One of my favourite photo books is “Notes for Friends” by Robert Adams, showing landscapes from Colorado. It’s my “coffee table book”. Curious guests browsing the pages need only a few seconds for their apodictic verdict: “It must be an amateur, I don’t like his photos”.
Admittedly the book is poorly printed, but this doesn’t seems to be the reason for their harsh judgment. How can people decide what makes a good landscape photograph?
Our perception is culturally trained. I believe most people people learn about landscape photography by hanging wall calendars. These calendars are showing images of an idealized nature in perfect light, untouched by humans. Of course there were only a few places left on this planet that meet this requirements and so most of the calendars are showing the same iconic sceneries.
Landscape photographers are often concerned about their personal “vision” and “style”. For my part I found it extremly difficult to explain what my photography can add to the spectacle of nature. Glad to witness the beauty of nature, I also felt insignificant as an artist. I can record what is happening in front of the lens, nothing more. It’s like using a photocopier to reproduce a painting of, let’s say, Diego Velázquez. Kitchen calendars are showing the greatness of nature in perfect, colorful images but it’s difficult to recognize the personal vision of the photographer behind the camera.
This said, Robert Adams is a true artist. His landscape photographs in “Notes for Friends” are denying every single formal rule that defines typical calendar photography: His images are black & white (instead of color), taken in portrait format (instead of landscape format), sometimes with crooked horizons. At first sight, the framing of his photographs seems to be misguided, taken “by accident” and his subjects randomly selected. You had to look closer to discover the beauty – and the honesty – of his landscapes.
He knows the rules to break them all at once. He never claims that his landscapes are without human interference. He often includes telephone wires, rails, tracks or even litter in his photographs, because they are part of today’s landscapes. That’s no easy task as our trained photographer’s eye tries to exclude everything unworthy that might “spoil” the composition. His way of framing strikes me the most. It’s a contemplation about beauty (in landscape photography) that is totally different from mainstream view.
For today’s people, nature preserves its beauty as long as men are absent (or at least not visible). Kitchen calendars seems to nourish a profound desire for a place and time before the “Fall of Man”. Robert Adam’s photographs do not surrender to this illusion. “Unspoiled places sadden us because they are, in an important sense, no longer true”, he wrote in his essay “Truth and Landscape”. Kitchen calendars are lying, they feel shallow.