Moving forward, looking back

Posted in Age by LBM on December 30, 2011

A recent post by Blake Andrews on dead photoblogs has me thinking a lot about life online and off. From 2006 to 2007, I poured a lot of energy into my blog. On my first post, I wrote that I was ‘hungry for a bit of interaction with the world (albeit virtual).’ For my last post, I quoted Walt Whitman and his need to escape the astronomer’s lecture and go look at the stars.

A couple years later I started Little Brown Mushroom books. LBM is a publisher of physical objects, but like most businesses we support this with social media. But the LBM blog has never been like my old blog. The most effort I put into it is probably my year-end list of favorite photobooks. This year’s list of 20 books was a particularly big task to assemble. As a consequence I was eager to hear from readers. Did they disagree with my selections? What were their favorite books of the year? Happily, I got a lot of responses. A number of readers made me aware of books I hadn’t seen. And one commenter, John Gossage, tossed a couple follow-up questions back at me:

“Is there one book in your list that changed you as an artist? One of these that allowed you to take something from it that you could use to move forward?”

In the era where retweeting and ‘liking’ is the most interaction I normally expect online, Gossage’s question provoked me to go deeper. And so I did. I looked over my list and asked myself Gossage’s questions. The answers are complicated (several of the books changed me in incremental ways). But since this is a blog post, and not a conversation, I’ll try to keep it simple. The book that changed me the most this year was, in fact, not on my list:

I often say that I understand Robert Adams a little bit more every year. Entering my 42ndyear , I guess I’ve been deepening this understanding for about 22 years. But I still keep learning. This year’s lesson came from the reprint of an Adam’s book from 1978: Prairie (2011, Denver Art Museum & Fraenkel Gallery).

Prairie is a simple book. It is a small soft cover with minimal design flourishes. And Adam’s early pictures match the books humility. We see barns, farmhouses, an old church. Some of the pictures brush up against small-town photo cliché’s. The truth is that if Adams name weren’t on the book I’d probably never give it a chance. But this is an Adams book. And after 22 years I’ve learned that there is always more to learn from him.

As with most books by Adams, Prairie starts with a few well-chosen words by its author:

“Mystery in this landscape is a certainty, an eloquent one. There is everywhere silence – a silence in the thunder, in wind, in the call of doves, even a silence in the closing of a pickup door. If you are crossing the plains, leave the interstate and find a back road on which to walk; listen.”

The first picture is an utterly commonplace view of a gravel road and a telephone pole (this hardly looks like a mystery). The next two pages show an ordinary main street and then a closer-up picture of two kids in a pickup truck. (Still no mystery, bu I can hear the silence). Then, with this double-page spread, the real mystery begins:

Looking at these pictures, we immediately think of Walker Evans and his frontal cataloguing of country churches. At first it appears that the young Robert Adams is simply mimicking Evans and his famous depiction of two different small white churches in American Photographs (here and here). But a closer look at Prairie reveals that his photographs are describing the same church in two different seasons. It is as though Adams is acknowledging his predecessor while laying his own claim. For Evans, the churches are about rigorous, unromantic documentation. For Adams, the documentation of the churches is a way to explore the subtle mystery of weather and time.

On two more occasions in Prairie, Adams employs this use of repetition to quietly investigate time and perception:

What is most remarkable to me about this use of repetition is the fact that Adams was doing this in such a sophisticated way so early on. He later mastered this approach in Listening to the River (Aperture, 1994), but I find it encouraging that there were glimpses of it sixteen years earlier.

Another notable thing about Prairie is the inclusion of two pictures of Robert Adams’ wife Kerstin. This understated autobiographical content continues to separate him from more clinical strands of documentary photography. As with the use of repetition, it hints at work to come in books like Perfect Times, Perfect Places (Aperture, 1988).

All of this explains why I like Prairie. But I haven’t answered Gossage’s question about why the book offered me something that I could use to move forward as an artist. For me, Prairie brought home the fact that I need to sometimes look backward in order to move forward. I need to remember the reason why I first got interested in photography in order to continue photographing.

For Christmas my wife and I made handmade gifts for each other. Rachel made me beautiful ceramic tiles. I made her a book called One Mississippi Two. These were pictures made during a road trip along the Mississippi in 1992 (but not published in the book One Mississippi):

When a friend of ours saw this book the other day she said, “these look just like Alec’s pictures now. I don’t think I could tell the difference.” Of course I can tell the difference, but much of this has to do with technique. Otherwise the pictures are very much connected to those made twenty years later. In working to move forward as an artist, I think I would do well to make some of those connections to the past stronger.

So as the year comes to a close, I’m looking at my old photographs and Robert Adams books and thinking about time. In one of Adams’ books I keep a handwritten letter that he wrote to me in 2003 (after I sent him a copy of my maquette for Sleeping by the Mississippi). He ends his letter with this passage from the poem ‘I Sleep A Lot’ by Czeslaw Milosz.

I have read many books but
I don’t belive them.
When it hurts we return to
The banks of certain rivers.

Happy New Year,

33 Responses

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  1. raul said, on December 30, 2011 at 8:33 am

  2. Alison said, on December 30, 2011 at 9:04 am

    I love this post. You’ve inspired me to write a similarly-themed one. Thank you.

  3. Marc said, on December 30, 2011 at 9:16 am

    Thank you Alec for a bit of respite from the list-storm (for which I bear a share of the blame).

    • LBM said, on December 30, 2011 at 10:59 am

      Marc, I’m so grateful for the work you did. With so much information coming at us, it is great to have someone organize and make sense of it.

  4. John King said, on December 30, 2011 at 9:50 am

    Happy Birthday Alec.

    Excellent post and a bit of synchronicity. Two days ago I pulled Robert Adams’ “Beauty in Photography” essays off my shelf to re-read after nearly 30 years.

    One Mississippi Two looks beautiful.

  5. Mary Virginia Swanson said, on December 30, 2011 at 10:40 am

    Alec, once again your sharing your thoughts has sparked contemplation, knowledge and inspiration. Happy birthday, happy new year to you and yours!

  6. Joao Henriques said, on December 30, 2011 at 10:55 am

    I remember sleeping with a big magnum book (magnum degrees) by my bedside and dreaming of becoming a real photographer one day. Years later, my first series & book was made after a quote from Robert Adams, even if i was and still am fighting with his pictures. Nowadays i don’t know for sure which is my main influence, but i like to think of Mr Adams as the sipirtual father, like Mr Coltrane was my godfather for jazz when i was 15. Then there are a few other angels too…

    Happy B, btw, and a great year

    PS – In Portugal, almost all Capricorn photographers use old Mercedes vans (me included), whats yourse 😉 ?

    • LBM said, on December 31, 2011 at 10:35 am

      Great comment Joao…I also fight with his pictures… (2004 Honda Odyssey, 167,000 miles)

  7. Kim Kuhn said, on December 30, 2011 at 10:59 am

    Every time I read your writing I feel inspired. This is wonderful. I was in my first year of photo school when I found your old blog and I still return to your site from time to time in hopes that I will discover a new entry. Thank you for sharing your words and images with the world.

    • LBM said, on December 31, 2011 at 10:35 am

      Thanks Kim. Wish I could put more time into writing. I feel a New Year’s resolution coming on…

  8. David Simonton said, on December 30, 2011 at 11:05 am

    This post abounds in poetry, and in poets. What Robert Adams has given us, with his words and with his pictures, is a gift unrivaled in our medium.

    Thank you. And Happy Birthday.

  9. Photobook.taiwan said, on December 30, 2011 at 11:15 am

    Gerry Badger’s book ” the genius of photography” was translated / described to call the “first photography hisotry book in Taiwan” for Taiwan Photography. Also changed the subject ” how photography has changed our world” instead of “lives”.

    I have read/buy/house many photo books but I don’t belive them, too: )

  10. tommy mendes said, on December 30, 2011 at 11:16 am

    happy Birthday Alec…..from NYC

  11. pablo cabado said, on December 30, 2011 at 11:38 am

    great post alec. happy birthday and happy new year!

  12. Annette Voelckner said, on December 30, 2011 at 12:41 pm

    Thank you for this inspiring post, Alec. I am going home now, 7:30 pm in Cologne, enjoying my evening looking back a little…
    A happy, happy birthday and all the best for a happy new year!
    Annette (from ‘A Picture for Home’)

  13. mcgovern57 said, on December 30, 2011 at 1:33 pm

    I just looked at my copy of Prairie and reread RA’s forward. I am going to show it to my students in a few weeks and I wonder what they will think of it. I often ask myself (and them) if I am a geezer because of my attitudes about art and photography. When I read RA’s photographs, I’m moved by their mystery and inspired by his simple words.
    RA’s photographs ask us to read them as poetry which is not very fashionable with young people. My students can be very thoughtful and yearn for something more, and I hope they can find it through RA as I did. But we live in an age of entertainment, and he is no entertainer.
    I’ll let you know how they respond.

  14. j trail said, on December 30, 2011 at 4:10 pm

    refreshing post, indeed, alec! i had a similar response to the work in prairie when i saw it in fraenkel gallery. for me the images were brimming with stillness, quiet and reflection; but it was the image of his wife contemplating the landscape, her shirt billowing around her, that completely transfixed me. i was there. i could feel the sunshine and the wind on my face and the joy of being in awe of my surroundings. sadly, that is a rare exchange i have when looking at photographs, yet it becomes something i can strive for in my own work. i left with a copy of the book.

    happy birthday!

  15. john gossage said, on December 30, 2011 at 4:20 pm

    Thank you, and Happy New Year my friend.


  16. Moira said, on December 30, 2011 at 4:41 pm

    Thank you for your soulful post. Lots to think about. Happy birthday and happy new year.

  17. Ron Jude said, on December 30, 2011 at 7:20 pm

    they is, they is, they is…

    • LBM said, on December 31, 2011 at 10:43 am

      Perfect. Funny coincidence…Charlie gave me In the Garden of the North American Martyrs for Christmas. So Damn Good.

  18. Matt Niebuhr said, on December 31, 2011 at 2:31 am

    Prairie is a nice book, great to read of your thoughts about it… It’s always good to look at things more than once or twice and on different occasions… perhaps even better over the span of years if you have the opportunity (in this case as you point out by Roberts over seasons). Maybe it’s the subtlty of change / unchanged that is difficult to make out… to make enough space around it to be noticed. It’s not entertainment after all.

    Thanks for your effort in posting something of substance.


    • LBM said, on December 31, 2011 at 10:56 am

      Thanks Matt. I agree that RA doesn’t aim to entertain, but I still stand by my recent post on entertainment. In that post I refer to Michael Chabon’s essay on the subject. I think Robert Adams might even agree with Chabon’s eloquent definition of entertainment:

      “The original sense of the word “entertainment” is a lovely one of mutual support through intertwining, like a pair of trees grown together, interwoven, each sustaining and bearing up the other. It suggests a kind of midair transfer of strength, contact across a void, like the tangling of cable and steel between two lonely bridgeheads. I can’t think of a better approximation of the relation between reader and writer. Derived senses of fruitful exchange, of reciprocal sustenance, of welcome offered, of grasp and interrelationship, of a slender span of bilateral attention along which things are given and received, still animate the word in its verb form: we entertain visitors, guests, ideas, prospects, theories, doubts and grudges.”

      • Matt Niebuhr said, on December 31, 2011 at 1:35 pm

        I should qualify my notion of entertainment and Mr. Adams, from my perspective – an admiring viewer – (thinking too of your own ideas and notion of wanting to be entertained / educated / moved to change) – which is this:

        For me, there is a difference it seems to me in an artists work, when the artist is trying to entertain and when the work itself becomes so…

        That may be the point all along anyway, perhaps that understanding is closer to the “pond work” by Gossage and his views on thinking about the audience? Adam’s photo books, may end up be entertaining, but I think that is something that I bring to them, it’s my response to the work, (of course as do lots of others too!) I bet Mr. Adams sweats hard editing to make it look so natural and calm and easy – and on message!

        Perhaps an artist’s audience (should the artist be so lucky) should indeed be entertained, that is after all, something an artist is thinking about right? (even if only subconsiously). How / why would one try to make work after all, if there where no intention of pleasuring – of thinking about what the viewer might experience – pleasure / a “sense of interaction” that is a result that comes out of work. My opinion, is that “entertainment” as a value, won’t lead one along for very long in trying to find the work, it happens after and because of the work.

        Anyway, thanks for your comments and have a good new year!

  19. Johanna Ward said, on December 31, 2011 at 5:42 am

    Dear Alec,

    All the best for the New Year to you from London!

    I’ve just read your post and really enjoyed your thoughts on this book. I’m currently doing some ‘deconstructing’ of my own for an essay I have to write for my Masters degree. I’ve chosen your image of Johnny Cash’s home in SBTM; but do you mind if I ask if that was a car parked alongside the road in the distance, or is it a car passing by, please? I’m hoping it’s passing by!! 🙂

    Best wishes,

    • LBM said, on December 31, 2011 at 11:13 am

      Dear Johanna, the beautiful thing is that the car can be whatever you want it to be. It can be a passing car, my car, even Johnny’s car…

  20. Justin Partyka said, on December 31, 2011 at 6:51 am

    Robert Adams is the “model” photographer. His commitment to the medium and the subject(s) he explores is profound, perfect and beautiful.

    After sometime of paying his work little attention I began to dedicate time with his books in 2010. I believe that once you pay attention to Adams’ photographs you really are on sure footing as a photographer in the sense that you accept what being a photographer is all about.

    Thomas McGovern’s point about Adams not being fashionable with young people / photography students is an interesting one. One of Adams’ great strengths is his quietness both literally (as far as I am aware he doesn’t even have a website) and aesthetically in his work. For him his published photographs and written words say everything he wants to the wider world.

    To have that patience and trust in one’s work is what every photographer should strive for.

    • LBM said, on January 2, 2012 at 7:35 am

      Thanks Justin, but personally I wouldn’t want to sanctify him that ‘the model photographer.’ Just one model among many, for me. As Adams himself writes, “If in the course of his training he (an artist) discovers a master whose vision he wholly shares, then he becomes that person’s advocate rather than an artist himself.”

      As much as I admire Adams, he has a kind of puritanical quality that I don’t share. I’ve always been put off by this quote in Along Some Rivers: “On public radio, for example, Terry Gross spends hours discussing the minutiae of trash TV and movies. For which there is always this cost: those who think and create in more discriminating ways are left less understood and less supported, exactly where corporate America wants them to be left – marginalized, posing no threat to commercial advertising and political propaganda.”

      Not only do I like Terry Gross, I like many of the things she covers. I mean, the other night I watched two episodes of Breaking Bad…a sensationalist TV show that I think is powerful, moving, and totally alive. I’m so glad it exists in my world right alongside my pile of Robert Adams books. I learn from them both.

      Like you, I admire Adams for his patience and trust in his work, but there are a lot of impatient and anxious artists I admire too.

      • Justin Partyka said, on January 2, 2012 at 11:46 am

        Alec, good points. I certainly hope that I’m not becoming an advocate for Adams or any body else at the expense of my own work.

        I probably should have said “a model photographer” because there are many other people I consider as being models too. Thanks for setting me straight on that. Don’t we all draw upon and learn from everything that we choose to let be part of our lives? Alongside Adams, I also learn from the music of the Grateful Dead (and others), which I spend much more time with than I do any photography books.

        The process of what we “learn from” as photographers is an interesting one: some things become evident in ones’ work and other things have more of a subtle impact but are no less important. What about Eggleston and Bach as an example? I struggle to see the link but Eggleston has suggested it is there.

  21. Milli said, on December 31, 2011 at 11:21 am

    Hello from Austin!
    Thanks for the insightful writing.

    I wanted to add this reminded me very much of Monet’s cathedral paintings…

    best wishes in your new year!

  22. mcgovern57 said, on February 22, 2012 at 2:57 pm

    A while back I wondered how my photography students would respond to Robert Adams’ PRAIRIE. Instead we read the text and images for “What Can We Believe Where?” I have posted their comments on DOTPHOTOZINE.COM if you would like to read them:

    best wishes
    Thomas McGovern

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