Is Robert Adams the finest writer on photography?

Beauty in Photography, Robert Adams, Aperture

The measure of a great essay is that after one reads it, there is simply nothing more to say.

That is my reaction to Robert Adams’ Beauty in Photography. I have read it and re-read it. I want to comment on it, but frankly, I find it difficult to say anything that would not simply show how inferior my own intellect and understanding of photography is in comparison to his.

John Deere Agency, 1966, Copyright Robert Adams

John Deere Agency, 1966, Copyright Robert Adams

Adams worked as a college English teacher before becoming a photographer and it shows. I am hard-pressed to think of any photographer who writes more beautifully than he does. The writings of Stephen Shore and John Szarkowski  have a wonderful economy. In brief books using simple language they say more about photography than volumes that are many times longer and far more dense.But, if I want to experience writing that comes closest to the same joy I have when looking at and trying to make photographs, I have yet to find anyone I prefer over Robert Adams.

I own two books of his essays, Beauty in Photography and Why People Photograph.

Beauty is something that seemed to fall out of favor in photography during much of the past half century. Largely abandoned by the “serious” art world, it has sometimes seemed as though the only persons attempting to capture beauty in their images were the mass of photographers content to endlessly retrace the well-traveled aesthetic path blazed by Ansel Adams in the 1930s.

Prairie Grasses near Springfield, Illinois

Prairie Grasses, Mark Gordon, Copyright 2012

Now, there is nothing wrong with Ansel Adams’ aesthetic and I wish I could only be so lucky as to have his gifts.(Although I admit that if given the choice, I’d choose Edward Weston over Adams in a nanosecond.) I will also admit that if I possess any vision whatsoever, it is firmly grounded in the aesthetics of “straight” photography.

But this is not a commentary on Ansel Adams, but rather on Robert Adams and his writing.

The point really, and I will try to get to that point, is the Adams artfully distills a perspective that I think is central to any appreciation of photography and which, despite many attempts to run away from it over recent decades, remains an essential truth that must be embraced. If I understand Adams correctly, he believes that beauty is an essential component of great photographs. But, that beauty is not synonymous with “pretty” pictures and “pretty” subjects.

I am pretty confident that Adams probably finds the current popular fascination with HDR and other overwrought gimmickry far from his ideas of what constitutes beauty in photography.

Adams seeks a deeper, more nuanced beauty that encapsulates the complexity of life. I quote Adams, who quotes William Carlos Williams who said that “poets write for a single reason – to give witness to splendor.”

Let me add this, I think there are contemporary photographers today who are returning to the notion of beauty, although certainly not always in a conventional manner. Ryan McGinley, Rineke Dijkstra and Andreas Gursky are a few that come to mind.

The beauty that Adams champions is not always an easy one to appreciate. The examples of his own work that I have seen are beautiful, but seldom in a conventional manner.  As one of the “New Topographics” photographers in the 1970s, Adams documented the tract homes and housing developments of the period. His book “Prairie” offers images that are often beautiful in only a slightly more conventional manner.

In the end, I think it comes down to this: “beauty” is really about our journey through time and the world; photography, which cannot create anything without the natural world (or at least in most cases it cannot create anything very well without the natural world) must reconcile itself with that and the struggle, joy and beauty of photography most often comes from photographers who understand their reliance on the outside world and successfully use that for their own purposes.

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