In Association with

Masters of Photography
Robert Adams

Text from Adam D. Weinberg, Perpetual Mirage: Photographic Narratives of the Desert West


"And God called the dry land Earth.
- Genesis 1.10

"We animate what we can, and we see only what we animate..
- Ralph Waldo Emerson, Experience

The act of naming is an act of familiarization. Naming a feature of a landscape, especially a landscape as daunting and inhospitable as the American desert West, was a way of personalizing and domesticating it. And until something has been labeled it is difficult to progress to the more complex tasks of describing, organizing, and systematizing.

When the four great geographic and geological surveys of the West were born after the Civil War, one of the first, albeit unofficial, tasks of the survey members was to name what they saw. While each survey had its own scientific specialty, their most important collective responsibility was to map the land: to provide accurate, detailed geographical and topographical information about the vast, largely unexplored regions of the desert West for social, economic, and military purposes. For their maps, the surveyors occasionally used existing Indian names or names provided by settlers; but frequently they named or renamed the geographical features themselves. Sometimes the appellations were simply descriptive of the visual features of a particular canyon, mesa, or mountain. Other times they bestowed the name of survey members, family members, or helpful politicians.

The survey photographers who accompanied the explorers and scientists made pictures that recorded the land as it was being named and charted. Their images were pictorial catalogues of the lands being explored, providing identification photographs for the government, scientists, and the great majority of American people who had not seen and perhaps would never see the sights themselves. Frequently, the vantage points first established by the survey photographers were those that Would he used again and again by other contemporary photographers as well as by later generations - including, in our century, the scenic overlooks which dot the highways of the Western landscape, and the typical landscape postcards displayed in drugstore racks. These viewpoints were repeated not simply because they were the most accessible, the most informational, or the most scenic, but because the repetition of an established viewpoint was a ritual, a deed of visual recognition. Photographing, like naming and mapping was a form of acclimatization. It helped make the terra cognita.

It is against this backdrop of the named and the known first established by the Survey photographers, that the pictures of Robert Adams and other photographers of his generation must be understood. The endless repetition of the standard landscape view obscures what was fresh in the early survey photography, creating visual clichés and denying the present state of the land itself, Our use and abuse of' it. The popular conception of' the Western landscape today remains that of a pure, unadulterated, and spectacular place. In his essay "In the Twentieth-Century West," Adams addressed the destruction of the landscape of the West and discussed some of the attitudinal shifts that would be necessary for its preservation:

Someday, we will go back to naming places as they are. It is probably too much to hope for the frankness that gave early Colorado place names like Lye and Oil Can, but it was those hard names that neutralized skepticism about the sweet ones like Maybell and Pleasant Plains, and this lesson in the value of candor may yet be learned. At least there will, come a time when we stop naming places for lake shores that aren't there, and attaching to names eastern suffixes like "glen" and "green" " and if we call places by names that are accurate, we may ultimately find it easier to live in them.
In a similar fashion, Adams' photographs offer a lesson in the value of candor. Adams has resolutely and intuitively discovered a visual unnaming process. His pictures make fresh what we think we have seen and know. He rediscovers the known landscape and returns it to a state similar to that found by the survey photographs: strange, unknown, and unnamed.

It is Adams' references to survey photography that make From the Missouri West (1980) a milestone. In the afterward, Adams relates his own picture making to the nineteenth-century exploration of the West and his family's connection to its settlement (his grandfather made panoramic photographs of the Dakota prairies). He also cautions: "As a 'survey' this one is not literally a cross section of the West nor is it a catalogue of what is unusual there. Indeed, the Missouri River, which defines a Western territory comprising more than half of the continental United States, is treated in the course of only forty-seven photographs, of which twenty were made in Colorado, eight in California, seven each in Wyoming and Oregon, two in South Dakota, and one each in Nebraska, Utah, and Arizona - the other Western states through which the Missouri flows are not even represented.

Nevertheless, From the Missouri West can claim a definitive kinship with the tradition of survey photography. The title of the book itself suggests that Adams, in survey fashion, is dealing with a larger idea of the West. The Missouri River, known to every schoolchild as the route first scouted by Lewis and Clark with considerable help from the Shoshone Indian woman Sakajawea, is the literal and metaphorical jump-off point for his exploration. His precisely rendered black-and-white - but predominantly gray - images, exquisitely printed in duotone, are generally organized in a sequential fashion front the Missouri westward - the first image having been made in South Dakota and the last in Oregon. Unlike typical survey publications, Adams' pictures are not accompanied by diagrams or maps, and they include little text: an epigraphic quote, a three-paragraph postscript, and most important, following the photographs, a list of descriptive captions. The language of the captions echoes a surveyor's crisp descriptions, which give the location and/or directional point of view (e.g., "Northeast from Flagstaff Mountain, Boulder County Colorado"). However, the minimal amount of text paradoxically serves to underline the "scientific and informational purity" of the pictures themselves. Their seemingly prosaic, unpictorial character gives them the semblance of images made for the purpose of data alone.

Most significantly, by purposefully separating the titles front the images, Adams does not merely make claims for formal purity and photographic self-sufficiency but also allows the images to float freely, disconnected front the specifics of location. The images exist in isolation - one image to a spread - or juxtaposed with one another, thus enabling them to symbolically and poetically conjure a larger image of the West rather than the very limited geographical area being photographed.

Robert Adams' stylistic approach is the true testament of his link to nineteenth-century survey photography. Adams has cultivated a style which perhaps achieves its apotheosis in From the Missouri West. It is a style which at first appears to be randomly composed, emotionally distanced, and for the most part downright unpicturesque. In photographs such as Eucalyptus Along Interstate 10, San Bernardino County it is difficult to ascertain he subject or know if there is a subject at all. A cursory examination shows a conifer tree, cropped dramatically at the top, clumsily bisecting the image. On the left, a palm tree gracelessly fronts several other trees while a minute man-made structure establishes a nearly nonexistent background. On the right, a few branches from a eucalyptus tree are visually and oddly detached from their source. A small plant (or is it the top of a large tree?) hovers in an indeterminate middle ground. An almost invisible mountain range seems like a willfully feeble attempt to suggest a background.

The lack of a singular, clearly established Subject recurs time and again and in various guises throughout From the Missouri West. Is the subject of South, from Rocky Flatts, Jefferson County, Colorado the tire tracks in the foreground? A rather unimposing, unscenic geological formation smack in the middle ground? The highway fences, telephone poles, and cars sneaking in from the right? The distant, partially blocked mountains in the background? Or the large featureless band of white which signifies a sky? Adams' frequent use of cloudless skies pointedly recalls the typically blank skies of the survey photographs, which were caused by the technical limitations of the wet-plate collodion process. Adams' "new topographical" approach, with its matter-of-fact, meta-scientific distance, recalls the fresh, earnest, and sometimes awkward views made by his survey predecessors. He skillfully and subtly plays with the would-be objective and the sometime seemingly nonselective character of survey photography and uses it to his own subjective ends. As he wrote: 'At their best the [nineteenth-century] photographers accepted limitations and faced space as the anti-theatrical puzzle it is - a stage without a center. The resulting pictures have an element almost of banality about them, but it is exactly this acknowledgment of the plain Surface to things that helps legitimize the photographer's difficult claim that the landscape is coherent." Adams' pictures acknowledge, as did those of survey photographers, that a component of landscape photography is the acceptance of what is visually ordinary. Through this acceptance we may not on1y transcend aesthetic conventions, but also perhaps expand our perception of the social and economic consequences of overdevelopment in the desert West.

In contrast, Adams' more immediate predecessor, Ansel Adams, who also admired the work of survey photographers, did not accept the ordinary as a photographic restriction. He largely sought the extraordinary in the Western landscape - the extraordinary sky, reflection, tree, or geological formation. He endowed each subject with a pictorial ideality while suppressing commonplace reality For this reason, Ansel Adams' photographs often feed the clichés of the West as a virgin wilderness consisting primarily of spectacular sites. In his photographs for From the Missouri West Robert Adams reinvents antitheatrical, visual indirection. Instead of fortifying reality through technical wizardry, and aggrandizing a singular, clearly comprehensible subject as Ansel Adams does, Robert Adams embraces contradiction. In formal terms, his images lack a central, not to mention spectacular, subject. In conceptual terms they lack obvious, simply explicable meaning.

Robert Adams, although he admires the work of Ansel Adams, subverts the approach of his predecessor. As a result, his work is closer to that of nineteenth-century survey photographers. Yet his photographs put even greater emphasis on the notion of banality, he reinvents what is picturesque in order to better conform to his own experience of an adulterated, violated, and regulated wilderness. In comparing Alkali Lake Albany County, Wyoming for example, to a similarly conceived photograph by Timothy O'Sullivan made in 1868 of Hot Springs, Smokey Valley we see some shared sensibilities. Both artists clearly admire the irresistible, open expanse of land and sky. Both present relatively small, self contained, puddle-shaped bodies of water in an and environment. Both have set up their cameras in places that seem to some degree arbitrary and show a rattler commonplace type of subject. Neither site is especially spectacular (similar photographs were made of a variety of small takes, sinkholes, and hot springs throughout the West by both photographers). However there is a crucial difference between the two images. In O'Sullivan's photographs, the positive though humble significance of the human being (in this case represented by the team and wagon although typically indicated by a single minute figure) is central to the visual and conceptual sense of the picture, A certain grandeur is established by the horses and wagon in relation to the overwhelming scale of the land and sky. The caption for this picture could well read "Behold what we have seen!" Adams' picture also depicts a symbol of humankind, an almost imperceptibly small fence which laterally divides the photograph, subtly separating the lake and the viewer from the land beyond. The caption here might read "Behold what we have wrought!" The human presence here is largely negative. We are not just admirers naming and picturing what we see for the first time. We are interlopers who must undo or unname what is there, who must imagine what once was, what we have lost. What at first glance may seem beautiful in its unremarkable, flatfooted simplicity is tinged with sadness. As the epigraph to From the Missouri West, quoted from Loren Eiseley, reads, "Nothing is lost, but it can never be again as it was."

While Adams' picture is not without hope, it does not represent the promise inherent in O'Sullivan's image. What is hopeful in Adams's picture is not merely the diminutive dimension of human incursion into the land - which seems to futilely fence in what is boundless - but also his reinvention of the landscape, what he called a landscape of "candor." From the Missouri West presents a view that is in keeping with our time. It is neither wistfully nostalgic nor wishfully optimistic. Through his photographs, Adams has discovered a visual name for unspectacular places previously thought unworthy of naming. By defamiliarizing a West we think we know, he has named a West we are obligated to confront.


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