Feature

The Question of Hope: Robert Adams in Western Oregon

Robert Adams’s pictures of clear-cut forests “recall the human carnage documented by battlefield photographers.”

Portland Art MuseumThrough Jan. 5

Robert Adams’s pictures of clear-cut forests in western Oregon “recall the human carnage documented by battlefield photographers,” said Randy Gragg in Portland Monthly. “Widely regarded as the most influential landscape photographer of his generation, Adams, 76, has always given us images of the American West as it is, not as it might have been before civilization’s arrival, and his clear-cutting series has been a passion since he moved to Oregon in 1997. Dozens of such photographs are appearing now in a far more modest show than the 300-print retrospective currently touring the world, but Adams is hoping it awakes his neighbors. The images are classic Adams: “At first glance, his pictures can seem haphazardly composed, almost pedestrian,” and his tonal register stuck on gray. But they force us to see the devastation of industrial logging as a vast accumulation of specific losses, each tree a fallen soldier. “I vowed I would not make patterns,” Adams says.

Fortunately for us, “Adams’s eye is always trained on beauty,” said John Motley in the Portland Oregonian. For this show, he’s paired his logging pictures with images of the Pacific Ocean, all of them bold, simple compositions, like 1990’s South From Ecola. Often, “the entire frame is filled with sea, sky, and clouds,” but because the photographs were made on different days or at different times of day, those elements “seem to contain infinite range.” There are signs of life here too—occasional flocks of seabirds or a family of beachcombers that serve to remind us how deadly quiet his forests are. Nature’s beauty, he seems to be telling us, requires our appreciative awareness of it if it is to survive.

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