The American landscape in black and white

“Pikes Peak, Colorado Springs, Colorado, 1969.”
“Pikes Peak, Colorado Springs, Colorado, 1969.” Photo by Robert Adams

Although they weren't related, American photographer and environmentalist Ansel Adams was an important influence on Robert Adams, whose life's work in black-and-white is on exhibit at Yale University Art Gallery (YUAG) in New Haven.

Titled "The Place We Live," the retrospective spans the photographer's 45-year career and his relationship with the American West, starting in the early 1960s, as the landscape increasingly was overwhelmed by suburban sprawl.

But despite the destruction, Adams found an enduring beauty in the geography, a sense of both grief and hope captured in glowing sunlight seeping through windows, bouncing off waves-even on a landscape littered with trash.

Organized by YUAG, this is the only East Coast presentation of the international tour.

More than 250 gelatin silver prints are on display on two floors of the gallery culled from YUAG's master sets of the photographer's work. Adams has published more than 40 books of photographs and written two collections of essays. Also on exhibit are reissues of three of his classic books and three new books of his recent photographs.

Born in New Jersey in 1937, Adams suffered from asthma and so his family relocated to a suburb of Denver, when he was a teenager. This was where he first experienced "the vastness of the landscape, the wide open swaths of unpopulated space, and the crisp high altitude light" says Joshua Chuang, YUAG's assistant curator of photographs. "It was unlike anything he'd ever experienced-a desolate quality he came to embrace."

Adams pursued undergraduate and graduate degrees in Southern California. He began his career as an English professor, and didn't start taking photographs until a year after he returned to Colorado to teach English at Colorado College.

Mostly self-taught, his early pictures give a sense of the quiet simplicity of life in the small towns in the northeastern parts of the state.

Chuang points out that Adams made all of his images small, because his photographs rely on minute details and he wanted the viewer to look at them close-up, as one would relate to images in a book.

"He took a very understated approach to documenting what was happening in Colorado-the blight on the landscape, the building of ugly tract homes in subdivisions-he made visual peace with these things," Chuang observes. "He gives each element in an image due respect-the toughness and grittiness of the subject and the unexpected grace. His trademark is showing two opposing things at once."

His signature photograph, "Colorado Springs, Colorado, 1968," shows the silhouette of a woman alone, isolated, as though imprisoned within the windows of her new brick tract house. She can walk out the door and yet she remains as though suspended in time. The viewer can't make out her features but can feel a sense of despair, longing.

"It's incredibly Hopper-esque," Chuang says of the photograph. "It was rendered with absolute fidelity to what was going on (at the time)."

A series of photographs taken by Adams in the early 1980s with a hidden camera, capture parents and kids shopping in strip malls, going about their daily lives in the shadow of a nuclear processing facility in Denver.

?He preserves moments of tenderness in unlikely places," Chuang says of these photographs. "There's an unspoken sense of tragedy."

Other images are of places that retained the grandeur of Adams's grandfather's West, Chuang says-the awesome scope of the landscape, and yet there is still some aspect of the hand of man in each of them if you look closely.

More recent images (1993-2003) shed a light on the practice of clearcutting (managed forestry) in Oregon where Adams has lived with his wife Kerstin for the past 20 years. In an essay about the series, he draws our attention to the fact that more than 90 percent of the original forest in the American Northwest has been clearcut at least once.

He goes on to say:

"As I recorded these scenes, I found myself asking many questions, among them:

"What of equivalent value have we inherited in exchange for the original forest?

"Is there a relationship between clearcutting and war, the landscape of one being in some respects like the landscape of the other? Does clearcutting originate in disrespect? Does it teach violence? Does it contribute to nihilism?

"Why did I never meet parents walking there with their children?"

As hard as these questions are, and despite the destruction they chronicle, as in all of Adams's work, there is something hauntingly beautiful and possible in these photographs-hope for the future.

“Colorado Springs, Colorado, 1968.” Gelatin silver print.
“Colorado Springs, Colorado, 1968.” Gelatin silver print. Photo by Robert Adams
“An Irrigation Canal, Larimer County, Colorado, 1994.” Gelatin silver print
“An Irrigation Canal, Larimer County, Colorado, 1994.” Gelatin silver print Photo by Robert Adams

IF YOU GO

What: "Robert Adams: The Place We Live" photography exhibit

When: Through Oct. 28.

Where: Yale University Art Gallery, 1111 Chapel St., New Haven; admission is free.

Info: (203) 432-0600 or online www.artgallery.yale.edu.

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