Robert Adams: No Small Journeys, Across Shopping Center Parking Lots, Down City Streets
Mathew Marks Gallery
523 West 24th Street
New York, New York
November 8 to December 20, 2003
While many sources have been cited in reference to Robert Adams work, including the nineteenth century landscape photographs of Timothy O’Sullivan, the influence he denies is the one most heavily felt in the current exhibition at Mathew Marks Gallery: Walker Evans. In the 1940s, Evans used a hidden camera on the subway to capture people unawares. While Adams is best known for his photographs of the vacant suburban landscape, “No Small Journeys” includes people in these landscapes. The series, taken around Denver and near the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant, is being shown for the first time. As in Evans, the exhibition reveals a consistent method of capturing people in a state of oblivion as they experience life in a public space.
Robert Adams began his career as an English Professor, with no formal training in photography. In 1967 Adams greatly reduced his class load and devoted most of his time to capturing the newly sprung tract homes, gas stations, fast food restaurants, freeways, strip malls, grocery stores, and the people who inhabited these spaces. With his Roliflex 2-1/4 square format camera and with the help of a Guggenheim Fellowship, he began a seminal body of work that would soon become The New West (1974). Photographing in black and white for the past four decades, Adams has invented a very elaborate developing process which produces his seamless skies. In 1989, the Philadelphia Museum of Art held a retrospective of his work.
Based on a selection of images published by Aperture in 1983 entitled “Our Lives and Our Children,” “No Small Journeys” is an homage to humanity in the public realm. In these photographs, taken between 1979-82, Adams overwhelmingly captures his subjects in an unconscious state, transitioning from one space to another. The images, approximately 5 x 5 inches on sheets of 11 x 14 paper, reading as a sequential experience are packed into one large room at Matthew Marks Gallery. Searching for glimpses of tenderness, Adams states in the catalogue: “If we come upon innocence, beauty, caring, joy, or courage, even in lost places, are we not obliged to acknowledge them in defiance of ironists?”
The exhibition has a very theatrical feel to it the images are consistently taken in a harsh mid-day light. The contrast of deep, monumental shadows and ethereal distant cars sets the stage for a psychological human drama. Through Adams’s use of light, we are told something of crucial importance is going on here, yet when the viewer considers the banality of an everyday scene at the mall, a dichotomy is created. The formal elements point and we are prompted to honor these monumental life happenings, but they are trivial, everyday passages. The mood of the single room show is rather heavy and uncomfortable.
Is he trying to make artless bad photographs? His frame seems unconsidered and the people don’t even look at the camera. He skews the camera at an angle, forcing the viewer off-kilter, and over compensates with either too much sky or an expanse of asphalt, creating a palpable tension. Yet, it is through the massive repetition and the amnesic quality of the background that one starts to see the beauty and the significant human presence which Adams points to.
“No Small Journeys” must be understood as a whole, the awkward framing, out of focus subjects, and anonymity of the people give us a beautiful glimpse of life happening in mundane public spaces. These public spaces exist in the shadow of the Rocky Flats Nuclear Power Plant, and Adams felt a real urgency to capture the precariousness of an entire community inhabiting a potentially threatened space.