Robert Adams @FotomuseumWinterthur

Robert Adams – The Place We Live is a major retrospective by America’s foremost living landscape photographer. Featuring around 240 works spanning Adams’s 45-year career, the exhibition casts a forensic eye over the rapidly changing geography of the American West. On the one hand, the photographer’s pictures reveal mankind’s increasingly tragic relationship with the natural world. They show the inhumanity of the built environment as well as the thoughtless exploitation of natural resources. On the other hand, Adams’s austere black-and-white photographs resist simplification, rendering with delicate precision the contradictions of American life, as well as the eloquence and the redemptive power of the American landscape.

Adams is best known for his austere, nuanced photographs of suburban development in Colorado during the late 1960s and early 1970s, images that first came to prominence through his seminal book The New West (1974). He was a key participant in the landmark exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape, organized by the International Museum of Photography and Film, Rochester, New York in 1975. The show made the case for a formally radical mode of landscape photography in which the Romantic and Symbolist predilections of the American modernists were displaced by a more impersonal, disinterested vision. At the same time, Adams’s concern for the aesthetic dissonance generated by a degraded modern environment became increasingly obvious. As he wrote, his Colorado pictures “document a separation from ourselves, and in turn from the natural world that we professed to love”.

Other major projects in the exhibition include Our Lives and Our Children (1979–1983), a disarmingly tender series of portraits of people going about their lives in the shadow of a nearby nuclear weapons plant; Los Angeles Spring (1978–1983), a portrayal of a once-verdant paradise choked by violence and smog; Summer Nights (1976–1982), comprising luminescent night scenes taken a short walk from Adams’s home in Longmont, Colorado; and Turning Back (1999–2003), a body of work that explores a landscape ravaged by clearcutting in the Pacific Northwestern area that Adams now calls home.

Born in Orange, New Jersey, in 1937, Robert Adams moved with his family from Madison, Wisconsin, to Denver, Colorado, at the age of 14. He earned a PH.D. from the University of Southern California and, intent on pursuing an academic career, returned to Colorado in 1962 as an assistant professor of English at Colorado College. Disturbed by the rapid transformation of the Colorado Springs and Denver areas, Adams began photographing a glorious landscape newly replete with tract housing, highways, strip malls and petrol stations. He has also written eloquent essays on the practice of photography, which have been collected in the volumes Beauty in Photography: Essays in Defence of Traditional Values (1981) and Why People Photograph: Selected Essays and Reviews (1994). Adams has published over 40 photographic books, many of which will be included in the exhibition.

Since 1997, Adams has lived in Oregon, the landscape of which has been the setting of his last 20 years of work. He has been exhibited widely in the United States, including at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Denver Art Museum; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This is the first major retrospective of his photography to be shown in Europe. Among the photographer’s many awards are two Guggenheim Fellowships (1973 and 1980), two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships (1973 and 1978), a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (1994), the Spectrum International Prize for Photography (1995), the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize (2006), and the Hasselblad Award (2009).