The Things of Light

Light Balances (IX A-C), © Robert Adams

In other pictures the darkness is not shadow at all. It is the darkness that precedes the light and somehow includes it; it is the darkness of elemental mystery, the original condition in which light occurs. We are asked to accept the dark as the only condition or way in which we can see the light. And we are asked, then, to see how joyous, subtle, strong, intimate, familiar, and lovely the things of light are.   -Wendell Berry

The above words were used by one of my favorite writers, Wendell Berry, in describing the photographs of Kentucky’s Red River Gorge taken by Ralph Eugene Meatyard for a book project aimed at saving an area scheduled to be damned by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1967. Meatyard was (to me) a very special type of photographer and his landscape work (I don’t think) is really appreciated by audiences today. His pictures of the Red River Gorge were surprising when I first saw them. There was very little of what traditional landscape photographers try to achieve; no long tonal scales, no scenic wonders, no majesty. They were mainly a practice in dichotomies, light and dark, black and white. But in this pastiche of contrasts he was able to show how one lived within the other. How there is no light without dark, no good without evil. The light emerges from the dark only to be subsumed.

© Ralph Eugene Meatyard

The words of Wendell Berry came to mind instantly upon walking into the Matthew Marks Gallery last week showing two new groups of images by the photographer Robert Adams. Adams is best known as one of the pioneering photographers included in the New Topographics exhibition, a turning point in the history of landscape photography.  His depiction of suburban sprawl and the rapid development of the west are considered landmarks in the history of photography. Adams’ photographs capture the physical traces of human life: a garbage-strewn roadside, a clear-cut forest, a half-built house. In his best work an underlying tension between the visibly scarred human landscape  and the inherent beauty of light and land suffuses the image.

Now with this new series of photographs titled, Light Balances, Adams gives in to a poetics of light. Unlike some of his best known work these are not pictorial polemics. Like Meatyard’s photographs, these are studies in dependencies, but Adams asks us to contemplate “the things of light” more joyously than Meatyard. In these photographs darkness is relegated to the role of substrate upon which light sits emergent.

Light Balances (II A-C), © Robert Adams

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