“The Place We Live” at Paris Jeu de Paume is a retrospective of Robert Adams’ photography (until May 18, 2014). This exhibition, which has already been seen in several North American venues such as the Vancouver Art Gallery and Los Angeles County Museum of Art, is based on work purchased by The Yale Art Gallery (1,465 master prints) in 2005.
Since the mid-1960s, Adams has been considered one of the most important chroniclers of the American West. With more than two hundred and fifty pictures this retrospective presents the diversity found in his approximately forty published books, which can be seen at the exhibition.
Adams’ photographs show how the majestic landscapes of the American West —documented in the 19th century by such photographers as Timothy O’Sullivan and William Henry Jackson— have been altered by human activity. But his photos never overstate the case. He is mostly known for his nuanced and austere photos of urban development in the state of Colorado at the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s: images that came to the public eye for the first time in the groundbreaking book, “The New West” (1974). In 1975, Adams’ work was included in the influential “New Topographics” exhibition.
We see in Adams’ landscapes a dialectic between hope and despair. “I began making pictures because I wanted to record what supports hope: the untranslatable mystery and beauty of the world,” writes Adams in a foreword to the book published in conjunction with this show. “Along the way, however, the camera also caught evidence against hope, and I eventually concluded that this too belonged in pictures if they were to be truthful and thus useful.”
The photographer’s major projects are here; from his first pictures of churches erected by the early settlers of his native Colorado, to his most recent photos of forests in the Pacific Northwest. In addition to “The New West,” other major projects featured in the exhibition are: “From the Missouri West,” a series of distant views of majestic landscapes that evidence the hand of man; “Our Lives and Our Children,” disarmingly tender portraits of ordinary people going about their everyday business in the shadow of a nuclear power plant; “Los Angeles Spring,” the portrayal of a former luxuriant garden of Eden that has suffered from violence and pollution; “Listening to the River,” fragmented, lyrical views of rural and suburban locations in Colorado which evoke the sensory pleasures of walking; and “West from the Columbia” and “Turning Back,” two series devoted to documenting what remains of the region’s natural heritage to the Pacific Northwest, where Adams now lives.
Adams’ photographs are subtly provocative asking us to consider what is being done to our collective habitat. His pictures, although often understated, never oversimplify their subjects. With Adams there is a beauty in the banality full of complexity and contradictions.
When winning the 2009 Hasselblad Award he was asked “Does art have any practical effect? Does it actually change anything?” Adams replied “It does, but indirectly. By definition art is not propaganda; the goal is not to excite people to action but to help them find a sense of wholeness and thereby a sense of calm. But from that we take courage for a re-engagement with the specifics of life.”
“Robert Adams, The Place We Live” to May 18, 2014, Jeu de Paume, Paris, France.