Robert Adams: A Need to Elaborate
By Paul Hester
Our Lives and Our Children; Photographs Taken Near The Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant. By Robert Adams, Published by Aperture. Millerton, NY 1983, Paperback. 112.50
"They are members of every race and notion of the earth. They are of all ages; of all temperaments, of all classes, of almost every imaginable occupation. Each is incorporate in such an intense and various concentration of human beings as the world has never known before-Each, also, is an individual existence, as matchless as a thumbprint or a snowflake. Each wears garments which of themselves are exquisitely subtle uniforms and badges of their being. Each carries in the posture of his body, in his hands, in his face, in the eyes, the signatures of a time and place in the world upon a creature for whom the name immortal soul is one mild and vulgar metaphor''
-James Agee, introduction to “Many are Called”
Photography is burdened by an expectation of unblemished views of the world. Portrait, advertising, architectural, and landscape photographers all labor under the demand for perfection. This obsession with the ideal is responsible for the lingering remains of the picturesque in photography and a fastidious concern for The Fine Print.
Concurrent with this urge to create a better make-believe world within the picture is another hope that photography can contribute to change beyond the frame. Activists from Lewis Hine to Danny Lyon to Fred Lonidier have expressed the conviction that social conditions exposed by photography could be reformed.
These impulses have formed a troubling mixture in the work of Robert Adams. He loves the land, both mountains and prairies; he admits to having an Ansel Adams print on his wall. But his concern for accuracy and typicality has led him over the past twenty years to make pictures not of national parks but of land that is being used and developed.
Robert Adams' work first achieved prominence in 1974 with the publication of The New West. Subdivided into "Prairie." "Tracts and Mobile Homes," "The City," and "Foothills and Mountains," the pictures point out all the things we usually try to escape when we travel or photograph. The unsettling aspect, however, is the careful attention paid to all these blemishes. A thoughtful equilibrium informs each picture; his simple, balanced compositions always seem to include the ubiquitous mountains at the edge of perception. As he wrote in the foreword, " Paradoxically, however, we also need to see the whole geography, natural and man-made, to experience a peace; all land, no matter what has happened to it, has over it a grace, an absolutely persistent beauty."
Each of his other books has elaborated on this initial theme. Denver A Photographic Survey of The Metropolitan Area, published in 1977, included this statement: "...a photographer wants Form, an unarguably right relationship of shapes, a visual stability in which all components are equally important. The photographer hopes, in brief, to discover a tension so exact that it is peace."
Prairie was published by the Denver Art Museum in 1978 Adams wrote in the foreword, "There are times, of course, when the only possible reaction to life on the prairie is to be still. .. Prairie buildings…are emblems of our hope and its vulnerability... Mystery in this landscape is certainty, an eloquent one. There is everywhere silence."
In 1980, Aperture published From The Missouri West, in which Adams decided to try to rediscover some of the land forms that had impressed our forebears. Was there remaining in the geography a strength that might help sustain us as it had them? I set one ground rule — to include in the photographs the evidence of man: it was a precaution in favor of truth that was easy to follow since our violence against the earth has extended even to anonymous arroyos and undifferentiated stands of scrub brush."
I have quoted Adams to this extent because rarely does a photographer try so hard to help us understand his position. His achievement in these landscapes is the union of both the conditions for his despair and the sources of his awe. The almost religious intensity with which he has concentrated on this uneasy marriage is evidenced in the progressive tautness of his images and the growing subtlety of his vision.
The didactic nature of Adams work has generally been overshadowed by his classical concern for austere, restrained objectivity. But “Our Lives and our Children” appears to mark the end of his desire for objective detachment. It is a collection of candid portraits made in parking lots, crosswalks and airports, many of young children and babies. Cars are everywhere; people are almost always moving, walking — some alone, but mostly in groups - talking, holding hands, touching. There is rarely any contact with the photographer. The people are not unusual in any obvious way. They are white, middle class, and not engaged in any particular activity such as a parade or demonstration. They are ordinary people engaged in the ordinary details of everyday life.
Four-fifths of the way through the book an image of a woman holding a young girl is repeated cropped into a narrow, horizontal band. The final dozen pictures maintain this format and present faces of anxious concern and gradually increasing imprecision and blurriness.
Two pages of text give a history of the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant, then Adams concludes.
"In summary, the plutonium triggers built at risk to Denver become part of a worldwide system so open to error and malfunction that it is reasonable to believe many of us will, at a scarcely imaginable but exact time, die from them.
"If we confront this conclusion we want almost at once to give up, to be free of what seems impossible hope. When we can find in ourselves the will to keep asking questions of politicians, it is. I think, after we have noticed the individuals with whom we live. How mysteriously absolute each is. How many achieve, in moments of reflection or joy or concern, a kind of heroism. Each refutes the idea of acceptable losses." The final page states that. "All royalties from the sale of this book will go to the American Friends Service Committee Freeze Education Fund, 1600 Lafayette Street, Denver, Colorado 80218."
I went back to Adams' earlier pictures looking for clues that might relate to this new book. Among the stark images of tract homes spread out below the mountains. I came across more people than I had remembered. While not present in significant numbers, they are consistent in their solitude, contemplation, and stillness. More surprising was the number of times these people happened to be children. "A child with nothing to do: the back of a shopping center" (page 92, Denver); a woman pushing a baby in a grocery cart past rows of bottled water (page 95. Denver); a young boy on a motorbike, poised on a overlook toward distant mountains (page 102, The New West); a father and child holding hands and walking away from the camera across a vacant lot toward the back of a shopping center (page 84, Denver).
The greatest help in my reading of Adams new work was Walker Evans 1966 book, Many are Called, of photographs that Evans took in the 1930s on New York subways. Evans hid a camera under his coat, ran a cable release down his sleeve, and rode the subway, surreptitously pho tographmg those seated across from him. People, isolated in the noise of the subway, read or act out small dramas with their companions. They all appear about the same size against the dark background of the subway and this format forces you to concentrate on them as individuals.
In the differences between the two books are certain clues. Evans' pictures have for us now a nostalgia for old clothes and hats, even old-style faces. Adams is stuck with contemporary T-shirts and running shoes, without the softening effects of time. His is a public arena limited to the distance between car and shopping mall, not the forced intimacy of a subway car. Because of our associations with this environment, it's difficult to see the enduring, persistent beauty of which Adams has convinced us in his other work. He has, however, revealed (or bestowed) a powerful authority residing in each body: the casualness with which I dismiss others every day has evaporated.
Adams' pictures have an air of haste, an element of stolen glances. It is, I believe, a source of the anxiety that one senses in these pictures. There is nothing dishonest in this, but it is a reminder that the pictures were made without asking. Perhaps the effort to explain why he was taking them was too great, too impossible. How does one say, "Because I love you," to a total stranger? Adams seems to feel a great burden, and marvels that others manage to carry on in spite of their difficulties.
Evans' pictures, also taken without permission, don't show this strain or tension. Only occasionally does someone peer suspiciously toward the lens hidden in the folds of his coat, and we fear for a moment we're about to be caught. The images are more formal; people are practically sitting for their portraits, lost in themselves, in the noise and anonymity of the subway.
Both photographers vary the size and proportions of their pictures, cropping and enlarging to emphasize the individual. Adams kept his camera low to place the figures against the sky, which increases their heroic stature and gives his camera the eye level of a child.
The absolute equilibrium which he demanded from his earlier pictures has been relaxed, and he offers in its place the precision of his observations about gesture and posture. Without fanfare or acrobatics, he records the quiet tenderness of our fragility.
It is this voyeurism, however, that is finally frustrating. All the interaction is within the frame: we watch touching, caring, loving people, but never make eye contact or become intimate. We are removed, the all-seeing eye. taking in fads, but making no commitments. I realize this distance is part of his respect for the subject, and that it contributes to the solitude which we see in the subjects, but it is this neutrality, this pretense of objectivity, that is so paralyzing. This style of photography presents its point of view as the ultimate window on the world, as though its cool, clinical detachment were the only reality.
The crack in this window gives this book its potential. Adams has apparently sensed the need to elaborate in order to give new meaning to the looks and gestures of the book. He has cropped and sequenced the last pictures to give no other option. He is demanding that we see in the nuclear context the concern on the boys face in the window and the man carrying his son and the woman biting her nails and the woman with her eyes shut. The cold, brilliant light of The New West has become a hot, blinding explosion.
Adams has, it seems to me, admitted the weakness of objectivity. He is confronted with a danger that cannot be seen, that he cannot photograph. He must make pictures to awaken us to what will be lost, and to persuade us of the immediacy of the danger. Some recent films, like Atomic Cafe, have mocked nuclear defense preparations; others like The Day After used makeup and special effects to suggest the horrors of nuclear war. An exhibition called The War Room documented the effects of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki with photographs of the cities and the survivors.
All efforts to alter our passive acceptance are worthwhile; they are necessary in order to change our minds about what is possible. But neutral photographs that put their faith in objectivity run the risk of supporting the status quo. To see ourselves as passive victims hastens our acceptance of the inevitable. We need photographs that challenge our acquiescence to Star Wars policies and mindless militarism. Classically composed photographs cannot convey the urgency, as Robert Adams admits with these last images.
The book as a whole encompasses the balance of his earlier pictures. Looking at the cover photograph, a woman in distress holds a child and crowds in on us from the left edge of the frame, while down the sidewalk a bit, another woman, holding a child by the hand, looks towards the first woman. She doesn't perceive the danger and is unaware of the ominous shape over her and the line that slices through her head Again I see the ambiguous message of ecological disaster and possible survival, the contrast between objects of despair and love. It is an equation of the sacred and the profane, the perfect and the imperfect.
“There would still remain the never-resting mind.
So that one would want to escape, come back
To what had been so long composed.
The imperfect is our paradise. Note that, in this bitterness, delight,
Since the imperfect is so hot in us, lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds."
Wallace Stevens, “The Poems of Our Climate”
The questioning of things as they are is the beginning of our understanding. Robert Adams has questioned our beliefs about what is worth photographing, or to put it another way, what is worth caring about. He questions us dearly on that account, and in large measure by his ability and willingness to relate these loving observations to the threat of nuclear war. I admire and applaud his strength on all levels. My reservation is one I am trying to answer for myself: How do we photographically place these questions in the political arena?
“Less than ever does a simple reproduction of reality tell us anything about reality. A photograph of the Krupp works or AEG yields almost nothing about these institutions. Reality proper has slipped into the functional. The reification of human relationships, the factory, let's say, no longer reveals these relationships. Therefore something has actually to be constructed, something artificial, something set up"