Susan Straight Reads Robert Adams

Robert Adams, Edge of San Timoteo Canyon, looking toward Los Angeles, Redlands, California, 1978. 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. © 2012 Robert Adams

I wasn’t surprised to learn that Susan Straight, an author with a keen ability to conjure location, is drawn to the work of Robert Adams, a photographer of oft-overlooked places. They seem to share a sensibility, and a familiarity with the landscape east of Los Angeles, and of the American west more generally. Take this passage from Straight’s 1996 novel The Gettin Place:

Hosea remembered how strange these trees looked to him when he came to Rio Seco. In Oklahoma, the tree trunks were rough and dark—oak and pecan and sycamore. Then he’d followed Oscar to Los Angeles, where there were only palms, it seemed, among the tiny stucco boxes where he’d rented rooms. Palms that swayed, distant above postage-stamp plots of grass and wavering heat and hard faces. The first time someone had told him about Rio Seco, out in the country to the east, he’d thought that the man, a welder at the assembly plant where Hosea worked, was talking about more palm trees, scrawny forest of bare trunks in desert sand. But when he came to Treetown and saw the orange groves lush and blooming, the olives and eucalyptus shimmering silver, and the pecans and cottonwoods along the riverbottom, he felt the cords in his neck loosen and he breathed the strange, shaded scents. (Susan Straight, The Gettin Place, p. 6. New York, Anchor Books, 2006.)

Robert Adams, New development on a former citrus-growing estate, Highland, California, 1983, printed 1988, Yale University Art Gallery, purchased with a gift from Saundra B. Lane, a grant from Trellis Fund, and the Janet and Simeon Braguin Fund, © 2012 Robert Adams

There are a lot of trees in Robert Adam’s photos too: those same palms and eucalyptus that punctuate Straight’s stories, all of which are set east of Los Angeles.  Both artists cause me, and perhaps others, to pause and wonder “Why here?” and then to answer the question in the same instant, because, Why not? There is so much to tell.

Robert Adams, Interstate 25, Eden, Colorado, 1968, printed 2006, 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

Straight came to see the exhibition, Robert Adams: The Place We Live, and curator Edward Robinson invited her to write something. Struck by Adams’s photos of Colorado, a place where she herself has a deep personal history, Straight wrote an autobiographical account of a pivotal trip with her brother:

“I think that my favorite parts of America are the places on the edges–the exact places that Robert Adams photographs,” she says.

Amy Heibel

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