One of the great classic books of American landscape photography has just been reprinted: Robert Adams's fine, iconoclastic '70s exploration of the Front Range, The New West.
The New West , subtitled Landscapes Along the Colorado Front Range, was foundational for the New Topographics movement, and it marked (as well as anything) a fundamental change for American photography of landscape in general and of the West in particular: if Ansel Adams was in essence the last of the great 19th-century landscapists, echoing their heroic treatment of the West-as-wilderness, pristine, untrammeled and exotic, Robert Adams (no relation) was an early standout among younger generations of photographers who were taking a more jaundiced, documentary look at how land in the West was actually being used.
...Yet few love the land more than Robert Adams, who has written eloquently on the subject in short, epigrammatic essays and books such as Beauty In Photography and Why People Photograph, which I think are crucial companions to photographic books such as The New West, From the Missouri West, and the scarifying Los Angeles Spring. Robert Adams, who is a fine writer and has won both a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur "genius grant," is in a sense American photography's counterpart to Wendell Berry.
Photograph by Robert Adams
Maybe a book will be written in the future comparing and contrasting those two Adamses, Ansel and Robert. Both were (are, in the case of Robert, who was born in 1937 and is now 78) environmentalists. But their approach to that is diametrically opposite—Ansel celebrates the land as it supposedly was when unpopulated or very sparsely populated (although the hand of man can still be seen in many such photographs by people who know what they are looking for), and Robert's work is in part a sustained cry of anguish at what has been done to the land through poor stewardship and exploitation; he accepts the presence of mankind everywhere and the banality of many of the elements we've imposed on the land, while at the same time always remaining conscious of the essential dignity of the landscape.
The new volume ($26.49) is a careful and loving recreation by Steidl of the 1974 original. It's a small book, 9x10 inches, and belongs on the shelf next to such books as American Photographs by Walker Evans, William Eggleston's Guide, and The Americans by Robert Frank.
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Scott Symes: "I'll second your statement about how nice a book it is. I had mine on order for months and then just a couple of weeks ago it was finally released and shipped. The foreword by John Szarkowski sets it up perfectly for the reader/viewer. Highly recommended and a bargain at $27 on Amazon."
Tom Frost: "There has been one book looking at both Adamses: Reinventing the West, by Allison Kemmerer, 2002, Addison Gallery. It's still available at Amazon. I have a copy on my bookshelf."
Brian Adams: "For an appreciation of this photographer, I suggest you read "Robert Adams—What We Bought: The New World" by Tod Papageorge, from his book Core Curriculum published by Aperture in 2011. —Brian Adams (no relation to Ansel, Robert or Bryan!)"
Kenneth Tanaka: "Thanks for the heads-up, Mike! Although I'm on a book-buying moratorium this is one that I've long wanted but not yet bought...until now! Aside: The charming little film "How to Make a Book With Steidl" features a segment of Gerhard visiting Robert Adams and his wife in their home. It's a lovely segment that suggested what a gentle but very sharp fellow Adams is. Perhaps they were planning this edition at the time."
Franz Josef: "Re 'AA was photographing in the tradition of the 19th-cent landscapists, especially Carleton Watkins,' which Mike wrote in the Comments section—I don't think Stieglitz would agree. He saw Adams as a 20th Century 'modernist' right in line with Strand and Steichen. Carleton Watkins, O'Sullivan, etc. were more akin to journalists covering the discovery and marvel of the Western landscape. Perhaps you're associating their large view cameras with a shared outlook but I think Adams was a modernist working with very sharp and literal elements in abstract form."
Huw Morgan: "Mike, I tune in every day because you are such a good writer, but there are some posts where you really shine. This is one of them. I love the comparison between Ansel and Robert and your analysis is superb."
Ash: "Thanks for letting me know about this book. The images strike a chord with me because I grew up Longmont, Colorado, a front range town that grew from a population of 43,000 in 1980 to over 86,000 people today. When my copy arrives it should trigger a mixed emotional response like Adams designed it to do."
John McMillin: "As a resident of the Front Range megalopolis, I can tell you this—lazy, banal and uninspiring architecture is abundant here. And what's worse, you see everything coming form a long way off, and there's not many trees to hide the mediocrity."