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Photographer Robert Adams and the truth about the new West

A detail from "Colorado Springs, Colorado" (1968), by Robert Adams

Robert Adams

Robert Adams is widely regarded as one of the most important photographers of the American West. Born in Orange, N.J., in 1937, Adams moved to Colorado at 15 with his family. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, he watched as suburbs emerged and chronicled the growth of tract housing, strip malls and gas stations against the stunning landscape.

His photography earned him a 1994 MacArthur Fellowship (the so-called "genius award") and much acclaim.

Last weekend, Robert Adams: The Place We Live opened at the Vancouver Art Gallery. The retrospective, organized by the Yale University Art Gallery, features nearly 300 work spanning his 45-year career. Now 73, Adams wrote these thoughts to The Globe and Mail about two of the works in the show:

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Colorado Springs, Colorado (1968)

The house was one of thousands being built then along the Colorado Front Range. I do not know who the woman was. I just looked into the camera and saw a picture, a rectangle with a quality of wholeness about it.

Part of what compelled me was also her isolation. Would that kind of loneliness be prevalent in the new developments?

What also impressed me, however, was the splendour of the high-altitude light, showering down even on this tract house.

I'm a traditionalist. I still believe that art is important only to the degree that it engages life and finally helps us towards an affirmation. The problem of course is that an affirmation is unconvincing if it is reached by lying. You have to square with all the evidence, good and bad.

Colorado Springs, Colorado (1969)

This is a scene I observed from the sidewalk. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, I walked hundreds of miles of new suburban streets, trying to be faithful to what I saw. The picture struck me as evidence of a will to community that even unimaginative housing could not completely destroy.

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What I wanted was somehow to tell the truth about the new American West, but to do it without burying hope. I felt a loss - of space and quiet and a neighbourliness that the frontier had sometimes encouraged - but it was obvious that there was no going back. The subdivisions and strip malls were already spreading many miles out onto the prairie.

Eventually I became convinced of two things: first, that some of the grandeur of the western landscape remained, and that this beauty - especially of the great land forms and of the sky above - suggested a promise, though I could not explain how or why. Second, I was convinced that the inhumane nature of what we were building was a moral failure for which we would surely suffer.

Robert Adams: The Place We Live continues until Jan. 16 at the Vancouver Art Gallery (

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