WASHINGTON — Robert Adams photographs the landscapes of the contemporary American West, no matter how degraded, with the loving attention that his artistic forebears, Timothy H. O’Sullivan and Carleton E. Watkins, bestowed on sublime vistas in the 19th century. To borrow the words of the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, he tries “to praise the mutilated world.”
His powerful ally is Western light. With the prowess of an Indigenous tracker, he scopes out his quarry — a subdivision of tract homes, a clear-cut forest — to determine the time of day when a site is illuminated with a radiance that feels blessed. And then he shoots.
“When I’m photographing in clear-cuts, I know that what has brought me there is a sense of the world coming apart,” he told a group of college students in 2001 in Astoria, Ore., where he lives with his wife, Kerstin Adams. “But after I’ve been there long enough to get over my shock at the violence, after I’ve been working an hour or two and am absorbed in the structure of things as they appear in the finder, I’m not thinking only about the disaster. I’m discovering things in sunlight. You can stand in the most hopeless place, and if it’s in daylight you can experience moments that are right, that are whole.”
“American Silence: The Photographs of Robert Adams,” a magisterial career survey at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., reveals that in the course of a half-century of making black-and-white pictures, Adams, 85, has found it increasingly difficult to sustain this attitude. The toll of time — on his psyche, the landscape or both — can be discerned in the unremittingly bleak photographs that dominate his output in recent decades. The sky is excluded from many of these pictures, and when it does enter, it is often a gray smudge of smog.
Adams came to widespread attention as one of ten photographers included in a celebrated exhibition, “New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape,” mounted at George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., in 1975. Such fellow participants as Bernd and Hilla Becher or even Lewis Baltz, the artist most closely allied with Adams, took serial photographs that might be forensic evidence in a prosecutorial suit. Adams discerned poetry where others found the grimly prosaic. He has cited as influences the paintings of Paul Cézanne — with their play of sunlight on geometrically simplified houses that uncannily prefigured the repetitive boxlike tract homes he saw in Colorado — and Edward Hopper, with their melancholy light at the start and end of day and their haunting evocations of loneliness. Two-thirds of “North Denver Suburb,” 1973, is given to clouds that rival any that Cézanne saw over Mont Sainte-Victoire; and the houses below, shabby as they are, form an ensemble of architectural blocks that the French modernist master might have rendered directly, without abstraction. “Longmont, Colorado,” 1977, an Adams picture of a woman seated in a paneled den in a tract home, could serve as the jacket illustration for “Revolutionary Road,” Richard Yates’s classic novel about American suburban disillusionment.
Adams once declared that O’Sullivan is “our Cézanne,” finding interest and tension in quiet, empty landscapes. In the excellent catalog to the exhibition, Sarah Greenough, the senior curator and head of the department of photographs at the National Gallery, points out that, in addition to his depictions of grand American scenery, O’Sullivan documented the carnage of the Civil War, in which soldiers’ corpses and artillery-destroyed trees were strewn across the terrain, much as the remnants of majestic firs litter the ground after a clear cut.
Adams stands in a lineage. O’Sullivan and Watkins, while portraying the mountains and valleys of the West, didn’t ignore the incidental markings of human encroachment. Indeed, as documented in “American Geography,” last year’s compendious and admirable monograph by Sandra S. Phillips with Sally Martin Katz (conceived as a catalog for an even larger exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art that was scuttled because of the pandemic), the scarring of Western land began in the 19th century with the advent of agriculture, industry, mining and railroads. But the major impact would come later. The epic period of Western deforestation was memorably depicted by Darius Kinsey, who, in Washington State in the first half of the 20th century, photographed loggers standing over fallen trees like Great White Hunters posing with slain elephants.
At the outset of his career, Adams investigated the early settlements in the eastern Colorado prairie, where homes and churches made of wood or adobe tread lightly on the terrain. The horizontal clapboards of a house in “Clarkville, Colorado,” 1972, rhymes with the vast grasslands and sky that dominate the picture, and with the thin, faintly perceptible overhead wires high above. Adams has chosen to include only a narrow section of the building, so that it intrudes modestly into the right margin of the frame.
When he turned to the more densely populated precincts near Boulder, Adams saw that the harmony between nature and civilization had sundered. In “Northeast from Flagstaff Mountain, Boulder County, Colorado,” 1975, an ominous shadow across the bottom of the picture underscores a denuded mountain, which overlooks featureless housing developments that extend drearily toward the horizon. The shadow of a tree cast by nighttime illumination on a tract-home garage door in “Longmont, Colorado,” 1976, hovers like a ghost, testifying to what has been destroyed. Returning to the scene of the crime in “Boulder County, Colorado,” 1983, Adams photographed fire-blackened pines on the mountain as tortured, twisted victims, surveying a valley that smog has shrouded into invisibility.
Trees in Adams’s photographs have an anthropomorphic presence — and even, in some instances, a universal one. The massive trunks in a series of close-up arboreal portraits, “Poplars, Harney County, Oregon,” 1999, contain whole worlds of supported life, like the giant redwood that has a featured role in Richard Powers’s novel “The Overstory.” More typical, though, are less sanguine specimens. The row of trees at the precarious edge of a cliff in “New Development on a Former Citrus-Growing Estate, Highland, California,” 1983, are sentinels in a lost war; and the two bedraggled trees in “On Signal Hill, Overlooking Long Beach, California,” 1983, are like Philemon and Baucis — the elderly couple in Greek mythology who, in return for their hospitality, are taken to a mountain to view the flood that has washed away their less generous neighbors and eventually, as they wish, are transformed by the gods into a linden and an oak, side by side.
Adams’s influence on later photographers, who typically work in color, is widespread. To cite a couple of eminent examples: Mitch Epstein’s “Property Rights,” published last year, chronicles in gorgeous detail the pockets of local resistance to industrial intrusions on the environment; and Alec Soth, younger still and working like Epstein with an 8-by-10 view camera, records the fallen landscape with elegiac lyricism. Soth’s photograph in Wisconsin in 2002 of an illuminated gas pump stand, sited alongside a graveyard and beneath a mountain, could serve as a mordant pendant to Adams’s magnificent, twilit Hopper-esque picture of a similar mountainside facility that bears, with unintentional irony, the advertising banner, “Frontier.”
The most recent photographs in the show, dating from 2015, were made on a beach near the Adams home in Astoria. In one, a giant stump, washed up on the shore, testifies to an act of brutality. Resting on the wet sand beneath a streaked sky, all rendered in tones of gray, it is tragically beautiful.
The subtle ambiguity of gray suits Adams’s mind as well as his eye, because life is never as simple as pure black and white. The trees that have been planted with regular spacing alongside a highway in “Interstate 10, West Edge of Redlands, California,” 1983, are a study in sterility, a testament to nature suppressed and tamed in the name of progress. But if you look closely, you can see a bird perched on one of four overhead wires against the pale sky, like a note on a musical clef. Even in this broken and diminished world, Adams is saying, it is possible — no, it is imperative — to exult and sing.
American Silence: The Photographs of Robert AdamsThrough Oct. 2, National Gallery of Art, Sixth Street and Constitution Ave., NW, Washington, D.C.; 202-737-4215, nga.gov.