Home GAMING The Photographic Quest for the True West

The Photographic Quest for the True West


As a teenager, I used to ride my bike from the suburb where I lived to downtown Denver. I was looking for the true West, or at least a West truer than my neighborhood. I took photos with my Kodak Instamatic, which were mostly terrible. But after visiting the vast and masterful exhibition “American Silence: The Photographs of Robert Adams” at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, I couldn’t stop 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 weathered West, and the beautifully weathered West—but he was born in New Jersey in 1937. His father taught him to love the outdoors. He was ten years old 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 workstudy carefully”this is american land”, a book of nature photographs, and bought a copy of “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” by Ansel Adams. (The two men are not related.) She photographed the ancient churches and tombs left behind by indigenous 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. From time to time, caught among the natural elements, there were signs of civilization: dark spots along the horizon or dusty ribbons of road that wound poetically to a vanishing point. Nothing scary, nothing ugly. In a picture, Adams’ wife, Kerstin, rejoices in a meadow in Keota, Colorado. The image represents a holding as light as the wind.

But the more Adams looked and photographed, the more he saw not only the gift, but also the threats. The suburbs of Denver, including the ones he had inhabited, Longmont and Wheat Ridge, sprawled unchecked across the plains and hills, sweeping west. Adams didn’t look away. His work motto became “Go to the landscape that scares you the most and take pictures until you are no longer afraid”.

He hasn’t stopped yet. Unlike many eco-minded photographers who point their cameras past trash heaps and houses, Adams vowed “not to use the sky. . . to save the earth.” Instead, he focused on desecration. As exhibition curator Sarah Greenough writes, his new themes included “housing developments, mobile homes. . . drive-ins, gas stations and shopping malls. . . roads, medians, overpasses, parking lots. . . fields littered with garbage, vacant lots and spindly trees.” He gave up his large format camera and bought a small Hasselblad. He abandoned the rich tone scale of Ansel Adams. And over the next several decades he took the photographs for which he is best known: those bleak documents of suburban life and compromised landscape that are reproduced in books likethe new west” Y “what we buy.”

John Szarkowski, director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, saw something important in Adams’s “dry as dust” photographs. In 1970, he put them in a group exhibition at MoMA; five years later, some of Adams’s photographs were part of a groundbreaking exhibition at the George Eastman House, “New Topographies: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape.” one of adam best known shots It depicts a Colorado Springs farmhouse, with a gleaming concrete driveway winding through a mowed lawn. Through the front window of the house, a woman’s silhouette can be seen, just a shadow, but instantly recognizable. She’s every suburban woman left home alone in the late afternoon, wandering from room to room.

Adams’ photographs are not pretty, but they are honest. when I look his faded photo from 1981 of a girl standing by a parking lot, dressed in white socks and black patent leather shoes, clutching a cup and wrapped in the shadow of the adult in charge of her, I remember being her. Light and unhappiness are fine. Adams holds to the religiously optimistic notion that facing what is can serve “both truth and hope. . . facts and possibilities. He also believes that light itself, particularly Western light, is somehow redemptive. But his most memorable works, however truthful, do not give much hope. Instead, they ask if it is 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. From her. It looked great in the dirt, and the dirt looked cool with her on it. Together they seemed to be harmonized elements, an integral part of the West that I searched for on my bicycle and never found. O’Keeffe, like Adams, did not come from the West (she was born in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin), but she did make the West her own. The land she painted and photographed is often called O’Keeffe country. On Cerro Pedernal, a plateau near her home in New Mexico, she said: “It belongs to me. God told me if she painted hard enough, she could have it.” She Maybe she was kidding. Maybe she wasn’t.

As it happens, the Denver Art Museum now has an exhibit of O’Keeffe’s photos, which makes a great counterweight to Adams’ West photos. The two shows couldn’t be more different. Adams’ retrospective covers a lot of territory, from western Missouri to the Pacific Ocean, while O’Keeffe’s show zooms in on his corner of New Mexico. Adams’ show has three sections that are quasi-religious: “The Gift” (mostly taken in Colorado), “Our Answer” (also largely taken in Colorado), and “Tenure” (all taken in Oregon). O’Keeffe’s exhibition is organized around his formal interests: reframing, the representation of light, and seasonal change.

Although O’Keeffe is not known for her photography and barely knew how to operate 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. nevertheless. It includes portraits of O’Keeffe taken by her friend Todd Webb, as well as some of her travel photographs. But the real stars of the show are O’Keeffe’s intense studies of her property in Abiquiú: her doors, stairs, walls and beams. In these, she captures how the West won her and how she won the West.

O’Keeffe rarely took a single photograph of a scene. He recorded how shapes, shadows, and composition altered when the sun moved, or the seasons changed, or his camera tilted a bit. In these formal adventures, his main obsession was the lounges door in the inner courtyard of his house. (He often noted that the lounges door was what prompted her to buy the property.) She made twenty-three paintings and drawings of that door. As she wrote: “It’s a curse, the way I feel like I must continually continue with that door.”




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