THE POINT OF PHOTOGRAPHS
By ANDY GRUNDBERG; Andy Grundberg reviews photography for The New York Times.
In his book, the point of photographs, ROBERT ADAMS, a 44-year-old American landscape photographer, begins the title piece of this volume of eight short essays by quoting the little-known American poet William Bronk. And that’s just for openers; in a span of 13 pages Mr. Adams cites poetry by William Carlos Williams, James Dickey, A.R. Ammons and Theodore Roethke, Yasujiro Ozu’s film ”Late Autumn,” Mu-Ch’i’s 13th-century ink drawing ”The Six Persimmons” and David Smith’s 20th-century ”Cubi” sculptures – as well as photographs by Alfred Stieglitz, Timothy O’Sullivan, Daido Moriyama, Ben Shahn and Nicholas Nixon. By essay’s end one begins to suspect Mr. Adams, who years ago earned a Ph.D. in English literature, of shameless erudition.
Despite the flood of citations and examples, Mr. Adams conveys his own classical perspective on matters esthetic with remarkable economy. His ideas are not fashionable – his self-appointed mission, after all, is to defend ”traditional values,” which are never fashionable – and in consequence post-structuralists and postmodernists are likely to find them irritating. But for those still concerned with such Aristotelian terms as Truth, Beauty and Form (yes, they are capitalized throughout ”Beauty in Photography”), Mr. Adams’s arguments will have the exalted ring of rectitude and circumspection that one finds in the photographic writings of John Szarkowski and Wright Morris.
In his book about the point of photographs Mr. Adams says, ”the job of the photographer … is not to catalogue indisputable fact but to try to be coherent about intuition and hope.” Coherence is Mr. Adams’s major concern, for it defines beauty: ”If the proper goal of art is, as I now believe, Beauty, the Beauty that concerns us is that of Form.” Beauty, he adds, is ”a synonym for the coherence and structure underlying life.” It would be easy to misread Mr. Adams as an advocate of modern formalism on this account (especially if one knows his photographs, which verge on minimalism); however, his view is one that predates modernism. Rather than being concerned with form as it is determined by the medium, Mr. Adams sees it as determined by form in life, by the larger order of the world, which art tries to rediscover.
Thus Mr. Adams is able to suggest that photography has a special relationship to the beautiful because it always is forced to deal with the actual – a paradoxical notion at first glance. ”Photography, more than any other art, is tied to (the) use of specifics,” he notes, adding that ”invention in photography is so laborious as to be in most instances perverse.” What makes photography special as compared to the other visual arts is that ”beauty is, at least in part, always tied to subject matter.” These surely are meant to be provocative statements. Are set-up, posed and manipulated pictures to be sent to the basement? Are Diane Arbus’s photographs of freaks less beautiful than Mr. Adams’s own landscapes because of what they depict? Mr. Adams does indeed argue that Arbus’s portrait of a sword swallower, like Robert Capa’s famous 1936 photograph of a fatally wounded Spanish Loyalist, is limited in its beauty because it does not contain ”the full and final Truth” – ”coherence in its deepest sense.” Mr. Adams moves past such observations quickly, eager to tackle still other questions: Are beauty and art ”sufficient consolation for life”? Why the sudden widespread interest in photography today?
The book’s other essays are equally quick and provocative. In ”Truth and Landscape” Mr. Adams says that landscape art is important because it can meet our need to experience the world as comprehensible: ”We rely, I think, on landscape photography to make intelligible to us what we already know. It is the fitness of a landscape to one’s experience of life’s condition and possibilities that finally makes a scene important or not.” (The essay ends with a poem by Dag Hammerskjold that concludes ”And I being to know the map/ And to get my bearings.”) ”Making Art New” justly decries the tendency of the art market to promote faddishness and, more controversially, disputes the idea of progress in art (”the notion of improvement in art is crazy”). Since Form for Mr. Adams is the receptacle of universal Truth and Beauty, it is ahistorical; only styles change, he says, and ”style is never important by itself.”
In ”Civilizing Criticism” Mr. Adams speaks against what he sees as the rancorous and upstart state of photography criticism. ”Much criticism is apparently based on the mistaken notion that, because art is mysterious, criticism should be too,” he says – a barb surely just as applicable to writing on arts other than photography. As a corrective he proposes the Jamesian model of asking ”three modest and appropriate questions”: What is the artist trying to do? How well does he do it? Was it worth doing? Mr. Adams’s interpretation of this third question shows how traditional he is; for him, asking whether it was worth doing means ”asking whether it helps us, in Samuel Johnson’s phrase, to ‘better endure or enjoy life.’ ” For Mr. Adams ethics are not relative, however much critical judgments may be. The book ends with sympathetic discussions of the landscape photographs of Minor White, Frank Gohlke and C.A. Hickman, in which Mr. Adams puts into practice his belief in a more temperate, ”civilized” criticism.
Obviously, much of what Mr. Adams has to say in these essays applies to more than photography. He grapples with the same esthetic issues that have preoccupied thinkers since Plato, and in the same terms. Consequently, he often seems to have difficulty bending his arguments back to the medium. This is especially true when he attempts to construct for photography a privileged position vis-a-vis the other arts. Nevertheless, Mr. Adams’s tendency to wander from photography to the larger issues of art and life constitutes a fundamental strength of ”Beauty in Photography.” One only wishes that he had written for twice the length while maintaining the same tone of conviction; unlike most critical commentators, who feel some compulson to support their assertions with analytical underpinnings, Mr. Adams seems primarily interested in stating clearly what he believes. Yet whether arguing on behalf of his beliefs would prove fruitless, as Mr. Adams claims, or would serve to make them more resonant and persuasive, as I suspect, it is difficult to imagine them being expressed any more eloquently, or with more passion, than they are here.