Once by the Pacific – The Seascapes of Robert Adams
‘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 labour.’
‘I must go down to the sea again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call, that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the brown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.’
I begin with two quotations, both decidedly double-edged in their implications. Firstly, the fashion and portrait photographer, Richard Avedon, neatly defined the root of the photographic art. ‘The limitation and the grandeur of photography,’ he stated, ‘is that you are forever linked at the hip to the subject.’Being a photographer of classical mien as well as a photographic philosopher of considerable acumen, Avedon took care to stress that this endemic condition was first and foremost the medium’s glory, but many have stressed the negative aspect. They have sought to sever this inconvenient union and divorce the medium from documentary reality – some by means of darkroom manipulation, some by fabricating predigested tableaux, and now, an increasing number by utilising the seductive alchemy of computers. It was photographers of such deviant tendencies that Pablo Picasso possibly had in mind when he remarked that there were two professions whose practitioners are never satisfied with what they do – dentists and photographers. ‘Every dentist would like to be a doctor, and every photographer would like to be a painter,’ he said, a wild generalisation, to be sure, but given the current climate in the photographic world one might wonder. It seems that an ever increasing number of photographers today would concur with Picasso’s playfully barbed remark. Many seem not only dissatisfied, but positively ashamed of the photographic medium – at least in its classic form. They attempt to exchange the essentially phenomenological nature of the medium for the currently fashionable, and more easily traded commodity of the so-called postmodern ‘conceptual’ approach. They even deny being photographers altogether, exchanging that simple, honourable calling for the soubriquet of ‘artist using photography’ – a conceit that seems presumptuous in the extreme, for surely ‘art’ is not a genre but a qualitative judgement. ‘Artist’ is not a self-proclaimed profession but a peer-given accolade, and one not lightly earned.
Of course, to acknowledge Avedon’s ‘limitation’ and yet consider it the medium’s grandeur, is both daunting and challenging. It is to take the narrow, thorny path, strewn with stones and obstacles. The making of creditable art, whatever the medium, has never been easy, and assuredly gets harder with each passing decade, as every possible combination of musical notes or words, every possible story or literary plot, every possible juxtaposition of shape and colour, would seem to have been tried and tested somewhere by someone, indeed to the point of exhaustion. As we reach the end of the millennium it would seem that art in the twenty-first century will increasingly become a question of refinement and consolidation rather than discovery and invention, a matter of tiny, even micro steps rather than giant strides.
It could be argued that this daunting state of affairs applies particularly to photography. Every conceivable subject has been photographed many times over, and the condition that ties photographers to a strictly monocular view of the surface aspect of the subject matter before the lens reduces considerably the scope for ‘new’ expression. The many who seem to disdain photography might ask a single crucial question. Countless photographers have stood before a tree, or a rock, and made straightforward records of these subjects – do we need another photographer to do the same, or at least produce something that displays only an infinitesimal variation on what others have done before?
The answer, with regard to photography as much as any other medium, must be a resounding ‘yes’, for if such approbation invites innumerable pale imitations of what has been done before and done better, someone nevertheless will always mine an apparently exhausted seam and find gold – one hundred percent, twenty-four carat, solid gold. They will take an old story, an old theme, and produce something fresh – fresh that is, in terms of an authentic, creative response and not in terms of superficial novelty, for it is relatively easy to create the appearance of freshness without the substance. The seductively graphic and wilfully odd will always find a ready audience.
Paradoxically, for those who truly appreciate the photographic medium, one of its great virtues is its so-called ‘limitation.’ More often than not, a direct, ‘simple’ record of the subject in hand produces a result that is more profoundly fresh than any attempt at visual novelty made by utilising the many tricks of the trade. If photography deals directly and honestly with life, it has every chance to be fresh and ‘new’, for the surface of life itself is infinitely variable, renewable and renewing. Thus we return to Avedon’s point with quite a different appreciation from those who see only the medium’s limitations. The concreteness of photography, its awkward specificity, must surely be its glory, for can we ever tire of looking at a tree, the sky, a human face?
One photographer who assuredly has not tired of life (nor indeed photography), and who has persuaded us by the eloquence and perception of his work that the perennial story is as new and as freshly minted as tomorrow, is the landscape photographer, Robert Adams. Indeed, his latest body of published work, West From the Columbia, is remarkable for the photographer’s willingness to look again at what has been looked at countless times, photograph it without stylistic quirks or graphic tricks, and produce imagery which convinces us that neither we (nor any other photographer) have looked before. And he does so with what must seem at first glance to be one of the most unpromising of subjects – the sea.
The sea is at once a most fascinating yet recalcitrant problem for the photographer. It is a spectacle that has tugged powerfully at the human heart since the dawn of mankind, evoking complex, barely understood emotions, amongst them awe, longing, desire, hope, fear. To look at the sea is a primal act. Along with the sun and the high mountain tops, the sea was a pre-eminent object of man’s religious veneration, and the call was a strong one. ‘A wild call and a clear call,’ wrote the English Poet Laureate, John Masefield, and ‘America’s poet’, Robert Frost, also caught the compulsive nature of the sea fever with effective simplicity:
‘The people along the sand
All turn and look one way.
They turn their back on the land.
They look at the sea all day.’
And yet to point a camera directly at the sea – as Robert Adams has done repeatedly in West From the Columbia – is, one might surmise, to cut down somewhat on pictorial opportunity. One has a band of sky, a band of sea, perhaps a strip of shoreline. It would seem as visually reductive as a Barnett Newman painting, and although sky and sea are constantly, wonderfully changing, there is nevertheless a certain fixed, known quality to it that can frustrate the photographer. Perhaps that is why the photographic canon of totally successful seascapes is so limited, and can be briefly summarised.
One must begin, of course, with Gustave le Gray and those cloud and seascapes of the eighteen-fifties, unprecedented images which not only garnered exhibition plaudits but created a situation in which the first word on a subject was almost the last. In the New World, a mere decade later, Carleton Watkins made a number of striking views on the Pacific coastline, but following that we have little for nearly eighty years until the mean, moody, magnificent seascapes of Paul Strand, where sky, sea and shoreline are truly monumental, seemingly sculpted from the same brooding matter from which all Strand’s imagery is obdurately wrought. After Strand, we return to the West Coast, and the nineteen-fifties seascapes of Minor White and Wynn Bullock, both of them (in their differing ways) firmly in the transcendental mode. Recently, we have had, amongst others, three notable bodies of work, Thomas Joshua Cooper’s and Jim Bengston’s glowering views of Northern European seas, and Hiroshi Sugimoto’s elegantly formal sea sequences, all fog and misty darkness. A tiny but distinguished canon. Now, just after Sugimoto and Cooper astonish us with their radical additions to the genre, Robert Adams finds a stunning new solution to this fundamental photographic problem.
But, to talk of a photographer solving formal ‘problems’ in today’s critical climate is to beg several questions about the whole nature of the medium. The debate in photographic theory about the relationship, or dichotomy between form and content is a highly contentious one, the subject of endless speculation and argument by commentators, and often, it would seem, having little to do with the actual business of taking photographs as understood by photographers. Robert Adams is a case in point. He was perceived initially as primarily a modernist-formalist, largely as a result of his participation in that landmark exhibition of the mid-seventies, William Jenkins’ New Topographics. This highly regarded and influential curatorial event marked the beginning of a fundamental shift in landscape photography, a formal handing over of the baton to a new generation (from Ansel to Robert, if you like) and was certainly instrumental in introducing the younger Adams’ work to a broader public. He became regarded as the quarterback of the ‘New Topographic’ all-stars, a ‘school’ which was at best a loose grouping of individuals whose stripped down, spare ‘topographical’ approach was seen by many as simply a stylistic conceit, a reductive formalism in line with then current minimalist art practices, rather than (as it certainly was in Adams’ case) a reaffirmation, both ethically and conceptually, of the medium’s documentary roots. To be sure, the original exhibition showed figures from very different theoretical backgrounds and was, as Jenkins freely admitted, something of a ‘stylistic event’, thus tending to obscure some widely differing philosophies. Adams’ work for instance, in spite of its lucid, outwardly dispassionate surface, was clearly ‘judgmental’ in the treatment of its subject-matter rather than ‘non-judgmental’ (the ‘New Topographics’ buzz word). Furthermore, some of those involved in the exhibition have shifted ground considerably over the years, moving closer to the theoretical and conceptual stance which characterises so much contemporary ‘photographic art.’
Adams however, has stayed admirably, even unfashionably consistent, maintaining a scrupulous balance between the subjective and the objective, between the conceptual and the phenomenological, between the aesthetic and the social. While others have become out-and-out polemicists, or ‘conceptual artists’, Robert Adams has remained, in short, a photographer.
This (albeit subtle distinction) has various implications that colour Adams’ whole approach. Firstly, it indicates that he takes his primary cue from life rather than art or some aesthetic posture. His subject is the ‘world’, which means that his work is basically phenomenological in tenor, dealing with sight impressions rather than theoretical ‘concepts’, though this does not mean that it lacks ideas. Form is a major, though not pre-eminent issue. It also means that Adams does not adhere slavishly to the notion of ‘newness’ which afflicts so much of contemporary photography, the insistent siren call – ‘if it’s new, or different, it must be good’ – that generates novelty rather than vision. Adams is content to photograph a tree or a mountain for the umpteenth time, in a relatively plain, unflashy manner, because he is not interested in the typical but the specific, the individual – a particular tree or mountain in a specific location at a specific time and in a particular light. Some of the work in his recent books, in West From the Columbia or Listening to the River,for instance, bears superficial affinities with the typological approach of artist-photographers such as Bernd and Hilda Becher, Thomas Struth or Hishori Sugimoto, whereby the same subject is recorded serially in the same way to disclose its ‘typical’, taxonomic qualities. Yet Adams is far less programmatic and fluid in approach. His subject is neither a ‘discourse upon representation’, nor a theoretical ideal of scientific objectivity, nor the exercise of the pseudo-taxonomist, but the land itself and his passionate relationship with it. As he put it in an essay on landscape photography (he is as fine a polemicist for the medium as he is a practitioner):
‘Landscape can offer us, I think, three verities – geography, autobiography, and metaphor. Geography is, if taken alone, sometimes boring, autobiography is frequently trivial, and metaphor can be dubious. But taken together, as in the best work of people like Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Weston, the three kinds of representation strengthen each other and reinforce what we all work to keep intact – an affection for life.’
To these basic concerns, Adams might have added a fourth – history. But that would be a large claim, and a photographer’s aspirations should be properly modest. Nevertheless, he deals with the land as it acted upon by light, by time, by the elements, and by the insidious hand of man. His work, unlike much of the Ansel Adams generation of landscape photographers, has never sought to deny the socio-political connection between man and nature – positive and negative – and that makes it both didactic and historical in tenor. And although Robert Adams’ polemic is subtle and complex, even paradoxical at times – he is no believer in the notion that photography in itself can move mountains or change the world – the didacticism was always there, and continues to be there in his imagery, sometimes overtly, sometimes buried deep within the fabric of the image, but always there.
It is assuredly there in West From the Columbia, which deals with the landscape of the north-west coast, where the Columbia River flows into the Pacific, forming the border between the states of Oregon and Washington. Robert Adams and his wife, Kerstin, have been vacationing in Astoria, on the Oregon side of the river, for many years. Until he began to make pictures for this project, Adams had not photographed the area seriously, but in 1990 he and Kerstin noticed that the familiar landscape had been transformed. This transformation had not happened overnight, but gradually, and had gone largely unnoticed by the photographer until this sudden shock of recognition. Of course, it is often like that with a familiar and often visited place, or a loved one’s face. Perception and memory are so interlinked that subtle changes over the years can go unnoticed, yet they accumulate gradually until there is a moment of revelation, a frequently disturbing moment when one realises that the passage of time has wrought its inevitable work. And time and change are (or perhaps should be) at the heart of most photographers’ work.
The changes which concerned Adams and his wife were typical of what has happened all over the West. These creeping, but nonetheless drastic and probably irreversible transformations were various, and have been the subject of his work before – ugly, indiscriminate urbanisation (or suburbanisation), large-scale deforestation, environmental pollution – but he did not document their sad effects directly. Instead he turned his lens primarily upon the ‘unspoilt’ confluence of the river and the ocean, a place of violent forces, prodigious space, and fragile beauty. The resulting pictures are not a direct indictment but a celebration, yet a celebration that recognises both attrition and threat. They are plainly an elegy to earlier times, to vacations well remembered perhaps, tinged with regret, not only over lost youth but what has happened to the land. They fix the memory of what has been (the autobiography), they document what remains (the geography), and they warn that this too, might be lost in the future (the metaphor).
And whilst landscape photography has become more overtly polemical in recent years, a tendency in which Adams has played his full part, it is interesting to note that recently he has appeared to back away from such a stance, at least in the images themselves. Both Listening to the River and West From the Columbia are highly personal, elegiac in tone. Yet Adams is one of the few photographers who, if not totally resolving the impossible contradiction between environmental reality and visual beauty in landscape photography, has reached a sound, if sometimes uneasy balance in the work. In his important early book, The New West, a damning indictment of tacky development along the Rocky Mountain foothills, he wrote the following:
‘The subject of these pictures is, in this sense, not tract homes or freeways, but the source of all Form, light. The Front Range is astonishing because it is overspread with light of such radiance that banality is impossible.’
This seems no formalist cop-out but an honest attempt to elucidate his imagery’s troubling complexities. Adams’ work is never without its elegiac qualities nor its moral passion, and if elegy seems to be winning out at this particular moment, he is quite likely to confound any expectation of a permanent retreat into transcendental contemplation with a blatantly political approach in his next body of work. That is one of his great strengths, and why he is a more intelligent photographer than most – his vision is complex enough to allow aesthetics and polemic, and any other kind of rhetoric he feels is appropriate for the particular task in hand.
For the time being however, Robert Adams has chosen to give us his personal vision of the sea. And in looking at these vitally fresh, subtle pictures, then comparing them with the seascapes I have cited, I realise how partial and narrow these previous visions have been. Of course, in spite of those who decry the medium for its limiting realism, all photographs are partial and narrow – and, let us not forget, fictions. Nearly all my significant examples show the sea in conditions of bad, or threatening weather, or lit by spectacular, operatic lighting. From the medium’s inception, it would seem that photographers (certainly would-be ‘serious’ photographers) have been drawn more readily to the unique, the tarnished, the timeworn, or the dramatic rather than the ordinary, the pristine, the mundane, or the ubiquitous. Adams’ imagery of the sea eschews any moody over-dramatisation and gives us something less heightened, more typical, the kind of ‘ordinary’ view of an ‘ordinary’ day, when it is a pleasure to walk by the shore, the kind of day when the sky is sparkling, the breeze is fresh, and there is enough swell in the waves to make the whole scene endlessly interesting. The kind of day, in short, when it is a pleasure to be alive. And it is essentially that pleasure which is evoked in these photographs, so vividly that one might almost smell the tang of ozone in the air. When I first saw these images, I was reminded of that old description of the taste of oysters. ‘Oysters,’ it is said, ‘taste of the sea.’ The primary virtue of Robert Adams’ Oregon seascapes is that they ‘taste of the sea.’
That of course is ridiculous, but certainly I believe that Adams’ images bring us closer to the physical aspect of the sea than any other photographs I have seen, including the distinguished bodies of work mentioned previously. Much is made of the camera’s great faculty to encapsulate an intense sense of the physical ‘thereness’ of things. Much is written about ‘objectivity’ and ‘transparency’ in photography, but in practice relatively few photographs, certainly few taken by consciously creative photographers (forever concerned with the issue of style) successfully hide their hand as it were, and attain a credible illusion of being taken with an unmediated camera – ‘without author or art’, as Lewis Baltz wrote. Equally, a photograph which elicits a fully rounded sense of its subject’s physicality is also a rarer beast than one might imagine, whatever other virtues the image might harbour. In recent years I think particularly of Lee Friedlander’s astonishing female nudes as images which were almost totally about their subjects’ ‘thereness’, capturing the realities of flesh and hair better than any other I know in this wellworked genre. Friedlander’s candid, closeup, determinedly unblushing depiction of the flesh in rude good health, untouched by the blandishments of the ‘beauty’ industry, was so ‘real’ that it caused both a frisson of delight at a subject so well seen, and a shiver of embarrassment (from men more than women, interestingly enough) at the intimate verities revealed.
This sense of things well seen is a reaction that occurs time and time again with Robert Adams – things well seen in particular relationship to their physicality. Of today’s landscape photographers, Adams seems one of the most adept at encapsulating a physical sense of the land. As he himself reiterates, he is photographing not simply to illustrate a philosophy, or to make a bland if well meaning document, but to describe experience. His aim is to make images that evoke both his, and our potential experience of the land, in all its cultural and personal complexity. And at the root of this is the simple (far from simple) act of depicting our interacting with the land in a normal, everyday way – walking over it, gazing at it, being in the countryside itself rather than in a picture. To seek a goal few artists successfully attain, defined memorably by the Irish poet, Tom Paulin, as ‘that meltfresh, newpainted, all-in-the-moment living quality’
Photographers please take note – it is an eminently worthy ambition in all its imperious modesty. Adams certainly has, for this quality, it seems to me, is crucial to his mode of expression and artistic persona. All the usual, often superfluous rhetoric of picturemaking – even a self-conscious decision to negate rhetoric – is eschewed in favour of direct, plain speaking, or plain sight. He invariably selects an unshowy prospect. He employs bright, even lighting, an unexaggerated perspective, and a ‘normal’, eye-level viewpoint. Normalcy is the keynote, although those of us who have wrestled with the photographic medium might appreciate the great skill and fine judgement required to arrive at such a judiciously tuned, poetic presentation of unornamented fact. In West From the Columbia, as in Listening to the River, he achieves his effect (and without being pejorative, the intense depiction of normalcy is as much an effect as anything else) by concentrating upon what we might term the two elemental building blocks of photography – light and time. Currently, when sociological and literary theory is applied almost without discrimination to photographic criticism, it is fashionable to decry the formalist approach taken by John Szarkowski in his exhibition, The Photographer’s Eye, as so much modernist conceit. In that widely influential exhibit and its accompanying book, Szarkowski enumerated photography’s formal elements, and has been much criticised for it of late. But any visual medium has its problems of form, problems that remain stubbornly at the root, not the periphery of visual expression, despite the current orthodoxies of the deconstructionists and pseudo-literary theorists. If form follows function, function certainly frequently follows form, as in the case of Robert Adams’ seascapes. These are essentially formal pictures, and demand to be read, though not exclusively, in formal terms.
In purely material terms, Adams’ work has always been as much about depicting light and space as much as matter. Light has been a fundamental concern of his imagery from the very beginning, and in this he might be said to be a typically American artist. The clear, sharp, all enveloping light he invariably seeks to depict derives – through a long line of tradition – from Luminist painting, an intrinsically American tradition which reflected not only an attitude to that country’s light but predicated a distinctly American concern for the integrity of the seen object. A point of view with an implied moral dimension, a point of view which permeates much of American photography and which is exemplified perfectly in the imagery of Robert Adams. The structured, deliberate use of time, however, is a more recent element in Adams’ work. Listening to the River consists entirely of short sequences of between two and eight images, used to describe different aspects of the same scene, in both a spatial and a temporal sense. Images are combined in what could be described as loose panoramas, yet ‘panorama’ is perhaps a limiting word, for as ever Adams is much more fluid and inventive. I also hesitate to call them panoramas as it has always seemed to me that many photographers have turned too readily to the panoramic camera as a cure for flagging vision, although there are of course some outstanding exceptions to chastise me for this personal prejudice. Adams certainly is not suffering from flagging invention, quite the reverse. He utilises overlapping or adjacent views, a form of photographic cubism, one might say, yet without the self-conscious artiness of something like David Hockney’s ‘joiners’, to suggest a more complex spatial and temporal sense of walking in the countryside than one might obtain with a singular, monocular viewpoint.
These small sequences – ‘loose’ panoramas – are used again with great effect in West From the Columbia, most notably in the seascapes. For example, South and Southwest from the South Jetty (pages 14-17) consists of four images, shot from almost the same viewpoint. Except for a hint of dark rock in one corner and a narrow band of sky, Adams looks mainly at the ocean. All our attention is concentrated upon that which tends to fascinate us most as we gaze out to sea, or contemplate it from the deck of a ship – the heave of the ocean swell, the sparkle of sunlight on waves, in short the utterly compelling, restless surface of the great heaving mass. By using four images, the photographer presents a picture that subverts the normally static nature of photography. Each single frame freezes the sea, but at a different moment, catching the swell at a different peak, generating a different pattern of shadowed troughs and glittering highlights. Adams has created a sequence of four prints. He might have made four hundred, or four thousand, each differing in small, but significant points of detail.
Evening. South from the South Jetty (pages 22-23) is a two print sequence that captures the same scene at the onset of dusk. Here, the sea has calmed down, the tones catch that peculiar sense of sadness which heralds the arrival of night, mitigated by the single glow of a lighthouse light on the far side of the estuary. With its clear depiction of the ‘gloaming’, as we say in Scotland, there are echoes of Sugimoto in this particular sequence, but Spring. Southwest from Cape Disappointment (pages 50-51), brings us closer to home, reminding us of another renowned photographer of the Pacific coast. I did not include Edward Weston in my brief survey of seascapes, because I felt his primary concern was with the rocks of the foreshore rather than the ocean itself. But one can hardly forget Weston’s backlit China Cove (1941), and his elegant, radically simple clifftop view Grass Against Sea (1937), two images Adams must have noted.
His spring sequence again consist of two prints, in which we look down upon a sparkling, almost still sea from the heights of Cape Disappointment. One image shows only sea. In the other, a clump of grass and wild flowers confirms the promise of spring. I would not suggest the direct influence of Weston – photography on the wing is too intuitive and spontaneous for that, but the pictures share a spatial feeling and mood. However, whereas Weston focused upon grass rather than sea, Adams’ sequence remains very much a paean to light over water. It is an image about which one can say, without being sentimental, here is a picture full of simple joy. One might conclude likewise about the book’s longest, and loveliest sequence, surely its centrepiece. Southwest from the South Jetty (pages 32-35, 37) is a five print sequence which has been shot, like most of the others, into the afternoon sun, facing the ‘dark, glittering West’, as the ancient Egyptians used to say. Once again, these images display all the luscious, pearly greys and dazzling highlights for which Adams’ prints are renowned – there is no better photographer of the kind of light emFor the time being however, Robert Adams has chosen to give us his personal vision of the sea. And in looking at these vitally fresh, subtle pictures, then comparing them with the seascapes I have cited, I realise how partial and narrow these previous visions have been. Of course, in spite of those who decry the medium for its limiting realism, all photographs are partial and narrow – and, let us not forget, fictions. Nearly all my significant examples show the sea in conditions of bad, or threatening weather, or lit by spectacular, operatic lighting. From the medium’s inception, it would seem that photographers (certainly would-be ‘serious’ photographers) have been drawn more readily to the unique, the tarnished, the timeworn, or the dramatic rather than the ordinary, the pristine, the mundane, or the ubiquitous. Adams’ imagery of the sea eschews any moody over-dramatisation and gives us something less heightened, more typical, the kind of ‘ordinary’ view of an ‘ordinary’ day, when it is a pleasure to walk by the shore, the kind of day when the sky is sparkling, the breeze is fresh, and there is enough swell in the waves to make the whole scene endlessly interesting. The kind of day, in short, when it is a pleasure to be alive. And it is essentially that pleasure which is evoked in these photographs, so vividly that one might almost smell the tang of ozone in the air. When I first saw these images, I was reminded of that old description of the taste of oysters. ‘that calls for a good pair of Raybans – and again they concentrate upon the shifting subtleties of a medium swell, dancing in a crystal sunlight. Number four in the sequence is especially memorable, for Adams has captured that most elusive of phenomena, the perfect wave – perhaps not the perfect wave of a surfer’s dream, but arguably the most perfect ever caught on camera. Yet all of this sequence delights, and opens one’s eyes, surely the highest state to which photography can aspire. It brings home the fact that the sea has contours, that it is a infinitely three dimensional rather than a two dimensional surface, and that it is in continual, spellbinding motion.
These are nominally simple, yet endlessly rich, subtle pictures, like the ocean itself. They are impossible to describe adequately, as the best pictures invariably are, so I shall give up on that foolish task. They speak far better for themselves, quietly, elegantly, without show or fuss, and have about them the profound ring of truth, the sure authority, free from sentimentality, that persuades us the sea has been ‘seen’ for the first time. There are other fine images in West From the Columbia, of beach and headland, grassland and forest, but the seascapes are undoubtedly the highlight, for they above all reiterate that truism voiced by Richard Avedon. Photographers who choose to work in the traditional man/emner are joined at the hip to their subject matter, which does li/pmit them to the visual world, to the superficial in the strict sense. To be sure, every practitioner of ambition desires to work at the medium’s ‘cutting edge’, but many would seem to have a distorted notion of what that might mean. ‘New’ subject matter, ‘new’ forms are seen as the panacea, the essential ingredient for cutting edge expression. For many the documentary photographic tradition is regarded as more or less played out, a redundant mode that must give way to the ‘complexities’ of postmodernism. Of course, in far too many hands – unintelligent, slipshod, uncaring – straight photography would seem to have had its day, but inferior work is not genre specific. Much post-modernism is simply the bad old formalism in disguise, its much vaunted quality of ironic, reasoned critique limited in practice to the monotonous repetition of tired, obvious, ‘one-liner’ aphorisms.
As he has done throughout his career, Robert Adams proves in West From the Columbia and Listening to the River that by working with passion and intelligence within the photographic rather than ‘art as photography’ tradition, it is still eminently possible to make photographs that are as fresh as the day the medium was invented. If the camera is a surrogate eye, that eye retains its capacity to see and reveal the unexpected – provided that the brain behind it retains its openness, its tenacity, its sense of wonder. It is the nature of the medium – a fact one might both celebrate and bemoan – that few photographers are capable of sustaining a fresh vision over a twenty or thirty year period. Adams has done so, with great aplomb, and in his latest work demonstrates that, in his own measured, tempered way, he has been one of the most innovative American photographers of the last three decades, without perhaps, having been accorded due credit. Those who look at his work and think this is just another tree, another rock, or another beach, are missing the point. So are those who say that his environmental polemic is not sustained, nor vigorous enough.
In his seascapes and other recent sequences, Robert Adams has struck a considerable blow for the continuing efficacy of straight photography. Such is the profound quality of his vision, one might say ‘well seen’ rather than ‘well done.’ As for his work’s didacticism, he has more than paid his dues on this score. The problems of making effective political art, as opposed to propaganda, have been considered endlessly by cultural theoreticians, a debate that will doubtless continue without conclusion for eons to come. Adams has made his own eloquent and heartfelt contribution to the dilemma in his essay Photographing Evil. Meanwhile, his stunning photographs in West From the Columbia are there to be enjoyed. But the pleasures taken must be sober, and reflective. They cannot remain pure and unalloyed. For as Adams’ close friend and colleague, Frank Gohlke, reminds us:
‘There must be an Other before we can love; Eden becomes the object of our desire only after we are cast out. The best landscape images, whatever their medium and whatever other emotions they may evoke, are predicated on that loss. They propose the possibility of an intimate connection with a world to which we have access only through our eyes, a promise containing its own denial. In the case of landscape photographs, the paradox is sharpened because the world represented must have existed for the picture to be made, and yet the existence of the photograph attests undeniably to that world’s disappearance.’