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Robert Adams, a photographer with a message before his time

07/10/2021 in Travel
From the 1960s onwards, this American grasped the threat to the environment andgreat wide open spaces, which were being developed by Humankind in its hunger for progress. His black and white images, full of shade and light, are still remarkable today.
For a long time, Robert Adams was reluctant to pass judgement. From Colorado Springs, where he started out as an assistant English teacher, to the American West, he immortalised the wide open spaces, and then slowly, but surely, their urbanisation,
industrialisation and all of the projects that were slowly eating away at them. Developments that effect nature from one day to the next and change it forever.
In the early 1960s, the first major environmental protests had not yet taken place, either in the US or in Europe. With his 35 millimetre camera, Robert Adams was a simple observer. He shot the great open spaces and expanses where, all of a sudden, several bungalows would appear, followed by the streets, districts and entire towns themselves.
One imagines that these new towns are brimming over with life and intense activity. But this is not what Adams’ meticulous pictures highlight, depicting instead something that is suspended in time, as if it has been stopped mid-growth, disrupted in its development and natural balance.
In 1975 in New York, a collective exhibition offered the first real glimpse of the work of this American turned professional photographer. Between reportage and artistic project, the ten participants in the exhibition New topographics: photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape did not seek to idealise nature. Without recourse to tricks or filters, Robert Adams and a few others were more interested in showing how it is already utterly disfigured. They became known as “New Topographs”. His photographs were titled like documents, with simply a geographic location. There was a similar economy of means in the making of his images, precise, methodical, without artifice. He likes to use natural light only. His contrasts between black and white were all the more dazzling. Often one has the impression that the sun must have been at its zenith with the picture was taken.
And then there was a change of subject in the American’s work, without detracting from its message or its remarkable style. Between 1979 and 1982, he produced in particular the series Our lives and our children, Photographs Taken Near the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plan which is a warning on the dangers of nuclear arms. Many scenes are taken from everyday life, often embodied by toddlers engaged in carefree play... which could one day all disappear if Humankind, once again, does not restrain its impulses.
Now recognised without being ultra well-known, Robert Adams nonetheless exhibited at the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris with The Place We Live In in 2014. Curated two years earlier by the Los Angeles Country Museum of Art, this exhibition retracing more than forty years of the artist's career was full of bewitching images of the American West, with roads as far as the eye can see, a motel or a petrol station on the side of the road, vanishing lines, the play of shadows and saturated light, and always black and white, intensely.
Text : Frédéric Martin-Bernard
Photo : Robert Adams
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