As an audience looking at photographs of suburban sprawl, we tend to forget that uniformity has been a staple of housing developments throughout history. What has changed (or perhaps more accurately, what has varied) is the materials being used, and subsequently their construction quality. Also, more importantly, what varies the most significantly is how the architecture and its planning propagates prevalent social orders.

The default book-introductionist of this era, John Szarkowski, states “Adam’s pictures are so civilized, temperate, and exact, eschewing hyperbole, theatrical gestures, moral postures, and espressivo effects generally, that some viewers might find them dull.” A few pages later, Robert Adams states “We need to watch, for example, as an old woman, alone, is forced to carry her groceries in August heat over a fifty acre parking lot: then we know, safe from the comforting lies of profiteers, that we must begin again.” He meanders back and forth between a by stander’s passive relationship with the world around him, and, contrary to Szarkowski’s strong neutralizing claim, an artist suddenly aware of the moralistic responsibilities burdened upon himself by the camera.

Often cited as one of the most seminal books in photography’s history, The New West famously depicts the tract houses, highways, and business developments along the Colorado Rocky Mountain. Aperture’s facsimile reissue is absolutely stunning, each plate effectively replicating the full tonal range of the original black and white print. But the book’s dust jacket implies a simplistic and dead pan (both physical and emotional) look at America’s latest ugly housing phenomenon, when in reality, there is more than enough of Adam's personal vision and departure from the topographic nature of the work.

The mythology surrounding the work is well-founded and, needless to say, well-deserved. The William Jenkins-curated "New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape" included a young Robert Adams, and spawned the repeatedly-cited New Topographic aesthetic and agenda. Anyone familiar with photographic work being made today knows how influential this era of photography was on artists turning their lens on suburban sprawl and invasive housing developments. For better or worse, Adams set the precedent for a type of work that now seldom warrants yawns across BFA-photography classrooms across the country.

Regardless, this book is a must own for any artist working within a landscape-historical framework. I would recommend looking beyond the claimed detachment the introduction, dust jacket, and initial viewing put forth. I've scanned images that more accurately describe the full breadth of the imagery included in the book, as opposed to the images most widely available online. In particular, I'd suggest paying careful attention to his handling of more human subjects. These pictures initially suggest Adams is trying to match the gaze he lays over the tract houses, but there is clearly a more humanizing, and perhaps artistic vision working.

The first two photographs below represent the first and last pictures, respectively. The point is so blunt, that really, we only accept this type of visual pun from books made over 40 years ago. The first picture is an ode to early development. A dirt road and the lonely telephone pole compose a landscape of early innovation and a more simple time in our history. The last picture so ominously and unabashedly depicts a cemetery that it seems a parody of itself. Clearly, the artist is not the grand mediator Szarkowski suggests. In Robert Adams' brief introduction to the section titled "The City," he writes: "Here no expediency is forbidden...Read the eschatological chaos of signs"

 

 

 

© Robert Adams / Aperture

 
 

© Robert Adams / Aperture

 
 

© Robert Adams / Aperture

 
 

© Robert Adams / Aperture

 
 

© Robert Adams / Aperture

 
 
© Robert Adams / Aperture