A change has taken place and I don’t quite know what it is. The streets of this town are broad, much broader than they need to be, and there is a pallor of dust in the air. Empty lots here and there between the buildings have weeds growing in them. The sheet metal equipment sheds and water towers are like those of previous towns but are more spread out. Everything is more run-down and mechanical looking, and sort of randomly located. Gradually I see what it is. Nobody is concerned anymore about tidily conserving space. The land isn’t valuable anymore. We are in a Western town. — Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, 1974
I have lived in Phoenix, Arizona, on and off for nearly a decade. It’s a place I absolutely hated at first, but which, to my surprise, I’ve gradually grown to love, and I have managed to make a home and a life here in this strange Sunbelt metropolis. Yet I’ve always had deep reservations. A true western boomtown, Phoenix has grown phenomenally in recent decades, and its development has been guided largely by an ethos of resource extraction — though in this case, the use-it-up-and-move-on mentality of mineral mining has been brought to bear on another natural resource — the land itself. In Phoenix, the resource is real estate, and the result is a place that can feel more like an encampment of drifters — here only so long as the going is good — than a settlement of citizens. Nevertheless there are moments when this city in the Sonoran Desert seems to perfectly hold the brilliant light and wide space of the truly amazing landscape it inhabits.
It is no coincidence that concurrent with my ongoing struggle to come to terms with this unsettling place I have become more and more awed by the work of the photographer Robert Adams. For almost half a century Adams — born in 1937 in Orange, New Jersey, and raised in suburban Denver, Colorado — has been immersed in the impossible paradoxes of the American West. Adams’s work, which came to national prominence in the early 1970s and was included in the landmark 1975 exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape, focuses on our fraught relationship with the landscape of the West — the bland suburban cul-de-sacs and commercial strips built into the rugged foothills and on open ranges, the damage done to the forests and rivers, but also the solace still offered by the beauty of the land and the ever-present, transcendent feeling of light and space.
Over the years Adams’s prodigious output has exerted great influence; suburbia has become one of the great themes of American photography. The current retrospective, The Place We Live, organized by the Yale Art Gallery and now touring the country, is the latest testament to the power of his vision. But what seems to me still remarkable about Adams’s photography is its profound humility. Adams refuses to inject ideology or to propose solutions, and this resistance has allowed him to make the most of photography’s ability to look at things as they are. Thus his photography does not seem to me — as is often assumed — primarily a document of our collective destruction of the Western environment. It does not indulge in the easy, and ultimately hollow, device of opposing the splendor of nature to the despoliation of man. Struggling to reconcile our contradictory impulses and impacts, Adams’s photographs seek to lay open the difficult complexity of the interrelationships between the natural and the built; they aim to help us see, as Adams wrote early in his career, “a landscape into which all fragments, no matter how imperfect, fit perfectly.”