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If Robert Adams Wants His Eco-Conscious Photography to Change Anything, It’s Us

Shortly after buying a home in Astoria, Oregon, in 1997, photographer Robert Adams began paying attention to trucks rolling past, freshly loaded with timber from clearcut sites. “It was possible to see a line of three trucks, each carrying part of one tree. Now what you see,” he said in 2019, “are trucks carrying 30, 40, 50 spindly trees maybe a foot in diameter. The problem is: there’s a lot of evidence that it cannot continue.” According to the Oregon Wild advocacy group, more than 90 percent of the state’s old-growth forests—filled with trees anywhere from 100 to 1,000 years old—have been logged in the past 50 years, and “in the Willamette National Forest alone, there are 3,994 individual clearcuts today.”

Robert Adams, Clearcut, Clatsop County, Oregon, c. 2000, gelatin silver print, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Gift of Daniel Greenberg and Susan Steinhauser, 2008.322

Angered by the short-sightedness of policymakers who allowed such destruction, and by the scarring of once pristine land, Adams set out to document the practice, creating a body of work called Turning Back (1999–2003). This was one of his most visceral projects, and he set some ground rules for it: “Not to use the sky [. . .] to rescue the land. Not to be seduced into celebrating the power of man and machines, which can have a Satanic beauty and heroism about it. And not to aestheticize the carnage.”

The results are, simply put, brutal. Vast hillsides—former forests—sheared to the ground, a tumble of unusable branches and boughs left behind. Gigantic stumps of once-towering trees left standing like tombstones. The violence to the land unspeakable.

Robert Adams, Kerstin next to an Old-Growth Stump, Coos County, Oregon, 1999, gelatin silver print, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Gift of Daniel Greenberg and Susan Steinhauser, 2008.337

“Does clear-cutting originate in disrespect? It seems to us it clearly did,” he said in 2012, linking the pillaged lumber landscape to the terrains of war. “Does it, as a consequence, teach violence? Does it contribute to nihilism, of which we’ve got plenty in our society?”

The Role of Art in Change

Turning Back could be put in the context of other iconic environmental photos: the Cuyahoga River aflame in 1969; sea birds choked in oil; Midway Island albatross carcasses burst by ingested trash; Edward Burtynsky’s arresting views of dumps, strip mines, and oil fields. But that likely wouldn’t give Adams comfort.

“If art has a function, it’s probably not social reform,” he says. He acknowledges that the celebrated nature photography of Ansel Adams (no relation) may have rallied support for environmental policy changes, but “probably more has been done by people who attended meetings.” (He himself has attended such meetings. A self-described Democratic Socialist, he has been involved with the campaign to ban animal trapping in his area of Oregon, and he’s donated to activist causes, perhaps most notably when he gave winnings from the 2016 Deutsche Börse Photography Prize to Human Rights Watch.)

Instead, he sees the role of art in change as more personal and poetic.

“[A]rt addresses an inner struggle whereas journalism more often reports on the outward consequences of it,” he wrote in his 2005 book Beauty in Photography. “And though poems and pictures cannot by themselves save anyone—only people who care for each other face to face have the chance to do that—they can strengthen our resolve to agree to life.”

His intention isn’t activist: he champions environmental protection, but he doesn’t seek to instrumentalize his art in service of policy changes. Still, he does have a rhetoric of persuasion in mind. He creates photos that Sarah Greenough, who curated American Silence: The Photographs of Robert Adams for the National Gallery, describes as quiet and “unemphatic”—images that, in the era of social media, where the loudest and the boldest get noticed, just . . . are. In their stillness, these photos invite us to slow down and look closely, itself a form of rhetoric.

“He draws on our assumption that the camera blindly records what’s in front of it, as if it’s just an objective recording device, when of course it’s anything but,” says Greenough. “But he’s playing on our misreading of photography, which ends up giving us pictures that seem all the more truthful because of that seeming neutrality.”

Finding Hope in Poetry and Forests

When Adams says that he would allow “no redemptive skies” in his Turning Back pictures, he reminds us that, in most of the rest of his works, he’s attentive to the role of glorious light. It saves even the most desolate scene, which provides another form of persuasion: interlacing hope with grief.  

Greenough points to a work in his series on the expanding western suburbs. In the photograph, a woman is inside a newly built tract home; we see her framed by a window.

“It’s a scene that, if you and I walked by on the street, we might casually glance at it and not think about its implications. But as Adams has recorded it, we see a woman frozen in place, seemingly trapped in a house,” she says. “It’s a pretty devastating picture of suburban life, but at the same time, Adams writes, ‘Raining down onto the roof and the lawn is glorious, high-altitude light. It’s a splendor that has no explanation and is a kind of forgiveness.’”

Finding hope amid despair is a familiar theme in both poetry and the environmental movement. Adams, who holds a PhD in literature and started his career teaching college-level English, names Wendell Berry among his favorite writers. The rural Kentucky poet offers a no-nonsense pragmatism that, like Adams’s, is cut with hope for the future. In his 1973 poem, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” Berry includes a pointed critique, “Praise ignorance, for what man / has not encountered he has not destroyed.” Then, one line later:

Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Likewise, Indigenous botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer (Citizen Potawatomi Nation) says, “We can’t have an awareness of the beauty of the world without also a tremendous awareness of the wounds; we see the old-growth forest, and we also see the clear cut. We see the beautiful mountain, and we see it torn open for mountaintop removal. One of the things that I continue to learn about, and need to learn more about, is the transformation of love to grief to even stronger love.”

In the end, that transformation of love to grief and back to love again seems to be at the heart of Adams’s pictures. The change he wants is, first and foremost, inside of us.

Reshaping Ourselves

Part of American Silence is set along the Nehalem Spit, a peninsula on the Oregon coast situated between the Nehalem River and the Pacific. The images are haunting, focusing on grassy hummock dunes; the sandy shore glistening under a western sunset; and, most arresting, a stunning series of images of massive silvered stumps, washed down from the clearcuts in the Oregon interior. Alien, they appear to be sad artifacts, monuments perhaps, from a lost civilization.

Robert Adams, The River’s Edge, 2015

Robert Adams, The River’s Edge, 2015, gelatin silver print, Gift of Stephen G. Stein, 2020.29.3

But as so often with Adams’s works, there is space, light, and silence, which when combined he says “can be understood as sacraments.” He notes that every year, thousands make the drive to see the spit, and that “it’s a fair guess, I think, that many are looking to escape illusion and to be reconciled.”

Clearly, that’s one of the things the artist sought there. Adams has shared that he revels in the experience of nature with loved ones. (Most of his work is made in partnership with his wife, Kerstin.) But he’s also reaching out a hand to us, the viewers, to see it with him and, hopefully, be changed.

In his essay, “In the American West Is Hope Possible” (published in his 1989 book To Make It Home), he writes of the possibilities for cleaner air, better water conservation, and smarter land-use policies. But, “if most of the larger possibilities we have considered are beyond the span of our lives, for what is there hope within their span? If as individuals we can improve the geography only slightly, if at all, perhaps the more appropriately scaled subject for reshaping is ourselves.”

Just as Adams feels grounded and hopeful, if saddened, in nature, so can we.

“There are days that become, in the urgent and hushed sharing of a wonderful place with someone else, as much as I expect to know of the world for which I dream,” he writes.

“To hear one’s name, and the invitation, spoken with the assurance you will together see the same gift—‘look.’”

You can see American Silence: The Photographs of Robert Adams at the National Gallery through October 2.