|Longmont, Colorado, 1979 -- Robert Adams courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery|
Since I moved to Santa Fe, there are only two men for whom I have driven to Denver and back in one day (720 miles roundtrip): James McMurtry, who played a show at the Bluebird last year, and Robert Adams, whose work was recently on view at the Denver Art Museum (DAM). McMurtry is unlikely to be bested by anyone but I was excited about seeing Robert Adams: The Place We Live, A Retrospective Selection of Photographs, 1964-2009, a traveling exhibition organized by The Yale University Art Gallery. After almost six hours in the car, I was road weary and ready for the visual pleasure of the maestro’s poignant, gelatin-silver stylings. The show was featured in the DAM’s special exhibition space and I was delighted to see that photography and Mr. Adams were given that honor and that Adams’ work would have room to breathe. For those of you who haven’t yet seen it (it now travels to Los Angeles, then Yale, before a generous tour overseas), the show offers selections from Adams’ major bodies of work (twenty!) throughout his long career. Given Adams’ significance, it’s a worthy and ambitious undertaking, one that resulted in a three-volume publication that accompanies the exhibition and an informative, easy-to-use website that I particularly admire.
|Nebraska State Highway 2, Box Butte County, Nebraska, 1978 & Neahkahnie Mountain, Oregon, 2004 -- Robert Adams courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery|
So I’m glad I saw the show but I didn’t like it. That is not meant to denigrate the considerable efforts of my colleagues to put together a comprehensive survey of work by an important photographer. My inquiry is more about how exhibitions work, what they are for, what they can offer. In this case, quality isn’t the issue but quantity is; it’s about a big retrospective not feeling like a good fit for an artist of such subtlety. Certainly the idea of examining the depth and breadth of Adams’ considerable oeuvre is a good one, offering the opportunity to assess
|covers of Robert Adams: The Place We Live and What Can We Believe Where?|
Adams is known for his books as much as his photographs and over the years has put together a group of remarkable publications characterized by their careful selection and sequencing. They are small books, easily held by human hands, easily picked up and put down while thinking. In their structure and their pacing, these books invite leisurely, contemplative consideration, which is probably the best way to apprehend Adams’ work. A retrospective exhibition is, almost by definition, antithetical to that kind of ease, intimacy, and thoughtfulness. All of Adams' work is black-and-white, all of it is the same size, all of it was matted and framed identically in the exhibition. While that kind of consistency of presentation is standard in a museum show, with the intention of keeping emphasis on the pictures themselves, what tends to happen is that they all look the same. It’s hard to fight that effect, especially with small pictures that require the viewer to get up close to view each one individually. Adams’ work demands and indeed merits that kind of attention, but the march of frames across pastel walls wasn’t particularly enticing, even for someone as invested in seeing the show as I was that day. Seeing all those pictures didn’t support the message of Adams’ work for me, it diluted it.
|Northeast of Keota, Colorado, 1969 and From the South Jetty, Clatsop County, Oregon, 1991 -- Robert Adams courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery|
After I returned home, I found the statement I was missing, written by the curators as the afterword to the aforementioned book What Can We Believe Where? I don’t think I have ever had occasion to write these words before, clichéd as they may be, but the book is a triumph. Three paragraphs of words at the beginning by Robert Adams and a half dozen at the back of the book by Chuang and Reynolds are just right in offering clarity and resonance to the selection of pictures in between. The images reproduced are, again, from across the artist’s career. But this time they are unconstrained by chronology and are arranged with great sensitivity into a river of joy and sadness and laughter and shock, concluding with the inexorable tides that will surely outlive us all. What a beautiful testament to Mr. Adams and his work.
|from the book What Can We Believe Where?|
Read Antone Dolezal's blog post on Robert Adams: The Place We Live here
Purchase a copy here
Read Tom Leininger's review of What Can We Believe Where? in photo-eye Magazine here
Purchase a copy here