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Terry Tempest Williams on Walking with Robert Adams

This post is excerpted from the afterword by Terry Tempest Williams in American Silence: The Photographs of Robert Adams. The exhibition American Silence is on view May 29–October 2, 2022.

Robert Adams is a man who walks with silences. I feel the pace of his stride in the quiet, acute considerations of his photographs of the American West. That he is drawn to sources of light in darkness, be it the moon, the shimmering light on poplar leaves, or the lonely lamp radiating on to the streets from a house in the suburbs, inspires me to pursue my own night walks in summer. In the embrace of the night, my own darkness is absorbed into an uncommon stillness that does not frighten me. I see the eye-shine of other creatures and it is a comfort to know we are not alone.

The stillness married to loneliness in Adams work is something I understand as a westerner born in the suburbs of 1955. Though we have never met, he photographed my mother on one of his walks in Colorado Springs (1968) even though she was sitting in a different living room on Moor Mont Drive in Salt Lake City, Utah. . . .

Robert Adams, Colorado Springs, 1968, gelatin silver print, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Mary and Dan Solomon and Patrons’ Permanent fund, 2006.133.7

The silhouette of the woman I see in the window, facing the door that is closed, in a red brick house, with a putting-green lawn, where a gentle curve of concrete leads to the entrance, is the home I was raised in as a child. I write this long sentence intentionally, because those were the days of my childhood that felt languid and secure.

This was the New West that Robert Adams captured in the middle of construction. We lived inside the green square houses used in the game Monopoly. But what we always knew was that beyond the dust of development and the play money that became real, wildness awaited us—even if it was the empty lot next door or the dirt road nearby that led to the creek shaded by cottonwoods.

Cottonwoods were the guardians of our childhood. They were deemed safe by our parents. They sheltered us from the heat of summer and the claustrophobia of winter. We knew their secrets. Inside their tangled skirts of lower branches families of house wrens lived and in the upper branches, great horned owls could be heard. The cottonwoods’ massive fluted trunks were our hide-and-seek. And if we gave our siblings a hand-stirrup up, we could climb into the large embrace of the trees. Once in the cottonwood’s arms, we were camouflaged in its rustling leaves— we would simply listen. It’s where I learned to trust other species more than my own. My love of solitude was nurtured inside these cathedral groves of cottonwoods.

The cottonwoods that appear in Weld County, Colorado (1992) and reappear throughout Adams’ work are emblematic of his intimacy and understanding of the American West. Cottonwoods root themselves near water. They are the wanderer’s hope in arid country. Water is the difference between living and dying in the West. And when Adams speaks of his affection toward one particular cottonwood in a field in Colorado, photographing it over many years, only to return one day to see it cut down—he faced what remained of the beloved tree as grieving kin. The body of a man, the body of a tree, there is no separation in the shared reach of a relationship. . . .

Robert Adams, Weld County, Colorado, 1992, gelatin silver print, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Pepita Milmore Memorial Fund and Gift of Robert and Kerstin Adams, 2012.70.155

Robert Adams has been led by Beauty on what could be seen as the spiritual path of the artist as he followed forms of light again and again through the depths of darkness, even his own. Never easy, but often, glorious. We are the beneficiaries of his focus. He is a trustworthy companion. I choose to walk with him. Perhaps, he learned something about tenacious love as a form of being on those solitary summer nights as he walked in moonlight with an eye toward stillness.