“What does our Geography
Compel us to Believe?”
A review of
What Can We Believe Where?:
Photographs of the American West.
By Robert Adams.
Reviewed by Brent Aldrich.
What Can We Believe Where?:
Photographs of the American West.
Paperback: Yale UP, 2011.
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[ Editor’s Note: One of the very first reviews we ran on this site was Brent’s review of Robert Adams’ book Why People Photograph. We are delighted to see him return to explore Adams’ work again. ]
A new collection of Robert Adams’ more than 40 years of photographs asks in the title “What Can We Believe Where?” I’d like to not underestimate the significance of that question, but to proceed on to three related questions Adams asks in a brief foreword: “What does our geography compel us to believe? What does it allow us to believe? And what obligations, if any, follow from our beliefs?”
Before diving into the photographs, then, it seems prescient to seriously consider the ramifications of this formulation of belief. In it, Adams moves the locus of belief from abstracted objectivity into particular places and contexts, which inform the beliefs of situated communities, even as these communities, in turn, inform the place. In this formulation of reality, Adams rejects the dissociation of ‘belief’ from material reality, along with any separation of people from particular places, or generalized ideas of ‘nature’ apart from specific human practices and culture.
One of these practices, of course, is making photographs, and in this regard Adams makes good, for these prints do what his words suggest, drawing on particular geographies to discern what people believe about them (both what we might be compelled to believe, but also what these views allow), even as the photographs themselves frame the place anew, suggesting further possibilities of a given place. Belief, as such, cannot be separated from what the world really looks like; nor can images of the world be separated from what we believe the world to be like. What Adams does in most pictures is to reconcile the hope – as well as tragedy – that we associate with ideas of landscape, with the shape of particular physical landscapes; that is to say, he forms beliefs from particular places, even as he projects hope and lament back onto these same topographies. In this way, landscapes are transformed and agents of transformation; processed, shaped, and shaping – reciprocal with human communities constantly adapting to that place, and adapting it to them.
This book’s subtitle indicates that these are “Photographs of the American West,” which is something of a generality; the title pages narrow the focus to a handful of cities in Colorado and Oregon, with a few images of California, and one in Nebraska. Over 100 prints gathered here survey Adams’ decades of photographic work, arranged not quite chronologically, but close, moving from rural places through the suburbanization of Colorado, to clear-cutting in Oregon, and ending at the Pacific coast, where Adams has suggested in other places that we must begin the more difficult work of “turning back” – having reached the limits of the continent and now learning how to become native to it.
A few photographs will have to serve synecdochically. One long grey landscape looks out over a hilly terrain, the even value broken only by SOUTHGATE MICH. spray-painted onto a rock in the foreground, which mirrors a sliver of white highway stretching out above it. Looking only at the top half of this photograph, we might be inclined to equate it with spaces so vast as to be devoid of such interruption, as the title indicates we’re “On Lookout Mountain, Jefferson County, Colorado, 1970;” but of course, with that long view also comes the actual use – and thus belief – about what this sort of place is for, and how we interact with it: the territorial claim of the tag might not be too different than the long vehicle, barely visible down on that road. Again, we might want to believe certain things about this sort of beautiful place, but to actually look at a history of use in this place might only allow another sort of belief.
In another image, the side of a tract house stands in brilliant sunlight, as its cheap siding peels off, revealing the skeletal wood frame underneath, while standing alongside the facade is a sparkling clean RV, presumably standing ready to be hooked up and pulled away, leaving this suburban lot for another down the road. Perhaps it will be into another photograph: this time the mountains rise in the background, hazy, never quite the focus of Adams’ photographs, and in the foreground a man stands in the bottom of a hole, down past a few horizons of soil, looking downward, even as the mountains rise upward beyond. The top of a ladder glistens; flags fly from stakes around the hole; and a monoculture of houses springs up on the horizon, past the acres of bare soil.
And one final image of a long stretching landscape, away to mountains in the far distance, discernable only as value, through an opening in the trees: the clearing has been made recently, huge stumps left behind, twisted fragments of limbs and brush litter the foreground, a dirt road cuts through the image, and the clearing extends back to the next rise of land, to a pine-covered hill which may meet with similar deforestation, and onward, an onward. Faced with this view, it is clearly the look and landscape of destruction; that is unquestionable. Even still, as always, Adams suggests a capacity for hope, if nothing else then with the magnificent light of day that falls on this image – on the just and the unjust, as it were.
These are marvelous photographs for their capacity to take the realities of particular geographies along with their real uses seriously, showing these places as they are, but always with the possibility of correction and adaptation. They are important photographs for their ability to contain both tragedy and hope, the particularities of specific places along with the possibilities of transformation within single images. The significance of Adams’ written questions that I cited at the beginning is paramount as well. Write them down and put them somewhere they won’t be lost. Tattoo them on your wrist. Better yet, write them on a window you look out of daily to let their meaning impress itself onto your place. In this way, we may root our communities within a given place, allowing in to inform the shape of our culture even as we attach new meaning and uses to it.
Brent Aldrich is Art Editor of the ERB, and adjunct professor at Herron School of Art in his native Indianapolis.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com