Summer Nights, Walking – A Personal Understanding of Robert Adams’ Seminal Work
This cool night air is curious
Let the whole world look in
Who cares who sees anything…
Deftones – Passenger
I learnt to walk in Manchester in my mid-twenties. Not in the sense of a toddler pulling herself up for the first time and hesitantly putting one foot in front of another, but to truly walk. To roam the streets. To not get annoyed by not getting from A to B quickly enough. To discover new sights, to venture into places unknown, to breathe in the cold air, to feel the bracing wind in my face, and to record all that I see with my camera. To empty my mind of anything and everything.
So far, I covered many places on foot. I walked myself injuries, I walked into neighbourhoods that weren’t exactly safe, I walked and walked walked, and got incredibly lost. I trudged through endless snow drifts during the coldest days in winter, and I shambled during the hottest days of summer. I walked from early morning until late in the evening. I never made a point of walking home alone after a night out. One night I walked all the way from Hulme to Salford. On another I walked the distance from The Bowery to Green Point. Those nights were magic and completely insane at the same time. To be utterly alone, to be one with oneself, and at the same time to be surrounded by by thousands of invisible people living their own lives behind closed doors. It is a feeling Robert Adams might identify with when he roamed the Colorado Front Range during dark summer nights in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
There is something eerie about it all, something unnatural, haunting and dangerous. It is uplifting and depressing at the same time. There is a drama unfolding here, but only surreptitiously.
In fact, in his series Summer Nights, Walking we hardly ever see anyone. We can only detect their presence by a switched on light bulb in an identikit living room, by a car parked in the drive way, a crumpled newspaper left on the sidewalk. There is something eerie about it all, something unnatural, haunting and dangerous. It is uplifting and depressing at the same time. There is a drama unfolding here, but only surreptitiously. It is a quality that is later put to good use by photographers such as Todd Hido and Gregory Crewdson. In many ways, Adams has been one of the trail blazers of the New Topographics movement with his photographs. At the same time he has developed a unique visual language by sticking to black-and-white, by not being seduced by sumptuous and rich colours on display. He has made use of the harsh light and sharp shadows of subdivisions, and emphasized the nearly graphic and sinister qualities of the new suburban existence at night.
Despite living and working in the American West, Adams does not venture into the wilds like some of his predecessors. He is not interested in some Romantic notion of the unspoilt landscape. Neither is he interested in photographing urban centres like many of his contemporaries. In fact, he hovers on the very edge between nature and civilization, where people are encroaching onto the surrounding landscape. Or perhaps where nature is trying to regain a foothold in the suburbs. We see indistinct roads, uneven pavements, glaring lamp posts, pervasive weeds, leafy bushes, tangled undergrowth, large trees, brownfield lands, garbage, rocky outcrops, anonymous subdivisions, darkened shops, closed garages, forbidding fences. We see the occasional moon up in the night sky, but we can’t gaze at the stars due to light pollution.
But just like with a proper walk, there is no need for a real start or finish, no need for a real journey from A to B. The viewer can begin anywhere and everywhere and just roam, letting her eye linger on some pictures, bypass others, take shortcuts, or go out of her way to reach yet another destination. It is a book that invites looking, some more looking, and looking yet again.
Summer Nights, Walking is beyond a doubt one of the most beautiful photography books ever made. It is an updated version of Adams’ 1985 publication Summer Nights. The images are printed on a lush creamy white matt paper. They are centred on the page with generous white margins. The black parts of the photographs are truly black, the white parts truly white. Taking into consideration that all the pictures were shot at night and that the only light in the images is artificial, there is an astonishing range of detail still to be found in the photographs. Anyone still experienced in working in a darkroom appreciates the difficulty of achieving that particular end result. The prayer by William Blake at the start and the short poem by Emily Dickinson at the end serve as bookends. But just like with a proper walk, there is no need for a real start or finish, no need for a real journey from A to B. The viewer can begin anywhere and everywhere and just roam, letting her eye linger on some pictures, bypass others, take shortcuts, or go out of her way to reach yet another destination. It is a book that invites looking, some more looking, and looking yet again.
Robert Adams: Summer Nights, Walking. Aperture/Yale University Art Gallery. ISBN: 9781597111171