“The art historian Kenneth Clark remarked in one of his books, that the thing that distinguishes a landscape painter is an especially intense, emotional, response to light” states Robert Adams.
“In my dark room in Colorado, after I’ve been working for days, or sometimes months outside…I swear I could tell, in the dark room, when the sun came in and out from behind clouds, although I couldn’t see it”.
Adams was born in New Jersey but moved to Colorado when he was a teenager. He was a teacher for several years but left his job when he discovered his passion for photography and realized that the idea of teaching was becoming increasingly strenuous because of the need to be entertaining and agreeable at all times. However, the artist claims that what he continues to find interesting about teaching is the children themselves and that, if he had known how lonely he was going to feel being a photographer, he is not sure that he would have had the strength to embark on that journey. Also an essayist, he emphasizes how human beings need words in order to understand and how they are terrified by a simple image without any kind of accompanying explanation. His voice picks apart his career, and it is impossible not to appreciate the clarity of his speech, his use of pauses, his awareness that we talk in order for someone to understand what we are trying to explain.
Robert Adams has spent 40 years examining man’s impact on nature and of nature’s impact on man. As a young man he formed part of the paradigm-shifting exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape, a 1975 show curated by William Jenkins at the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography. This landmark exhibition showcased ten photographers (Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Joe Deal, Frank Gohlke, Nicholas Nixon, John Schott, Stephen Shore, Henry Wessel Jr. and Bernd & Hilla Becher) who were offering an apparently neutral and scientific view of the world, as opposed to an emotional one, but which nevertheless revealed man’s encroachment on nature and its consequences with an unparalleled rawness. This exhibition was so influential that it went on to be recreated several times, with the last showing held in 2010 by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
His work concentrates almost exclusively on Midwest America, and is the story of the transformation of the land, a transformation which is today reflected in concerns such as climate change, deforestation and the environment; mass consumption and scarce resources, developmentalism and its consequences.
Among his many books and exhibitions, we would highlight: New West (1974) with a foreword by John Szarkowski, From the Missouri West (1980), To Make It Home (1989), What We Bought: The New World (1997), Turning Back(2005) Summer Nights, walking (2009) and Gone? (2010), as well as essays such as Why people photograph and Beauty in photography. He also received the Guggenheim Fellowship, the MacArthur Foundation fellowship, theDeutsche Börse Photography Prize and the Hasselblad Foundation Award in 2009.
This photographer previously lived near the Colorado Springs Fine Art Center which housed a vast library. This is where he first came across a copy of Camera Work by Alfred Stieglitz, which he recalls having poured over when he was first starting out. He also remembers two sentences, word for word: «All true things are the same» and «I want to die living».
In the fall of 2010, Yale University Art Gallery held a major retrospective of the artist’s work to date, The place we live in, which was unveiled first in Vancouver, and then toured British Columbia, the Denver Art Museum, Los Angeles Museum of Art, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid, and the National Media Museum in the United Kingdom.
«It’s the light. It’s at the center of why one makes pictures and how one makes them». And as such, Adams words are themselves illuminating.