This week I found myself studying a recent hero of mine in greater depth, and branching out from there. Also, a new sneak peak.
I mentioned a while back that I’d found an interesting photo book at cult-favorite The Used Book Store in Hotchkiss, Colo. That book was Robert Adams’ What Can We Believe Where, which seems to be among the less-celebrated of his works.
It’s been six months or so since I looked through this work closely, but I stumbled upon a very in-depth look at Adams What We Bought: The New World: Scenes from the Denver Metropolitan Area, 1970-1974. Tod Papageorge dives headfirst into one of the most enlightening photography critiques I’ve ever read in his “The Missing Criticism — What We Bought.”
I’ve lived in Colorado for nearly 30 years, and while I’ve only been looking at it through a lens for about ten of those years, I count myself fortunate to have already discovered the unique qualities of the light — even if my understanding so far only scratches the surface. I knew I’d seen the harshness that Adams used so effectively, but I didn’t understand its depth quite so well as Papageorge explains it:
This pitiless light, virtually combusting in the thin Colorado air, was, I thought, an invention born in the certain glare of the place, of course, but also in Adams’s intentional wringing out of the tonal range of his prints to the bright end of the photographic gray scale — roughly comparable to a composer writing for the piano at its highest octaves. I had never seen anything quite like it; only later did I imagine a possible source for it in the incandescent light that transfigures nineteenth-century wet-plate photographs.
While Adams’s pictures likely owed a part of their effect to his thinking about nineteenth-century photography, they also provided an emphatic demonstration of how conclusively he had rejected the twentieth-century photographic convention that identified the American West with its national parks. Ansel Adams, the fountainhead/architect of this convention, had encapsulated the optimism of postwar America in his oracular, weather-tempered views of the wonders arrayed in these sequestered Edens, celebrating rock and water in a long range of photographic tones sweeping up from the low, sleek blacks of wet stone to the crystalline shimmer of snowcap. But this new Adams, by portraying a West made up of a seemingly endless series of ill-made structures embodying the tangles of easy compromise and unremarkable venality that saw them built (a portrayal drawn at the height of the Vietnam War, and, for the most part, in a harsh, monotonous light) proposed a radically different and, for photographers, revolutionary, frontier. In his view, even the immemorial land itself was implicated in a general disaster, exhausted, as he revealed it, by human busyness.
Adams is looking at different aspects of the landscape than I have been, but his method goes beyond being instructive and — pun not initially intended — becomes illuminating. Seriously, if you’re into man-altered landscapes, check out Adams’ work. And read the full critique.
Dr. Heinz Liesbrock said of The New West, “Adams’s theme is the transformation of the old West into the one-dimensional America of the present, the perversion of a landscape which once stood for the idea of an entire nation, until it becomes the background for a tame and corrupt society.” Indeed.
I’ll be digging deeper, too. I asked Kate to help me find more of Adams’ books from the Denver Public Library, and some other photographers mentioned in the critique with whose work I am not yet familiar. I’m also working on a more complete list of photographers I think I should study in more depth, as each of their work’s goals seem like they could align with mine. Here’s my first crack:
- Robert Adams
- Timothy O’Sullivan
- Walker Evans
- Robert Frank
- Edward Weston
- Dorothea Lange
- Eugene Atget
- Lisette Model
- Lee Friedlander
- Garry Wingrand
- Diane Arbus
- Lewis Baltz
- Bernd and Hilda Becher
- Joe Deal
- Frank Gohlke
- Nicholas Nixon
- John Schott
- Stephen Shore
- Henry Wessel Jr.
Not all of these are unfamiliar to me — but a few are. And I’ve still yet to dive too deeply into even those with whom I am familiar, aside from Edward Weston. Don’t worry, I’ll be rectifying that with Kate’s help, too.
The first of the books she brought home that I actually looked at was Stephen Shore: Photographs, an exhibition catalog from a Southern California show in 1981-1982. While I’m not sure his work is quite what I’m looking for, I was struck by the beginning of an interview of Shore by Michael Auping, the Curator of Twentieth Century Art at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. In particular, I felt a little singe of solidarity — almost companionship — in his answer to the question, “How do you decide what to photograph?” I took a picture of the answer, because the typography is great:
I regularly take several photos of a building or site I’m trying to document. Film’s not cheap, so I don’t often take more than three or four, but I still sometimes take several photos with different compositions.
When looking at others’ bodies of work it seems like you never see two photos of the same thing unless they are really vastly different — one close and one distant, one front and one rear, etc.
Then Kate brought me a copy of Sites & Structures: The Architectural Photographs of Edward S. Curtis from the library.
Sites & Structures is a selection of photogravures from Curtis’ magnum opus, The North American Indian, of which only a few less than 300 sets of twenty portfolios were produced. The collection brings together all the plates Curtis produced that were not basically portraits — the plates of dwellings and constructions.
In it are included several sets of plates taken in the same locations. In this set you can see two photos of Jemez Pueblo, N.M., which were clearly made just a few steps apart, and probably at the same time.
That a photographer whose work was as important as Curtis’ ultimately felt confident enough in these two plates to publish both is a huge source of validation for me. Curtis was a documentarian of the first order. Documentary photography wasn’t new when he embarked on his project, but it would be decades before modern photojournalism was born in the 1930s — Curtis started work nearly two years before Henri Cartier-Bresson was born.
That middle-ground of documentary photography with a strong journalistic flavor lands squarely where I want to be.
It’s been awhile since I mentioned the project I’ve slowly been moving forward on. Due to winter weather and work obligations, it’s been awhile since I did any new work on it, too. But the process continues.
To that end, here is another as-yet unpublished photograph from the series: