The captions claimed the photographs had been taken in Denver, Ludlow and Colorado Springs — but Jock Reynolds, director of Yale University Art Gallery, didn’t seem to notice. His mind was in California.
At a talk in the gallery’s first-floor exhibition area on Wednesday afternoon, Reynolds led a group of University students, gallery employees and members of the New Haven community on a tour of “The Place We Live,” a retrospective collection of the photography of Robert Adams. Adams, whom Reynolds described as “the most respected living chronicler of the American West,” has spent more than four decades documenting the changes and developments imposed upon the space that was once this country’s untamed frontier.
The subject is of particular personal importance to Reynolds, who co-curated “The Place We Live” along with the gallery’s assistant curator of photographs, Joshua Chuang. Reynolds was raised in Davis, Calif., during an era of rapid development following World War II. As he led his audience through the exhibit, he described a childhood shaped by the kind of suburban sprawl that takes center stage in Adams’ photographs.
“His work was so close in content to what I’d grown up with,” Reynolds said. “It took time for me to look at [the photographs], not just with irony and scorn, but with the knowledge that people had lived here and that we loved it.”
Love was at the center of Reynolds’ talk: his own love for his childhood home and a love for the landscapes and open space that drew so many to the American West during the mid-20th century. Ironically, Reynolds said, that latter love may have been destructive to the beauty that was its object. Overpopulation in the West necessitated the construction of sprawling suburbs, and with them malls and supermarkets capable of serving unprecedented numbers of people, Reynolds said. In this way, the landscape was covered over and the free space was filled; Adams documents this in photographs of trailer parks and construction sites bare of greenery.
“We loved it too much,” Reynolds said.
The over 200 black-and-white photographs on display are printed small — no larger, in most cases, than the snapshots one might find in a family’s living room. They are designed, Reynolds said, to fit into the pages of a book. Adams, who Reynolds described as being particularly concerned with the way his work appears in printed collections, has produced more than 40 books of photography during his career. Reynolds credited the small size of the prints with creating a sense of intimacy between the image and the viewer.
“It’s incredibly tender, and really quite devastating,” Jan Cunningham ART ’85, a New Haven resident, said of Adams’ photography. Walking through the gallery after Reynolds’ talk, she paused at several prints: a baby in its bouncer on an otherwise empty front porch, a mass-produced landscape painting on a department store shelf and the shadow of a tree on a closed garage door.
Juliana Biondo ’13, a history of art major, commended Reynolds and Chuang’s selection and presentation of the images.
“It’s beautifully curated,” she said. “The photographs themselves … really honor the medium of photography.”
“The Place We Live” will remain at Yale University Art Gallery until Oct. 28. Following the end of the exhibit, the images will travel to venues in Spain, Germany, France, the United Kingdom and Switzerland.