The photographic research of the True West

When I was a teenager, I often cycled from the suburbs where I lived to downtown Denver. I was looking for the true West, or at least a truer West than my neighborhood. I took pictures with my Kodak Instamatic, which were mostly terrible. But after visiting the vast and masterful exhibition “American Silence: The Photographs of Robert Adamsat the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, I couldn’t help thinking about my photos, or my feeling that the true West would always be west of where I was.

Robert Adams is best known as a photographer of the West – the beautiful West, the degraded West and the beautifully degraded West – but he was born in New Jersey in 1937. His father taught him to love the great outdoors. He was ten when his family moved to Wisconsin and fifteen when they moved to Colorado. In 1963, after giving up his dream of becoming a minister, Adams, an English teacher in Colorado Springs, discovered photography.

In the decade of his photographic awakening, Adams devoured every issue of Alfred Stieglitz camera workleaned on “This is American land, a book of nature photographs, and purchased a copy of “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” by Ansel Adams. (The two men are not related.) He photographed old churches and graves left by native and Hispanic communities in southern Colorado, the prairies of northeastern Colorado, and the suburbs of Denver and Colorado Springs. He focused on what he considered a gift of nature: “the silence of light”. He made richly toned black and white photographs of turbulent skies falling over grassy plains. Sometimes, wedged between the natural elements, there were signs of civilization – dark spots along the horizon or dusty ribbons of road running poetically towards a vanishing point. Nothing scary, nothing ugly. In a photo, Adams’ wife, Kerstin, exults in a meadow in Keota, Colorado. The image depicts a rental as light as the wind.

But the more Adams looked and photographed, the more he saw not only the gift, but also the threats hanging over him. Denver’s suburbs, including those he had inhabited, Longmont and Wheat Ridge, sprawled unchecked across the plains and foothills, laying waste to the west. Adams didn’t look away. His working motto became “Go to the landscape that scares you the most and take pictures until you’re not scared anymore”.

He hasn’t stopped yet. Unlike many eco-conscious photographers who aimed their cameras above and past piles of trash and homes, Adams vowed “not to use the sky . . . to save the earth. Instead from this he focused on desecration.As the exhibit’s curator, Sarah Greenough, writes, his new subjects included “housing estates, mobile homes . . . drive-ins, gas stations and shopping malls . . . highways, medians, overpasses, parking lots . . . strewn fields, wastelands and spindly trees. He ditched his wide-angle camera and bought a small Hasselblad. He ditched Ansel’s rich tonal range Adams. And for the next few decades he took the pictures for which he is best known – those sad documents of suburban life and compromised landscapes that are reproduced in books such as “The New West” and “what we bought.”

John Szarkowski, the director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, saw something important in Adams’ “dry as dust” photographs. In 1970, he presented them in a group exhibition at MoMA; five years later, some of Adams’ photos were part of a groundbreaking exhibition at the George Eastman House, “New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape”. One of the Adams most famous shots depicts a field house in Colorado Springs, with a light concrete path winding through a cut lawn. Through the window of the house you can see the silhouette of a woman – only a shadow, but instantly recognizable. She is every suburban woman at home alone in the late afternoon, wandering from room to room.

Adams’ photographs aren’t pretty, but they are honest. When I look his bleached photo from 1981 of a child standing near a parking lot, dressed in white socks and black patent shoes, clutching a cup and wrapped in the shadow of the adult who guarded her, I remember being her. Light and misfortune are perfect. Adams supports the religiously optimistic idea that facing what is can serve “both truth and hope.” . . reality and possibility. He also believes that light itself, especially western light, is somehow redemptive. But his most memorable works, as truthful as they are, do not leave much hope. Instead, they ask if it’s possible for anyone to live lightly on this once-beautiful land.

The only person I can think of who seemed to live that way, at least in my imagination, is Georgia O’Keeffe. She looked great on the pitch, and the pitch looked great with her on it. Together they seemed like harmonized elements, part and parcel of the West that I searched for on my bike and never found. O’Keeffe, like Adams, did not come from the West (she was born in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin), but she made the West her own. The land she painted and photographed is often called O’Keeffe country. Of Cerro Pedernal, a mesa near her home in New Mexico, she said, “It belongs to me. God told me if I combed it enough, I could have it. Maybe she was joking. Maybe not.

It just so happens that the Denver Art Museum now has an exhibit of O’Keeffe photos, which serves as a great counterpoint to the Adams photos of the West. The two shows couldn’t be more different. The Adams retrospective covers a huge amount of territory, stretching from western Missouri to the Pacific Ocean, while the O’Keeffe show zooms in on its corner of New Mexico. Adams’ show has three quasi-religious sections: “The Gift” (mostly taken in Colorado), “Our Response” (also largely taken in Colorado), and “Tenancy” (all taken in Oregon). O’Keeffe’s exhibition revolves around his formal interests: reframing, rendering of light, and change of season.

Although O’Keeffe is not known for her photographs and barely knows how to use a camera, the exhibit “Georgia O’Keeffe, Photographer,” which originated at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston , where Lisa Volpe curated it, is fascinating nonetheless. It includes portraits of O’Keeffe taken by his friend Todd Webb, as well as some of his travel photos. But the real stars of the show are O’Keeffe’s extensive studies of his property in Abiquiú – its gates, ladders, walls and beams. In these, she captures how the West conquered her and how she conquered the West.

O’Keeffe rarely made a single photograph of a scene. She recorded how shapes, shadows and composition changed as the sun moved, or the seasons changed, or her camera tilted a little. In these formal adventures, his main obsession was the salita door to the inner courtyard of his house. (She often noted that the salita gate was what prompted her to purchase the property.) She made twenty-three paintings and drawings of this gate. As she wrote, “It’s a curse – the way I feel like I have to continually go on with this door.”

Michael E. Marquez