The American West has been a potently mythic icon in the American imagination ever since we figured out it was there. As it moved out of the Ohio River Valley and across the Mississippi and the Great Plains, artists no less than explorers brought back visions of a country filled with vast spaces and cold grandeur, endless plains and soaring mountains in which natural wonders abounded. Starting with nineteenth-century painters such as Albert Bierstadt, this icon, a romantic one tied to ideas of Manifest Destiny and the unspoiled wilderness of Enlightenment writers such as Rousseau, became, perhaps, even more romantic in the hands of photographers such as Ansel Adams, whose well-known images of Yosemite and the Sierras have pervaded our visual vocabulary.
There is another Adams who has photographed the West: Robert Adams, who brings us a much different picture. His western landscapes do not portray the lofty peaks of the Rockies or Sierra Nevada, nor the wonders of Yellowstone and Yosemite as icons of the pristine wilderness. They portray humanity’s feeble attempts at domesticating a landscape that allows those attempts only because it hasn’t really noticed them.
Summer Nights offers a collection of Adams’ photographs from the environs of Denver, Colorado, where the Great Plains meet the Rockies. At first glance, they are stiflingly suburban, or would be save for the excellent reproductions of beautiful prints: a residential street leading to a brooding, cloudy horizon at sunset, a row of tract houses backlit by city glow, an exquisite view of wildflowers — or perhaps we should just call them weeds — in the glare of automobile headlights, a barren floodlit parking lot with one small tree against the black night. There is an overwhelming sense of quiet, of solitude, of emptiness in these images — not the emptiness of a Bierstadt painting, in which humanity has not made its mark, but the emptiness of a place where humanity has marked and marked again, and it doesn’t matter. They’re a little scary — as one leafs through the book, one begins to wonder, with a little shiver, just what is hiding in the omnipresent darkness outside those small lighted spaces.
It’s a sequence, not just an aggregation of images: as one progresses, the images become wilder, less civilized, more occupied by trees and cliffs than by shopping malls and midnight streets, until, at the very end, there is a low-key, gray-on-black view of a ridge like the back of some great beast, with small patches of light which one finally realizes are the evidence of towns clinging to a landscape too immense to imagine. The question is answered: what’s hiding out there is the land itself, huge and uncaring, needing only to shrug to rid itself of human “civilization.” It’s rather sobering. In fact, the final image is somewhat shocking: most of these photographs are fairly intimate, showing limited spaces defined by the surrounding night in which the bright lights seem almost a desperate attempt at safety and cheer, until the final vista, which begins to give a hint of the size of what we’re confronting.
Robert Adams seems to occupy a position all his own in contemporary landscape photography. Outside the romantic canon of Ansel Adams, not quite within the satirical banality of Lewis Baltz or the mystical mundane of William Eggleston, but using the methods of each, he subverts our ideas of “landscape” into a telling commentary on our place in the universe, and brings his point home with economy and strength. It’s a sort of film noir version of landscape photography, a retelling of the folk tale in which the handsome prince is a matter of complete inconsequence to the dragon.
And these are beautiful images: the shadow of leaves across the end of a clapboard house, solid and formal and beautifully realized; a wire cattle fence at the end of a gravel road that marks the dark horizon, bordered by feathery sagebrush, grown significant in the glare of headlights; a narrow mountain road descending into darkness, barely discernible against the shadows of the surrounding trees; or a suburban street that becomes a play of light and shadow, all masterfully rendered, filled with that almost tactile richness that is the hallmark of the best black-and-white photography.
Perhaps the best summation of this book is Blake’s poem to the evening star, which Adams quotes at the beginning: “Soon, full soon,/Dost thou withdraw; then the wolf rages wide,/and the lion glares thro’ the dun forest. . . .”