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This piece is about 16 printed pages long.
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With purchases in 2000 and 2005, Yale University Art Gallery has acquired the complete body of Robert Adams’ photographic work (more information here) and Yale is now “the chosen repository” for the work of the man who has just won the 2009 Hasselblad Foundation International Award in Photography (more information here.)
In his various essays on photographers Adams gives special emphasis to the work of Paul Strand, Timothy O’Sullivan, Eugene Atget, Lewis Hine, Walker Evans, Lee Friedlander, and Dorothea Lange, among others. He prefers Lange over Evans, saying, “Here’s a heresy for you: I think Dorothea Lange was greater than Walker Evans,” later adding, “Shortly before her death ... she published a small book of pictures that she made of her family at a cabin on the shore near San Francisco. I often turn to that book when I’m tired. I thank her for it – for its warmth.” (Here he seems to be referring to Lange’s 1973 work, To a Cabin). Some years ago his wife Kerstin bought him a print of Lange’s “Woman of the High Plains” which he cherishes.
Adams also refers regularly to the painting of Cezanne and Edward Hopper, and mentions the early film work of Jean-Luc Godard (he particularly admires Raoul Coutard’s innovative cinematographic work with natural light), Rohmer, and Ozu, and he has mentioned favourably Robert Smithson’s film Spiral Jetty, and cited the documentary work of Emile de Antonio.
However, as might be expected from a man who has a PhD in English literature from the University of Southern California, and who published articles on Joyce Carey’s The Horse’s Mouth and on the overlaps between modernist literature and film (referring to Virginia Woolf and Godard), before leaving university teaching to pursue a career as a photographer, Adams’ conversations and essays are laced with references to writers he admires, poets, novelists, and essayists. Most of his books contain quotations from poets whose work seems to him to connect to the emotional-conceptual terrain he works with his landscape photography.
So, Summer Nights offers a Blake quotation as an invocation, West from Columbia closes with a quotation from T. S. Eliot, The New West cites Theodore Roethke, Still Lives quotes Emily Dickinson, Pine Valley quotes Anne Porter, Boddhisattva takes its epigraph from Kathleen Rainer’s poem, “Statues,” the one-page author’s Foreword to Listening to the River refers to Seamus Heaney, Richard Wilbur, W. B. Yeats and William Stafford (who is also cited in Notes for Friends, and Adams has prepared a group of calligraphed and illustrated broadsides for some of Stafford’s poems), and California contains an essay on Adams’ work by Robert Haas.
His favourite novel is Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (“I wish I had time to commit large parts of it to memory”) and in a recent interview he said that Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, twenty years in the making, was “a book worthy of standing beside those of James and Faulkner.” In his essays, conversations and in his choice of poetic epigraphs to accompany some of his images, he refers to the works of Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson, Keats, Coleridge, Thomas Gray, Whitman, Henry James, T. S. Eliot, Gerard Manly Hopkins, Robinson Jeffers, Denise Levertov, Czesław Miłosz, Gertrude Stein, Hemingway, Joyce, Faulkner, Camus, Orwell, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, A. R. Ammons, Theodore Roethke, Philip Levine, Philip Larkin, William Stafford, Pablo Neruda and the Chilean poet Nicanor Parra, Oliver Statler (whose Japanese Pilgrimage alerted him to the work of Kafu), Edward Abbey, Edward Hoagland, D. H. Lawrence, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Thoreau, C. S. Lewis, Barry Lopez (Why People Photograph is dedicated to Lopez). Listed here by me in this way a certain pulverising quality pertains to the names cited but I mean it only to indicate how connected Adams’ photographic work is to the literary domain while also being immaculately about its own medium and its own aesthetic and eco-political concerns.
In the following interview Ms. Frish Brandt of San Francisco’s Fraenkel Gallery responds to some questions about a photographer whose work I have admired since first encountering it (in its New West moment) many years ago while driving around the south-west and the Pacific north-west of the US. His work continues to compel me, and it was only last year that I drove from Portland to Astoria, Oregon in order to see the town that Robert Adams and his wife Kersten have now made their home.
— Noel King
Noel King: Could we start our discussion with your saying how long you have been representing Robert Adams, and how that relationship works in terms of exhibitions of his photography and various book publications?
Frish Brandt: I suspect our first show was in 1980. The gallery opened in the Fall of 1979 and the first show I was part of was “Summer Nights” in 1985, and of course a lot has changed over the years. Bob and I go back, he was in Colorado Springs before I got there for College, so I didn’t know him there, and I worked with him for many years before I met him face to face. Representing Robert Adams is a great honour and such a rich experience. Anybody who has corresponded with Robert Adams knows that their life is improved by that experience. I don’t know that I’d want Bob to read this because he would just roll his eyes.
Representing him has meant different things over the years. Of course, in the early 1980s people were not collecting photographs very avidly, photography was not considered an art. In the heated debate that existed then, the answer was no, photography was not an art. That started to change around the mid 1980s but very quiet, sedate pictures such as Robert Adams’ certainly had a cult following, ever since New Topographics, and even before that, but did people think about buying the pictures? No. I think a series like “Summer Nights” was a little bit more romantic and people did start to buy those, and they didn’t know just what gems they were getting. I’ve always thought…
I’m thinking of one collector in particular but there are a few that would fit the description that people don’t always get Robert Adams on the first go. And so representing him means watching people either come to understand it or not. And I had one collector come in one day and he understood it so deeply from the get-go, and I’d never worked with him before, and it so defined our relationship, because representing the work means showing the work, helping people to understand it, watching how different people come to understand it, which is true of all the different artists that we represent. Over the years it came to work best for Bob Adams if all work went through Fraenkel Gallery.
So for us to represent an artist such as Bob means that we handle all the work, we register it, we know where it goes, we can find it later when we need it for a book. We have one person here who handles all reproduction requests, so it means that we determine what is an appropriate use of a picture. It’s not about the money, either for Bob Adams or for ourselves. That’s a measureable effect but it’s irrelevant. The important thing is that the audience grows and that the pictures are seen.
NK: I see that Robert Adams has had recent shows in Germany, in London, and in Paris. Can you say something about how you would typically help with such international shows?
FB: In many cases the curators from the foreign institutions come to us. Not all requests are accepted, they just can’t be, we get so many requests. We had one from another foreign country, not one you named, and Bob initially, in a fit of enthusiasm, had said yes, and then he called me back two days later and said, “I don’t really know what I was thinking, I was reading a writer from that country at that time and so I thought it would be a good idea, and I see now that it would not be a good idea.”
But, for instance, Thomas Weski in Germany has long been an advocate of Bob’s work and has done great things to place the work in, primarily, German collections. In Paris, the Cartier Foundation came to us and was enthused to do something with Bob, and that was a really satisfying experience because they so understand the artist, and Hervé Chandès was amazing to work with, as were his co-workers, Grazia Quoroni, Ilana Shamoon, and others. They always respected the artist. That was really an artist-curated show, and the curator was so amazing in the way that she understood the work, and sequenced the work, the way everything was realized. It was a dream situation, though not without some hurdles to be crossed.
That exhibition is an example of a situation where the museum came to us and said, we want to do something, what does the artist want to do? And you couldn’t ask for a more agreeable situation.
NK: And it resulted in the book, Time Passes.
FB: And we hope that that show will travel to the Pacific Northwest, we hope it will be in Seattle in 2010 or so. We also co-represent Bob Adams with Matthew Marks Gallery, it’s our pleasure to work closely with them to have the work seen on a regular basis in New York. Both Matthew Marks and Jeffrey Peabody spend a lot of time with Bob Adams and are deeply involved in representing the work.
NK: And the London exhibition?
FB: That was a show where Bob had received an award. Interestingly, the first year he was nominated he didn’t receive the award, but those things are somewhat whimsical. There is a strong, devoted European audience for Bob’s work.
NK: And what participation did you have in the Yale University acquisition of Robert Adams’ work?
FB: My partner Jeffrey Fraenkel has been more directly involved with Yale, and the people at Yale like Joshua Chuang have been amazing to work with. They’ve made a concentrated commitment to Bob’s work and have collected whole bodies of the “book pictures”. Bob always kept a group of the pictures used for the book in its complete form, and that’s been a great way for Yale to build the collection.
NK: Is that work permanently on display at Yale?
FB: No, it’s currently archived. They’re working towards a retrospective and comprehensive publication.
NK: Can you tell me how your gallery is connected to the Robert Adams’ books that are published either under your gallery’s name or by Aperture and so on?
FB: It’s interesting, it changes, there are so many books now. There was a time when that wasn’t the case. There’s a picture of Jeffrey in his office when the gallery opened in 1979, with about twenty books behind him, and that’s pretty much all there was in 1979. Now we have at least as many books by Lee Friedlander, that many books by Bob Adams, and we have different involvements with each book, each one is different. So there are some books we decide we want to publish and we publish them from concept to completion, and we may distribute them with someone like Distributed Art Publishers in New York. Sometimes there are books that we feel are better done elsewhere.
Bob has a long history with Aperture, and that history we regard. There’s so much history there and Aperture, and Michael Hoffman in particular, had the vision to do those books. Now, with changes in the technology in bookmaking, even on our computers, some of those early books need to be re-done, and they have been re-done, either by Aperture, or, in the case of Along Some Rivers, that was done in French, and it was exciting to be able to do that.
NK: Some books are done by Nazraeli Press in Arizona.
FB: Now based in Portland, Oregon. It was in Arizona for some time. Bob has a history with Chris Pichler there and we’ve respected the books that they have done. So each book is a different equation.
NK: What size is the print run for these books?
FB: Sometimes 1500, sometimes 2,000.
NK: In terms of your personal professional trajectory, how did you find your way to where you are now with this gallery? Earlier you mentioned some time in college in Colorado Springs.
FB: I went to school at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. It’s just a co-incidence that both Bob and I were there, at different times. But that landscape! Every day in my first year there, I would do a drawing of Pike’s Peak, seen from the stadium. And it’s always interesting to me to see that in Bob’s pictures because I feel that we travelled the same ground, though not at the same time. And we know some of the same people from Colorado Springs, but the truth is that we overlapped there only in concept.
I started working with the Imogen Cunningham Trust in 1977. Today is Imogen Cunningham’s birthday. Back then, “photographic art administration” did not exist as a profession, art administration barely existed, but by chance and circumstance I wound up at the Imogen Cunningham Trust. I was reading Edward Weston’sDay Books at the time. I was offered a better paying job typesetting (I type very fast) and I consider it one of those Robert Frost moments (from The Road Not Taken) where two roads converged in the woods, and I, I chose the one less traveled, and it has made all the difference.
So I worked with Imogen’s work, and shortly thereafter I worked with some “living photographers” doing similar work representing them: people like Ruth Bernhard and Judy Dater, and a Japanese photographer, Koto Miyoshi. I worked with some editorial photographers, and then I started working here in the gallery in various capacities in 1983.
NK: So your years here would overlap with what you were saying earlier was the historical moment at which photography consolidated itself as a collectible art practice, gaining the aesthetic recognition it very much surprises me to learn from you right now is only as recent as that!
FB: It’s so recent, it’s even more recent than the women’s movement. photographic liberation came later! And it’s been a great, great experience for Jeffrey and for me. I can’t really speak for him but I know we share this enthusiasm photography is the medium of our generation. In the US, Life Magazine was pretty much how people thought about photographs, and there is a turning point where Life subsides and artists like Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince start using photographs, and artists like Stephen Shore and Bob Adams are using photography and it all culminates in a very different way of looking at our world. Not just as documents but as picture-making, and then it can fit into a collection next to Edward Hopper, and it changes things.
And Bob’s pictures, for as much as they are about the land, they are about the light, and it’s what makes them, it’s why they are photographs. And that has been fascinating over the years. To do a book like Turning Back, a heart-wrenching project of such magnitude. More generally, it’s a real pleasure in our lifetime to have tracked side by side with artists to see how they’ve gone through the world, how they’ve made their pictures, how it’s changed, and how the art world has responded. They are parallel processes.
There are lots of great artists out there who aren’t getting that recognition. But to be able to be this close to Bob Adams who is experiencing life deeply, a man who lives by his moral code, and to see the books that evolve, the books that therefore can go much further than he or I or the pictures can go. The books outlive us and outdistance us, and we all know that, and he comes to it, you come to it, from a world of literature.
NK: And films.
FB: Yes, a world which is so much bigger than us and which transposes itself time and again on our lives as we embrace each book.
NK: I gather from reading/viewing Robert Adams’ books that he has moved various places, changed geographical location, often on a kind of ecological-environmental basis, for example from Colorado to Oregon.
FB: When I first started working with him he lived in the Denver area and then he moved to the Pacific Northwest where his parents had lived, and I think his mom was still there at the time, but I’m not certain about the biographical details. Both environment and family have been reasons for the different moves. And he’s spent a lot of time down in Riverside, California. I think he and Kerstin went to school down there. The series “California” is done there. We called it California when we published it but it was Los Angeles Spring when Aperture published it; those are two versions of some of the same issues. Bob was in Colorado during a boom time. And with Los Angeles Spring, LA has had its ongoing boom time and environmental crises.
And now he’s living in the Pacific Northwest where there appears to be another environmental crisis about to happen. Of course there’s the deforestation that is forever a debacle, but now he’s confronted with the question of this importing of LNG, liquid nitrogen gas, and that’s a political and environmental potential disaster that’s hovering over them, and they are very involved in their community, environmentally and politically.
NK: How would you locate Robert Adams within the group of artists whose work your gallery represents?
FB: You mean, how he fits into our philosophy here? It’s so deep it may be ineffable. They are pictures based in the real world and based in our souls, and they are pictures about the way the world looks photographed but they are also very personal pictures taken by one person from a very particular vantage point. We’re sitting here looking out at Lee Friedlander’s show “America by Car” and thinking about Bob’s work which is of course quite different and yet similar.
So it’s hard to say what our thesis is as a gallery but we opened with Carleton Watkins in 1979, our next show was Lee Friedlander, and our next show was of pictures of the moon by Loewy and Puiseux which were made at the turn of the century. They are all pictures about how the world looks, and how we look at it. And they are also abstractions, we accept the fact that they are very subjectively made.
Watkins was a great place to begin, he is the cornerstone to Fraenkel Gallery’s project. Very similarly to Bob, he was looking at the way the world looked. The first pictures of Yosemite, pictures of the Pacific Northwest, sometimes done with an artistic understanding but also with a political understanding. The pictures made of Yosemite were largely the evidence used to make Yosemite into a National Park as opposed to a housing development. And I think if Bob had his way he’d have that effect too. He’s been doing all he can to stand in the way of parking lots and developments.
Brit Salvesen, New Topographics (Steidl and Partners, forthcoming 2009)
Robert Adams, White Churches of the Plains: Examples from Colorado (Colorado Associated University Press, 1970)
Robert Adams, The Architecture and Art of Early Hispanic Colorado (Univ. Press of Colorado, 1998)
Robert Adams, Perfect Times, Perfect Places (Aperture, 1988)
Robert Adams, To Make it Home: Photographs of the American West (New York: Aperture, 1989)
Robert Adams, Listening to the River: Seasons in the American West (Aperture, 1994)
Robert Adams, West from Columbia: Views at the River Mouth (Aperture, 1995)
Robert Adams, Notes for Friends: Along Colorado Roads (Univ. Press of Colorado, 1999)
Robert Adams, Eden (Roth Horowitz, 1999)
Robert Adams, California: Views by Robert Adams of the Los Angeles Basin (Fraenkel Gallery/Matthew Marks Gallery, 2000)
Robert Adams, Why People Photograph (Aperture, 2005)
Robert Adams, Beauty in Photography: Essays in Defence of Traditional Values (Aperture, 2005)
Robert Adams, Turning Back (Fraenkel Gallery/Matthew Marks Gallery, 2005)
Robert Adams, Summer Nights (Aperture, 2005)
Robert Adams, Along Some Rivers (Aperture, 2006)
Robert Adams, Time Passes (London: Thames and Hudson, 2008)
Robert Adams, Questions for an Overcast Day (Matthew Marks/ Fraenkel Gallery, 2008)
Robert Adams, The New West: Landscapes Along the Colorado Front Range. Third Edition (Aperture, 2008)
Robert Adams, Denver: A Photographic Survey of the Metropolitan Area 1970-19784 (Yale University Art Gallery, 2009)
Robert Adams, What we Bought: Scenes from the Denver Metropolitan Area 1970-1974 (New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery, 2009)
A note from Frish Brandt: My first true job was working for Sears Home Shopping Service in catalog sales (a job which I think is curiously similar to the work I continue to do daily), shortly after which I pumped gas in Bloomington, Indiana at Billy Fleetwood’s Standard Station. During my final years of school (California College of Arts, Oakland: Printmaking) I began working at the Imogen Cunningham Trust in what was nothing short of a Robert-Frost-Two-Roads-Converge-in-the-Woods junction. Work at the Trust evolved into “Collected Visions” which served living photographers with similar services that the Trust provided to Cunningham: circulating exhibitions, publishing portfolios, overseeing reproduction rights.
I began my work at Fraenkel Gallery (see http://www.fraenkelgallery.com/index.php) in the early 1980s where I am Director and Partner. In all of these years, no two days have been alike and that which we do, for our artists and our collectors, and our general audience, has changed profoundly as the technology and the photographic and art culture have evolved.
In addition to my daily life at the Gallery, I serve on the board of San Francisco Art and Film for Teens, The Aftermath Project, and The Urban School of San Francisco. Education is inspiring. — Frish Brandt
Noel King teaches in the Department of Media at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. One current research interest of his concerns ‘Cultures of Independence’: a study of small and/or independent publishers in Australia, the UK, and the USA. His (relatively recent) interviews with the publishers at Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Scribe Press, Steerforth Press, Bitter Lemon Press and Serpent’s Tail Press have appeared in Westerly, Metro, Heat, and Critical Quarterly respectively. He also has an ongoing study of contemporary international crime fiction (in English) involving both English language works and translated works, a study of writers, publishers and critics in the UK and the US.