2009 Hasselblad Award Winner
Over four decades Robert Adams’ work has carefully and systematically documented the impact of human activity on the land, not simply to condemn it but to find in its often tragic overtones something of what he has called the ‘persistent beauty’ in the way the earth adapts and heals itself.
While they are often unpopulated, Adams’ photographs echo with human presence and are continually attentive to social structures and to a sense of community. In charting cultural transformations of the
landscape, for example, Adams has recorded the creation of suburban environments and the new qualities of life and patterns of consumption that unfold within them. As much as it surveys broad vistas and wide open spaces, bathed in pristine light, Adams everyday world has equally been one of supermarkets, motels, parking lots and tract housing, the physical parameters of an ordinary life that he consistently reveals to be extraordinary.
Following the publication of his seminal book The New West in 1974, Robert Adams’ work gained further attention as part of the exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape at George Eastman House, Rochester, the following year. The exhibition defined a new form of documentary photography that was detached and consciously pared down; as curator William Jenkins said, the
pictures were ‘stripped of any frills’, recording the landscape and the social scene in a way that conveyed maximum information and detail but without any obvious artifice, emotion or sentiment. Adams’ was a key figure of this movement and his work has remained true to its essential characteristics and core principles throughout his long career.
Adams’ world is not one created by the camera, it is a place that we can recognise and that we all to some degree inhabit – with all its faults, its problems, its incredible complexity and its brief moments of sublime transcendence. The example of his formidable body of work continues to have a wide-ranging impact on the practice and thinking about photography internationally and is a great legacy for the future.
Adams’ carefully observed and reflective practice adheres to the fundamental descriptive mechanism of the camera and suggests the primacy of the photographic document. In this it is in counterpoint to other, more dominant strands of post-war photography, to photojournalism, for example, and to a photographic style, epitomised by Robert Frank, that has stressed a dramatic and existential response to
the frenetic pace of contemporary, and mainly urban, life. What Adams’ work offers is a powerful balance to this, and in some ways his quietly persuasive black and white photographs are an act of resistance, speaking for economy in an age of excess, and for enduring tradition against a perpetual clamour for the new in the glaring spaces of our media driven culture. Adams’ approach has been seen as conservative by some, but his work represents a fierce intelligence in its restrained use of the camera. And, since the early 1970s, amid often polarised debate and extravagant claims about the
medium, his has been a consistently radical voice within photography.
Robert Adams was born in Orange, New Jersey in 1937. He has received a BA from the University of Redlands in California, a PhD in English from the University of Southern California, and numerous awards, including a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Award (1994); the Spectrum International Prize for Photography (1995); and the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize (2006). Major
publications include The New West (1974), From the Missouri West (1980), Our Lives and Our Children (1984), Summer Nights (1985), Los Angeles Spring (1986), West From Columbia (1995) and more recently Turning Back (2005). His exhibitions include those at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2005); Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven (2002); Denver Art Museum (1993); Philadelphia Museum of Art (1989); and the Museum of Modern Art, New York (1979). He lives and works in northwestern Oregon.