Brass Valley: The Fall of an American Industry

Brass Valley: The Fall of an American Industry
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Monday, August 20, 2007

Meditation on Robert Adams


I've just finished two complementary books by the same author, photographer Robert Adams. The first of these, "Beauty in Photography," explains and illustrates with precision and humanity his Apollonian aesthetic. It is an aesthetic that leads him to embrace illustrative painters such as Hopper (Just saw the magnificent exhibit at Boston MFA) but dismiss as "decorative," the Abstract Expressionists. What really kept me going through his discussion was the way he illustrated his thoughts with some gorgeous images by many photographers.

However, it is in the second book, "Why People Photograph," that he gets down to what, for me, is the nub of the matter. The two chapters on American Photography are written with a prose that reverberates like Loren Eisely's. The nub comes near the end of the penultimate chapter: He writes,

"It is worth adding, finally, a truism from the experience of many landscape photographers: One does not for long wrestle a view camera in the wind and heat and cold just to illustrate a philosophy. The thing that keeps you scrambling over the rocks, risking snakes, and swatting at the flies is "the view." It is only your enjoyment of and commitment to what you see, not to what you rationally understand, that balances the otherwise absurd investment of labor."

The statement follows a long discussion of the destruction of the American West in the 20th century - the open, empty space where one could be alone and at a frontier. The observation is the richer because he links it to another truism, "You can never go home." As one who grew up in Colorado, Adams must feel all of this very deeply, and it is, in fact, a part of the few images of his that I've seen.

As it turns out, today I was at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC and saw another half dozen of his photos. They are very beautiful in all the ways that he describes in "Beauty in Photography." This is the first time I have seen original prints of his work. There is no prettiness to them. Instead, the compositions drew me into thinking about the choices of elements and the relation of parts. In one, neat echoes were created between the roofs of tract houses in the desert and the lines of distant mountains. Another showed people at a distance, sheltering themselves from heat beating down on the barren land. All of this is portrayed in a very matter-of-fact manner. Even the small size of the prints, approximately 8X10 inches forbids entry into the visual space in any detail. They perhaps follow in the tradition of leaving a record, in this case a consciously literate one, of the landscape at a given time. Of course there are hints of distant grandeur, but they are in retreat and very cerebral - unsensuous. Why do their ironic hints of tragedy leave me wanting something more - some swatted flies maybe?

At the risk of being "decorative," the thing that keeps me, "scrambling," in my feeble way, " over the rocks," is the very sensuous experience of the moment be it in the musty creak of an attic or in the bubbling marsh. How could I do other than seek to make that sensuousness be the living breath of my image? Alas, I will forever be confined to calendars with pages torn off by the month - nor ever twisted enough to be an artist.