Art Can Help

by Robert Adams

Robert Adams, a photographer of the American West for over 50 years, writes about the art of photography. Before commenting on the works of 27 photographers, he shares his views on art in general, and he examines the work of his favorite painter, Edward Hopper.

“It is the responsibility of artists to pay attention to the world, pleasant or otherwise, and to help us live respectfully in it.  Artists do this by keeping their curiosity and moral sense alive, and by sharing with us their gift for metaphor. Often this means finding similarities between observable fact and inner experience.” 

“The subject of a painting or photograph does not by itself make it art, but if there is no important subject matter at all—no clarifying reference out to significant life beyond the frame—then the term increasingly seems to me unearned.”

“Somehow we have to recommit to picture making that is serious. It is impermissible any longer to endorse imitations that distract us or, openly or by implication, ridicule hope. The emptiness of material by Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, for example, is born of cynicism and predictive on nihilism.”

“Edward Hopper was, it seems to me, the American painter who most deeply engaged with both what is modern and what is timeless. I try at the beginning of this book to identify a little of his achievement, and then to consider how photographers have also met the test of relevance.”

Edward Hopper, Early Sunday Morning, 1930

“Hopper was uneasy when he was asked to talk about his pictures, afraid that he might try to speak in place of them. He had been brought to his vocation by amazement over light, something he experienced independently of words and ideas, so that his desire was to show light. It was an intuitive and emotional commitment. ‘There is,’ he said characteristically, ‘a sort of elation about sunlight on the upper part of a house.’”

“Compare the way his building would have looked in the architect’s drawing with the way it looks in the painting. The two representations are in certain respects similar. Hopper, who described his picture as ‘almost a literal translation of Seventh Avenue,’ was careful to register major detail, and to do so from a centered point of view that suggests the objectivity of an architect’s elevation. Our interest in the building depends, however, on the painter’s subjective decision to record this place in the raking light of a particular hour. With that light he adds not only color but a new richness of form: shadow establishes an additional set of curves beneath the edge of the roof, it divides the upper windows, it unlocks the rectangular grid of the façade by slanting down across it a fresh geometry from protruding signs. The sterilities of the drafting board are enlivened so that we are again interested in the world.”

“I am asked with surprising frequency, ‘How do you know where to make pictures?’ To the extent there is a rule, the answer is that it is usually where you stop long enough.”

John Szarkowski, Baseball Games, Sturgeon Lake, mid-1950s

“Photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson spoke famously of pictures that capture a ‘decisive moment.’ John Szarkowski records a decisive moment about to happen: the batter will or will not silence scoffers talking it up in the infield.”

“Dorothea Lange noted in her journal that the woman, who appears to be relatively young, said, ‘If you die you’re dead. That’s all.’ Without in any way denying the truth of that, and in fact building on it, the photographer shows something more, something for which there are only inadequate words.”

Dorothea Lange, Woman of the High Plains, Texas Panhandle, 1938

“Photography tends to be less pure than painting, probably because it comes so directly from life. A photo can be art, where the goal is calm (stasis), or journalism with its commitment to fact, or propaganda designed to stir us, or it can be a mixture. Lange believed, on the evidence, that there are times when art alone is impermissible.”

“Early in her photographic work [Mary Peck] went to New York City, as do most artists trying to survive by finding gallery representation, but she quickly sensed disinterest and came back west. When apologists for the contemporary art establishment admit that much of the so-called art world is false, but argue that it is relatively harmless, I think of many such stories by others. Though as the critic and historian Ingrid Rowland has written in reference to some things in major museums that are currently fashionable but better forgotten, ‘Eventually, the relative quality of… recent holdings will sort itself out.’”

Mary Peck, Kyichu Temple, Bhutan, 1999

“The wisdom of that is undeniable, but for us to wait passively for the sorting out to happen is a costly choice, not only for artists but for society in general. Works like Mary Peck’s reflect a vision of wholeness, an understanding upon which art depends and without which we are ever more prey to the seductions of novelty and propaganda.”

“Art has never been easy. It happens only when a composer like Olivier Messiaen listens so attentively to birds that he can incorporate their voices into his music. It happens only when a novelist like Marilynne Robinson is so disciplined of spirit that she can wait twenty-four years after publishing a highly regarded first novel to release a second. It happens only when a photographer by Dorothea Lange wills herself past exhaustion to retrace twenty miles of road on the suspicion that she should have turned off at an inconspicuous sign, one that eventually led her to a migrant mother and her children, homeless at the edge of a pea field.”

The book includes works by Edward Hopper and the following photographers: Abelardo Morrell, Frank Gohlke, Wayne Gudmundson, Ken Abbott, Robert Benjamin, Eugene Buechel, Julia Margaret Cameron, Edward S. Curtis, Mitch Epstein, Emmet Gowin, David T. Hanson, Anthony Hernandez, Cuny Janssen, Dorothea Lange, Nicholas Nixon, Eric Paddock, Mary Peck, Edward Ranney, Judith Joy Ross, Richard Rothman, Leo Rubinfien, Mark Ruwedel, William S. Sutton, John  Szarkowski, Terri Weifenbach, Garry Winogrand, and William Wylie.

The title Art Can Help set my expectations for something beyond what this book is about. A more descriptive title might have been Thoughts on Photography as Art.


Adams, Robert. Art Can Help. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Art Gallery, 2017. Buy from Amazon.com