A puzzle in the landscape

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Photographer Robert Adams ’59 found himself drawn back to Southern California two decades after he graduated, compelled by the contradictions and deep mystery of the land.

by Judy Hill

Robert Adams '59One of the most influential landscape photographers of his generation, Robert Adams has spent half a century chronicling the American West. His black-and-white images, spare and elegant, reflect the impact of human activity on what remains of our wildernesses and open spaces. Through his candid lens, we see the effects of urban sprawl, highway proliferation, logging and more. We also see the beauty of nature, defiant and resilient amid the degradation.

Adams’ work has been exhibited at museums including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Yale University Art Gallery, Denver Art Museum, Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, New York, as well as internationally. In 1994 he was awarded a MacArthur “Genius” grant. In 2014 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Born in Orange, New Jersey, in 1937, Adams moved with his family as a child to the suburbs of Denver, Colorado. After an unhappy freshman year at the University of Colorado, he transferred to the University of Redlands in 1956.

“It was a shock,” says Adams. “I’d never been in California at all, and when I got to Redlands there was visible from the Quad a huge fire in the mountains. I remember thinking, ‘What kind of a place is this?’” An English major, Adams says that what he remembers most about Redlands is the teaching. “I had three extraordinary English teachers and a wonderful art history teacher. Unlike the graduate students who taught most of the classes I attended in Boulder, the professors at Redlands brought to their vocation not only intellect but an adult breadth of life experience. And adult values. They taught toward a long-term relevance, a saving mixture of disillusionment and hope.”

After earning his Ph.D. from the University of Southern California, Adams returned to Colorado to teach English at Colorado College. Struck by the changes that rampant development had wrought on his home state, Adams picked up a camera and began to take pictures. Museum of Modern Art curator John Szarkowski was an early champion, and Adams soon began attracting national recognition for his work, spending the next five decades observing and recording man’s interactions with the land in the West.

When he was invited by AT&T to document characteristic aspects of the American landscape, Adams found himself drawn back to Southern California. “What had stayed with me was a recollection of verdancy and sterility, promise and destruction. The United States is, I think, tragic. Our motto has so often been Daniel Boone’s: ‘Be sure you’re right, then go ahead.’ But there are still beautiful trees. And deep mystery.”

On the following pages, Adams shares with us a selection of photographs taken in Southern California from 1978 to 1985, along with reflections about his time at Redlands and thoughts about art and beauty.

Edge of San Timoteo Canyon, Redlands, California, 1978

Edge of San Timoteo Canyon, Redlands, California, 1978

Often when I came here to read as a student I was puzzling out some question from William Main, who taught classes in modern literature and in Shakespeare (“All literature is modern literature, or else it is not better than cultural history.”). His assignments required close examination of a text in order to arrive at the author’s understanding of an ethical problem, and we were allowed just one page each week to defend our interpretation. He was a kind person, but no sloppy thinking or writing got by. I have never admired a teacher more. Or enjoyed listening to one more. In his ardor to awaken us, for example, he could be very funny: “Books should bite people,” he once assured us.

Interstate 10, west edge of Redlands, California, ca. 1985

Interstate 10, west edge of Redlands, California, ca. 1985

Sometimes friends met for pizza and beer at a windowless little bar near the highway. We were privileged beyond our understanding to have, as humanities students, four years just to read and reflect, an opportunity never to be repeated. And to enjoy a particular companionship that is also allowed only once, born of innocence and a sense of newfound gifts. When we graduated, of course, as the poet Akhmatova wrote about her friends in St. Petersburg in 1917, most of us “parted provisionally, never to meet again.” Although memory of them remains a blessing.

New development on what was a citrus growing estate, Highland, California, 1985

New development on what was a citrus growing estate, Highland, California, 1985

John Szarkowski at the Museum of Modern Art in New York remarked how surprising it was that smog could be terrible and beautiful at once. My own sense is that the beauty may be more in the light and the trees, but he was surely right that there is a puzzle in the landscape. Is it frightening or consoling? Or both, and if so, how should one honor the world without lying about it? The photographer Lewis Hine (1874-1940) was correct, I believe, when he said that picture makers should show what is wrong so that we will want to change it, and what is right so that we will value it.

Santa Ana Wash, San Bernardino County, California, ca. 1980

Santa Ana Wash, San Bernardino County, California, ca. 1980

One side of Redlands that I did not explore as a student was the Santa Ana wash. When I came back in 1978, on a commission from AT&T to picture aspects of our country’s geography, much of the wash proved to be littered with garbage and abandoned furniture and appliances. And scarred by a casual violence that seemed close to nihilism.

Eroding edge of abandoned citrus growing estate, Highlands, California, 1982

Eroding edge of abandoned citrus growing estate, Highlands, California, 1982

Courses at the University of Redlands in aesthetics and Renaissance art, and study of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist and Ulysses with William Main, started me on a long journey toward conclusions that are not currently fashionable. Art, I believe, is not just anything that gets into a gallery or museum. It is an intuition of wholeness in life, a vision of form despite apparent disintegration. In this way it affirms, by metaphor, that there is meaning in life. Though art does not explain or prove anything; its beauty, which is often unorthodox, holds within it a promise.

Edge of San Timoteo Canyon, Redlands, California, 1982

Edge of San Timoteo Canyon, Redlands, California, 1982

My wife, Kerstin Mornestam, and I met during our last semester at the University. Her
family lived in Los Angeles, and late that spring we drove in to see them, having by then found that we shared a love of art and nature, and that we also loved one another. We still thank William Main for Shakespeare’s Sonnet Number 116.

PHOTO CREDIT: © Robert Adams, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

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