Sunday, June 14, 2009

Denver by Robert Adams

This year sees two re-releases of Robert Adams' books, Denver and What We Bought: The New World from the Yale University Art Gallery.

Denver: A Photographic Survey of the Metropolitan Area 1970-1974, the second book, in what could be seen as a trilogy starting with The New West and ending with What We Bought: The New World, was originally released in 1977. In Adams' words he "wanted to explore whether a romantic view of Denver and the American West was entirely wrong." In 93 photographs he presented his critique of America's poor stewardship of the land with rapid expansion of housing and obsessive consumption.

John Szarkowski's "suggestion of redeeming value" in regard to the buildings, homes and roads as he wrote in his introduction to The New West three years prior, is questioned in this body of work starting with the first chapter and its almost sinister heading Land Surrounded; To Be Developed. The promise of expansion to provide better way of life, a new start, is dashed with the trampling of the landscape. Motorbikes carve pathways into prairie land and an impotent fire hydrant stands comically within foot high scrub while smoke from a fire is seen miles away on the horizon. Man acting on his folly has identifiable consequences but within the historical flow of action, those consequences are sometimes difficult to determine in advance. It is this selfish behavior which comes under Adams' gaze throughout the book while the paradox of a love for people "who are, although they participate in urban chaos, admirable and deserving of our thought and care." That romantic western view of John Ford and the like isn't so much a lie or entirely wrong but that of a much smaller scale.

Adams describes exteriors and interiors of homes which, although complete with the amenities of convenience, seem sapped of any spiritual character. His are descriptions of the superficial. A room crowded with furniture of competing styles or a relatively empty one whose long expanse of couch seems metaphor for a desiree for endless comfort over all else.

Although mostly unpeopled but for distant figures dwarfed by the landscape, Denver does contain a few images that resemble portraiture. More indirect in approach, they describe a factory workers toiling over their repetitive work and a few shoppers wandering among aisles of brightly lit products. A couple of photographs which show their subjects in profile and perhaps in a moment of reflection might serve as self-portraits of the artist. Both subjects seem to represent visually the only conscience in the whole book.

This edition of Denver strays from the original in picture count and design. These changes are significant and notable since Adams himself has been said to have disliked the final book. He called it a "compromised fragment," which may be in reference to the words of his introduction where he states being taken by Yasunari Kawabata's phrase, "My life, a fragment in the landscape." The original is also very poorly printed. Although that lightness of the printing may accentuate the sense of "perpetual noon" as Lewis Baltz described the quality of light in these pictures, this edition's tritone plates with separations by Thomas Palmer are beautifully mastered.

The change in design brings this volume down to the same trim size as What We Bought: The New World. The plates however are
slightly larger accounting for the vast amounts of white that surrounded the photographs in the original. Gone also are the blank white pages that appeared occasionally breaking the sequence and rhythm. This new edition presents a long train of images broken only by the chapter headings.

The other change is with adding 26 photographs. A few fill in the previously blank pages which faced the chapter titles in the 1977 edition while others make for new pairings within the sequence. It is interesting to note that What We Bought: The New World arose from the Denver project as that book came from a box of
images which didn't make the original Denver edit and had been stored away for years. Now 26 previously unpublished images have made their way back into the book proving that photographic editing is an on-going process of evaluation which shifts with time.

None of the changes draw any complaint from me only praise. It may have taken 31 years to do so, but this new volume is now more beautifully realized than the original and no longer a compromised fragment.