Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The New West by Robert Adams Aperture reissue

In 1972, due to a job transfer imposed upon my father, my family moved from Medford, New Jersey to Phoenix, Arizona. Sight unseen, my parents purchased a home in a Phoenix suburb with the promising name of Paradise Valley and over the course of a few weeks they packed up our belongings, arranged for the moving van to leave a couple days ahead of our own departure date, and embarked on what must have been a frightening prospect of leaving family and friends to make a new life in unfamiliar territory. They were the first of any of our extended family to head west. My father was ten years younger than I am now. I was four.

My earliest memories of ‘out west’ seem two or three stops overexposed. What made an immediate impression, and what took a long time to get used to, was the Arizona sunlight. One hundred and eighty degrees (in the shade) from any of my remembrances of my time in New Jersey which seemed clouded and gray, the sunlight out west was exposing, dangerous, and yet excruciatingly beautiful.

Our home sat at 9222 on a street called North Arroya Vista Drive East and on the edge of a desert preserve within which my brother and I could venture out into what we thought was unblemished desert. There, with green plastic military style canteens linked to our hips, we would stomp through dry river beds -- driving pellets from our air rifles into the bellies of Saguaro cactus and smashing beer bottles with rocks launched from ‘wrist-rocket’ slingshots. After a few hours we would return home exhausted and sunned with the odor of crushed creosote leaves on our clothes and hands. Looking through the new Aperture edition of Robert Adams perfect book The New West, I now realize that Adams, at the same time, was forming his critique of suburban sprawl within the communities and ideals of families like my own.

Looking at The New West for me is very similar to tapping into the slight sense of unease that I felt within this landscape. Architecture and signage sprung up in places where they seem as susceptible to rejection from the soil as the sporadic growths of sun-dried vegetation. The brick church in Colorado Springs with its Sunday school gathering outside on page 54 of Adams's book could easily be mistaken for a wing of my school, Mercury Mine Elementary. Both of these buildings sit on flat land extending in all directions with no clear borders of a fence or tree line like I was used to seeing in New Jersey. Everything in this new landscape seemed exposed and surrounded by the sense of the unfinished.

Adams starts his book by traveling along on a farm road lined by grazing lands. On page 10, four pictures into the sequence, the unpaved frontiersman's road doubles its width in blacktop and on the following page immediately claims its first victim with a jack rabbit road-kill. Quickly Adams throws the barriers of the man-made in between where we stand and the West of our imagination. A gas station, a four lane highway, a grid of tract houses designed as if following a child's drawing becomes the focus of attention. Within these vistas, metaphors abound; on page 24, a man / gold-seeking prospector digs a coffin shaped basement for tract house; the skeletal frame of another tract home sits on the corner of ‘Darwin Place’ -- foreshadowing its own extinction by looking like many a sun-bleached carcass; a reminder of Manifest Destiny lurks in the shadow of another home which resembles the peaked steeple of a prairie church.

As John Szarkowski wrote in the foreword of The New West, "But whether out of a sense of fairness, a taste for argument, or a love of magic Robert Adams has in this book done a strange and unsettling thing. He has, without actually lying, discovered in these dumb and artless agglomerations of boring buildings the suggestion of redeeming value. He has made them look not beautiful but important, as the relics of an ancient civilization look important." He concludes his essay, "Though Robert Adams's book assumes no moral postures, it does have a moral. It's moral is that the landscape is, for us, the place we live. If we have used it badly, we cannot therefore scorn it, without scorning ourselves. If we have abused it, broken its health, and erected upon it memorials to our ignorance, it is still our place, and it before we can proceed we must learn to love it. As Job perhaps began again by learning to love his ash pit."

Aperture's new facsimile edition of The New West: Landscapes Along the Colorado Front Range is most likely the most beautiful of the three editions. I do not own the first edition to make adequate comparison but given the technological innovations since it was originally published by the Colorado Associated University Press in 1974, I can’t imagine it compares to the exquisiteness seen here. I do own a copy of the Walther Konig edition from 2000 and sitting that edition alongside this one, I immediately noticed an extension of the tonal values of each plate in this new edition. The Konig edition has much more contrast and loses detail on both ends of the scale. (I also hope that Aperture used a more acid free paper than the Konig as that edition is very susceptible to yellowing of the page edges.)

The separations were made by Thomas Palmer and the printing is by Trifolio in Verona and more than ever do the plates do justice to the harsh quality of the Western light while holding full detail. The reproductions in this edition were made from the original master set of prints which reside at the Yale University Art Gallery.

My family spent 12 years escaping from the sun and employing inventive ways to keep the car seats from blistering our skin before the pull of extended family eventually drew us back East where I cultivated an interest in the arts. I often wonder what I would have made of myself had we stayed on. The Phoenix of my childhood is more than twice its size now and has become susceptible to hovering sheets of smog. Our suburban development called Heritage Heights now seems tiny and completely surrounded by superhighways leading into downtown.

I have a hard time imagining it, but perhaps I would have gone on to stake my own claim to the west by spray-painting my name onto an outcropping of rocks in the foothills that overlook the home where I'd live out my days in blissful ignorance of Robert Adams's prophetic masterpiece.

Buy online at Aperture

Book Available Here (The New West)