“I like to think of the way people encounter pictures in books—by themselves, in quiet, at length.” —Robert Adams
Joshua Chuang, Assistant Curator of Photographs at the Yale University Art Gallery and co-organizer of the traveling retrospective exhibition of the work of Robert Adams, writes on the gallery’s publication history with this most influential of landscape photographers and Adams’ deep engagement with not only the American West, but the world of books.
When the Yale University Art Gallery struck an agreement in 2004 to acquire Robert Adams’s master sets, it also began to conceive with the photographer a series of definitive books on his work. For Adams, a lifelong bibliophile, it was an opportunity not only to reconsider a number of past projects he had long felt could be improved, but also to think about how the diverse strands of his four decades of production might be edited and woven into newly meaningful and coherent wholes.
It was a distinct sense of wholeness, in fact, that stayed with me after the first of my many visits to Robert and Kerstin Adams’s home in northwest Oregon. Their walls, tables, and mantle are simply but beautifully appointed with oft-referenced books of poetry and art, as well as handcrafted objects made of ceramic and wood (several carved by Adams himself). They are particular about what objects they choose to look at and live with, often editing and rearranging them to create new harmonies to contemplate as they go about their daily routine.
These acts of arranging and rearranging, I came to realize, are also central to Adams’s work as a landscape photographer. (Though to be clear, Adams, to my knowledge, has only ever arranged himself when photographing the landscape.) Even in his hardest-hitting images of the fraught subjects for which he is known—the spread of cheap tract housing along the Colorado Front Range, for instance, or the clearcutting of old-growth forests in coastal Oregon and Washington—the elements of a landscape are composed in a way that both simplifies and amplifies their respective presences. As we sense coherence in the underlying form of Adams’s pictures, we are drawn into the complex truths of the relationships within.
Over the past seven years, our work with Adams has yielded seven publications, including Sea Stories and This Day, both published this fall, and the definitive three-volume retrospective The Place We Live which accompanies a traveling retrospective of Adams’s photographs that will next be on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Among the more distinctive aspects of these books are their look and feel—the result of a rich collaboration between the Adamses, the museum, and a dream team of collaborators including book designers Katy Homans and Catherine Mills, and Thomas Palmer, who carefully tuned the digital separations to convey the spirit of Adams’s painstakingly made darkroom prints. And because the meaning of Adams’s pictures so often relies on delicate and specific relationships of tone, Danny Frank and his team of craftspeople at Meridian Printing were chosen to meet the challenge of reproducing Adams’s nuanced work.
Of course, the process was not without its close calls and unwelcome surprises. For instance, after an extensive search, we settled on an especially beautiful paper stock for the books Sea Stories and This Day… and were relieved to hear from the manufacturer that our order was to be among the last batches to be made before being discontinued. And when it was discovered just weeks before the printing of The Place We Live that contemporary printing inks produce a subtle but unpleasant yellow stain over time (a reaction, apparently, between the inks and the optical brighteners present in the coatings of modern papers), Meridian took it upon itself to develop a proprietary set of nonstaining inks for the project.
The result of all this is a series of books that not only uniquely reflect the sensibilities of an American master, but also ones that will endure.
Joshua Chuang is Assistant Curator of Photographs at the Yale University Art Gallery.