For three months, the Yale University Art Gallery will played host to “The Way We Live,” a traveling retrospective of the work of American photographer Robert Adams, an artist best known for his poignant depictions of the American West. On view in New Haven from Aug. 3 to Oct. 28, the exhibition will have traveled to museums in Canada, Spain, Germany, France and Switzerland before its close. Joshua Chuang, assistant curator of photographs at the Art Gallery and lead organizer of the touring exhibition, said he aimed to develop an exhibit that would do justice to the black and white photographer’s extensive and evolving repertoire. Though Adams is renowned for his poignant depictions of the American West, his work touches upon universal themes of environmental destruction, war and loss. The News spoke with Chuang about the exhibit and Adams’s photographic treatment of abiguity, nature and nation.
Q To begin, can you describe the nature of the exhibition and what it includes?
A The exhibition consists of more than 250 black and white photographs by Robert Adams organized into 19 sections corresponding to the photographer’s book projects, each prefaced by text written by the photographer for those projects. The dates of the pictures range from 1965 to 2009, and the sections have been arranged in a rough chronology. The exhibition took on slightly different forms in Vancouver, Denver and Los Angeles. This one is the only one, however, that includes objects borrowed from Adams’ personal collection — a special pair of stones he found 50 years ago before becoming a photographer, a fragment of cottonwood bark and objects carved by hand.
Q When did you first become interested in Robert Adams’ work? What makes his style striking to you?
A I first saw Adams’s work as an undergraduate, in a book. Although a few of the images really struck me, I didn’t understand a lot of what I was looking at. Save a few family trips to national parks in the West, I had spent my entire life in the East, where many of the things that Adams depicted, like the suburbanization of an untamed land, and the homogenization of the American experience, had already been played out. It actually hadn’t occured to me that the East was once as wild as the West. So I kept on puzzling over the pictures until I got a chance to see the real things at Yale, where I inherited the job of cataloguing his master sets, which the gallery had just acquired. I was amazed to see the work in a larger context — out of the approximately 1,500 pictures I saw, there were no bad ones, only those I knew I had yet to fully grasp. One of the things that is so striking about Adams’ work is that it really doesn’t have a style. His stated goal as a photographer has been to portray in his work “a tension so exact that it is peace,” and as he’s evolved as an artist, he’s found many ways to achieve that.
Q You said in your March 14 interview with NPR that Robert Adams’ genius lies in his ability to take photographs that say both ‘yes’ and ‘no’ at once. What do you mean by that?
A I think it’s related to what the child labor photographer Lewis Hine once said: that he wanted to photograph what was good so we would cherish it, and what was bad so we could change it. Adams has cited this quote by Hine many times and tries to make pictures that show those two elements — good and bad, yes and no — in the same frame.
Q In Robert Adams’ photographs, the human beings and houses seem to meld into the natural landscape around them. Can you comment on this?
A That’s the subject of his pictures: the different ways that human activity makes [the land] morph, both physically and really almost spiritually. That’s something he talks about explicitly. In the section of Denver photographs, for instance, quite a few of them depict the inside of workplaces and nondescript offices. These are places in which we spend a lot of time collectively. They have a sadness about them.
Q There are two sections of the exhibit devoted to places outside of America — Iraq and Gandhara (what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan). How do these photographs differ from the work that Robert Adams is known for?
A Adams has really only photographed in this country. Those pictures of Iraq were made in a public square in Oregon, but they refer to an event that happened half a world away. People found these photographs very jarring, because they depict a protest of the war that wasn’t given due attention. The Gandhara section, titled “Bodhisattva” was photographed around his home. It reflects a tendency in Adams’ later work to focus both inwardly and deeply outward. There is a very subtle line of text preceding the “Bodhisattva” picture that read: “the representation is of an ideal — a bodhisattva, a person who understands but who has chosen to remain involved in life on behalf of others.” This is very similar to the character of Robert Adams himself.
Q What was it like working with someone you’ve admired for so long? How would you describe Robert Adams’ work ethic?
A This is the first major exhibition of his in which he’s been this involved in the presentation of his work, and it was life-changing. I don’t think I’d ever met a person who has so consistently asked of himself, and others, the biggest questions in life. And who has been so uncompromising and unflinching in his search for answers. An interesting thing about Adams as an observer is that he’s not really an observer, he’s not just a passive being in this sphere; he really incorporates his voice into his sphere. He’s a photographer that has not ever shied away from the biggest questions. And there is not a bigger question than, how do we live?