'You have to begin by telling the truth'

·3 min read

Sep. 23—From the covered porch of a 1940s bungalow overlooking the Columbia River, photographer Robert Adams gave two definitions of silence. The first was found "at the beach, in the desert and on planes," he said. "It's the silence in light and beauty and what we were given before we touched it. That kind of silence holds in itself a promise."

Adams, for more than a half-century and through over 50 books, has photographed an altered Western landscape, its beauty and vulnerability. His subjects — suburban tracts, freeway bends, remains of a eucalyptus windbreak — are often at once sites of wonder and environmental degradation. "The other kind of silence," Adams said, "is a kind of dark silence inside of us. It's a willful deafness and blindness."

In "American Silence: The Photographs of Robert Adams," a retrospective exhibit on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., through Oct. 2, both forms emerge in a set of 175 grayscale prints spanning eight rooms. The survey also includes a book and will continue at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno, Nevada, starting Oct. 29.

Born in New Jersey in 1937, Adams moved west to Wisconsin and later to Colorado and California before visiting the Oregon Coast in 1961. As a graduate student seeking a place of solitude to study French and German, he planned a trip to British Columbia with his wife, Kerstin, stopping by chance for a salmon lunch in Astoria.

"We looked at each other and said, 'Why are we going on? This town looks great, the lunch is good,' so ultimately we ended up renting ... an old building at Sunset Beach that had at different times been a church, a bar and a gas station," Adams said.

After returning to Colorado to begin teaching, a fascination with rural development led him to explore photography. Sensing a changed landscape, his projects widened in scope as years passed, documenting families affected by a nuclear weapons plant and plumes of smoke rising over the suburbs.

Over the years, the couple continued to visit Astoria, inspired by the confluence of the Columbia River and Pacific Ocean, until moving permanently in 1997. Only then did Adams turn his attention toward clearcutting in Oregon's interior.

"We spent probably four or five years photographing in clearcuts and we never met a soul," Adams said. His images of scarred Coast Range forest lands and lone stumps on Nehalem Spit are among the most recent works shown in the National Gallery exhibit.

Creating from composition rather than looking for light, he found the clearcut forests irredeemable. "I simply decided that there was something ... too seriously wrong for me to try to, for example, use the sky," he said.

Instead, for solace, he turned to the Pacific. "There's something very peaceful about the horizon," he said, comparing the experience of photographing Oregon's waves and dunes with the high plains of Colorado. The images of clearcut forests and North Coast seascapes are shown beside one another, offering a sense of balance.

"You have to begin by telling the truth, and it may be very bad, but you still have to do it. Then you have to go to work trying to find something redemptive," Adams said. "The shape of the hills, the shape of the bend of the river, those are saying something somehow, if you look at them long enough."