JTF (just the facts): Published in 2018 by Fraenkel Gallery (here), in conjunction with an exhibition that was on view between September 6 and October 20, 2018 (here). Hardcover, 64 pages, with 27 black-and-white plates, 12×13 inches, $65. (Cover and spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: The road is as old as the fire pit. Its origins are so shrouded in the fog of prehistory—when did ground trodden flat by migratory animals become pathways for human travelers?—that it has functioned more reliably as a metaphor for poets and novelists than as something archaeologists can narrowly define and date. Found on every continent, from forest to rift valley to tundra to desert to ice sheet, the road by definition displaces—lightly brushing aside or aggressively gouging out—what was previously there as it forges ahead to become its own place. Whether abraded with hand tools or bulldozed by machines, it has always been a sign of our ambition to smooth passage across the rough and weather-beaten earth.
In this humble book of photographs, Robert Adams has chosen 27 roads that he has at one time stopped along in order to examine more carefully. Just as no single photograph in his many portfolios is demonstrably more precious or meaningful than any other, so none of these roads—a tiny sample of the thousands that have floated into his viewfinder over some 45 years—has any particular significance in American history.
Rather, it’s as a collective philosophic statement, gently correcting our dulled, myopic vision of these omnipresent marks on the land, that is so ineffably moving. Aided by Thomas Palmer’s tritone separations, Daniel Frank’s printing at Meridian, and Katy Homans’ design, the book is a distillation of the almost Japanese deference and respect that Adams shows toward what he finds in the world.
The photographs are presented neither in chronological nor in geographical order. One was taken east of the Rockies, in Box Butte County, Nebraska, in 1978. The other scenes, dated between 1968 and 2013, are nearer or from the other side of the mountains: 15 in Colorado, where he lived for many years in the 1960s and ‘70s; 5 in California; 1 in Washington; and 5 in Oregon, his home since the 1990s.
Roads are usually viewed as a means and seldom as ends in themselves. Maps render them as a two-dimensional line that connects places with each other. As such, these lines can go wherever human will and imagination (and laws governing land use, real estate, and national borders) take them. They often follow the physiography of the terrain—a river, a valley—but they also alter it by inviting people to travel along its length.
The flat horizontality of roads makes their monotonous geometry a challenge for photographers. Many have preferred to frame these shallow channels as cutting into the horizon rather than running parallel to it.
For instance, to make her Depression-era icon, The Road West, New Mexico (1938), Dorothea Lange stood in the middle of a paved two-lane highway so that its width bursts beyond the edge of the frame in the foreground and then tapers to a thin slit as it disappears toward the sky. The sun strikes at a brutal angle. Although no cars are visible, we can see that tire tracks of passing vehicles have worn down the blacktop as surely as the topsoil was stripped away by the wind in the fields further east. The road’s surface shines like a much-handled old penny. Robert Frank’s U.S. 285, New Mexico (1955) is an explicit homage to Lange’s forlorn view of the American highway as perennial escape route.
Adams has chosen this perspective frequently in this selection. The Nebraska photograph from 1978 is one of his most reproduced. It’s an autumnal scene but without the typical colorful fanfare or seasonal grief. The leaves that have fallen have been pushed by winds to one side of the road’s tall grass-fringed edge. A few small piles have formed perpendicular to the road’s broad middle, including one a few feet from where Adams is standing with his camera. In the manner of Lange and Frank, he is looking down the empty passage toward the horizon. The two unimpressive trees to the left (none are on the right) cast the faintest of shadows on the cracked, streaked, patched surface. The picture isn’t a tribute to America’s refugees, heading West toward an uncertain future, but about the silence and solitude of farm country. It’s the kind of place where only 25 cars a day might pass by.
Adams does not make strict distinctions between streets and roads, highways and interstates. The edit has photographs where gas stations and fast-food restaurants crowd the offramp in a place of natural wonder, as in Golden, Colorado (1969) or where suburban tract houses have sprung up at the foot of snowy mountains, as in Longmont, Colorado (1973-74.) He seems to have a fondness for dirt roads, maybe because from the tire tracks it’s possible to see the traces of earlier travelers. Of his many nighttime photographs, he has chosen only one example: Under a freeway overpass, Colorado (1973-74) is a study of blackness relieved only by the flaring burst of headlights from an oncoming car.
Unlike the fencepost, that other primordial demarcation on the landscape, the road is commutative: it allows for traffic in two directions. Both have been essential for the spread of global civilization. But one encourages the flow of humanity, its comings and goings, while the other seeks to contain it.
The telephone pole is a vertical stroke against the skyline, like the fencepost, but it supports a technology built for traffic in multiple directions. Its wires have their own graceful linearity, and they appear in well over half of the photographs here. In the diptych Kerstin, south of Burns, Oregon (1999), his wife sits on a side of the road, looking pensively toward a fenced field, while a shadow seems to climb up her back—presumably from a juniper tree in the photograph on the opposite page, where the road is invisible and has to be inferred from the three strands of telephone wire that cut across the frame.
The road is not a neutral piece of construction. Even before Rome became an empire, its military leaders invested heavily in the building of highways. After its armies conquered a new people, crews (and slaves) were put to work laying down paved rock to speed the movement of troops and wheeled vehicles. After World War II, when the U.S. assumed the mantle of world power, the nation’s leaders created the interstate highway system in the 1950s, in part as an emergency response network for soldiers and civilians in the event of a Soviet invasion during the Cold War.
For a photographer who has campaigned tirelessly against the indiscriminate logging in the Northwest of first-growth forests—a process that would be impossible without the building of roads—this book can be seen as undoing decades of advocacy. Acknowledging in his laconic frontispiece that “roads have been the end of wilderness,” he asserts nonetheless that they “can still be beautiful,” their divisive cleavage of the landscape appearing “like a perfect knife slicing through a perfect apple, showing you that both halves are one.”
Only once, in Firebreak above East Highlands, California (1982), does pessimism about what America has done to itself defeat his inclination toward hope. His camera is again looking toward the horizon, down a sand-dirt-mud road, except this time the converging lines plunge into the mists of nowhere, over a cliff.
American literature, which Adams taught for several years before choosing photography, is riddled with images of roads and streets and highways. They’re scenes for meditative decisions, urban ennui, breakneck freedom, and fateful confrontation in the poems of Dickinson, Whitman, Frost, Eliot, Stevens, and Bishop, and the novels of Steinbeck, Ellison, Kerouac, and Doctorow. Cormac McCarthy’s chose to title his tale of post-apocalyptic survival The Road because that’s where the father believes he and his son will be the safest.
The road is the opposite of home—the other motif (along with the tree) that has tethered Adams to the landscape during his career. The road asks us to leave the domestic comforts of what we know for sights we couldn’t possibly experience, had we not left. Once we decide to accept its overtures, we can expect encounters with strangers coming in the other direction.
Some of them may not be adventurers like ourselves, however, but the desperately uprooted who have taken to the road because they see no other options, like the African-Americans who fled the Jim Crow South after World War I during the so-called Great Migration, or the rural white farmers who strapped their furniture to their cars as they headed to California during the Dust Bowl.
Adams quotes from Woody Guthrie’s anthem from the Great Depression, “This Land is Your Land” and he poses a question that Guthrie didn’t ask: Whose land will it be? “Yours and mine together?”
The road is the route of all immigrants, which means all of us. It signifies the start or the middle of the journey, not its end.
Collector’s POV: Robert Adams is represented by Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco (here) and Matthew Marks Gallery in New York (here). Adams’ photographs have become increasingly available in the secondary markets in the past decade, with recent prices ranging between roughly $5000 and $87000.