What Can We Believe Where?

Robert Adams’s What Can We Believe Where? is now the fourth book I’ve acquired as a result of my seeing the New Topographics exhibition.* As a child of the suburbs, and as a child of the West, I find myself drawn to a lot of those works because they help me think through my relationship with my home.

*The others: Gohlke, Baltz, and Ruwedel. Ruwedel was not part of the exhibition but was included in SFMoMA’s supplementary material.

Growing up in suburbia involved maintaining a level of doublethink. I had to rationalize the strangeness of the artificiality of it all with the feelings of comfort and safety which come from it being home. I got to shake my head as new developments popped up all over while living in tract housing myself. I got to complain that there was nothing to do while enjoying that the neighborhoods and roads weren’t busy.

Adams’s suburbia photos in particular capture a lot of the oddness of the suburban environment. How it can look like anywhere and everywhere. How sterile and somewhat isolating it is. Yet they still feel comfortable to me and are photos of the new built environment.

Not that all of Adam’s work is suburb life. If anything, it’s actually the life of the suburb. The book starts off with rural towns and big skies. We build and move in.  We buy stuff. We develop families and lives. We consume more and more land. And then we run out of space when we hit the Pacific Ocean. While Adams starts off taking photos of what we’re building in the West, he ends up documenting what we’re destroying—or, in some rare instances, some places we’ve preserved—instead. Much of his most recent work is heartbreaking since it’s documenting how we have destroyed the environment in order to sustain ourselves and our growth.

It would be ruin porn if it were at all satisfying to view these. Instead the photos are just brutal and show the aftermath of the devastation we’ve wrought. Places and things which inspired the original landscape photographers are now either paved over with manicured landscaping and tract housing or they’ve been leveled and destroyed as we consume materials.

Adams’s photos of the suburbs and settlement of the West is why I wanted this book and are still me favorite images in it. But his photos of destruction put them in perspective and remind me of the cost.

And they point in the direction we’re heading.

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