The National Gallery’s new Robert Adams retrospective is “one of the most moving and important exhibitions at the museum in a long time,” “American Silence,” which gathers 175 photographs in all, “convincingly demonstrates that Adams is not just an important photographer with a significant impact on contemporary art but also a great artist whose nearly six decades of work are an essential document of the national conscience, and a thing of majesty.” Born in 1937, Adams moved to Colorado in adolescence and often focused on nature’s beauty when he took up photography in 1963. But the arrival of sprawling residential and commercial developments signaled that “the world around Adams was changing,” and he “sensed himself in crisis.” He soon transitioned to capturing suburban homes, strip malls, parking lots, and other manifestations of human encroachment on the land.
From the start, “Adams discerned poetry where others found the grimly prosaic,” American Silence: The Photographs of Robert Adams National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., through Oct. 2 ,When he takes interest in a landscape, “no matter how degraded,” he pours as much care into capturing its latent beauty as any 19th-century black-and-white nature photographer, often using Western natural light as an aid. “With the prowess of an Indigenous tracker, he scopes out his quarry—a subdivision of tract homes, a clear-cut forest—to determine the time of day when a site is illuminated with a radiance that feels blessed. And then he shoots.” One notable image from 1983 captures a stretch of California highway with a single bird perched on an overhanging wire. “Even in this broken and diminished world, Adams is saying, it is possible—no, it is imperative—to exult and sing.”
It’s when Adams zooms in closer on the built environment “that his argument with modernity becomes clearer,” The occasional figures who appear in his 1960s images of tract residential housing look alienated and lonely. Later, in a 1984 project that shows Adams “at his least persuasive,” he responded to the sight of smoke rising from a Colorado nuclear plant by arranging images of his neighbors in “a slow-burn chronology that climaxes in images of fear and rage.” Fortunately, Adams, now 85, rebounded from that didactic work with late-career photographs, taken in Oregon, that “document the ravages of forest clear-cutting in a subtler fashion.” Even his photographs of the massive tree stumps that wash up along the banks of the Nehalem River leave room for cloud-filled skies that echo his earlier prairie images. “Despite his arguments with man’s heavy footprint,” Adams has apparently found some solace in noticing that not everything in the West has changed.