Book Review: Why People Photograph by Robert Adams

This collection of short essays and reviews by one of the pre-eminent American landscape photographers explores a wide variety of topics covering all genres of photography.

A landscape photographer known for his black-and-white pictures of the American West, Robert Adams is a strong writer with a philosophical mindset. That’s at least partly due to his academic background: he received a Ph.D. in English literature and taught at the university level before discovering photography. This book is a follow-up to his previous collection of photography criticism, Beauty in Photography.

The essays are organized into three sections. The first, “What Can Help,” is arguably the most compelling. In these pages, Adams communicates the experience and struggles of being a professional photographer with clarity and insight.

“Teaching,” probably the standout essay in the section, speaks to the difficulty of balancing the drive to create art with the need to have a reliable source of income. Adams discusses the trade-offs that come with being a photography teacher. Then he delves deeper, examining three essential question: Can photography be taught—and if so, which aspects of it; should it be taught; and who should teach it? Even if you find yourself disagreeing with him (as I did at times), it’s worthwhile to consider his ideas.

The second section, somewhat misleadingly entitled “Examples of Success,” is a collection of book reviews written for a variety of publications. The books he reviews are mostly monographs and biographies of iconic 20th Century photographers. These range from Eugene Atget (the earliest) to Susan Meiselas (the most contemporary). Adams uses each book as a jumping off point to explore a photographer’s life and work, and to consider larger themes as well.

In one review, Adams makes the extremely valid point that biographers who aren’t photographers themselves (amateur or otherwise) often struggle to understand the impulse to make photographs and as a result, they are largely unable to offer any real insight into an individual’s creative process, into why and how that photographer made the work that they did.

In contrast, Adams succinctly and insightfully delves into photographers’ processes and motivations in his reviews. This section includes a tribute to the life and legacy of Ansel Adams (no relation), a nice reconsideration of Edward Weston’s Point Lobos landscapes, and an examination of Paul Strand’s purposeful breaking of composition rules in “Time in New England.” A review of Laura Gilpin’s book “An Enduring Grace” turns into an excellent close reading of her work and an examination of the documentary photographer’s struggle to avoid idealizing their subject matter and to “remain faithful to the appearance of the world,” contradictions and all.

Part Three, “Working Conditions,” consists of four extended meditations on landscape photography and the environmental principles that guide his own work. It’s by far the most personal section of the book. Of particular interest is his discussion of the influence that Timothy O’Sullivan’s work had on his own understanding of light and space in photography. Fair warning: Some of the opinions he expresses here are outdated, and at times, he risks coming off as yet another old, cranky, out-of-touch white guy. Nevertheless, as he weighs the long-term ecological consequences of our present activities, he makes a number of key points while still finding reasons to be hopeful for the future.

Full disclosure: I’m not the biggest fan of Robert Adams’s photography. However, through the course of reading this book, I became a fan of his reflections and ideas on the medium of photography. Adams proves himself as someone who deeply understands and appreciates all types of photography, and he celebrates the photographer’s ability to bear witness and raise awareness of important issues.

Even if this collection doesn’t quite live up to its overarching title, it’s very worthwhile to delve into. Adams’s prose turns purple here and there. (“Whereas most people think of art as something inessential when compared, say, to food, collectors and artists have been known to try to make a meal of pictures,” he writes, cringingly, at one point.) Nevertheless, it’s refreshingly accessible and jargon-free. The short pieces in this nicely-packaged collection from Aperture offer insights and reflections that are valuable to art historians and working photographers alike, and that’s no small feat.

(Originally reviewed for the Halide Project.)

Why People Photograph: Selected Essays and Reviews by Robert Adams. Aperture, 1994. 189 pages. Paperback. $16.95.

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