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Friday, 29 April 2016


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Have always respected the work of Robert Adams, but like jazz, I find much of it non negotiable emotionally.

I met Robert Adams when I was a young photographer traveling from Oregon to Rochester for my ill-fated grad school experience. He was very generous, our talk helped sway me towards not wasting my time in school and instead getting out to photograph. He had a lovely cottage home, I even met his famous dog. And he gave me a few of his rare, earlier books. More than any other teacher, that single meeting made a huge difference to me.

Later his book, "Beauty in Photography" helped clarify my thinking, it has been one of the most important books in my life.

Nowadays I am sure I would disagree with his puritanical environmentalism. And many of his individual photos leave me cold ~ they work best in book form where he presents a sequenced narrative. Also I don't know what he was thinking when he did some of the "pop" titles in the 1990s (the books about his dog and night time strolls)? It almost seemed like he was trying to cash in on his very faint glimmer of fame? But his more solid books like "From the Missouri West" are touchstones that I will always refer to.

He also introduced, or at least popularized, a modern style of printing that was the opposite of Ansel Adams and the West Coast School. I doubt he used filters, his Tri-X skies were luminous and high key - while holding detail - and he let the light dictate the photo, he wasn't trying to boss tones around in the darkroom like a Zone System zealot. You sensed the intensity and heat of the mountain light, some of his pictures captured the feeling of the SouthWest in Summer... or the gloom of the Oregon coast. And simply from a craft perspective, look at his books ~ it's no small feat to get such consistently even grey skies with roll film (Hasselblad user).

So yes, he deserves a spot alongside Eggleston and Friedlander.

I think we'er now in the 21st century, the last one was the 20th, when Ansel was photographing.

[Right, but what I'm saying is that AA was photographing in the tradition of the 19th-cent landscapists, especially Carleton Watkins. --Mike]

Not sure I totally agree with the comparison between the Adamses.
Ansel was not a documentarian, like a lot of 19th Century western photographers whose work was almost an adjunct to exploration. He was a modernist, conducting a typically modernist campaign to locate the ineffable. When he took his famous picture of the snow-covered tree, or of the Moonrise at Hernandez, NM, he wasn't saying, "Look at this landscape," he was saying, "Look at this beauty." Ansel's work was "western" only because he was in the west, IMHO, but could have been done win the Appalachians if he'd been in the east, or in the Alps, if he'd been in Europe. Robert Adamses' work was actually more in the older tradition, of going out to see what was there, of exploring. The only thing that made it "newer" was that what was there, was not what most people took pictures of; in some ways, it was actually a form of criticism, and that was a whole different thing than what Ansel was doing. IMHO.

Thanks Mike, It is on order. Amazon has about five example photos and I knew, immediately, I wanted it. The only other time this has happened was when, per your recommendation, I looked at Here, Far Away.

"Maybe a book will be written in the future comparing and contrasting those two Adamses, Ansel and Robert."


You sure cost me a snootful of money for books... :-)

[At least you're not spending it on wacky-terbacky and wine. --Mike]

This is something I see in many photo competitions that I am often solicited to enter, i.e. that the landscape category mustn't have man made objects included. I used to see landscapes a bit that way in my twenties and the early days of my photography but that romantic ideal progressively evolved so that now I actually prefer man made objects to be included. It seems to give context to the image in many instances. Although Ansel did photograph people and towns (e.g. Sunrise Over Hernandez) and as blasphemous as it may sound to some, that style which many still try and emulate seems much less relevant today, not historically or as art, but as a contemporary aesthetic. Funny how I don't think that way about black and white though . . .

I appreciate the point of his work but I sure hate to be reminded of how we have made such a terrible imprint upon the land. All land. Unrealistic, I know. We have to live somewhere but must we destroy so much for so little.

As a landscape photographer I try to find the unspoiled land but it seems near impossible. It saddens me to have to edit out the trash from my photos, found especially in streams and rivers. But I do edit it out. For my sanity.

The kinship between Robert Adams and Wendell Berry holds true for Adams' writing and Berry's non-fiction.

But it seems to me that Robert's photography is quite different in spirit from Berry's fiction. The idealized rural world in Berry's fiction has more in common, I think, with Ansel's unspoiled nature photographs.

Interesting contrast. When I was first photographing I greatly admired and wished to emulate Ansel Adams (still respect him of course), with time though I discovered my tastes moving towards Robert Adams, Stephen Shore, Eggleston, etc, which is where they have stayed. May need to get this book.

A very good comparison volume of the two Adams is "Reinventing the West: the photographs of Ansel Adams and Robert Adams" with a good essay by Allison Kemmerer.

That's some great writing, Mike. Thank you.

Yep, saw that in the Steidl list, time to get it. I am glad to hear that it has been granted decent reproduction.

It should be remembered that AA photographed many subjects in addition to the grand landscapes for which he is famous. A cursory review of any of his monographs will reveal a broad range of images limited only by his view camera ethic. You will see nice portraits, many buildings, different objects and those of social comment. The angel in the railroad yard, Manzanar interment camp are subjects that RA could have appreciated. Weston said you can take a good picture of anything and photographed a toilet seat to prove it. I don't believe that RA achieved that standard in some of his efforts.

Thanks Mike. For me, Adam's writings are synergistic with his photographs. One adds great value to the other. They are both sparse and dense at the same time. Book ordered.

I have the previous Aperture version of the book and it is a classic. Hopefully the tritone separations are as good in the Steidl reprint.

Like Walker Evans, Lee Friedlander and William Eggleston, it took a while for me to appreciate Robert Adams' work. When I finally "got it", it was an epiphany. Prior to understanding their work, my own photography was based on the art of exclusion--leaving out the "ugly" stuff. Robert Adams, et.al, showed me that ugly stuff is really quite beautiful. His writing could be inspirational but the "conversation" book "Along Some Rivers" showed me he could also be elitist. No matter, his photography is transcendent.

I was surprised to find I don't have "The New West" in my library. I have fixed that oversight now.

Thanks so much for this heads up. I grew up in Colorado Springs at more or less the time when Adams was making images on the Front Range. So for me there is an edge of nostalgia to add to the senses of beauty, vast space and predictable housing. My places for exploration every day were the rough gravelly grounds around the new build where it blended into high prairie. The grown me mourns the loss of wilderness, but the child me celebrates those magical in-between spaces.

Your comparison of Robert Adams to Wendell Berry is spot on.

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