On September 7, the Portland Art Museum opens an exhibition of 70 prints by Robert Adams, a 76-year-old artist and Astoria resident widely regarded as the most influential landscape photographer of his generation. Throughout his career, Adams has crafted his work as an invitation to ponder the future of the western landscape by examining what we’ve done to it so far. This exhibit, The Question of Hope, marks the first time Adams has directed that call to his fellow Oregonians.

Half of the exhibition’s pictures depict the tree stumps and carcasses shorn on the hillsides of the Coast Range by the logging industry’s giant mechanical snippers and bulldozers. Rendered in grimly exacting grays, the images quite knowingly recall the human carnage documented by battlefield photographers such as Timothy O’Sullivan (the Civil War) and W. Eugene Smith (World War II). To describe the challenge of photographing a clearcut, in fact, Adams invokes a pledge he once heard from Smith, regarding images of the corpse-strewn beaches of the Pacific theater: “I vowed I would not make patterns.” Adams’s photographs project a similar gravity of despair and purpose. 

“If you’ve ever walked in these places,” Adams says, “you see how few birds there are. You can smell the herbicide. The devastation—the indiscriminate devastation—is beyond words.”

The exhibition’s other half portrays the Pacific Ocean, mostly waves and beaches rendered in the same high-key grays, shot from vantage points that make them feel like the Great Plains rolling outward from the foothills of the Rockies. These photographs, in sharp contrast to the bleak clearcut images and their implicit political commentary, are quite simply about beauty. The ocean, Adams writes in an introduction to the exhibit, “seems to me to carry a promise ... no matter how enigmatic its terms are.”  

Destruction and promise: Adams has juxtaposed the two for more than 40 years. He has published more than 30 books of his work and been the subject of exhibits worldwide, most recently a 300-print retrospective organized by Yale Art Gallery now touring major museums in Denver, Los Angeles, Canada, Spain, France, Germany, and Switzerland through summer 2014. That epic show charts a career that broke away from the century-long tradition of photographing the West—the serene, people-free, often abstract views from the likes of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston—to take a hard look at the facts unfolding on the ground: the sprawling complex of freeways, suburban tracts, and signs, so many signs. In Adams’s photographs, the landscape became a kind of storm weathered by its inhabitants and by nature itself. Yet, always, somewhere—in the toys of a plywood house’s unplanted yard or a broken tree somehow still surviving—lies the promise, no matter how “enigmatic,” of renewal. 

“To us, there is so little work that is being made that is of consequence for the future,” says Joshua Chuang, Yale’s curator in charge of the retrospective. “We feel there is a metaphor and a lesson in Adams’s work that we wanted to broadcast to the greater world.”

Like his previous shows in Oregon—one at the Portland Art Museum, one at Reed College—The Question of Hope is modest in scale. But Adams considers it an urgent message to his adopted home. 

“We have a decision to make,” says the photographer, who believes clear-cutting should be banned and has campaigned for two failed ballot initiatives to stop the practice. “It’s just like when we said, ‘No, you can’t kill the last 80 buffalo on the North American continent. The problem isn’t that we don’t know how to fix this problem; it’s that we don’t have the political will.” 

“We”—Adams always uses the first-person plural to include his wife (and editor) of over 50 years, Kerstin—“have never had an opportunity to really speak about this to an audience here.”

Set in the museum’s lower-level gallery, the message will be expressed quietly. Many viewers may shrug that the pictures are, as has often been said of Adams’s work, “cold” and “dull.” But other opinions have long prevailed. In 1994, the MacArthur Foundation recognized Adams with a $340,000 “genius” fellowship. For the retrospective exhibit now traveling the world, Yale channeled resources at a level rare for a living photographer, producing a three-volume catalog, reprinting three of Adams’s seminal monographs, and producing three books of new work. The university now permanently houses more than 2,000 of Adams’s master prints. 

Robert Adams: The Question of Hope 
Portland Art Museum 
Sept 7Jan 5

On a sunny afternoon at his kitchen table, over tea and sweet crackers from a nearby tienda, Adams sums up the Yale experience: “There’s something very sobering about contemplating your mortality through the shape of what you’ve done. Of course, all of it is not the way you wish it were.”