PHO703: Robert Adams

I looked at the work of Robert Adams in the first module but that was only briefly, in connection with the New Topographics movement, and in any case I did not yet have the understanding to appreciate what he was trying to do.

A second, more careful look suggests that Robert Adams is a considerable influence on my work, even if I haven’t fully appreciated it. I well remember studying Los Angeles Spring (Adams 1986) ten months ago, and something about those images has undoubtedly remained with me. I would guess this is the quality for which Adams has often been praised: the deceptive simplicity of his images – they are far deeper than they first appear to be. They do not just show the American landscape. They show the story of what has happened to it, but in a way that encourages the viewer to discover it for themselves. There is no striving here for the shock and awe of the American sublime (which the New Topographics movement was a reaction against anyway). Adams is nuanced and never insistent.

Robert Adams Summer Nights Walking
Fig.1: Robert Adams 2009. From Summer Nights, Walking.

The work I have been looking at recently is mostly from Summer Nights, Walking (Adams 2009). The apparent intent was lyrical: ‘My original goal was mainly to document some of the evening peace and mystery that I remember as a child, those dusks when the lightning bugs came out’ (Chang 2009). But Adams then quickly adds, ‘I should have been suspicious … .’ In reality Adams found only glimpses of his childhood. In the interim, the streets of his childhood had become so unsafe that he was obliged to hire a bodyguard to accompany him on his photography walks (Chang 2009), and the fireflies and wildlife had disappeared under new suburban sprawl.

The upshot is that the deceptive simplicity of clapperboard houses from 50 years ago is often accompanied by a sense of menace. The shadows and the beauty combine with the sinister. Doug Rickard expressed it well in a review of Summer Nights, Walking: ‘Robert Adams refers to a William Blake prayer that deftly describes this paradox …  “The splendor of the Creation but also the reality of the Wolf and the Lion.”’ (Rickard 2010). Another reviewer found similar qualities: ‘There is something eerie about it all, something unnatural, haunting and dangerous. It is uplifting and depressing at the same time. There is a drama unfolding here, but only surreptitiously. It is a quality that is later put to good use by photographers such as Todd Hido and Gregory Crewdson’ (Bareman 2014).

And, I suppose, by me. I am also photographing change stalked by the wolf and the lion. Everything about the streets here changed during the pandemic, even if only for a while. Oxford is all about change. The old city centre of 1001 tourist images is quickly changing as new modern buildings go up to house the university students of the future. The city limits are changing under a wave of new building. The suburbs are changing as inequality continues its relentless march and more and more people are pushed into the margins, into degraded housing or into homelessness. I first saw Oxford as a child, but like Adams in Summer Nights, Walking those far-off childhood memories are not the current reality. The point, however, is not to mourn this but to use it as a source of tension in my images, while remembering that nuance works and insistent doesn’t.

There are a couple of other points about Robert Adams that interest me, but for the sake of brevity I will cover them in separate posts.

References

ADAMS, Robert. 1986. Los Angeles Spring. New York, N.Y.: Aperture.

ADAMS, Robert. 2009. Summer Nights, Walking. Revised ed. New York: Aperture/Yale University Art Gallery.

ADAMS, Robert and Joshua CHUANG. 2009. ‘ROBERT ADAMS: Summer Nights, Walking INTERVIEW WITH JOSHUA CHUANG’. Aperture (197), 52–9.

BAREMAN, Karen. 2014. ‘Summer Nights, Walking – A Personal Understanding of Robert Adams’ Seminal Work’. Visual Resonances [online]. Available at: https://www.visualresonances.com/book-reviews/summer-nights-walking-a-personal-understanding-of-robert-adams-seminal-work/ [accessed 1 Aug 2020].

RICKARD, Doug. 2010. ‘Robert Adams – “Summer Nights Walking” (2009)’. AMERICAN SUBURB X [online]. Available at: https://americansuburbx.com/2010/04/robert-adams-summer-nights-walking-2009.html [accessed 31 Jul 2020].

Figures

Figure 1. Robert ADAMS. 2009. From Summer Nights, Walking. From: Robert Adams. 2009. Summer Nights, Walking. Revised ed. New York: Aperture/Yale University Art Gallery.