August 2, 2012

Robert Adams: The Place We Live, A Retrospective Selection of Photographs Opens Friday, August 3

PDF icon Press Release (PDF)

The Yale University Art Gallery presents Robert Adams: The Place We Live, A Retrospective Selection of Photographs (August 3–October 28, 2012), an exhibition that surveys the artistic legacy of the American photographer Robert Adams. Spanning Adams’s 45-year career, the exhibition traces the artist’s long engagement with the American West and his pursuit of redemptive light and beauty amidst mankind’s increasingly tragic relationship with the natural world.

This tension is visible in his austere, light-drenched photographs of suburban development in Colorado during the late 1960s and early 1970s; a series of expansive views of grand landscapes scarred by human intervention; tender portraits of ordinary people going about their lives in the shadow of a nuclear processing facility; his portrayal of southern California as a once-verdant paradise choked by violence and smog; and his more recent depictions of the promise and ruin of the Pacific Northwest.

Adams’s remarkable, often understated black-and-white images resist simplification of subjects both ordinary and grand, precisely articulating the complexities and contradictions found in modern life. Taken as a whole, the exhibition elucidates the photographer’s civic goals: to consider the privilege of the place we were given and the obligations of citizenship—not only in the western United States but also, by extension, in the wider world.

Exhibition Overview

Featuring over 200 gelatin silver prints drawn from the Yale University Art Gallery’s master sets of the photographer’s work, Robert Adams: The Place We Live weaves together the diverse aspects of Adams’s work into a cohesive epic of the American experience in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Each of the photographer’s major projects are represented, beginning with his early pictures of quiet buildings and monuments erected by settlers of his native Colorado, continuing with selections from his acclaimed series The New West and Summer Nights, and concluding with his most recent images of beaches and migratory birds in the Pacific Northwest. Also included in the exhibition are a number of objects, both found and handmade, borrowed from the artist’s personal collection—a unique feature of the Gallery’s installation.

Until now the reach of Adams’s work has been felt primarily through his photobooks, and a comprehensive display of these monographs has been installed in cases throughout the galleries. A selection of Adams’s publications are also available for viewing in a reading room enabling visitors to experience the artist’s masterful use of the photographic book as a poetic medium in its own right.


Widely regarded as one of the most significant and influential chroniclers of the American West, Robert Adams was born in Orange, New Jersey, in 1937 and moved with his family to Denver, Colorado, at the age of 15. He earned a Ph.D. from the University of Southern California and, intent on pursuing a career as a writer and academic, returned to Colorado in 1962 as an assistant professor of English at Colorado College. Disturbed by the rapid transformation of the Colorado Springs and Denver areas—the latter of which Jack Kerouac had likened to “the Promised Land” less than a decade earlier—Adams began photographing a cherished landscape newly replete with tract homes, highways, strip malls, and gas stations. “The pictures record what we purchased, what we paid and what we could not buy,” Adams wrote. “They document a separation from ourselves, and in turn from the natural world that we professed to love.” Books such as Perfect Times, Perfect Places; Listening to the River; and Pine Valley demonstrate that Adams has also been devoted to recording the glory that remains in the West. Additionally, he has written insightful and eloquent essays on the practice and goals of art, which have been collected in the volumes Beauty in Photography (1981) and Why People Photograph (1994). Since 1997 he has lived in Oregon, the landscape of which has been the subject of his last 20 years of work.

Adams’s relationship with the Yale University Art Gallery began in 2000 when the series of photographs What We Bought: The New World was acquired and exhibited in its entirety at the Gallery in 2002. Two years later the Gallery reached an agreement with Adams to archive a master set of his photographs, commencing a collaborative effort to catalogue his work and organize this retrospective. In 2009 the Gallery worked with Adams to revise and and reissue three of his classic books—denver, What We Bought, and Summer Nights, Walking. And in the past year, the Gallery has issued three new books of Adams’s recent photographs—Sea Stories, This Day, and Skogen.

Adams’s work has been the subject of solo exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Denver Art Museum; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, as well as a major midcareer retrospective organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1989. Among the artist’s many awards are two Guggenheim Fellowships (1973 and 1980), two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships (1973 and 1978), a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (1994), the Spectrum International Prize for Photography (1995), the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize (2006), and the Hasselblad Award (2009).

Exhibition Publications

Robert Adams: The Place We Live, A Retrospective Selection of Photographs is accompanied by a definitive three-volume publication of the same title, published by the Yale University Art Gallery and distributed by Yale University Press. Featuring an epic sequence of over 400 plates, the first two volumes reflect Adams’s own uncompromising edits and include an essential selection of his published texts. The third volume provides a larger context for the photographs through a detailed biographical chronology, an illustrated bibliography, and a series of scholarly and critical essays. ($250 three-volume hardcover)

A second, more compact publication, What Can We Believe Where? Photographs of the American West, also accompanies the exhibition, serving as a primer on Adams’s work. Also published by the Yale University Art Gallery and distributed by Yale University Press, the book presents a crisp sequence of over 100 images culled from Adams’s entire body of work, as well as an introduction by the photographer and an afterword by the exhibition’s curators. ($25 paperback)

Additionally, an online feature has been developed, www.artgallery.yale.edu/adams, to support the exhibition. The website offers over 200 images, texts by the photographer, an introduction to Adams’ many photobooks, and an interactive timeline profiling the artist’s life and career.

Organized by Joshua Chuang, Assistant Curator of Photographs, and Jock Reynolds, the Henry J. Heinz II Director, both of the Yale University Art Gallery, the retrospective debuted in the fall of 2010 at the Vancouver Art Gallery, in British Columbia, and will travel to a total of eight venues, concluding at the Fotomouseum Winterthur, in Switzerland, in the summer of 2014. Robert Adams: The Place We Live, A Retrospective Selection of Photographs and its accompanying publications have been made possible by Helen D. Buchanan; Allen K. Chasanoff, B.A. 1961; Lara Rubin Constable, B.A. 1989, and The Reed Foundation; the Samuel Freeman Trust; Nathaniel W. Gibbons, B.A. 1979; Betsy and Frank Karel; Saundra B. Lane; Melanie and Rick Mayer, B.A. 1982, and the MFUNd; Mr. and Mrs. Alexander K. McLanahan, B.A. 1949; Ms. Eliot Nolen, B.A. 1984, and Mr. Timothy P. Bradley, B.A. 1983; Risher Randall, Sr., B.A. 1950; the Shamos Family Foundation; Mary Jo and Ted P. Shen, B.A. 1966, hon. 2001; the Janet and Simeon Braguin Fund; and an endowment created with a challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The acquisition of Robert Adams’s master prints was made possible through a gift from Saundra B. Lane, a grant from the Trellis Fund, and the Janet and Simeon Braguin Fund.

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