This Week In Photography Books – Robert Adams

by Jonathan Blaustein

For all the controversial, opinionated, and edgy things I’ve written in the last couple of years, I think I’m about to put it all to shame. Here, now, I’m writing my first ever “book not reviewed.” Huh? What does that even mean?

By way of explanation, I should say that I’ve been sitting on a pristine, unopened copy of the new Robert Adams trilogy “The Place We Live,” recently released by Yale University Press. Much as it is akin to career suicide to criticize, let alone mention the Yale Photo Mafia, I’m committed to the path of honesty. Rob encouraged me to speak my truth, and here it goes.

I love Robert Adams’ best work. It’s transcendent. I even drove 700 miles to see the prints on the wall in the reconstructed “New Topographics” exhibition in 2010. Leaving the gorgeous galleries, I announced Adams’ work to be the best, and my three cohorts disagreed. (They voted for Baltz. Who’s now a Facebook friend of mine. What is the world coming to?) Anyway, I think Mr. Adams’ Colorado landscape images from the 1970′s are as important as any group of photographs we have.

The best images manage to walk the line between cerebral and emotional, subjective and objective, wistful and angry, optimistic and pessimistic. One can truly sense the presence of a man, standing on a spot of earth, perusing patiently through glass. And of course, anyone who grew up in a suburb, and then watched the subsequent residents slowly absorb the nature they craved…the work hits home. It was as prescient as it was picturesque.

So why have I been unable to cut the seal on these three books, sitting on my stack for two months now? That’s the question I’m asking myself, now, watching the ravens float through the sky in front of the purple, snow-covered mountains. For some reason, my inability to puncture the plastic seems more interesting here than the books would inevitably be. I feel a bit like Cameron guarding his Dad’s Ferrari. Best not to even touch it.

First of all, there’s the cost, I suppose. $250. For collectors only. Then, there’s the sense of grandiosity. Three books at once? From an artist who’s already had so many books published through the years? Thirdly, there’s the fact that I’ve already been scooped by Alec Soth and Fraction Magazine, both of whom published Mr. Adams’ work in the last month. Finally, I must admit that the sense of rebellion at not opening them is just too great for me to overcome.

That’s why I’m going with the “not review” here. Then, photo-eye can sell them to someone who will cherish them forever. Just like I cherish the memory of that art exhibition in Tucson. I’m certain the books would be great, so let’s not assume that I’m being critical here, I’m just going with the moment.

The reality is, this package in front of me is just too precious. It’s intimidating, like the Torah that I had to carry during my Bar Mitzvah in 1987. There I was, in the midst of becoming a man, rocking the hair gel, and all I could think about was what would happen to me if I dropped that f-cking gilded scroll. I think you have to fast for 40 days if it hits the ground, but I could be wrong. The Hebrew School training is finally starting to wear off.

Maybe I’m just afraid to write anything negative about one of the photography world’s true gods. I saw a small exhibition of his work at the Nevada Art Museum in the Fall, and felt like everything after 1990 was just not up to snuff. So if I don’t open the books, I won’t see the failures, and then I won’t have to write about them.

Or maybe I just like the idea of doing the absolutely unexpected, and not opening the books on general principle? (Like I don’t root for Tom Brady on GP. He’s just a pretty robot.) Regardless, I suppose this is a first for “This Week in Photography Books.” Come back next week, and I promise to talk about the images inside a book, instead of just the box. And if I wake up with a horse head in my bed on Saturday, I suppose that will confirm that the YPM is alive and well. Any contributions, in memoriam of my career, can be sent to the World Food Programme, courtesy of the UN.

Bottom Line: I chickened out of opening the damn thing, but it’s probably awesome

To Purchase The Place We Live visit Photo-Eye.

Full Disclosure: Books and scans were provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase. Please support Photo-Eye if you find this feature useful.

Jonathan Blaustein

There Are 44 Comments On This Article.

  1. Funny, but I’ve done the same thing. Not completely for the same reasons though. I received the set for Christmas, but so far they sit sealed and boxed. I feel that I need to commit some serious time to open and study these books. Someday!

    700 miles for New Topographics…? Sounds crazy and something that I would have done! But I live across a bridge from one location where it was exhibited and I never made it. Sad.

  2. Jonathan – love it and get it!

    I have (and love) Lee Friedlander’s large, beautiful, signed, books ‘American Monuments’ and ‘Flowers and Trees’ – yet they are so precious I have difficulty opening them, afraid to damage these pristine books.

    His smaller 1978 ‘Photographs’ although also signed, is much less intimidating and I take it out all the time, unafraid if it gets banged up a bit.

    When I had to choose which of his ‘America by Car’ to get – I went with the smaller, less expensive one, so I can pull it out frequently, without fear of wounding it.

    • Susan,
      Thanks again for tipping me off to that “America by Car” exhibition at the Whitney. It was one of the best photo shows I’ve seen in a long, long time.
      Hope you are well.
      jb

      • Jonathan – So glad you appreciated it.

        Having just seen the Weegee at ICP last night – this is truly another must-see!!!!!!!!!! For real!

        This is what I tweeted today: “Do NOT miss the fantastic Weegee exhibition @ICPMuseum ! That, Friedlander @whitneymuseum & Robert Frank @metmuseum – best in recent years!!

        The first wall text said Weegee was the “most blatantly sentimental chronicler of urban life” and it’s so true!!

        And, if you are able to visit the Weegee exhibition on or about February 7th – then you can be a portfolio reviewer for ASMPNY!!!!!! :)))))))))

        Susan

  3. blake andrews

    An amusing intro, but honestly I’d be more interested in an actual review of the books.

  4. Sorry, this makes no sense to me. I requested and received the set for Christmas after studying the exhibit at the Denver Art Museum. I opened them immediately without hesitation. As I continue to study the books, the beauty of the exhibit returns to me again and again. Each image is becoming a dear friend. I cannot imagine allowing these magical and wondrous books filled with such great photography, such life, to sit in a box, sealed, keeping all their secrets and wisdom bound in plastic. To each his own, and you seem to have thought this through, but seriously I doubt you could write anything negative about The Place We Live, especially given your comments on his work. The trilogoy does not disappoint. But I hope people are not discouraged from buying this because you say “for collectors only.”

    Pardon my direct comments and with all due respect to your truth in your words, but this seems a disservice to Robert Adams and his work which is work that should be seen, savored and enjoyed. This trilogy is so worth every dollar, and there is much to learn for those willing to take the time to see what Mr. Adams offers here, even though he has so many books published. Hopefully, readers will understand from some of the things you wrote here, that they should buy the trilogy and be brave enough to cut away the plastic. It would be such a sad thing, these books bought mostly by collectors sitting on shelves or stored in archival containers, sealed in plastic and never enjoyed for what they are, for what they offer.

    • LM,

      Thanks for sharing your perspective.

      I’m sure you were able to surmise that my commentary was both honest and satirical. You may wish that these books are not bought simply to be tucked away, but that is very often the case in the collecting market.

      I appreciate your love of the work, and how it has impacted you. I felt I properly conveyed my reverence for Mr. Adams’ photography, but perhaps I failed. In this case, though, the books were and remain unapproachable to me.

      Would you like to share with us some of your favorite images or passages from the three volumes?

      • To be fair, JB, you said that you thought his work post 1990 was not up to snuff, and that “if I don’t open the books, I won’t see the failures”. What I understood from your piece is that you think Adams has been producing bad work for the past 20 years.
        RDP

        • OK, Robert. That’s fair. But that was in reference to a small sample in a small exhibition. As far as the books go, given the scope of the trilogy, I think it’s fair to assume there wouldn’t be 400-500 masterpieces. But, stiil, I get your point.

  5. I don’t think this is for “collectors only”. I know that photoeye sponsors this column – that by the way I greatly appreciate, but note that the set can be bought for about $150 at discount booksellers, for example http://amzn.to/vPbAqf. So that’s $50/book, less than many of the (much smaller) other books you have reviewed. Considering the size and high production values, I’d say it is a good deal.

    Since books are so central to Robert Adams practice (he has published close to 40 books), collectors are likely to own several of them already. On the other hand, non-collectors, and those who are not extensively familiar with his work would be able to discover most of his bodies of work at once, arranged in a compelling survey.

    • That’s a very good point, QT. To be clear, photo-eye doesn’t sponsor this column, they just allow me unfettered access to their amazing book inventory, and also allow us to use jpegs from their book tease interface. It’s a scenario which ends up benefiting everybody who reads this column.

      But I hadn’t thought of this as “Greatest Hits Album,” which would allow some folks unfamiliar with his work to see it all at once. Thanks for sharing that perspective.

    • I’m about 60 pages from the end of EVERYTHING BEAUTIFUL BEGAN AFTER. I can’t wait to see how it clnocudes! Thanks for the recommendation.

  6. i can’t remember if i heard of Robert Adams before. so i typed his name, got a massive amount of images. none had a deja vu effect on me – i have seen similar visual languages used by other photographers, but non of the images i got found have i seen before. (web search isnt like really “finding”, stuff is presented to you, hence the passive version).
    i didnt learn anything about the books today, but i learned that R. Adams is someone who can intimidate J. Blaustein. guess i have to check out some stuff by the former, he seems to be a big gun.

  7. I can understand being afraid to have a negative reaction, but the collector’s need to preserve books in their shrinkwrap only makes sense in a world where shrinkwrap machines do not exist.

      • I just meant that if you were to have two books in the same condition, one shrinkwrapped and one not, they both should be valued the same. I’m not saying people should reshrink their books to add a false resale value, but the fact that you can do this should mean that preserving the original shrinkwrap is not something that book collectors should be concerned about. Condition is all that matters.

        As a kid, I worked at Virgin Megastore, and we shrinkwrapped returns all day and sold them as new. Any bookseller could do the same.

  8. Adams. Have always been blown away by his Colorado and maybe slightly lesser known L.A. work. A big retrospective I saw at the Getty Center changed my career (and, by extension, life). And it’s great to see a serious photog of that generation still getting so much play. But your review, Jonathan, hits the nail on the head…both with respect to Adams’s more recent work and also the tendency we have to enshrine certain figures and place them beyond the reach of thoughtful, honest criticism. Sometimes it’s just easier to keep the book closed.

    • Who cares if you found it funny or not. Seriously, who? And who asked for your feedback? Did you see a form that said “leave feedback here”? Is that too direct?

      • There is, actually. It says, “leave a comment.” You should either stop feeding the trolls or just get rid of your comment section. I enjoy this blog quite a bit, but you seem to be going a little unnecessarily aggro in the comments section lately. Just saying.

        • “you seem to be going a little unnecessarily aggro in the comments section lately.”

          I have noticed that as well. But then who cares ?

  9. Jonathan,

    Looking forward to reading your next non-review of the Eggleston Chromes box set.

    Perhaps you should have asked Photo Eye to send the more modest re-published Prairie by Adams. I think there are two other new books by him out anytime as well.

    Are you suggesting that publications like this are too precious and should be more modest in their production and cost?

  10. capitalisme, consumerism society..isme.. just enjoy the books.. not even viewing great books because off their value? I wear my 6500$ suits all the time while some some of you are afraid of opening a book? Come on!! I’m sorry, I probably shouldn’t say this. I have a pretty high fever at the moment but still.. come on..

  11. Yale Photo Mafia, now that is priceless. Yale and other schools, I feel are the biggest problem in the art world today.
    I seriously doubt he or anyone else would have 400-500 masterpieces. I need to see his work in person because I can’t and won’t judge from a screen but $250 bucks is sort of ridiculous to pay for a book.

  12. JB don’t worry about YPM, I have family fro the old country so I’ll take care of them for you as a favor for one to be named later. Yes I am not Italian but dad married into it.

    Pertaining to God hood, I think even they put their pants on one leg at a time unless they are very talented and do both in a single effortless movement. I would only be fearful of leaving an honest opinion if they restore the economy and part the Black Sea on a daily basis. Besides they would not be collectible if opened and pawed by every visitor to your home. Curiosity is a good thing.

    Thanks for the review. It has been put on my procurement list for the next decade. Seriously.

      • I think there is an interesting question about how high corporate art prices for photography will (are?) filtering down in the photobook market (esp. since photobooks are somehow seen as collectable). A lot of academic books are priced specifically at the library market, making them unaffordable to individuals. It would be interesting if photobooks aim for the collector market in the same fashion.

        Personally, I think if you compare the Postcards from America vs the Robert Adams trilogy, the latter are a steal. $250 for a box of zines and bumper stickers seems way to high to me, but then I don’t care about them being a limited edition, and don’t see any value added by photographers sign stuff (bot things aimed at them being collectible, not great art).

  13. Seriously?

    This plays like hipster performance art. Or maybe a lousy movie that happens to have a clever title, attractive actors and fades from memory before it’s even over.

    Indulgent.