The Light All Around Us
In his 1970s photographs from Colorado, Robert Adams finds the beauty and emotion in everyday homes.
By Pico Iyer
To find beauty where others see only emptiness, or junk: that might be one of the artist’s greatest gifts. To bring clear eyes to what the rest of us overlook, and never forget that the same light that shines on the postcard sites of our vacations shines alike on the gas stations and strip malls where we go to make those vacations possible (and fashion our everyday lives).
When Robert Adams showed us a deserted drive-in theater screen against Cheyenne Mountain—in his indelible 1974 book, The New West—as well as a stop sign, a cross, and a cluster of flimsy vacation homes set against the majestic landscapes of Colorado, he was not so much diminishing the glory of our wilderness as reminding us of the poignancy, and touching hopefulness, of our attempts to make a home within it. Yes, the great peaks and open spaces of the West put us in place and make our subdivisions and motel blocks seem fragile indeed; but the interplay of such temporary structures and an enduring landscape is what has given rise to the deeply human and almost religious art of both the filmmaker Terrence Malick and the writer Cormac McCarthy.
In the seldom-seen works we get to view here, Adams trains his quiet and observant eye on interiors instead. The majesty of nature is entirely absent. But the brave fragility of our constructs, what we gather as stays against eternity, is no less affecting. A cruel eye might see the stuff we collect as silly, unbecoming; a sympathetic eye sees that it is all we have.
I don’t know what exactly I feel when I see the latest evidence Adams has assembled of our attempts to build a home here on an Earth so much larger than we are. There’s no question that loneliness and an Edward Hopper-like sense of abandonment are part of it. But these works also make me think of the classic postwar films of the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, such as Late Spring (1949) or Tokyo Story (1953). Ozu’s still, low camera, in many scenes, registers four regular guys talking around a low table. But it’s only when the humans leave, and the camera remains fixed for many seconds, silently taking the measure of the room that’s left behind them, that the emotion (even the humanity) becomes almost overwhelming.
Absence can fill us up as much as presence does, Adams knows, and something beyond us remains even as we come and go. The light that’s so much a part of all these works is as everywhere as the TV sets and trifles we set against it. We won’t last and the crags and deserts all around us will, we know; yet what else can we fill the emptiness with but whatever gives us a sense of perhaps doomed security?
I questioned the master photographer recently about these images in which, as ever, he blends an unquenchable tenderness with an acute sense of all that we’re destroying. “Overall,” Adams wrote back, in three exquisite pages of handwritten answers, “I wanted just to show what lay within the houses that were a part of my primary subject, the new western landscape. I also hoped, however, to find evidence of human caring.”
In high school, he recalled, his family had lived in a small tract house, where there was “a lack of relation to the outside (was this innocent, willful, or coerced?) . . . between the cramped interior and the vast, plastic, and living green.”
His sense of social fragility had increased, he continued, especially given what’s happening to our democracy, but “the sublime seems more and more certain. And the sublime is evident even in a ditch, a road, or in a backyard.”
Then Adams concluded, “Yes, joy is still possible, either because of the love of friends and family, or owing to the inextinguishable beauty revealed by natural light. Every day can be the first day.”
Pico Iyer is the author of fifteen books including, most recently, Autumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewells (2019) and A Beginner’s Guide to Japan: Observations and Provocations (2019).