PRINT March 1985


Our Lives and Our Children

Our Lives and Our Children: Photographs Taken Near the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant, by Robert Adams, Millerton, N.Y.: Aperture, 1984, 96 pp., 74 black and white photographs.

The factory at Rocky Flats, near Denver, makes plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons. Robert Adams sums up his pictures of Rocky Flats residents—people of all ages, many in family groups, all shot outdoors, especially in shopping malls—with the idea that one can gain the will to challenge power “after we have noticed the individuals with whom we live. How mysteriously absolute each is. How many achieve, in moments of reflection or joy or concern, a kind of heroism. Each refutes the idea of acceptable losses.” Nice, but that’s not what’s happening here.

Shooting mostly from a low view, from ground level, up at people walking past him, Adams displaces these people from their surroundings. The way they pass by, never looking down at him (in the negatives he has printed, anyway), suggests that these people don’t see their surroundings, that they are less than conscious of their environment. Despite his statement about noticing individuals, Adams is not making pictures of individuals at all; he’s making a composite representation of a social problem. The only absolute here is the photographer himself, selecting what he wants from the world that passes by. If you wait long enough, the whole panoply of human emotion will come within the cameras range, and then you keep what you want and discard the rest. Thus Adams proves that the environment is also a predicament: the local and global threat of Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant.

In Adams version, no one escapes this predicament. As you look at teenagers, mothers with small children, or elderly people going about their everyday business, the first thing that catches your attention is a free-floating anxiety: worry and foreboding around the eyes, figures hurrying, uncontextualized expressions of defeat or despair. Alternating here and there with pictures of carefree faces, the nervous pictures take over the book: two-thirds of the way through, worry turns into panic, and by this time Adams isn’t just using photographs of individuals to represent a common predicament, he’s making a movie.

People stand shocked into immobility, rush off in no direction, gaze in horror; a woman bites down on her fingers. By now Adams is openly dramatizing, cropping to make sure you don’t miss the point. Something awful has happened; the plant has exploded, perhaps. But the last pages, all blurred, as if the photographer is heroically standing his ground as the ground shakes beneath his feet, make it clear that this is really the end—after all, any American nuclear weapons plant is also a Soviet target. The last war starts here. A woman holds back tears; a baby shudders in its stroller; an old man grimaces. The ground level from which Adams has been shooting, you realize, is ground zero. Give me a break.

Greil Marcus is a writer who lives in Berkeley, Ca. He contributes regularly to Artforum.