Re-Prettification: Robert Adams and the American West

Fraenkel Gallery’s “Robert Adams: 27 Roads” makes a case for him as the greatest living American photographer.

For the better part of a century, a who’s-who of American photographers — including Ansel Adams and Edward Weston — have chronicled the landscape of the American West, publishing images that have mythologized its contours of land, mountains, and skyline. Adams’ Yosemite photos are still breathtaking. Same for Weston’s images of rock faces in Monterey and of dunes in Oceano, Calif. Photographer Robert Adams doesn’t mythologize the West as much as he occupies it, capturing symbols of a landscape that people are often at odds with.

Yes, Adams — who has photographed the West for 50 years — takes scenes of majesty that make California, Oregon, Colorado, and other states seem like heaven on Earth. But Adams will take images of tree stumps instead of towering redwoods. And he’ll capture the descent of mankind on previously pristine acreage. Beauty and degradation, a kind of subtle or not-so-subtle environmental degradation, are often embedded in Adams’ images. This duality was evident in Adams’ 1974 book The New West, whose images included one of a man in Colorado Springs who was deep into ground that was newly excavated for a tract home. The Rocky Mountains and open land were in the background. Adams had witnessed urban expansion in its infancy.

The Fraenkel Gallery exhibit “Robert Adams: 27 Roads” narrows Adams’ work through the motif of roadways, which is one way to understand Adams’ search for meaning in a landscape that can lead to many directions. The images that Fraenkel chose for “27 Roads” are filled with contemplative scenes of highways cut into mountains, farm roads that take the viewer through manicured land, and streets that bisect burgeoning neighborhoods and commercial corridors.

“Roads can still be beautiful,” Adams writes in the introduction to the new book that accompanies the exhibit. It’s true. But what to make of Adams’ photo called Broadway, Denver, Colorado, 1974, which scans a major thoroughfare and spotlights such businesses as “Orchid Beauty Academy”? And what of Eden, Interstate 25, Colorado, 1968, which depicts a rural freeway sign that advertises the town of “Eden, Right Lane”? The two photos suggest a manufactured beauty atop a natural one, as if the American West were a place to build institutions that satisfied Americans’ desire to re-prettify their existence. 

The competing elements in Adams’ images — the tension between nature and encroachment — and the images’ striking, black-and-white compositions are what gives them an enduring quality. One art critic has said the 81-year-old Adams is a candidate for the label of “greatest living American photographer.” Adams has won nearly every major arts honor, including two Guggenheim Fellowships, a MacArthur “genius” grant, and a Hasselblad Foundation International Award in Photography.

Gallery owner Jeffrey Fraenkel, who has worked with Adams for almost four decades, says the photographer is in the same league as the more celebrated Ansel Adams. In fact, Fraenkel tells SF Weekly, “We first began showing his pictures in 1980, and he had already made an impact on the history of photography. I’d seen a show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The big name in photography was Adams — but it was not Robert Adams, it was Ansel Adams. And Ansel Adams’ pictures were these idealized views of the American West.

“Robert Adams’ take on the West — and the take that spoke to me — was the truth about the American West,” Fraenkel adds, “which is that it is this complex mix of astonishing beauty in which we have to take into account what we have done to it over the past few centuries. His pictures are never didactic or preachy, which is part of the reason we still look at them.”

Adams, now living and working in Oregon after many years in Colorado, is still taking new photos. He’s not planning to visit San Francisco for this exhibit, but “27 Roads” and the new accompanying book add to an output that is already substantial: Adams has published dozens of acclaimed books, and his photos are in the permanent collections of nearly every great museum. Adams, in other words, has left his mark on the American West at the same time that he has documented its place in the world at large.

“Robert Adams: 27 Roads,” Sept. 6-Oct. 20 at Fraenkel Gallery, 49 Geary St., 


Five Other Exhibits We’re Excited About This Fall

Bay Area Now 8
Sept. 7-March 24, YBCA, 701 Mission St.,
The triennial survey introduces (and re-introduces) artists from across genres, adding architecture and design for its newest iteration.

Haroon Mirza: The Night Journey
Sept. 7-Dec. 9, Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St.,
Using sound, light, and other visceral elements, the young multimedia artist from London interprets a 200-year-old painting.

Ficre Ghebreyesus: City with a River Running Through
Sept. 19-Dec. 16, Museum of the African Diaspora, 685 Mission St.,
The work of Ghebreyesus, an Eritrean-American painter of arresting abstraction who died in 2012, is exhibited for the first time on the West Coast.

Contemporary Muslim Fashions
Sept. 22-Jan. 6, de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive (Golden Gate Park),
The de Young opens the first major exhibit to consider the breadth and depth of Muslim fashion.

Harvey Quaytman: Against the Static
Oct. 17-Jan. 27, BAMPFA, 2120 Oxford St., Berkeley,
The New York abstract painter, who died in 2002, gets his first posthumous exhibition, with more than 70 works on display.

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