Robert Adams: 'The Place We Live' at LACMA

Robert Adams, New development on a former citrus-growing estate, Highland, California, 1983, printed 1998, gelatin silver print, Yale University Art Gallery, Purchased with a gift from Saundra B. Lane, a grant from the Trellis Fund, and the Janet and Simeon Braguin Fund. © Robert Adams

The black and white images of Robert Adams, who photographed the American West for decades, have always sent what feels like an agave thorn into the place behind my breastbone.  Yes, that might sound dramatic, but his landscapes are connected to my brother and me in a strange, nearly surreal way, from Weld County, Colorado's rural prairie drylands to Southern California's ghostly, eerie eucalyptus windbreaks and sentinel rows of palms edging out citrus ranches that were no more.

His photographs capture an immense solitude, tinged with loneliness that people feel is stoic and cloud-filled and edged with the almost secret ways people have tried to make themselves at home in a prairie, or in a canyon, when these places are really ruled by nature and violent storms and geography.

How did he make the silver, black and white fill with sadness and yet the exhilaration of open sky?  The cottonwood leaves and the feathery eucalyptus, the long long spaces of Colorado dryland and the small square of what used to be someone's home?

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Robert Adams,  Abandoned windbreak, west of Fontana, California, 1982, printed 1996, gelatin silver print, Yale University Art Gallery, Purchased with a gift from Saundra B. Lane, a grant from the Trellis Fund, and the Janet and Simeon Braguin Fund. © Robert Adams.

I'll be speaking at LACMA on Tuesday about his work, and for a month, I've been looking over his photographs, and realizing that I had to write about my brother.  I have half brothers and sisters, step brothers and sisters, foster brothers and sisters - eleven or more - but my brother Jeff and I shared the same mother and father.  Our father was born in rural Colorado.  He and his mother fled the cold, poverty and violence of life there and came to inland Southern California.  We were born here, in Riverside.

But in 1983, when I was 22 and he was 19, we drove from Massachusetts, where I was in graduate school, back to California, where my brother was a housepainter.  We spent days in Weld County, in the rural towns of Nunn, Pierce, and Ault, where our grandmother's family had lived for decades in those drylands.  We drove one day to an abandoned farmstead and sat there for hours, trying to figure out what genetic heritage we'd absorbed from a place we'd never seen, wondering if this was our homeland as much as Southern California.  The wheat fields and barbed wire fences, where red-winged blackbirds flew off as we drove down the rural routes where our blood called to us.  We met aunts and uncles who'd farmed forever, we painted a great-aunt's house, I listened to stories about my father's family.  We drove further west and met our grandfather, whose history we did not know then, and his last wife, who taught me to make pie crust and to fry rabbit.

Robert Adams, Foundation of an abandoned farmhouse, Weld County, Colorado, 1983, gelatin silver print, Yale University Art Gallery, Purchased with a gift from Saundra B. Lane, a grant from the Trellis Fund, and the Janet and Simeon Braguin Fund. © Robert Adams.

Then we drove without stopping over the mountains and down into the desert and came home, to the eucalyptus windbreaks and citrus groves we knew as our other heritage, the one we were born into.  We had spent our childhoods on the edges of the land, the exact places Adams makes indelible in his Southern California photographs.  The earth that has now been leveled and smoothed and is covered with houses four and five and ten to an acre.  The sentinel eucalyptus still shivering along the 10 Freeway, outside Fontana.

I always tell my students that black and white photography, and music, are my inspirations when I'm writing fiction.  Mariana Yampolsky, Elemore Morgan and Dorothea Lange and the WPA photographers, Gordon Parks, Mary Ellen Mark.

But I've not been able to write about my brother, who died ten years ago in February.  And looking at the work of Robert Adams, I felt that I could.  The leaves and sky and the prairie - my brother listened to Van Halen, Bon Jovi, Jimi Hendrix and AC/DC on our journey.  But I like to listen to the Eagles version of "Desperado."  Freedom, oh freedom, that's just some people talkin, your prison is walkin through this world all alone.

Susan Straight will read an essay in the gallery at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, March 27 in conjunction with the Robert Adams retrospective, "The Place We Live." Read all her writing for KCET here.

About the Author

Susan Straight was born in Riverside, where she still lives. Her latest novel is "Between Heaven and Here." She teaches at UCRiverside and works with photographer Douglas McCulloh to document the Inland Empire.
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