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Robert Adams
Birth Date: 
Birth Place: 
Orange, N.J.
An American photographer whose black-and-white photographs explore the human impact on the landscape and ecology of the American West, Robert Adams is also a thoughtful author who has written several essays on photography. Born in Orange, New Jersey in 1937, Adams was stuck by pneumonia at the age of five and began suffering bronchial problems, hay fever and asthma, which continued after the family moved to Madison, Wisc., in 1947. His father took a job in Denver in 1952, making the move in part to alleviate Adams’s allergies and asthma. After graduating from high school he enrolled in the University of Colorado, but transferred after his freshman year to the University of Redlands, in Redlands, Calif., east of Los Angeles, where he majored in English, earing his B.A. degree in 1959. At Redlands he met his future wife Kerstin Mornestam, a native of Sweden; they were married in 1960. The following year they spent the practice of spending summers on the coast of northern Oregon. After Adams completed his Ph. D. coursework at the University of Southern California in 1962, he took a job teaching at Colorado College in Colorado Springs (he received his Ph. D. in English from USC in 1965). Adams was surprised by the changes in Colorado brought on by rapid development. He bought a camera and as a hobby began photographing the world around him, advised by a local professional photographer, Myron Wood (1921-1999). Using a 4x5 inch Sinar view camera, Adams photographed of the plains of eastern Colorado and small-town architecture. In 1967 he reduced his teaching load to spend more time pursuing photography. In connection with a conference on rapid urban development it sponsored, his college invited him to photograph Colorado Springs, which changed the focus of his work. After returning from a 1968 trip to Scandinavia and Germany, Adams bought a Hasselblad Rolliflex camera, a handheld camera that afforded him greater flexibility while producing clear and precise photographs. The following year he showed his work to John Szarkowski (1925-2007), the director of the photography department at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), who had the museum purchase four of Adams’s photographs and included his work in its “New Acquisitions” show in 1970. Adams’s first book of photographs was “White Churches of the Plains,” published in 1970. Kerstin helped him select the photographs to be included and to edit the book, which she continued to do so for his subsequent monographs, now numbering about fifty. Adams resigned from teaching at Colorado College after the spring semester in 1970 to pursue photography full-time, supported by Kerstin’s job as a reference librarian in Longmont, Colorado. His photographs began appearing in notable exhibitions, including a two-artist exhibition in 1971 at MOMA along with the photographs of Emmet Gowin (b. 1941), the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 1973 “Landscape/Cityscape” exhibition and the landmark 1975 exhibition “New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape,” at the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y. Adams published two more books of photographs in 1974: “The New West,” depicting the sprawling suburbs of Colorado Springs and Denver, and “The Architecture and Art of Early Hispanic Colorado.” that year. Supported by 1973 fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, Adams photographed urban and suburban locations in the Denver area, resulting in “denver: A Photographic Survey of the Metropolitan Area,” published in 1977. Photographs from his book “Prairie” were exhibited at the Denver Art Museum in 1978 and MOMA in 1979. Adams received second fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1978 and from the Guggenheim Foundaton in 1980. That year the Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco had its first exhibition of his work, a relationship that still continues. One-man museum shows of his works during the following decade included Philadelphia Museum of Art (1981 and 1989), the Milwaukee Art Museum (1983), the Denver Art Museum (1986) and the Portland Art Museum (1987). His photographer’s eye turned to the Los Angeles Area, coastal Oregon and night-time Colorado Springs, all resulting in books. Adams was awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius” fellowship in 1994, the year of his first solo show at the Sprengel Museum in Hannover, Germany. After Kerstin retired in 1996, they moved to Astoria, Oregon, on the Pacific coast. The subjects of his photography included the devastaton left by the logging practice of clearcutting in Oregon and Washington. Adams began a relationship with the Yale Univerisity Art Gallery through a solo exhibition there in 2002. He went on to create a master archive of his photographs at Yale. In 2010 the Yale Gallery created a large retrospective exhibition of his work, “The Place We Live,” that traveled to seven other museums in Canada, Europe and the U.S. His awards include the Hasselblad Foundation International Award in Photography in 2009. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2014. Adams continues his landscape photography, exhibiting widely and publishing books of photographs, while living in Astoria. (TNB 3/2016) Selected bibliography: Chuang, Joshua, et al. Robert Adams: The Place We Live: A Retrospective Selection of Photographs, 1964–2009. Exhibition catalog. 3 vols. New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery, 2010.