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America, the (disappearing) beautiful

This photograph is good for your biceps. It's on the cover of a heavy, large, impressive catalogue for the National Gallery's exhibition "American Silence: The Photographs of Robert Adams." A perfect choice, this picture, to express Adams' obsession: the American landscape, and what's happened to it in the 85 years he's been looking at it.

Do you see the message in the photo? Notice that the word FRONTIER is missing its final R? The letter has disappeared just like the landscape itself: lost to over-development, clear-cutting, various human abuses.

"He's passionate about our relationship to the world around us," says National Gallery senior curator and head of the photography department (and friend) Sarah Greenough. I tell her I see Adams' pictures as doctrinaire — indictments of human avarice and neglect. "That's too harsh," Sarah says. He wants us to witness what has been, what's been lost, and the beauties that remain.

The tree announces its survival, shadowing the garage door in what could be a community of such houses, built on land once covered in trees.

Notice how gorgeous these photos are? The velvety blacks, the aggressive chalky whites. Robert Adams does all his own developing.

Ansel Adams (no relation), Robert's elder by some 30 years, is known for his glorious black-and-white work that celebrates the majesty of our landscape. Curator Greenough says that, in the 1970s, Robert Adams was part of a generation of Americans who looked at the landscape in a very different way. Instead, "they looked at the landscape as the place where we live," and what happens to it as our living takes root.

Robert Adams wrote, "go to the landscape that frightens you the most, and take pictures until you're not scared anymore." Greenough says he meant that we must confront the world that's developing around us. "He had to photograph it until he could come to terms with it." And find the beauty. Here, the landscape is wiped out by ticky-tacky houses. Adams shoots them at an angle that celebrates the architectural forms, and they're umbrella-ed by "a glorious sky."

As he gets older, the photographs seem more about beauty. He's looking for "the things that can give us hope." And Sarah says he's finding them.

Hope, especially, in the light. The exhibition is called "American Silence," she says, not because silence is so pervasive here. Rather, when you stand and look at one of our still glorious landscapes, it's the feeling of silence, "that sense of peace and awe that the beauty of nature can give you."


Art Where You're At is an informal series showcasing online offerings at museums you may not be able to visit.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Nationally renowned broadcast journalist Susan Stamberg is a special correspondent for NPR.