Robert Adams' photography shows the beautiful, disappearing American landscape Robert Adams' obsession with the decay and beauty of the American landscape is on display at the National Gallery's exhibition "American Silence: The Photographs of Robert Adams."

America, the (disappearing) beautiful

Robert Adams, Pikes Peak, Colorado Springs, 1969 gelatin silver print image: 14 x 14.9 cm (5 1/2 x 5 7/8 in.) Private collection, San Francisco. © Robert Adams, Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisc hide caption

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© Robert Adams, Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisc

Robert Adams, Pikes Peak, Colorado Springs, 1969 gelatin silver print image: 14 x 14.9 cm (5 1/2 x 5 7/8 in.) Private collection, San Francisco.

© Robert Adams, Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisc

This photograph is good for your biceps. It's on the cover of a heavy, large, impressive catalogue for the National Gallery's exhibition "American Silence: The Photographs of Robert Adams." A perfect choice, this picture, to express Adams' obsession: the American landscape, and what's happened to it in the 85 years he's been looking at it.

Do you see the message in the photo? Notice that the word FRONTIER is missing its final R? The letter has disappeared just like the landscape itself: lost to over-development, clear-cutting, various human abuses.

"He's passionate about our relationship to the world around us," says National Gallery senior curator and head of the photography department (and friend) Sarah Greenough. I tell her I see Adams' pictures as doctrinaire — indictments of human avarice and neglect. "That's too harsh," Sarah says. He wants us to witness what has been, what's been lost, and the beauties that remain.

Robert Adams, Longmont, Colorado, 1976 gelatin silver print image: 17.8 x 17.8 cm (7 x 7 in.) Private collection, San Francisco. © Robert Adams, Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisc hide caption

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© Robert Adams, Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisc

The tree announces its survival, shadowing the garage door in what could be a community of such houses, built on land once covered in trees.

Robert Adams, Berthoud, Colorado, 1976 gelatin silver print image: 12.7 x 12.7 cm (5 x 5 in.) Philadelphia Museum of Art, Purchased with funds contributed by Marilyn L. Steinbright, 1985. Joseph Hu/Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art © Robert Adams, Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco hide caption

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Joseph Hu/Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art © Robert Adams, Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

Notice how gorgeous these photos are? The velvety blacks, the aggressive chalky whites. Robert Adams does all his own developing.

Ansel Adams (no relation), Robert's elder by some 30 years, is known for his glorious black-and-white work that celebrates the majesty of our landscape. Curator Greenough says that, in the 1970s, Robert Adams was part of a generation of Americans who looked at the landscape in a very different way. Instead, "they looked at the landscape as the place where we live," and what happens to it as our living takes root.

Robert Adams, Pikes Peak Park, Colorado Springs, 1969 gelatin silver print image: 15.1 x 15.2 cm (5 15/16 x 6 in.) Yale University Art Gallery, Purchased with a gift from Saundra B. Lane, a grant from the Trellis Fund, and the Janet and Simeon Braguin Fund © Robert Adams, Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco hide caption

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© Robert Adams, Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

Robert Adams wrote, "go to the landscape that frightens you the most, and take pictures until you're not scared anymore." Greenough says he meant that we must confront the world that's developing around us. "He had to photograph it until he could come to terms with it." And find the beauty. Here, the landscape is wiped out by ticky-tacky houses. Adams shoots them at an angle that celebrates the architectural forms, and they're umbrella-ed by "a glorious sky."

As he gets older, the photographs seem more about beauty. He's looking for "the things that can give us hope." And Sarah says he's finding them.

Robert Adams, The Interior of the Spit, 2015 gelatin silver print image: 22.5 x 28.7 cm (8 7/8 x 11 5/16 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Stephen G. Stein © Robert Adams, Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco hide caption

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© Robert Adams, Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

Hope, especially, in the light. The exhibition is called "American Silence," she says, not because silence is so pervasive here. Rather, when you stand and look at one of our still glorious landscapes, it's the feeling of silence, "that sense of peace and awe that the beauty of nature can give you."


Art Where You're At is an informal series showcasing online offerings at museums you may not be able to visit.