Adams works in his basement “garden variety darkroom.” He mostly shoots with 35 mm cameras these days, and says he lives “in daily fear of opening the New York Times to read that Kodak will stop making Tri-X”—his favorite film. His long-preferred printing paper, Agfa Portriga, hasn’t been made in years, meaning thousands of negatives he shot and processed for its sumptuously warm tones can no longer be printed. Of his collaboration with Kerstin, he says she is his most trusted editor for the all-important selection and sequencing of images for shows and books. “She’s very quiet,” he says. “But I’ve learned to wait. When she says something simple like ‘I don’t know,’ I’ve learned to think six times before I waste a lot of time on that picture.”
Adams compares creating his trademark tonalities in cloudy, misty Oregon to making a picture with “saw, hammer, and nails.”
“The fun of shooting someplace where composition comes easy is you’re working against your own memory of everyone else’s photographs and of your own,” he recalls of the “heaven’s light” in Colorado. “If light isn’t giving you shadows and bright brilliant surfaces, you have to get out the carpentry tools.”
But there is another difference in his The Question of Hope: the telltale promise of redemption remains absent in the clearcut pictures. “He can’t find it,” notes Portland Art Museum’s Dolan. “The clearcuts are too hateful and detrimental. So he balances them with the images of the ocean.”
Adams did not travel for the openings to any of the museums that hosted his retrospective. He says he will not attend his show’s opening in Portland, either. Though he firmly states that he “does not approve” of artists who cultivate mystique through absence, he apologetically explains he “inherited a digestive tract” from his parents that makes traveling these days challenging. With macular degeneration having already decimated his vision in one eye and a 40 percent chance that the other “could go very fast,” there is an unmistakable sense that Adams feels his time as a photographer is running out.
The couple is now at work on a photo essay, “An Old Forest Road,” shot at nearby Fort Columbia State Park in Washington, exploring a stand of trees grown back after being cut a century ago. Adams laments he’s shot only one day in recent months. Almost every day he has been on the phone with galleries that sell his work. “It’s not because we need the money,” he says. “It’s because if there’s money there, we know how we’d like to see it spent.”
Adams has no illusions about nudging the state’s forest practices. “Whoever yells ‘jobs’ loudest wins,” he says. “But Lewis Hine once said that he wanted to show what was right, so we would take care of it and defend it, and what’s wrong, so that we would want to change it. I want to say both things in this show. We give what we’ve got.”