JTF (just the facts): A total of 33 black-and-white gelatin silver prints, framed and matted, and exhibited on white walls in the South and North gallery, the latter divided by a partition. Sizes vary from 5×5 inches to 16×20 inches. The earliest is dated 1968, the latest 2014. All are unique prints. About half are vintage. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: Trees were central to the creativity and well being of Henry David Thoreau. The most popular essay he published in his lifetime, “The Succession of Forest Trees” (1860), analyzed their propagation from “the agency of the wind, water, and animals”; and his Journals were filled with thoughts and observations about the different species he found in his walks around New England—birch, aspen, shrub oak, elm, linden, hemlock, ash, willow, sugar maple, pine—and what each meant to him. They “awakened the muse in Thoreau,” writes Richard Higgins in his book Thoreau and the Language of Trees and “made the forest a figurative language in which to dip his pen.”
Trees have anchored Robert Adams to his earthly practice as well. His latest show at Matthew Marks consists of 33 photographs taken over more than 50 years. Varied as a group, cottonwoods and cedars and elms, they can be seen as a unifying constant in his work, their absence or presence defining his response to being in a place.
Shady trees are missing from the sunstruck desert landscapes of the Colorado housing developments that he surveyed in the 1970s. Just as they were essential to the comfort and security that he found walking the streets after dark in small-town and suburban neighborhoods of Denver and Boulder for his book Summer Nights. The mutilated hillsides that he has photographed in the logged forests of the Northwest represent a personal grief and perhaps an ecological warning.
None of the trees (or prints) spaced around the walls in this airy space are monumental or precious. Each of the species is common and viewed plainly, without obfuscating mist or from dizzying angles. Photographs of single trees emphasize their individual dignity, not their everlasting splendor. Rather than hunting for examples in untrammeled wilderness, he pokes along well-worn trails and roadways, preferring trees that have adapted to life beside expressways or among telephone wires—metal lines that in the cellular-phone age may disappear before many of these natural towers die or are sawed down.
The earliest photograph dates from 1968 and depicts from across a parking lot a hardy oak in Colorado Springs that continues to be more impressive than the modernist motel built around it. In three views of abandoned windbreaks in Colorado and California from 1982 and 1983, the trees no longer serve the purpose that led to their planting. Adams pictures their ragged and forlorn profiles as if they were neglected soldiers left to guard a frontier in a war that ended years before.
Different trees perform different functions. An oak stands like a sturdy night watchman in the front yard of a home near Boulder, Colorado. An alley of eucalyptus in a California grove is more purely ornamental. Were it not in a neglected state, Adams might not have bothered to commemorate its ragged solemnity.
Adams photographs the whole body and lifespan of the tree—roots, bark, choking vines, leaves and limbs, from the time it first springs open as a bud or flower until it’s a driftwood stump on an ocean beach.
The noncommittal and factual nature of his pictures is usually reflected in their neutral titles. Among the last trees surrounding a farm house, edge of Longmont, Colorado (1982) portrays what happens in the local economy of a place where wood is more valuable as fence posts than as a tree to gaze at. One exception is Defoliated and bulldozed orchard, Highland, California (1982-83), where the casual sloppiness of the flattening destruction seems to gall Adams.
Along with his penchant for ascetic simplicity, Adams has another compositional style that views trees and forests through a more complicating lens. A pair of 2014 photographs made at Neahkhanie Mountain in Oregon frame lacy clusters of evergreen branches and needles against a blank sky. In their decentered and all-over patterning, they’re like Pollock, while their appreciation of what a photograph can say about natural light and shadow, without fanfare, recalls Eugène Cuvelier’s salt paper prints from the forests of Fontainebleau.
Adams has photographed almost exclusively in the American West, keeping a wary eye on the forces that have developed the land to serve their economic and political interests. But his pictures, like those of Lee Friedlander, Ray Mortenson, and Mitch Epstein also connect him to the 19th century tradition of English and French landscape. Nothing in this show would look glaringly out of place in a room with photographs of trees by Benjamin Bracknell Turner, Gustave Le Gray, or Eugène Atget.
Thoreau’s adulthood coincided with the years (1850s) of peak deforestation around his home in Concord, Massachusetts. On his daily walks he would react with joy and despair when he would come upon stands of old-growth trees that by chance had not yet been leveled. Adams has likewise witnessed indiscriminate logging throughout parts of western Oregon and Washington. One example of his feelings about the scenes he has found in the backwoods is expressed in A second-growth stump on top of a first-growth stump, Coos County, Oregon (1999), where a grotesque wooden cruciform rises up like a headless monster on a ravaged hillside.
“A town is saved not more by the righteous men in it,” wrote Thoreau, “than by the trees and swamps that surround it.” Adams would no doubt agree. Like Thoreau, he has worked to survey his patch of America, his photographs measuring what is being lost and what remains. Whether any of them have saved a town is questionable. But he has been a righteous man and has lived to see an environmental movement gather strength and attract others like him. Without preaching, he has changed the visual language that artists everywhere rely on to stand up for their endangered world.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show rage in price from $12000 to $36000. Adams’ photographs have become increasingly available in the secondary markets in the past decade, with prices ranging between roughly $5000 and $87000.