In an interview with Art21, photographer Robert Adams waxed philosophical: “Most of the time, things don’t seem consequential. But the value of art is that it helps us recall transforming times that are of such a quality that they last.” Born in 1937, the New Jersey native moved to Colorado when he was a teenager, and his deceptively simple work has since focused on the American West and its deterioration. Adams makes stark black and white images that often seem the definition of banal. Yet as one of the pioneers of the New Topographics school, he found a beauty and poetry in a landscape that seems barren. In the slim two-volume set Perfect Places, Perfect Company, the artist revisits work originally published in 1988 as Perfect Times, Perfect Places, and it’s a quietly sad reminder of a region that’s now destroyed.
Adams made these photos in the ‘80s at Pawnee National Grasslands in Colorado. The area has since been lost to fracking and wind turbines, and the serene images of Perfect Places memorialize its pure natural majesty. In a brief intro, Adams quotes poet Wendell Berry that, “everything worthy is fragile and under threat, is pretty to time and invisible to power, and yet affection keeps the accounting in the black.”
In photos that are affectionate yet understated, Adams captures time spent on the grasslands, with classical compositions that in some cases only subtly register as varying shades of grey, as land eases past horizon into the sky. Sometimes a hawk (perhaps an eagle) is caught in the frame soaring above the landscape. In other images his wife Kerstin is at the edge of the frame or at a distance, a minor figure on a vast horizon. The nearly abstract images shot at different times of day show the earth in more or less contrast to the sky, where cloud formations recall Alfred Stieglitz’ series of “Equivalents” made in the ‘20s and ‘30s. As in that influential work, Adams takes the literal representation of nature to a point where it becomes expressionistic and ephemeral—after all, what can be more fleeting than cloud formations? Therein lies the work’s powerful metaphor of impermanence.
The sequencing unfolds like a portrait of the region, the land and America. A plain landscape might be broken by a single distant tree and disappear again into the clouds, but then Adams goes on to study trees, individually (sometimes with his dog Sally resting underneath) or in groups. These are subtle observations of nature, and despite the fact that he is revisiting this work after it’s been spoiled, there isn’t a sense of slow-burning resentment here. Adams has said, “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,” and such are the introverted pleasures of this work.
Perfect Places is housed in a slipcase with the even slimmer companion piece Perfect Company. While the first volume concentrates on the now extinct grasslands, this work focuses on memories of exploring the region with his wife and dog. It’s like an elegant family album made up of artful candids. In some medium shots, Kerstin and their furry familiar are relatively in the foreground; in others, the artist’s loved ones are at such a distance that they are dwarfed by their surroundings. These are beautiful memories of tranquil times, and in a world that seems ever more chaotic, such art is a healing balm.