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February 7 - May 28, 2006 at The Getty Center, West Los Angeles

by Jeanne Willette

"Burning Oil Sludge North of
Denver, Colorado," 1973, gelatin
silver print, 6 x 7 5/8”.

“Colfax Avenue, Lakewood, Colorado,"
1970, gelatin silver print, 5 7/8 x 6".

"Ontario, California," 1983, gelatin
silver print, 14 15/16 x 18 13/16".

"Missouri River, Clay County,
South Dakota," 1977, gelatin
silver print, 14 3/4 x 19 7/8".
In the Eighteenth Century, Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant organized "nature" into "landscape," further codified into the "beautiful" and the "sublime," the revelation of God's power and majesty.  Later the Reverend Gilpin, inspired by English scenery, added the "picturesque" as an in-between category, implying the charm of the built environment nestled into the hollows of nature.  Two hundred years later, any possible assumption of human harmony with God has been shattered, and a new generation of American photographers set out to re-record our relation to our planet.  Working conceptually, Robert Adams finds the ordinary parts of America that we drive by, eyes averted, and shows us what we, not God, hath wrought.  Part of the Seventies generation of Lewis Baltz and Mark Klett, Robert Adams joined in defying all Enlightenment categories with photographs that are clearly situated as cultural critique.  While Klett re-photographed iconic Nineteenth Century points of view and Baltz focused on the building of the West, Adams pulls back, frames the built environment in landscapes that are hardly beautiful, certainly not picturesque, but a sublimely banal record of destruction in the name of development.

In what amounts to a mini-retrospective, Adams surveys the erasure of America the Beautiful in favor of America the Developed, carved up in the service of industry.   The Nineteenth Century survey of the West was always for the purpose of reducing territory to a neat grid:  parcels for settlers who would bring civilization to the wilderness.  We have succeeded admirably in our self-appointed task to cultivate, but the question Adams raises is: at what cost, to how many, and what have we done?  America as a Garden of Eden, as a place where humanity could start anew, could have a second chance at salvation, haunts these photographs.  Unlike their predecessors Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, the conceptual photographers do not celebrate the glories of nature but provide a record of moral failures by the stewards of the land.  Robert Adams hides passion with laconic dispassion, always comparing the West-as-it-is with the West-that-once-was, a "West" that now exists only in memory and imagination.

To understand contemporary landscape photography it is necessary to read allegorically, through a palimpsest of references, tracking the remorseless march of progress.  Landscape painters of the previous century worked urgently to capture the unique and abundant American landscape even as the garden was disappearing.  This exhibition demonstrates our expulsion.  Adams photographed "Our Lives and Our Children," a series that includes a little girl in a party dress toddling along a Denver sidewalk near the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant.  A sense of hovering danger is echoed by an image of burning oil sludge in a Romantic landscape--a sinister cloud of black smoke snaking past distant pristine snow-capped mountains; Colorado after the Fall.

A favorite Adams photograph is a Denver suburban brick home, numbered 412.  Spying through the front window, we see the female inside, reduced to an Eighteenth Century silhouette, black against blinding white, like the white sidewalk cutting across the manicured front lawn.  Such burning and dodging are now as old-fashioned as the film camera, but the vanishing technology of these photographs remains a tour-de-force.  Many have been newly developed and are small and exquisite contact prints, demanding close viewing, revealing minute, microscopic detail.  In his life's work, Robert Adams holds out hope for our deeper appreciation for what he called, "the mystery of landscape," a mystery we must now solve so that "we may hope to be forgiven."