American Wakefulness

John Haber
in New York City

Robert Adams and Richard Misrach

Starting in 1976, Robert Adams walked the suburbs at night, finding it hard to distinguish wakefulness from the comforts of home. Thirty-five years later, Adams is still on the cusp between day and night, in settings firmly associated with sun and leisure, but for him still wrapped in clouds. It becomes a way of defining America's relationship to nature and growth.

If wakefulness means anxiety as well, it is not his alone, by any means. Richard Misrach has been finding it for at least as long. One can even imagine that he came west and placed it there. His photographs seem that much more arresting when one realizes that he did not. Robert Adams's Longmont, Colorado (Matthew Marks, 1980)

Smiles of a summer night

Nearing forty, Robert Adams could not lie still and rest. He began taking photographs on summer walks at night, and through 1982 he assembled a very personal record of a Colorado suburb. But what did it reveal? For starters, it revealed a photographer close to home. An America finding its troubled identity in the landscape goes back long before the environmental movement, land art, the designs of Robert Burle Marx, or what Leo Marx called "the machine in the garden." Adams just brings it down to earth in his own backyard.

In "Summer Nights, Walking," he never exaggerates. Take a few step back, and the prints almost fade to black. Yet the darkness has a remarkable range—from the glow of a street lamp to the depth of shadows within bushes, much as in the drawings of Charles Ritchie. Light glistens on leaves like dew. Adams takes things one at a time, like a front porch or driveway, without a formalist's symmetry or an expressionist's cutting off subjects before the edge, but houses and cars clearly emerge from the distance. Slowly, as one looks, a picture of America takes shape.

Interpreting that picture is another matter. The photographer speaks of capturing the "timelessness and peace of summer evenings," as the gallery sums it up. The gallery itself sees mostly foreboding, though, and one can make a strong case for both. Simply by walking, he put aside aerial views and superhuman vistas for thoughts of home. Nothing breaks the quiet. Close shots immerse him in the scene before him, as if in touch with both earth and community even in automobile culture.

Yet close shadows, unnatural lights, starless skies, empty spaces, looming masses, and uncertain distances leave their impression as well. A carousal ride looks unstable and abandoned, although a tiny silhouette beside it gives the fifty photos practically their sole trace of life. One can credit the ambiguity to the photographer's objectivity—or his mixed feelings. Marks includes a wider range than in the series' first show, in 1985. Adams himself said that a fuller display would have been "less harmonious, more convincing, closer to our actual experience of wonder, anxiety, and stillness." That includes the experience of a man entering middle age and too restless at night to stay home.

The ambiguity could also belong to a place between the American West and suburban sprawl, like Lee Friedlander without a highway or Gregory Crewdson without color and special effects. The Rocky Mountains, although not far to the west, hardly make an appearance, unlike power lines and convenience stores. One could be anywhere, in suburban anonymity, but somehow one knows that this is the edge of the American landscape. Like the Hudson River School before him, Ansel Adams shows the mark of the imagination on wilderness. This Adams shows the encroachment of landscape and community on each other.

That encroachment can be real, like a newspaper crumbled on the ground—its headline, a sale on "body fashions," further proof of a physical and cultural imprint on the soil. It can be visual, like a tree's broad shadow on white siding, or metaphorical, like artificial lights that flare out into open flames. It can be downright surreal, like a window that appears cut into the woods, under skies and a crescent moon out of René Magritte. Either way, the edge of nature and community has melted for good. Cities suffered in the 1970s, with only glimmerings of the dissatisfaction that fueled gentrification and a return to inner cities a decade later. Adams offers one last look before turning home.

Any given shadow

Only Robert Adams could spend five years in the woods and at the beach and never see the sun. Not that he got caught all that time in the rain. In his latest photographs in black and white, there is hardly a cloud in the sky. There is hardly a sky at all, except as a canvas on which to record every nuance and texture of the things before it. Clouds themselves appear as marks of the passage of time. Sun appears as a kind of liquid, coating the leaves and branches with its light.

Right from their titles, the two large series of small prints avoid extremes. On Any Given Day in Spring tracks the shoreline of the North Beach Peninsula in Washington state, from 2007 to 2009. Light Balances penetrates the trees along the Columbia River estuary starting in 2008—this, too, near his home in Oregon. Born in 1937, Adams could have found peace, but even there one cannot be sure. He has too much going on, too much mass, and too much uncertainty, including too many traces of what one cannot quite see. As in so much past work, step back and one sees almost nothing at all beyond the gray.

In that series from his forties, he photographed suburbia through the trees. There, too, the surfaces displayed both an inner and outer calm, even as his nighttime rambles and the location between nature and culture spoke of motion and edges. Thirty years later, no automobiles or artificial lights break through the vegetation. Most are front lit, and shorebirds supply pretty much the sole evidence of life. Still, branches and waves form an imposing border between foreground and background, as well as a shifting one. Their very density serves at once as an invitation to look closer and an obstacle to approaching.

The apparent monochrome vanishes the moment one tries. Mass and reflections appear as a weave of dots and dashes, and of course the shorebirds are black. A clearing is still rare, and there is no obvious sun. Looking directly into the sun raises no end of problems for photography, but Adams has to like it that way. Sometimes the birds leave their forked prints in the sand, and sometimes their prints together leave patterns of migration. One can think of them as two definitions of track—or as tracks of tracks. For a structuralist, I suppose, nature is just one more kind of writing, but what exactly is the message?

Adams is not saying. He is not Ansel Adams, the Hudson River School, Winslow Homer, or Thomas Eakins, occupied with the grandeur of the wilderness or the struggle against it. Unlike another American tradition, he is not confronting you with human degradation of the environment through pollution, manufacturing, or pop culture. That makes him a model for younger artists documenting the edge of suburban sprawl, and the banality of his compositions, for better or worse, is contemporary as well. Still, this landscape is too personal, too intimate, and in too delicate a balance to sprawl. Besides, unlike for Catherine Opie, there are no surfers.

James Welling, too, uses landscape photography to revisit American art's past. In his latest, Welling revisits locations in Maine and Pennsylvania out of Andrew Wyeth, finding them less emblematic than cast aside. In photograms, both alone and in collaboration with Susan Howe, a poet, he creates his own fluid and mythic landscapes, give or take a certain Southern California blandness that Adams would disdain. Both versions of America have his larger than life but deadpan silvery finish. Adams seems content to let a gray day or intense sunlight paint water or foliage as it will, and he seems content to let you decipher it. All he did was give it time to work.

Out of the desert

In his "Desert Cantos," Richard Misrach keeps one looking at the earth and wondering, again and again: who put that there? In his "Cancer Alley," his photographs of the Mississippi River corridor from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, one knows all too well. Or mostly one does. Did that white crucifix rise up of its own accord, as a gift from above or an expression of the torment all around? Did those who have suffered raise it there as a solace or a plea?

Richard Misrach's Outdoor Dining, Bonneville Salt Flats (Robert Mann gallery, 1992)Did industrial American place that lone basketball court amid the refineries—perhaps to hide the damage, to give its workers a little relief, or to claim the entire landscape for itself, totalizing and self-sufficient? Did the mist rise up around a chemical tank to acknowledge its spherical perfection or, almost, to bury it from sight? But of course not. The cross belongs to the one remaining church, the basketball court to an all-black school that once promised at least a little dignity and opportunity for the excluded but closed long ago. Mist just happens, especially in Louisiana swampland at dusk, and the tank, too, attests to Misrach's theme of the often brutal human imprint on nature. They all, though, leave one to piece together a narrative of that imprint, with a lingering awareness of its strangeness and even beauty.

As for the "Desert Cantos," one might wonder if the photographer himself did the damage. Could he have stranded dining tables and chairs in the inhuman whiteness of salt flats—or all but drowned another snack bar in the Salton Sea? Did he leave that animal for dead or shoot what look like bullet holes in a spread of Andy Warhol, taken from Playboy, or for that matter did Warhol? Even a tapering stone column flooded with light looks out of place perhaps a hundred yards from the rectangular slabs of Stonehenge, although no one would accuse Misrach of having carried it there single-handedly. He leaves his mark regardless, as in labeling the drama of clouds over a distant Golden Gate Bridge View From My Front Porch, with a precise time at that. If others leave their mark, too, without his eye or his environmental awareness, so be it.

If he seems more in sorrow or even humor than in anger, like Adams or Friedlander in search of America by car, the display of "Cancer Alley" definitely tilts toward outrage. Misrach collaborates with Kate Orff, a landscape architect, who creates half a dozen or more visual documents of the damage. They include a map of "cancer alleys" worldwide, a time line, the biodiversity at stake in a devastated ecosystem, and the chemistry. They can get confusing, especially overlaid over a silhouette of the territory—but Misrach's series dates from 1998, and textbook illustrations back then probably seem lame now, too. The photographs come off in context a bit too much as a lesson nonetheless. The unframed prints, made from eight by ten contacts, are tacked to the walls, as in a hastily assembled lecture.

The shift in emphasis appears in the one print shared by the two shows. At just twenty-four inches across, twin pipelines look oddly like a touch of nature between the contrasting blank foreground and bare trees twisting behind over snow-covered earth. On the far larger scale of "Cancer Alley," one sees mostly the bareness and twisting, as signs of death, like the unearthly continents of Darren Almond. Still, the entire Louisiana series has Misrach's trademark compositions and savage beauty. They have the contrasting foreground and backgrounds, with views across land and water. A man gazes across the river, toward a refinery on the other bank, like a parody of Caspar David Friedrich—but also an appreciation of Friedrich's Moonwatchers and Romanticism.

"Desert Cantos," in turn, shares the theme of human cost and abandonment, as in a drive-in with its movie screen a blank white. Wildfires seem not to burn in a landscape but to be the landscape. The show is something of a fiction anyway, for its title covers work from 1975 to 1999, much of it not in the desert or in Dante. Misrach uses the rubric for what he considers a lifetime project, with other series a part of it, except when they are not. And in each case, as with shrapnel or a school bus cast aside in nuclear test country, one has to leave aside "disaster chic" to find one's own way. A shopping cart in Louisiana belongs to a factory outlet, but one can still decide if the black paving, the regular geometry of empty parking spaces, and the emptiness are an ending, a creation, or an open future.

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Robert Adams ran at Matthew Marks through April 17, 2010, and again through November 3, 2012. James Welling ran at David Zwirner through October 27, 2012. Richard Misrach ran at Robert Mann through October 27, and his "Cancer Alley" at Aperture through October 6. Portions of this article first appeared in a different form with Artillery magazine online.


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