The MIssing Criticism: Papageorge on Robert Adams and 'What We Bought'
In 2000, the Yale University Art Galley acquired the 193 prints that comprise Robert Adams' book What We Bought: The New World (cover right). Two years later, Tod Papageorge wrote this critical appraisal, which also includes a significant amount of details about Adams' working method, derived from conversations with the artist. The essay originally appeared in the Yale University Art Galley Bulletin.
Download the essay here (PDF).
My intention here is not to “valorize” Robert Adams (or this necessarily imprecise version of him), but to illuminate — or simply surround — what I consider a remarkable moment in the history of recent art. If, as I believe, Adams’s work of this period stands as one of the most significant, and original, achievements produced by an American artist in the last thirty years, it was an accomplishment created and fed by the stringency of the decisions, both personal and aesthetic, that he made in the universal tumult that was 1968.
The pictures that Adams began to produce that September were resolute in their determination to eschew any type of pictorial effect in favor of a direct, matter-of-fact descriptiveness that just avoided triviality. Rather than failing through cleverness or excess or by straining for beauty, these photographs risked that possibility by appearing to be little more than the record-keeping snapshots that architects, contractors, and developers jam into their project-files. The drama in them, such as it was, occurred in the air, as sunlight and figured clouds took on the role of Chorus to the mute prairies, highways, four-way stops and agglomerations of building-types below, elevating them into places worth … cherishing? No, not quite, but certainly worth contemplating as they sat there, so irrefutably present in their nakedness.
Originally published in 1995,What We Bought is currently out of print, though copies are available from the usual sources online, starting at around $400. (Click on the cover image here to see sample spreads from the book). However, the Yale University Art Gallery is planning to publish a facsimile edition next spring. The gallery will also issue an new, expanded version of Adam's Denver next year as well.
Aperture has just published a new edition of Adams' The New West, and reports that "a major traveling exhibition" of the photographer's work will begin touring in 2010.
Papageorge has been the Director of Graduate Study in Photography at the Yale School of Art since 1979. Aperture has recently published his book American Sports, 1970: Or How We Spent the War in Vietnam. Last year, Steidl published his book Passing Through Eden: Photographs of Central Park.
This is the second in an occasional series, Photography: The Missing Criticism, which aims to bring great writing on photography back into print. The first was Papageorge's essay on Walker Evans and Robert Frank.
In print, but difficult to obtain--and certainly great: the Ongoing Moment, by Geoff Dyer.
Posted by: RPMcSweeney at April 7, 2008 03:46 PM
One of the footnotes for Papageorge's terrific 1981 "Essay on Influence" cites the transcript to a 1975 Robert Frank talk. Frank spoke at a symposium at Wellesley College in April of that year, scant days after the death of Walker Evans. The long out-of-print and hard to obtain "Photography Within the Humanities" contains transcripts of Frank's talk and nine others, including a grand and illuminating talk by John Szarkowski.
If I had a nickel for every time the word "stunning" appeared in print as a description of some dull photograph, I'd be retired already. Frank's talk, or at least parts of it, truly is stunning in its challenge to the common wisdom of ambitious would-be artists working in the medium of photography.
Posted by: Walter Dufresne at April 23, 2008 07:54 PM
Thanks again for making available a terrific piece of criticism.
BTW - is this series exclusively to be essays by Papageorge? If so, what about his essay on Winogrand that introduces 'Public Relations'?
Posted by: yclee at June 7, 2008 06:37 AM
The "Missing Criticism" was invented basically to create a rubric for publishing Papageorge on Evans & Frank. Papageorge also generously gave me this one too. I'm happy to publish essays by other critics and photographers, I just have found any more yet.
As for the introduction to "Public Relations," I guess it qualifies for being out of print (per a quick search of Amazon), but the book also seems pretty easily & cheaply available. I'm more interested in bringing things back into print that are not available at all or pretty expensive to acquire.
Posted by: Eric Etheridge at June 7, 2008 07:23 AM
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