Robert Adams

Robert Adams discusses his retrospective

Left: Robert Adams, Longmont, Colorado, 1979, black-and-white photograph, 5 x 5”. Right: Robert Adams, Lakewood, Colorado, 1968–71, black-and-white photograph, 5 13/16 x 5 5/16”.

For the past forty-five years, the influential photographer Robert Adams has chronicled the changing landscapes of the American West. The Yale University Art Gallery has organized “The Place We Live,” a traveling retrospective of more than two hundred of his images, which is on view at the Denver Art Museum September 25–January 1, 2012.

WHEN BUSTER KEATON was asked to analyze a film that he’d made, he answered, with every artist’s experience on his side, “I don’t feel qualified to talk about my work.” Amen. But . . . for what it is worth, here’s a little background and a thought or two.

I began not as a photographer but as a college English teacher. As a photographer I was just another unschooled amateur imitating Ansel Adams. My calling changed, though, when I visited Sweden, my wife’s place of birth, and I found there evidence of a respect for the landscape––all of it, urban and suburban and rural––that was more promising than anything I’d known as an American.

It’s risky to talk about motivation because the photographs so often don’t measure up, but what I’ve wanted to do is to make pictures that support a sense of consequence—and, where appropriate, a sense of gratitude. If I want to picture the contemporary world, why don’t I use up-to-date methods? Because I’m familiar with the film camera that I employ, and because the important thing is not the method but your command of the method and your commitment to the subject. If I were sufficiently gifted and trained, a crayon and paper, or a linoleum block, would do for me just as well as a camera of whatever sort.

I’ve been asked why I didn’t keep making pictures in the suburbs. I think the answer is that, at some level, I hoped early on that showing what was wrong, what was inhumane, might facilitate improvement. I think I’ve lost that hope. But having said that, I would add that in many ways the whole landscape still seems beautiful. It is inexplicably invulnerable to our bad behavior. Though I also believe that it will punish us for our disrespect. Or maybe a better way to say this is that we will punish ourselves.