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Book of the Week: Selected by Karen Jenkins

Book Of The Week Perfect Places, Perfect Company Photographs by Robert Adams Reviewed by Karen Jenkins Perfect Places, Perfect Company is a two-volume reworking of a series of photographs that Robert Adams (born 1937) made in the mid-1980s at Colorado’s Pawnee National Grassland. First published in 1988 under the title Perfect Times, Perfect Places, these photographs powerfully convey the deep sensory pleasure of walking in vast, open spaces.
Perfect Places, Perfect Company
Photographs by Robert Adams

Steidl, Gottingen, Germany, 2016.
104 pp., 55 black-and-white illustrations, 10¼x12½".

In 1952, teenaged Robert Adams moved from Wisconsin to Wheatridge, Colorado, a suburb of Denver. There he quickly resumed his routine of walking in nature. Despite not being immediately captivated by the expansive grasslands, Adams was committed to their exploration. With time came an abiding habit and deep love for these seemingly quiet and empty spaces, and a lifetime of art that championed their worth.

Inevitably, not all walks took Adams through pristine natural expanses, unperturbed by suburban sprawl. In the mid-1970s, his solitary nighttime strolls near Longmont, Colorado yielded quiet views of neighborhood constructions illuminated by streetlight or moonlight (published by Aperture in 1985 as Summer Nights). Even his iconic The New West was born of pedestrian encounters; a new iteration depicting an invasive landscape through a high sun and troubled mind. Yet, Adams chose to return his attention to one of his most personal and intimate bodies of work—one devoid of such overt markers of human incursion—as he recalibrates his decades-long commitment to preserving the environment.

Perfect Places, Perfect Company expands upon a single volume called Perfect Times, Perfect Places originally published by Aperture in 1988. The new Steidl publication offers an expanded selection of photographs made during the Adams’ frequent walks through Colorado’s Pawnee National Grasslands. Its two slim volumes are now titled Perfect Places and Perfect Company. Substituting the word “times” for “company” is an apt nod to the enduring companionship of Adams’ wife, Kerstin, and their dog, Sally, during his days on the plains.

As Perfect Places unfolds, the subtle swaths of grasses, in low-contrast bands of grays, at first appear
static, suggestive of silence. Yet within a few pages, you begin to hear the movement of the wind; its waves animate these blades and tufts with their own majestic score and soundscape. Modulations in light, from sunshine to dark storm, manifest in slivers of dark shadow beneath bands of clouds, changing the temperature from cool to warm.

Nature rules Perfect Places. Property markers are rare: the occasional fence line, routed earth, or train tracks appear, but seem destined to become overgrown. The presence of Adams, Kerstin, and Sally, is also minimal in that collection, but each appears more prominently in Perfect Company. Adams pictures Kerstin leading the way, wandering afield, or dappled in a tree’s leafy shadows. We are invited into the Adams’ footsteps. We feel their love for this place they have visited time and time again, with the certainty that they have yet to discover its full wonder.

The Adamses left Colorado decades ago, so what do these images mean to them now? How can Adams label as perfect a place once ravaged by the dust bowl? As always, he offers a way out of defeatism and despair.

Friends tell us that the Pawnee National Grassland, to which we have not returned for over twenty years, has been lost to fracking and wind turbines. This would be an unbearable sadness were it not for all the people who loved it and remember it. As Wendell Berry has observed, “everything worthy is fragile and under threat, is prey to time and invisible to power, and yet affection keeps the accounting in the black. Worthy things, invested with affection, pass into ‘the now / which is eternal.’ I don’t know how this can be…and yet I believe that it is so.”

Coming from a less principled source, such sentiments may seem naïve or even useless in the face of
irreversible loss. Instead, it strengthens the status of Adams’ life’s work as an ever-richer compendium of mindfulness and a treatise on art’s persuasive powers. Each image and essay is a meditation on the now, the perfect time to care for everything that matters.

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Karen Jenkins earned a Master's degree in Art History, specializing in the History of Photography from the University of Arizona. She has held curatorial positions at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ and the Demuth Museum in Lancaster, PA. Most recently she helped to debut a new arts project, Art in the Open Philadelphia, that challenges contemporary artists to reimagine the tradition of creating works of art en plein air for the 21st century.