Published: May 30, 2013
Tract houses, strip malls, concrete block churches. Shots of invasive thistle growing up from a desert floor. A perfectly framed photo of two women talking at a table. These are the quiet moments, shot in black and white, that photographer Robert Adams is famous for.
The exhibit "A Place Apart: Colorado and the American West, Photographs by Robert Adams" runs through mid-June in Colorado College's I.D.E.A. Space.
Last year, Sean O'Hagan, who writes about photography for British newspapers The Guardian and The Observer, said: "To a degree, all of Adams' work is simple, but deceptively so. Since he first came to public attention in the mid-1970s as part of the New Topographics movement, his subject has been the American West: Its vastness, its sparse beauty and its ecological fragility."
The new movement included photographers, like Adams, who weren't as interested in showing ideal images of nature as they were with showing how humans have altered it.
"Their photos were descriptive, unemotional and simple - a fusion, almost, of traditional landscape and social documentary photography, with man as the focus, but out of the picture," wrote Claire O'Neill on NPR.org in 2009.
Adams' legacy is giant, says Blake Milteer, museum director at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.
"He's grown a new generation of photographers."
Adams, 77, moved to Wheat Ridge, a Denver suburb, at the age of 15. He went on to attend his freshman year at the University of Colorado in Boulder before relocating to a college in California. He returned to Colorado in 1962 to teach English at Colorado College. It was there he picked up a camera and began taking the iconic photos that now fill 20 distinct bodies of work. In 1970, he became a full-time photographer. He now lives in Astoria, Ore. He was awarded an honorary degree at CC's commencement in mid-May.
Adams invests himself deeply in his surroundings. After moving back to teach at CC, he was deeply disturbed by what he saw as the "Californiazation" of Colorado, says Jessica Hunter Larsen, curator of the I.D.E.A. Space, the college's contemporary gallery. He started shooting the ever increasing number of tract houses and strip malls. His photos, which almost always include a human presence, be it human or the aftermath of humans, Hunter Larsen says, seem to say, "Look at what we're doing to the land." And at the same time, he finds moments of affection for the landscape, says Milteer.
"He's not saying a parking lot is horrible," Hunter Larsen says, "but it's a love of humanity and a mourning for the loss of wild spaces, and what they can give us that we're not willing to receive anymore."
Adams is not to be confused with scenic photographer Ansel Adams. Ansel Adams, no relation, took photos of vistas and the unspoiled grandeur of nature minus any humanness, says Hunter Larsen. He wanted to show the viewer that nature must be preserved and cared for.
"Robert, at first glance, he's taking pictures of nothing," she says. "There are no grand vistas, but the intentions are similar to Ansel's - to care about these places."
Robert Adams wanders and shoots wherever he grows roots. In the exhibit, there are photos of Colorado Springs, Longmont, Denver and teeny Colorado towns one might never have heard of.
Adams likes to capture trees, long winding roads and squat ugly buildings. The subjects can seem curious ones, but in all of them there is a palpable sense of quiet tension, says Milteer.
"He finds reverence in things that otherwise might be stomach churning," he says.
"Like tract houses," Hunter Larsen says. "There is nothing attractive about them, but it's a beautiful photo. There is a lyricism to it."
In his 1974 artist statement for the body of work known as "The New West," Adams states: "Many have asked, pointing incredulously toward a sweep of tract homes and billboards, why picture that? The question sounds simple, but it implies a difficult issue - why open our eyes anywhere but in undamaged places like national parks? One reason is, of course, that we do not live in parks, that we need to improve things at home, and that to do it we have to see the facts without blinking.
"All land, no matter what has happened to it, has over it a grace, an absolutely persistent beauty."
Milteer finds some of Adams' work to be hopeful. He describes a photo of trees in Los Angeles: They stand tall, shrouded in smog yet thriving despite the grime.
"There is a subtle hopefulness for the future," Milteer says. "He wasn't a social activist, but there is a sense of hope. Hints of possibility."
Jennifer Mulson can be reached at 636-0270.