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Attending to Wonder: The Photography of Robert Adams

Ex_adams"If we come across innocence, beauty, caring, joy, or courage, even in lost places, are we not obliged to acknowledge them in defiance of ironists?" 

(Robert Adams, Photographer)

It is always a pleasure to discover an artist --- in this case a photographer --- who enjoys finding what is true, beautiful, and good in the world, who overcomes cynicism to shine light on simply what is there for all to see.  Robert Adams does that without sentimentality, well aware of what is problematic in the world and yet hopeful.  Not many of us can make it to the exhibition of his work at Yale University, and yet we can still peruse the gallery online, each series prefaced by a text profound in its simplicity, each a provocation to wonder.

I found the most arresting of these photos those of mothers and children in a suburban mall parking lot, circa 1980, entitled Our Parents, Our Children.  Childrens' faces have a way of disarming our disinterested gaze, the face we often put on in regard to life.  If you let your eyes settle on a child's face, you begin to melt a little inside, see a soul of wonder.  Against a barren, paved backdrop, next to a pitiful tree in a planter, a mother holds her baby close, communicating love and concern and hope in a sterile landscape. One father (or, perhaps, grandfather) stands his baby girl on the hood of the car and appears to be letting her jump into his arms.  Sometimes Adams takes the shot from the child's perspective, and we see how large the world is from a place only three feet off the ground, how brave children must be to walk about in a world of giants and often insurmountable obstacles.

Adams is best when he asks questions, and in the text accompanying this series he asks:  "Are there affirmable days or places in our deteriorating world? Are there scenes in life, right now, for which we might conceivably be thankful? Is there a basis for joy or serenity, even if felt only occasionally? Are there grounds now and then for an unironic smile?" Of course, we would say.  Christians of all people have reason to say this, as they see the operation of common grace in the world.  And yet it's easy to miss it.

It's true that the photographs, whether landscapes natural or man-altered, often record what Adams recognizes as "a separation form ourselves, and in turn from the natural world that we professed to love," an unstated testimony to the dissonannce of The Fall.  The late Francis Schaeffer in an article that serendiptitously appeared about the same time many of these photographs were taken, put a theological name on the point made by Adams, that The Fall's ripple effects were separations --- first between man and God, then between man and woman, and then between man and nature and between man and himself.  Adams makes the point and yet points beyond to faith, hope, and love, even if he does not name the source of that trilogy.

Robert Adams is saddend no doubt by the lost of first-growth forest to clear-cutting and loss of lives to war, and no doubt much more, and yet neither his photos nor the associated texts rail against The Man or bitterly prophesy of impending doom, as might a man in his twilight years.  He doesn't dwell on our loss but reminds us of what we are gifted, of that for which we can be thankful.  His photos are a reminder to me that there is beauty all around --- in a patch of suburban lawn, a mall parking lot, an urban allyway, and even the empty buildings of a decaying urban center.  To a great extent it is what you choose to see or how you choose to see.  But not only that:  we also have the promise that Christ is at work reconciling all of creation to himself, with the hope that all of it will be liberated from its bondage to decay.

Adams leaves us with this profound last statement, one that still resonates with me.  He said that

Stanley Elkin suggested that “all books are the Book of Job,” and in general he was right. Certainly many writers and picture makers want to repeat in a fresh way what the voice out of the whirlwind said, that we are not the creator, and that rather than ask an explanation we ought to attend an inventory of wonders—the Pleiades, the morning star, the sun, the rain, the grass, the raven, the whale. Common to each is beauty. And so a promise. 

And so, when I am outwalking, whether in a suburban neighborhood or an alley in New York, I know my task: to attend to what is in front of me, to remember who I am, to see in dust the promise of life. If you want to better see, I commend the photography of Robert Adams to you.

(The photo above is from the gallery of photographs of Robert Adams exhibited at Yale.  This one, from Colorado Springs, 1968, suggests the impersonal tract housing that multiplied in the post-war boom.  A lone figure, no doubt a housewife, seems to be looking out the window, and you want to suggest what she might be thinking: Is it the dispair of "is this all there is" or the the joy of watching children play in the backyard? Or is it both?)

 

 

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