Robert Adams: A Road Through Shore Pine

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2014 by Fraenkel Gallery (here). Hardcover (10 x 12 inches), 42 pages, with 18 black and white photographs (reproductions in tritone). There are no essays. Designed to accompany the current exhibition at the gallery (September 11 to November 15, 2014). $45. (Spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Why should these 18 simple pictures—of empty highways and dark pine trees, a picnic table in a clearing, a scrubby patch of grasses scattered with driftwood, a sandy beach under a gray sky—be so devastating?

Taken in the fall of last year, when Adams was 76, these photographs have autumnal overtones. They describe a trip to Nehalem Bay State Park in Oregon that he has taken frequently with his wife. As he says, in the frontispiece: “The road is one that my family traveled often and fondly. Many of its members are gone now, and Kerstin and I visit the road for the example of the trees.”

Adams knows that his mortality won’t grant him many more years of road trips to the beach. The book can be seen as an expression of praise for the natural realm and for the gift of consciousness he has enjoyed within it—a common sentiment in poetry (by everyone from Li Bai to A.E. Houseman to Mary Oliver) but harder for wordless photography to evoke.

The respect that Adams feels for this gift (and that, by leafing through the pages, we share) is cumulative. The images slowly, unobtrusively build upon each other. The shadows from the pine trees across the road darken, then lighten, then darken again. There is a place to have lunch, if travelers wish to pause. Then it’s onward to the final destination, up a rise through the dunes to the soft, luminous open sky and ocean.

With its limited set of motifs, the series continues the reduction of pictorial gestures that Adams demonstrated in On Any Given Day in Spring and Light Balances, exhibited at Fraenkel and Matthew Marks in 2012. Not that his fondness for two-lane (or one-lane) American highways lined with unheroic flora hasn’t been apparent for decades, in such photographs as Nebraska State Highway 2, Box Butte County, Nebraska, or Abandoned Windbreak, West of Fontana.

Adams is an artist who would rather belong to a tradition than break with it. He must be happily aware that the theme of trees on a road links him to numerous predecessors in 19th century landscape, including Benjamin Brecknell Turner, Gustave Le Gray, Eugène Cuvelier, and Eugène Atget.

But a belief in America’s moral responsibility for the land is another persistent theme in Adams’s oeuvre, and this series can be read by that political light. Nahalem Bay State Park was founded in 1938, during the New Deal, when state and federal government were increasingly active in buying up tracts of property large and small around the country, and setting them aside for popular use.

By traveling a public highway to a public park, which attracts nearly half-a-million beach-goers and campers to its nearly 900 acres every year, and by photographing the journey in the plainest of styles, Adams seems to declaring that the pleasure of both experience are—and always should be—available to anyone. There is nothing private about either this trip to the beach or anything hermetic about the meaning of the images.

They catalog that most bourgeois of rambling weekend excursions, and, if not for the geologic particulars here of the Oregon littoral, Adams’s photographs might be tracing a couple’s vacation in coastal France, England, Sicily, or northern Europe; or, if not for the Pacific Ocean, a family trip to a state park in Pennsylvania or Arkansas.

The landscape materials that Adams chooses to work with could hardly be more basic. His travels these days carry him neither far nor wide. And yet, better than any photographer alive, he translates the mundane specifics of what life affords him every day with an eloquence—and a shocking intensity—that can pierce your heart.

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 prices ranging between roughly $5000 and $87000.

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