The challenge is despair: How to look straight at it, and then look away and get back to life. The challenge is particularly acute today. Just look to the headlines, to environmental degradation and ecological collapse, to wars and genocide, and the wholesale shredding of democratic norms by reckless and corrupt demagogues and autocrats.
Robert Adams has photographed the United States during some of its darkest decades, from the mid-1960s to the present, documenting American decline and recklessness through the particular lens of landscape and humanity’s imposition on it. A comprehensive National Gallery of Art survey of his work, “American Silence: The Photographs of Robert Adams,” is one of the most moving and important exhibitions at the museum in a long time. It convincingly demonstrates that Adams is not just an important photographer with a significant impact on contemporary art, but also a great artist whose nearly seven decades of work are an essential document of the national conscience, and a thing of majesty.
Adams was born in New Jersey in 1937 and moved with his family to Denver in 1952. He began taking photographs in 1963, and much of his work has centered on the interface between new suburbs and open land along what is known as the Front Range urban corridor, which includes Denver, Boulder, Fort Collins and sprawling in-between suburban conglomerations. In his earliest photographs, he made images reminiscent of Ansel Adams, moments of poetry carefully extracted from the natural world and so perfectly presented that their beauty is more ethereal than real. He photographed landscape, trees, wide-open plains, stormy desert skies and evocative architecture, rendered with the geometrical precision of Paul Strand, another early influence.
But the world around Adams was changing, and he sensed himself in crisis. Even as he was still figuring out how a camera could help him explore unknown pockets of beauty in Colorado, including old Hispanic towns and pioneer settlements, the land was being chewed up and run over by housing developments. He sensed the need to “reach some sort of reconciliation with the landscape I thought I no longer loved,” he said in a 1982 interview. Adams had been using a large 4-by-5-inch camera, which required a tripod, and produced wonderfully detailed images. But he moved to smaller, more portable formats, often making small, square images in black-and-white that are drenched in sunlight and full of stark tonal contrast.
Adams grappled with the tendency to despair by looking straight at it. In 1975, he was included in a now-legendary exhibition in Rochester, N.Y., called the New Topographics, which took a bracingly unsentimental view of our “man-altered landscape” (the show’s subtitle). He was now photographing suburbia, tract homes, treeless neighborhoods, strip malls, parking lots, highways and pollution.
These are the images for which Adams remains best known, and they are generally seen as slightly cold, objective and detached. But they aren’t harsh, and they don’t seem to have been made in anger. Certainly, they have no trace of the gothic horror with which later artists, including too many film directors, have rendered the surreal alienation of the American suburbs. Even when Adams captures the most abject and brutal environmental destruction, as in pictures he made years later of forests decimated by logging in Oregon, he never raises his voice or hectors the viewer.
Adams’s objectivity isn’t a lack of emotion, but more a kind of etiquette. The polite thing to do, the thing that will let the viewer be most at ease with the truth of the image, is to speak softly and stay out of the way. That doesn’t mean that his images aren’t loaded with intention and meaning. In a 1973 photograph of a tract house in Longmont, Colo., Adams shows us the rear of the structure and its patio, on which all the chairs but one face inward, toward the split-level home, as if the people who live here can’t bear to look out on the world their prosperity has destroyed.
A 1969 image of a basement being dug for a new home in Colorado Springs equates the large, rectangular hole with a grave, and the man standing in it with a grave digger. A baby in a wheeled chair, outside a home in Denver, looks like an alien being, with four spindly metal legs, abandoned on Earth after the mother ship fled our failed speck of a planet. A 1983 photograph made along Interstate 25 — the relentless concrete spine of the Front Range cityscape — is a masterpiece: In the foreground a few spindly flowers, or weeds, are seen against the sky, while in the blurry background, the hulk of a semi rolls down a tilted horizon.
And despite his reputation for being unsentimental, Adams can be the most sentimental of photographers, a license he allows himself so sparingly that when he does, the effects are heartbreaking. A 1972 image of a child’s grave marker, which shows a crudely carved lamb at rest above a plinth that reads simply, “Sofia Martinez: B 5-1-1928, D 12-8-1934,” feels a bit like a confessional: Like this gravestone, so, too, my art, unadorned, wise but sad and devastatingly direct.
In the most recent works on view at the National Gallery — images of the beach in Oregon — Adams indulges the same impulse, photographing a dead albatross in one and in another what appears to be a child’s ball, tiny and isolated in a sea of silvery sand and water.
These most recent works are included in a series the photographer calls “Tenancy,” for which he cites the Webster’s Dictionary definition: “the temporary possession of what belongs to another.” The exhibition, and the subtle and deeply felt catalogue essay by curator Sarah Greenough, focuses considerable attention on Adams’s religious life, and tenancy is fundamental to his spirituality. God, however defined or understood, is immanent in all things, which is why we must look so directly at the world, even when the world indicts us for being terrible tenants.
For a photographer, this has consequences. To render the world more beautiful than it really is, as so many landscape photographers before Adams routinely did, is dishonest. But so, too, is the impulse to render it uglier than it is.
One view of God is that God made the world and runs it, and if we’re lucky and very good, He will care for us. Another view is that God is simply the world and everything else, and we should care for her, him or it. The work of Robert Adams proves that this view, too, is American, and our best hope for survival.
American Silence: The Photographs of Robert Adams Through Oct. 2 at the National Gallery of Art. nga.gov.