1959 and later, pursued his Ph.D. in English from the University of Southern California, which he completed in 1965. In 1962, Adams returned to Colorado to teach English at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. He was troubled by the changes that had occurred during his absence. ‘‘I came back to Colorado to discover that it had become like California…The places where I had worked, hunted, climbed and run rivers were all being destroyed, and for me the desperate question was, how do I survive?’’ (Di Grappa 1980).
During his time in Colorado Springs, Adams began to find that through photography he could ‘‘say what he wanted to say—which approximated what I felt’’ (Brooke 1998, 100). With little formal training in photography, Adams would in the late 1960s begin to capture the rapidly changing American West and the people who inhabit it. He wrote of his work in an essay ‘‘In the American West is Hope Possible’’:
So, when I have the strength to be honest, I do not hope to experience again the space I loved as a child. The loss is the single hardest fact for me to acknowledge in the American decline. How we depended on space, without realizing it—space which made easier a civility with each other, and which made plainer the beauty of light and thus the world.
(Adams 1989, 159)
Adams taught at Colorado College until 1970, when he turned to photography full-time. Important to his early career, Adams met John Szarkowski, director of the department of photography at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), in 1969. Szarkowski subsequently bought four of Adams’s prints and supported Adams and his new approach to documenting the Western landscape. Adams was included in exhibitions at MoMA in 1970, 1971, and 1973 and throughout his later career. In 1975, he was one of several photographers featured in the important exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape at the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House, Rochester, New York. Through this exhibit, he became associated with the ‘‘new topographic’’ photographers, including Lewis Baltz, Joe Deal, Frank Gohlke, and Stephen Shore. These photographers all acknowledged the human existence in nature through their work, in contrast with other ‘‘western’’ photographers such as Ansel Adams (no relation), Imogen Cunningham, and Edward and Brett Weston of Group f/64, whose photographs often reflected a mythical and pristine natural landscape. ROBERT ADAMS and others were utilizing the photographic medium to begin defining a new area of social critique.
Adams’s inspirations are many. In his writings or in the accompanying text to his work, he regularly quotes poets and writers, including Henry David Thoreau, Edward Abbey, and others. He also cites and discusses painting, sculpture, and architecture as influential to his work. In particular, the German architect Rudolph Schwarz, known for his church designs, has influenced Adams. Beyond the documentary and social context, Adams’s photographs have also been critiqued on a formal or aesthetic level. Most notably, his work has been compared to the paintings of American painter Edward Hopper, through his similar use of stark light, lone figures, and a building or element within the broader landscape.
Adams published his first book, White Churches of the Plains, in 1970 and proceeded to successfully publish over 20 books over the following 30 years. Included are The New West: Landscapes Along the Colorado Front Range (1974), an important early work; From the Missouri West (1980), Adams’s personal survey of western expansion; Summer Nights (1985), which captured the contrasting beauty and solitude of the inhabited suburban landscape; To Make it Home: Photographs of the American West (1989); published to coincide with his major retrospective exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art; and West from the Columbia (1995), which captures the landscape of the Oregon Coast where Adams and his wife vacationed for years and now live.
Adams’s oeuvre extends beyond obvious irony and does not suggest an easy answer to the existential questions it poses. The viewer must come to grips with his or her own position in relation to the future and in relation to landscape and civilization. In sorting out these conflicts, the photographer has written,
Most of my hopes are for the amelioration of problems a more conservative pattern of land use, a reduction in air pollution, a more prudent consumption of water, a lessening of animal abuse, a more respectful architecture. When I think about the possibility, however, of a landscape enriched by specific places to which we have responded imaginatively and with deference, I find myself thinking that we might be permitted to call it improved.
(Adams 1989, 163)
See also: Adams, Ansel; Baltz, Lewis; Gohlke, Frank; History of Photography: 1980s; Szarkowski, Jo