New Topographics: Robert Adams

I’ve been looking for books at the library by the 10 photographers associated with the New Topographics. Recently I checked out From the Missouri West by Robert Adams. This Aperture book from 1980 is out of print, but can usually be picked up used for a reasonable price. The copy I got from the library was inscribed:

1981 — Happy Birthday Mom, Love Bob

Happy Birthday Grandma, Love Jesse

I can’t help but wonder if Bob and Jesse would have been better off giving their loved ones an Ansel Adams book. Anyhow, this is a quiet book of black and white images that shows the effects of man on the landscape. A personal meditation on what was a frontier not so long ago. The sky is typically blank. The images eschew the snappy contrast of the Zone System. There is a little bit of text on the inside flap, 59 images laid out one per page. A single page of captions at the end lists the photo locations, and in a few cases an important detail:

51. Orange trees, burned palm, and overturned smudge pot, Highlands, California

52. Clear-cut and burned, east of Arch Cape, Oregon

Following the caption page is a one page statement by Adams about the photos. This layout is really perfect — a little bit of food for your brain up front, the images, and just a little more info at the end. Nothing is spelled out for you, but there are enough clues to encourage your own meditations about what these images mean.

These aren’t singular images that necessarily will knock you out, but as a body of work they definitely have a style and resonance that is worth some pondering. Pick it up at your local library and let me know what you think.

Update: There’s a great article about Adams online from Jonathan Green’s book American Photography.

7 thoughts on “New Topographics: Robert Adams”

  1. I have several of R. Adams’ books and I was also lucky enough to see the exhibit at the Eastman House – the EH was right down the street from my studio.

    But that’s not why I called….

    You wrote; “These aren’t singular images that necessarily will knock you out, but as a body of work they definitely have a style and resonance that is worth some pondering.” to which I would add – a photographer is just a “shooter” until he/she has or is working towards a coherent body of work that has “a style and resonance that is worth some pondering.”

    There is nothing that I find more boring than “greatest-hit” type pictures taken by a shooter who thinks that home runs are the only thing worth hitting.

  2. Hi Mark -

    I’m always glad when you call. Let me elaborate on something I refer to as “the wall test.” When I look at a single photograph that I like, one measure of greatness is — would I frame it and put it on my wall? With Adams’ book I’d need a bigger wall, because the work needs to be seen together. This holds true for some of the other New Topographics photographers as well.

    With some photographers the body of work shows a coherent style worth pondering, but may also contain a singular image that stands by itself. Lynne Cohen and John Pfahl are two of my favorite photographers — both fit the “coherent body of work” paradigm, but there are also singular images within their work that can stand alone as really great images.

    Bernd and Hilla Becher also come to mind — a singular, coherent style that relies on examining typologies in both methodology and presentation to be cohesive — yet there are certainly singular images that stand alone and pass the wall test.

    Robert Adams can still win the game without home runs. In some ways you can learn more as a viewer this way — instead of “I really like these three photos in that book” you might think “I really like the feeling I get when I look at the images in this book.” I’m going to go back through the Adams book for the 4th or 5th time before it goes back to the library, and meditate on if any images pass the wall test.

    I’ve got another post brewing on how photographic bodies of work are compartmentalized. Stay tuned.



  3. Joe

    Pfahl is one of my all time favorites from way back – way back, like the cold winter night in 1981 when he paid an unexpected visit to my studio. Not that his visit was connected to a book project that I was helping with, but it was timely nevertheless.

    I been meaning to tell you about the book – it should be on your list of books to get especially in light of your interest in the Topographics gang. The book is titled The New Color Photography by Sally Eauclaire ( the person I was helping with the book), Abbeville Press. It’s out of print but can be found, although a nice hard cover copy will run you $300+. Soft covers can be had for under $100.

    It’s a 288 page overview – packed with eye-watering photographs – of 48 then-coming-onto-the-world -stage color photographers complete with bios and critcal text by Sally Eauclaire.

    If you had to own only one book, this is it.

    Look for my name in the acknowledgments.

  4. Huh. I checked out a copy from the local library. I like the presentation, but am not impressed by either the individual photos or the presentation as a whole. Perhaps I’m missing something, perhaps there is a part of my soul that just doesn’t ‘get it,’ but I just don’t get it.

    While I was at the library I browsed the selection of fine art books they had on the shelves nearby. I found ‘Meadowland,’ by Ray Mortenson, to be a set of photos in a similar style, but more compelling than Adams’s book.

  5. Hi Chris -

    Glad you found something you liked at the library. I found a few of Mortenson’s photos online. My local library doesn’t have Meadowland, but I’ve requested it through interlibrary loan.



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