New York

Robert Adams

Leo Castelli Gallery uptown

Robert Adams is a photographer of rising popularity. He has spent recent years making pictures of the burgeoning cities and suburbs that form a vertical stripe down the center of Colorado’s rectangle, in a region of foothills and high plains just east of the Rocky Mountains. These sunny purlieus of the Midwest are hastily being covered with freeways, and new tracts of prefabricated houses, and with a rather underzealous variant of the type of commercial architecture Robert Venturi celebrates. The import of this sprawl of belated homesteading is intimately connected with the motivation and esthetic of Adams’s work. The artist has said that he aspires to some verdict upon the beauty, the ugliness, the wastefulness and wholesomeness of this dusty locale. When I last heard him speak, two years ago, Adams would have argued that the place is an inhospitable, grim one in which to live, or at least is suspect as a nest for a healthy society, and that the damage suburbanization has done to an untrodden region is indefensible.

Of most photography that arrives so elaborately captioned, one has to ask whether the pictures indeed support their stated philosophy, or whether perhaps they are stubbornly autonomous and tell a wholly different story—are interesting for a less obvious reason. One finally wonders if their maker’s moralizing, and his discovery that photographs make reluctant tracts, have undermined the possible richness of his work, and reduced its meaning.

Adams’s photographs are often closely cut frames of small stucco or wood houses, where the picture plane is parallel to a front wall. In his work there are numerous long shots of new neighborhoods seen from hilltops, strings of buildings backed up by the mountains, main streets of desolate towns and gas stations blooming at dusk, empty lots, parked cars, and scenes of the open plains or rolling hills, sometimes where a local teenager has spray-painted his name upon a conspicuous boulder. In Denver, 1973, a small white house rests complacently on its plot of picket-fenced ground, and sits naively in the middle of an ascetically simple frame. Some diffident irony is established in that this homely edifice so candidly presents itself to the sunlight and the viewer. It is a house bedecked with random affectations of ornament—windows that do not match each other with functionless shutters at their sides, a porch roof at once too big and too small for the facade, three little windows that ascend the front door diagonally. This is all fairly interesting content, but except for that initial morsel of irony, the photographer has clone little to make the picture more than a phlegmatic record. Limply and almost arbitrarily framed, the photograph is less intriguing than the things in it.

I think that this laconic manner of photographing, which a number of Adams’s contemporaries espouse, is premised on a reductive misreading of the work of Walker Evans. For when Evans, in New Orleans Houses, 1935, frames three ramshackle French colonial facades with the same austerity, it is toward a much more deliberate product. The Evans facades are extraordinary because they are three crude, ignorant attempts—with their square, rough plank columns—to imitate a grand style of architecture. Evans’s framing of the scene pretends to the same naiveté, identifies with the buildings’ crudeness; in so doing it opens the picture metaphorically to subjects as broad as masquerade and imperfection in art-making, and the state of photography itself.

Adams’s work, conversely, seems to assume that a picture’s content will speak for itself, and that the artist’s task is merely to decide what that content will be and blithely to direct the camera toward it. Adams’s work fails to understand that a picture is responsible for its own meaning, that it must create that meaning with rhetorical devices, and should ultimately be much larger than the flux of detail the world offers it for material. His pictures, then, may rely on the hope that the inherent “political” significance of the things he photographs will give his pictures strength—will obviate the need for strong, articulate photographic language. Or, his tendency toward extremist understatement may be saying that here, amid this devastation, no rhetoric is possible; yet abstracted in black and white, the “devastation” hardly looks egregious, merely common.

Occasionally, Adams’s pictures will summon up a quiet, pathetic strength: one picture shows, from a long distance, a shedlike church building on some vacant land where a Sunday-school class has brought chairs outdoors to the dry ground and bleaching sun. Sometimes, the pictures hesitantly achieve grandeur, as in a photograph in the current show where thunderclouds hover above an endless field of tract houses. Adams’s recent work, made with a 4” x 5” camera, is unfortunately even less deliberate than his earlier pictures with a 2 1/4”, where the stocky, square frame helped the work to a spare, bleak forcefulness. The 4” x 5” ’s rectangle, with its profusion of detail, may demand more discipline than Adams is willing to work for.

Leo Rubinfien