May 15, 2009

Other Frontiers: Robert Adams' The New West

Among those photographers in America and abroad, who came to be identified with a certain “topographical” impulse, it describes none more aptly than Robert Adams, both in terms of the work he has made and the scope of his ambition. The latest Aperture edition of his seminal book The New West once again reaffirms his place as arguably the pre-eminent landscape photographer of his generation – or any other for that matter. If the rigour of his approach draws on a particular set of literary values there is an equal insistence on the standards of photography as a medium, its informational burden and yet this formality, along with a traditionalist’s savouring of craft, is never undermined by emphasising the decorative appeal of surfaces alone.

At the core of this work is a vital anger, seemingly at odds with the obvious (visual) pleasure he takes in his subject, those luminous scenes that open out into the distance, alive with light. It is precisely this tension that makes Adam’s work so significant, the way he negotiates the gulf between the autonomous reality of the photograph and the social context that it describes. While Adams is certainly not the first artist to have utilised this kind of insight into the conflicting natures of photography, he has consistently made it a defining feature of his work, producing formally resolved (even beautiful) objects that can still, at the same time, articulate some comment on the deeper structures of the world around us, all that we take for granted in our rush for progress and what the historical legacy of those same attitudes has been.

The book is divided into a set of thematic chapters, each prefaced with a short introduction by Adams. His writing shows, once again, a remarkable gift for clarity and telling detail, equal to his best work in photography – it should come as no surprise that Adams has a background in literature, which he pursued with considerable seriousness until he made the decision to concentrate all his effort on photography. The printing in this new volume is capable of rendering his wrung-out palette of chalky greys and brittle whites to its fullest extent. In so many ways, Adams’ concern has always been with light, its dimensional alchemy, and his work here is no different. The “chapters” themselves fall into a narrative arc that moves from the open spaces of the prairie along the highways, already codified and implying domain, with tangled power lines and guardrails, through the suburban hinterland to the architecturally immobile heart of the city and then on to the mountains, a journey that mimics the westward expansion of the country itself, a history in miniature – along the Front Range.

The pictures carry a precision of thought and feeling equally matched by a visual precision, an unwillingness to traffic in sentimental appeal or esoteric affect. If the photography of Walker Evans seems a likely influence, in its dryness and aloof dedication to common-place truths (as well as their shared interest in literary forms) Adams has denied it is any such thing, which seems, in truth, a bit disingenuous, given that his pictures, for the most part, reveal a richer connection to Evans than this demurral implies. They share a sense in their work that what can seem like mere banality will gradually reveal something much deeper – perhaps Adams’ sensitivity to the overlooked and the mundane belongs to a variety of American transcendentalism in common with Whitman and even Thoreau, whereas Evans has a more explicitly European heritage, drawing in particular on those writers like Flaubert or Gide, who used a meticulous observation of everyday events to map the wider cultural realities of their age.

What is common to both, albeit in their different ways, is the willingness to use photography as a tool of exploration, a way of making a survey or study that dealt with the world around them, or at least some version of it, mapping the territory of an immediate present and seeing there the signs of a deeper truth, something implicit in the plainest kind of experience; both Evans and Adams can see this illumination as a material fact. In this sense, of course, he is heir to a particular tradition – one which he was prescient in seeing as related to those early photographers who had endeavoured to capture the as-yet unseen regions to the west, reading those landscapes as a guarantee of the world to come, the world that they would build.

By framing his examination of this failed Utopian heritage in the context of the landscape – and of the West in particular – Adams can see that same historical moment of divergence between what could be and what will be – knowing that to choose unwisely was a choice that could not be unlived and a poison chalice for all generations to come. As a result of his making such a self-conscious reference to the photographers who had crossed the frontier before him, he can, by comparison, trace the outline of a collective spiritual emptiness and moral failure in the least articulate gesture of place, where all that was implied by the West’s openness and what that said about American values now resembles nothing so much as a corrupted Eden, obvious in the contrast of meagre habitation and the unforgiving grandeur of the place itself.

Of course, this is a premise that Adams would go on to develop in his later work too, but The New West may well be its definitive account. It is both an elegy and an indictment, gathering together the shattered remains of that idealism so fundamental to America’s origin. We see how a sense of destiny once marked for the ages is brought to bitter ruin by greed and compromise. While the mythology of the West has become a central element in America’s self-identity, as the place where a man could prosper through his own efforts and create a civilisation virtually from scratch, what these pictures reveal is the Faustian nature of that achievement, a deal struck for some illusory gain and at the expense of core values.