And so the houses and storefronts and churches in these photographs are scaled accordingly, to both a comfortable human scale, but also in light of the huge expanses of prairie grass and sky. Windmills and tress move in the wind. A squat little house anticipates the storm cloud above. Light drips through a wood slat floor and onto the stairs below. Inside one house (34-5): floral print wallpaper, sunflower tablecloth, daisy-shaped clock, flowers in three vases, and reflected in the mirror… more floral print wallpaper. Outside another (38), the prairie sunflower and grasses grow right up to the foundation of the house, which faces the intense sunlight, which peels the white paint. In this image, the edges meet: the clouds and the sun, the wind, sunflowers, siding, soffit, telephone line. And in yet another image (frontispiece), two tracks diverge in a wheat field, both off to the horizon, creating, in effect, two distinct lines of perspective, two vanishing points; it is purely optical, but it perfectly creates a feeling of a massive piece of land.
In both Sea Stories and This Day, Adams brings us back to ‘the Northwest Coast,’ as it is called in This Day. This sounds like something of a generalization, so turning to Adams’s captioned place names in the book, I pulled out my atlas to give these photographs some context. In essence, these turn out to be centered around Adams’s home in Astoria, Oregon, where the Missouri River meets the Pacific Ocean, and on Oregon’s border with Washington state. In both Sea Stories and This Day, Adams’s impeccable use of the form of the book as a means of looking is affirmed: the pacing, the pairing of two photographs beside each other, the transition from one image to the next. This reinforcement of the act of looking (and its extension, photographing) as an act of place-making and empathy is given a few forms, both contained in the images themselves and in the larger structure of the books.
In Sea Stories, Adams sets up three cantos of images: “The Journey of Trees,” “The Light of Spring,” and “The Path Home.” Each of these sections has an internal narrative of sorts, dictated by the process of looking: at trees as they fill out a forest; at seabirds and the waves on the beach; at the speed of a walk from the beach inland through distinct biotic communities. These photographs are visual delight at a human scale at the same time as they are environmental appeals to the integrity of the natural world.
Turning the pages through “The Journey of Trees” the visual experience is that of being drawn into a forest: at first the light is all over, high-contrast, sparkling; then the solidity of the understorey draws down to the ground, even as the treetops wave and shine in the wind and light; then the verticality of trees is reinforced with up and down glances; and finally, once inside, the frame of the photographs shifts, and it is brilliantly horizontal, surrounded and in the midst of the forest. In many of these images, Adams uses a small depth of field, in effect pulling into the space of the forest at the level and speed of a human, rather than looking at the forest with a more detached view of it. This distinction is important because of how photographs can also be used: to distance, to fragment. Adams seems to suggest that the opposite is possible as well: that photographs can draw into, and make whole.
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