We Are in a Western Town

The enduring power of the photographs of Robert Adams.

New tracts, west edge of Denver, Colorado, 1973–74, from What We Bought. [From the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery; © Robert Adams, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco and Matthew Marks Gallery, New York]

A change has taken place and I don’t quite know what it is. The streets of this town are broad, much broader than they need to be, and there is a pallor of dust in the air. Empty lots here and there between the buildings have weeds growing in them. The sheet metal equipment sheds and water towers are like those of previous towns but are more spread out. Everything is more run-down and mechanical looking, and sort of randomly located. Gradually I see what it is. Nobody is concerned anymore about tidily conserving space. The land isn’t valuable anymore. We are in a Western town.
– Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, 1974

I have lived in Phoenix, Arizona, on and off for nearly a decade. It’s a place I absolutely hated at first, but which, to my surprise, I’ve gradually grown to love, and I have managed to make a home and a life here in this strange Sunbelt metropolis. Yet I’ve always had deep reservations. A true western boomtown, Phoenix has grown phenomenally in recent decades, and its development has been guided largely by an ethos of resource extraction — though in this case, the use-it-up-and-move-on mentality of mineral mining has been brought to bear on another natural resource — the land itself. In Phoenix, the resource is real estate, and the result is a place that can feel more like an encampment of drifters — here only so long as the going is good — than a settlement of citizens. Nevertheless there are moments when this city in the Sonoran Desert seems to perfectly hold the brilliant light and wide space of the truly amazing landscape it inhabits.

It is no coincidence that concurrent with my ongoing struggle to come to terms with this unsettling place I have become more and more awed by the work of the photographer Robert Adams. For almost half a century Adams — born in 1937 in Orange, New Jersey, and raised in suburban Denver, Colorado — has been immersed in the impossible paradoxes of the American West. Adams’s work, which came to national prominence in the early 1970s and was included in the landmark 1975 exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape, focuses on our fraught relationship with the landscape of the West — the bland suburban cul-de-sacs and commercial strips built into the rugged foothills and on open ranges, the damage done to the forests and rivers, but also the solace still offered by the beauty of the land and the ever-present, transcendent feeling of light and space.

Over the years Adams’s prodigious output has exerted great influence; suburbia has become one of the great themes of American photography. The current retrospective, The Place We Live, organized by the Yale Art Gallery and now touring the country, is the latest testament to the power of his vision. But what seems to me still remarkable about Adams’s photography is its profound humility. Adams refuses to inject ideology or to propose solutions, and this resistance has allowed him to make the most of photography’s ability to look at things as they are. Thus his photography does not seem to me — as is often assumed — primarily a document of our collective destruction of the Western environment. It does not indulge in the easy, and ultimately hollow, device of opposing the splendor of nature to the despoliation of man. Struggling to reconcile our contradictory impulses and impacts, Adams’s photographs seek to lay open the difficult complexity of the interrelationships between the natural and the built; they aim to help us see, as Adams wrote early in his career, “a landscape into which all fragments, no matter how imperfect, fit perfectly.” 1

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I spoke recently with Joshua Chuang, of the Yale University Art Gallery, who curated The Place We Live, which includes more than 300 prints, and whose current venue is the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Chuang emphasized the early influence of architecture on Adams. Back in the ’60s, Adams, distressed by the rapid urbanization of his adopted home state of Colorado, had been concentrating on studies of the architecture and relics of disappearing ways of life — photographs that would ultimately comprise the books White Churches of the Plains and The Architecture and Art of Early Hispanic Colorado. But then, on his first trip overseas, to visit his wife’s family in Sweden, he was struck, according to Chuang, by “how society could live in harmony with the land”; he was particularly impressed by Asplund’s Woodland Cemetery, in Stockholm. On this same trip Adams also traveled in Germany, where he made a point of visiting the churches in and around Cologne designed by Rudolf Schwarz, which seemed to him, as Chuang put it, “modern, austere, in perfect proportion with their function.” Adams was moved to begin an extended photographic exploration of the expanding suburbs of Denver — work first published in The New West and then expanded upon in Denver and What We Bought and shown in New Topographics. As Chuang told me, “Adams moved from looking at bygone cultures and values to focusing on history as it was being written by contemporary actions.”

It’s not hard to imagine how the industrial aesthetic of Rudolf Schwarz’s architecture might have prompted Adams to look anew at his familiar Denver suburbs. As Adams later wrote, “Recalling them helped suggest to me, when I returned to America, that not just churches, but whole urban and suburban landscapes might be revealed as sacred if we brought to them a measure of the same passionate regard that Schwarz had brought to his specifically religious commissions.” This was a bold idea, and it remains so today — to see as sacred the tract homes and strip malls, empty lots and highway medians, places built on spec and without much care, and largely to maximize profit.

Adams’s photos — I am thinking of images like Colorado Springs, 1969Sunday-school class, Colorado Springs, 1969; and New tracts, west edge of Denver, Colorado, 1973-74 — manage to imbue these ordinary places with something beyond themselves, to make them seem capable of “containing the uncontainable,” as Adams said of Schwarz’s churches. The bare frame of a tract home under construction sits in the middle of a razed and barren plot, without a growing thing in sight; but the wood studs seem to glow in the clear, high light that permeates the landscape, and the mountains in the distance are glorious. A group of people sits in the sun outside a church; a small garden grows in the thin soil behind a modest house. These gestures mark a desire to connect with the land, to connect with the history of millennia of human habitation of our planet. At the heart of Adams’s work is an argument against seeing ourselves —and the places we live — as separate from nature. Adams’s photos don’t always refrain from expressing anger and despair at the damage done to the land, or at the construction of places that Adams has described as “unworthy of us.” 2 (What We Bought in particular is marked with bitterness.) But above everything they affirm that we do belong here, that this is our place — not because we own it but because we are part of it.

Perhaps living in Phoenix has inoculated me against the usual critiques of Western-style sprawl, but I see a deep tenderness in the photographs from this early period in Adams’s career, in images which have so often been described as unflinching, cold, hard. Even the toughest photographs of the bleakest spots contain a sense of open space and transcendent light. Adams allows landscape to redeem the carelessly made speculative developments. The photographer steps back and, in a deceptively casual manner that belies an incredibly subtle sensitivity to the formal concerns of the medium, lets the camera record what is there. Marked by a determined inclusiveness, and by what Chuang terms a “meticulous devotion to truth in all its shades of gray,” his work does not indulge in the usual tricks of making reality look better than it is. Nor is it an intellectual contrarian’s appreciation of urban development in the West in the vein of Venturi and Scott Brown’s Las Vegas or Banham’s Los Angeles. (Though Adams’s work does echo Banham’s in its understanding of Denver as a set of interrelated ecologies.)

Denver, Colorado, ca. 1980, from Summer Nights. [From the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery; © Robert Adams, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco and Matthew Marks Gallery, New York]

Not all of Adams’ work is shot through with such internal conflict and hard-won moments of beauty. Collections like Summer Nights, Gone?, and his more recent series of images of the Oregon coast — where Adams has lived for the last couple of decades — revel in the joy of seeing and of being in the world. A sense of harmony with the land defines much of this work, but these photographs are not, generally speaking, about what is conventionally understood as the majesty of nature. Instead they capture small but telling moments of grandeur — the shadow of a tree enveloping a cozy suburban house, the late afternoon sun illuminating fallen apples in a yard — and instances of quiet beauty in a nondescript meadow or a copse of trees. Adams’s insistence on the specificity of place, on valuing what is often overlooked or outright dismissed, is a result not only of his choice of subject but also of his manner of photographing. The photographs do not clamor for attention or shout their intentions; rather they reveal themselves slowly, requiring us to take the time to really look.

Adams’s most recent major series, Turning Back, with its focus on the clear-cutting of old-growth forests in Oregon, is his most direct exploration of the devastation that human action has wrought on the planet; it is also the most visually complex embodiment of the ethics of his worldview. As with some of his previous projects, like Listening to the River, the way in which Adams has sequenced the images into a larger body of work amplifies the complexity of seeing and the difficulty of understanding the world around us. The series comprises many photographs that are very similar to one other, often showing almost exactly the same view — my first reaction was that it seemed undisciplined, in need of a good editing. But after taking time with the photographs, I saw that the repetition itself was essential to the unfolding power of the work; it seemed paradoxically to express a kind of muteness or impotence — to underscore the need to look, and then look again, in the difficult and maybe futile but nevertheless necessary effort to try to comprehend what is incomprehensible in scale and implication. Speaking about one of the clear-cut forests he photographed, Adams said, “It brings out everything desperately close to nihilism in everybody who passes by — it’s a breeding ground for contempt.” I believe that Adams’s work is an antidote for this kind of contempt, a lesson in caring about the places we live and the land we use, in all their failings and glory.

Editors' Note

The Place We Live, curated by Joshua Chuang and organized by the Yale University Art Gallery, has been touring North America and Europe.

  1.  Robert Adams, Denver: A Photographic Survey of the Metropolitan Area (Denver: Colorado Associated University Press and the State Historical Society of Colorado, 1977), Preface.
  2. Adams, Denver, Preface.
Aaron Rothman, “We Are in a Western Town,” Places Journal, March 2012. Accessed 01 Jun 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/120329

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Past Discussions View
  • 04.01.2012 at 03:08

    Nice summation of a lovely, poetic show. Particularly memorable were the minor family dramas captured in shopping mall parking lots, and the unsophisticated marketing tactics of the inane and unintentionally hilarious supermarket signage of the 1970s.