At their astoria home, the Adamses display their political beliefs like a house number. Their glass storm door is covered in stickers: “Ban Fracking,” “Support the Sea Shepherd,” “Thank you for not driving on the beach.” (The latter they had printed themselves.) On the otherwise pristinely white 1940s bungalow high on a hill overlooking the Columbia River, the effect is like pulling up behind a Berkeley VW bus. But inside, a casual orderliness testifies to Kerstin’s Swedish upbringing by parents who sold art, books, and Scandinavian furniture. Photographs by masters like Eugène Atget, Dorothea Lange, and Edward Weston and paintings by friends populate the walls, punctuated by the near-abstract sailing boat reliefs that Adams meticulously carves out of driftwood. (“Just messing around,” he says.) Leaning in various corners are driftwood sticks brushed in calligraphy by Kerstin, a retired librarian—quotes from Shakespeare, Henry David Thoreau, Theodore Roethke, and William Stafford. The couple is inseparable—“we like the same stuff,” says Adams. But in the half dozen visits I’ve paid them over 18 years, whenever it’s been for a formal interview Kerstin, after a warm welcome, excuses herself “to make some calls.”
The Adamses’ relationship with Astoria began accidently. On their way to a summer retreat in Vancouver, British Columbia, undertaken so Adams could learn German and French for his PhD in literature at the University of Southern California, they stopped in town, ate a salmon lunch, and, as he recalls it, “said to ourselves, ‘What could be better than here?’” They eventually settled in Colorado but visited Astoria for the next 30 years. Adams’s sister moved to town and worked as a librarian. He and Kerstin moved into a house across the street from her in 1997. His parents retired to the jaunty Illahee Apartments just down the hill. (They and his sister have since passed away.)
But seen within the arc of his career, Adams’s path to the US’s first permanent settlement on the Pacific Coast gains a metaphorical quality. His family roots reach back to Maine four centuries ago, and imbue him with a sense of his own history that, he has said, “led me to take a serious look at this country.” He grew up in New Jersey and Wisconsin, but the photographic work he became best known for begins near the Continental Divide along Colorado’s Front Range. Adams first took up photography as a hobby while he was teaching at Colorado College, mostly shooting abstract landscapes and rural scenes in the vein of Ansel Adams and Walker Evans. But as the landscape around him began to change, he turned the lens to make stark, unflinching pictures of a new West.
In 1970, Adams traveled to New York and dropped off a portfolio at the Museum of Modern Art. He and Kerstin stayed at the YMCA. John Szarkowski, MoMA’s influential photography curator, took a quick interest, buying several prints. The following year, Szarkowski gave Adams an exhibition with Emmet Gowin in the museum’s hallowed halls. He turned to photography full-time soon after.
At the time, photography was dominated by two camps: the followers of Ansel Adams, Minor White, and Edward Weston, who shot an untrammeled, often abstract West; and documentarians who focused on anxieties of society. Adams and a small cluster of younger photographers—among them Lewis Baltz, Frank Gohlke, and Bernd and Hilla Becher—wed the two. And courtesy of New Topographics, a fortuitously timed (and well-named) 1975 exhibition at the Eastman House in Rochester, New York, the insurgents found themselves at the center of a growing market.
All those photographers have distinct styles and outlooks, and all have staked out places small and large in photographic history—but none more emphatically than Adams. “You can see traces of him in almost every contemporary landscape photographer,” says Julia Dolan, the Portland Art Museum’s photography curator. “Whether they are photographing the ruins of tract houses that have been foreclosed upon, or urban sprawl, or any landscape that has changed—Robert Adams is there.”
At first pass, Adams’s pictures can seem haphazardly composed, almost pedestrian. Rarely larger than 11 by 14 inches, they reveal their methodical intentions slowly, most often in the searing, upper-register whites of his images. The noted photographer and critic Tod Papageorge compares Adams’s printing “to a composer writing for the piano at its highest octaves.” “Combustible,” “nuclear intensity,” and “merciless” are phrases often used by admirers and critics alike.
In his early work, Adams’s light sharpened the jarring geometries of suburbia and exurbia, rendering more powerful his subtle revelations that humans actually lived in these environments: the silhouette of a woman’s head seen in a window, the congregation huddled outside a freshly constructed church. But as his career has progressed, Adams steadily widened and deepened his view. In the images of old roads, graffiti-scrawled rocks, and meandering creeks of his 1980 book, From the Missouri West, Adams’s light captures the earliest fingerprints of change—of humans claiming the landscape, and of nature reclaiming it back. For the 1984 book Our Lives and Our Children, Adams clandestinely photographed crying babies, soccer moms, and fawning grandparents he found in suburban Denver supermarkets and parking lots, just a few miles away from the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant—the proximity lending his powerful light a more ominous tone. In his 1985 Summer Nights, Adams turned the rich shadows near his neighborhood in Longmont, Colorado, into an enchanting, sensual nocturne. And not since the 19thcentury’s Carleton Watkins and Eugène Atget has a photographer created so many subtly composed portraits of individual trees.
A gifted writer who crafts prose with the same austerity and clarity as his photographs, Adams framed his convictions in a 1981 book, Beauty in Photography: Essays in Defense of Traditional Values. The goal of art should be “Beauty,” he wrote unabashedly. “The darkness that art combats is the ultimate one, the conclusion that life is without worth and finally better off ended.”
Shortly before moving to Astoria permanently, Adams published a book, West from the Columbia, in anticipation of the 200th anniversary of Lewis and Clark’s journey across the American frontier. At the time, he saw it as a completion of his westward photographic journey. With so much of the continent’s interior fouled, the only open vista left to us is “with our toes dipped in the Pacific,” he told me at the time. The spellbinding pictures—his first seascapes—shot at the intersection of the river and the ocean, he said, were “made in disappointment.”
“The two places I’ve loved the most are eastern Colorado and the northwest Oregon coast. But both are in the process, if we’re honest, of being lost.”