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ART REVIEW : Robert Adams: A Romantic Comes to Grips With Ecology

In the mid 1800s, the arts lauded nature’s innocence with images of exotic retreats and land unaltered by man. It’s hard to imagine how the brooding idealism of the Romantic Age might have reconciled contemporary realities like Three Mile Island or Yosemite peppered with plastic foam instead of summer snow.

In the works of nationally acclaimed photographer Robert Adams, romanticism comes to grips with ecology. The 200 photographs that make up Adams’ retrospective exhibition, “To Make It Home: Photos of the American West,” show a sublime and still nature in an uneasy truce with mankind’s often ungraceful presence. The national traveling show, at the County Museum of Art (to July 16), surveys works from the mid-'60s to the mid-'80s, organized by the Alfred Stieglitz Center at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Adams was born in 1937, fought polio and asthma as a child and became a college English professor. He took up the camera in 1965 as a way to record his frustration as the natural beauty of his hometown Denver fell prey to suburban progress. His earliest images recorded what he calls “prairie structures,” desolate churches and motels isolated against billowing expanses of western sky and open terrain.

By 1969 his prints were in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York; by the early ‘70s Adams was included in important landscape photography shows at MOMA and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Today he is considered among the foremost chroniclers of the American West.

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Adams’ ancestors were among the first to settle and explore the West, so in the late ‘60s he set out to photograph the so-called First Range of the Rocky Mountains. Majestic and forbidding like most of Adams’ imagery, these peaks were the first obstacle met by early pioneers moving west. These were the peaks that inspired Kathryn Lee Bates to write “America the Beautiful,” but Adams’ perverse lens captures the slapdash track homes that greedy speculators put up by the hundreds just below them. An excellent work depicts a huge canopy of crystalline sky and a low slung horizon where we make out an empty drive-in theater dwarfed and made banal by the spectacular walls of granite looming just behind.

Works from the subsequent “Denver” suite capture resilient cottonwood trees, wild shrubs or airborne geese surviving in the midst of burgeoning city life. One of the most compelling images in the exhibition depicts a rural expanse roughly titled “Burning Oil Sludge.”

Adamantly anti-nuclear and pro-environment, Adams’ politics lie heavy in the 1979 collection “Our Lives and Our Children: Photographs Taken Near the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant.” Skewed camera angles and selective cropping seem to distort the faces of pregnant mothers and romping children, giving the candid photos a quiet desperation one also senses in Adams’ writings about nuclear threat.

The sweeping, poetic images in the series “Summer Nights,” “Prairie” and “From the Missouri River West” are not so placard-toting. Their ideological stand comes from soothing, tender vistas of bucolic western sites that look coaxed from nature. A lovely atmospheric view of the undulating Missouri River, moonlit farm houses and a sharp, linear shot of a Nebraska school house reveal that Adams’ stance is ultimately hopeful and that he is, above all, a sensitive technician, respectful of light as the revealer of photographic form and structure.

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