The Photographic Search for True West

When I was a teenager, I often rode my bike from the suburbs where I lived to downtown Denver. I was looking for the real west, or at least a more real west than my neighborhood. I took pictures with my Kodak Instamatic which were mostly terrible. But after attending the massive and authoritative exhibition “American Silence: The Photographs of Robert Adams” at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, I couldn’t stop thinking about my photos, or my feeling that the true west would always lie west of where i was.

Robert Adams is best known as a photographer of the West—the beautiful West, the degraded West, and the beautifully degraded West—but he was born in New Jersey in 1937. His father taught him to love nature. He was ten when his family moved to Wisconsin and fifteen when they moved to Colorado. In 1963, after giving up his dream of becoming a minister, Adams, an English professor in Colorado Springs, discovered photography.

In the decade of his photographic breakthrough, Adams devoured all editions of Alfred Stieglitz camerawork, mulled over “This Is the American Earth,” a book of nature photographs, and bought a print of Ansel Adams’ Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico. (The two men are not related.) He photographed the ancient churches and tombs left behind by Indigenous and Hispanic communities in southern Colorado, the grasslands of northeastern Colorado, and the suburbs of Denver and Colorado Springs. He focused on what he saw as nature’s gift – “the stillness of light”. He took rich black and white photographs of turbulent skies cascading over grassy plains. Occasionally, wedged between the natural elements, there were signs of civilization – dark smudges on the horizon or dusty ribbons of road poetically tapering to a vanishing point. Nothing scary, nothing ugly. In one photo, Adams’ wife Kerstin cheers on a prairie in Keota, Colorado. The picture shows a tenancy as light as the wind.

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But the more Adams looked and photographed, the more he saw not only the gift but also the threats of it. Denver’s suburbs, including those in Longmont and Wheat Ridge he inhabited, sprawled unchecked across the prairies and foothills, laying waste to the west. Adams didn’t look away. His working motto became “Go to the landscape that frightens you the most and photograph until you are no longer frightened.”

He hasn’t stopped yet. Unlike the many environmentally conscious photographers who trained their cameras over the dumps and homes, Adams vowed “not to use the sky . . . to save the country.” Instead, he focused on desecration. As exhibition curator Sarah Greenough writes, his new themes were “housing developments, mobile homes . . . drive-in cinemas, gas stations and shopping malls. . . Motorways, medians, overpasses, parking lots . . . overgrown fields, empty lots and dead trees.” He gave up his large-format camera and bought a small Hasselblad. He abandoned the rich scale of Ansel Adams. And over the next several decades, he made the images for which he is best known — those sad documents of suburban life and compromised countryside that are reproduced in books like The New West and What We Bought.

John Szarkowski, the Museum of Modern Art’s director of photography, saw something important in Adams’ “bone-dry” photographs. In 1970 he presented them in a group exhibition MoMA; Five years later, some of Adam’s photos were part of a revolutionary exhibition at the George Eastman House, New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape. One of Adams’ best-known shots is of a row home in Colorado Springs with a light-colored concrete path winding through a mowed lawn. A silhouette of a woman can be seen through the front window of the house – just a shadow, but instantly recognizable. She’s every suburban woman who’s home alone in the late afternoon, wandering from room to room.

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Adam’s photos aren’t pretty, but they’re honest. When I look at his faded photo from 1981 of a child standing by a parking lot, dressed in white socks and black patent leather shoes, clutching a mug and cloaked in the shadow of the adult in charge, I remember her. The light and sadness are just right. Adams holds the religiously optimistic idea that confrontation with what is “can serve both truth and hope . . . Fact and Possibility.” He also believes that light itself, especially Western light, is somehow redemptive. But his most memorable works, true as they are, don’t offer much hope. Instead they ask if it is possible for anyone to live easily in this once beautiful land.

The only person I can think of who seemed to live that way, at least in my imagination, is Georgia O’Keeffe. She looked great in the country, and the country looked great with her on. Together they seemed to be harmonious elements, an integral part of the west that I was looking for on my bike and never found. Like Adams, O’Keeffe was not from the West (she was born in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin), but she made the West her own. The country she painted and photographed is often called O’Keeffe Country. Of Cerro Pedernal, a mesa near her home in New Mexico, she said, “It’s mine. God told me if I painted it enough I could have it.” Maybe she was joking. Maybe not.

Coincidentally, the Denver Art Museum now has an exhibition of O’Keeffe’s photos, which makes a great counterpoint to Adams’s photos of the West. The two shows couldn’t be more different. The Adams retrospective covers vast territory, stretching from west of the Missouri to the Pacific Ocean, while the O’Keeffe show zooms in on its corner of New Mexico. The Adams show has three parts that are quasi-religious: “The Gift” (mostly recorded in Colorado), “Our Response” (also mostly recorded in Colorado), and “Tenancy” (all recorded in Oregon). O’Keeffe’s exhibition is organized around her formal interests – reframing, light rendering and seasonal changes.

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Although O’Keeffe is not known for her photographs and barely knew how to operate a camera, the exhibition Georgia O’Keeffe, Photographer, created at Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts and curated by Lisa Volpe, is nevertheless fascinating. It includes portraits of O’Keeffe taken by her friend Todd Webb, as well as some of her travel photos. But the real stars of the show are O’Keeffe’s intense studies of her property in Abiquiú – its doors, ladders, walls and beams. In it she records how the West conquered her and how she won the West.

O’Keeffe rarely took just one photograph of a scene. She recorded how shapes, shadows, and compositions changed as the sun moved, the seasons changed, or her camera was tilted just a little. In these formal adventures, her main obsession was that Salita Door in the courtyard of her house. (She often remarked that the Salita It was the door that made her decide to buy the property.) She made twenty-three paintings and drawings of this door. As she wrote, “It’s a curse — the way I feel I have to keep going with that door constantly.”

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