Monday, March 15, 2010

Robert Adams, Summer Nights, Walking @Marks

JTF (just the facts): A total of 45 black and white photographs, framed in white and matted, and hung in the large second floor gallery space, separated by a dividing wall. Nearly all of the prints are vintage gelatin silver prints, sized between 5x5 and 15x15. No edition information was available. The images were taken primarily in the suburbs of Denver and Boulder (Colorado) in the period between 1976 and 1983. A monograph of this body of work was originally published by Aperture in 1985 and entitled Summer Nights; this exhibition has been organized to coincide with the rerelease of the book, in an expanded and resequenced edition entitled Summer Nights, Walking (here). (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: We've had a copy of Summer Nights in our photobook library since the very beginning of our lives as photography collectors; it sits among a shelf full of Adams' books and essays, likely wedged in somewhere near The New West and Denver. In the past, I thought of the Summer Nights work as a direct extension of Adams' daytime images of environmental mismanagement and the encroachment of poorly planned suburban development. Without really looking (or with a preconceived conclusion in mind), I assumed the harshness of his tract houses, construction sites, and scrub lands would be applied with the same unflinching commentary to his nighttime scenes. As a result, I only saw what I thought I was supposed to see: the ugliness of the wincing glare of the street lights, the sidewalks bordered by unruly weeds, the empty parking lots, and the depressing ranch houses engulfed in shadows.

It is with a great deal of surprise that I must now admit that I had it all wrong. In visiting this fine exhibit, my overwhelming reaction to seeing the pictures in person was how gentle they consistently are. While Adams' compositions are not beautiful in any traditional sense, I found plenty of moments of grace, especially in the way that leaves and wildflowers catch the light or the way silhouettes are framed against the moonlit sky. The dramatic shadows that leak across the sidewalk or cover the sides of houses and garages with dappled patterns are no longer particularly ominous or hostile; I saw them more as moments of goose bump inducing shivers, even though the warmth of the night air surrounds you.
What I thought of most in seeing these works is that Adams has captured the American suburban equivalent of the Italian passegiata. What is perhaps sad is that this nighttime walk in an America boom town is such a lonely and desolate one: there are no people on the streets to stop and greet, no places to go to relax and leisurely enjoy the warm night air - we've built a world designed around car transportation, so walking in these places has become a kind of oddity. And yet Adams has found plenty of subtle joys in these solitary neighborhood walks: the playful lights of a carnival ride, the texture of a tree trunk, the reflections of windows or puddles, the pinpricks of lights in the distance, or an expanse of pavement against an enveloping blackness.
As I looked more closely, I started to notice just how masterful Adams' use of the available light really is: moonlight and ambient light from the surrounding city is mixed with up-close glare of the streetlights to create depth and distance without resorting to night photography cliches; the range of tonalities is both quietly meditative and breathtakingly exquisite. These pictures are soft and still, and some effort is required to unlock their pleasures; a quick gallery fly by certainly will result in a wash of small, unmemorable dark pictures, while a deeper exploration will uncover a body of work that is remarkably varied and consistently well crafted.
I don't want to give the impression that Adams' commitment to the issues/problems of land use and suburban development isn't to be found in these pictures; it's certainly there if you want to go looking for it. But the revelation for me in this exhibit was that those complex issues could recede into the background a bit (the volume could be turned down), and that an unexpected loveliness and simplicity could be found underneath. There is a nostalgic warmth in his style here that is an excellent reminder that there is much more tender nuance to the art of Robert Adams than the New Topographics categorization might lead us to believe.
Collector's POV: The prints in this show are priced between $8500 and $38000. Adams' work has become increasingly available in the secondary markets in the past decade, with prices creeping upward over time, typically ranging between $5000 and $50000.
Rating: *** (three stars) EXCELLENT (rating system described here)

Transit Hub:
  • Reviews: New Yorker (here), John Haber (here), New York Photo Review (here)
Through April 17th
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New York, NY 10011

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