I’ve only been in Denver, Colo. once, and on that occasion barely “in,” having merely slipped through the semipermeable membrane of one of those strange non-spaces we call airports. After my phone’s autocorrect redirected my search for a “Denver Airport Chipotle” to what turned out to be a sprawling online community centered around the “Denver Airport Conspiracy,” I spent the remaining five hours of my layover poring over increasingly hysterical forums that illuminated me on the DIA’s sinister underside: massive underground facilities experimenting with extraterrestrial life, unexplained amounts of plane crashes caused by strange electromagnetic frequencies, celestial maps hidden in murals in the baggage claim.
Though I won’t be making an account on diaconspiracyfiles.com anytime soon, I left with the sense that there was perhaps something weird about Denver, a strange frequency in the air. At the Yale University Art Gallery recent Robert Adams’ exhibit “The Place We Live: A Retrospective Selection of Photographs,” similar intimations of the unknown seemed to pervade his stark Colorado landscapes. Indeed, there’s an eerie stillness to Adams’ open fields and shadowy suburban driveways that seems to reach beyond the quotidian toward some sort of alternate plane. This vaguely unsettling simplicity draws the eye toward moments of breakage within his quiet compositions; the slight blur on a leaf, the off-kilter gleam of gas station kitsch, sunlight filtering through cheap hotel curtains. These rustlings within suburban wastelands and agrarian expanse work in tandem to create Adams’ otherworld, taking us out of “the place we live” toward somewhere else entirely.
“Out of This Same Light,” the accompanying series of six of Adams’ favorite films, examined his influences, translating tensions within his oeuvre from photograph to film. The line-up of “Meek’s Cutoff,” “Tokyo Story,” “A New Leaf,” “Five Easy Pieces,” “Le Rayon Vert” and “Winter Light” offered a cluster of films unified by their commitment to emotional realism and visual resonance within everyday spaces. Be it from Yasojiro Ozu’s simple cuts and low camera height expressing generational drift in “Tokyo Story” or the sweeping strangeness of landscapes in “Meek’s Cutoff,” Adams’ particular interest in these films reveals their role in the development of his visual language.
However, it is perhaps Ingmar Bergman’s 1962 “Winter Light,” the final installment in the series, that holds the greatest affinity with the otherworld of Adams’ photographs. “Winter Light” grapples with questions of faith, love and loss within the confines of a hermetic church house in rural Sweden. Bergman’s incisive camera follows the unraveling of an aging pastor, Tomas, as he questions his belief in God after his wife’s death. On the visual level, Bergman and cinematographer Sven Nykvist’s deft manipulation of natural light throughout the work creates moments of tentative optimism within the film’s unsettling quiet. For this reason, the Bergman/Adams relationship is particularly defined by “Winter Light”’s spatial and visual climate.
What ensues is a correspondence between the artists fittingly removed from chronological constraints. The transportative moments in Adams’ photography exist in “Winter Light” as puffs of breath in the cold, or as beams of light coming in through church rafters. Conversely, the film’s imprint on Adams’ photography lies in its ability to reveal questions hidden in the unflinching flatness of his Colorado plains. This creates a starkness that is almost comforting in its harshness, characterized by brief moments of solace within an unfriendly world. It’s a familiar feeling, that in its universality, best encompasses the ability of both artists to simultaneously unsettle and comfort their viewers, a feeling that takes me back to that strange state of mind in which I found myself as my plane pulled out of one of those Adams-esque Colorado fields that border the Denver Airport’s swastika-shaped (!) runways: a little creeped out, a little weirded out, finally edging towards sleep within a chaotic universe. But in the end, perhaps the sensation is best expressed by Adams himself — it’s an oft-quoted but nonetheless poignant adage of his, that the perfect photograph should express “a tension so exact that it is peace.”