Expansive Robert Adams exhibit featured at Museum

Having first debuted at the Colby Museum’s Winter Open House on February 11, “Turning Back” is an expansive exhibition that is currently on display until June 5. The collection features the work of acclaimed photographer Robert Adams, and consists of 164 photographs accompanied by excerpts of the photographer’s personal writing.

Spanning both the Lower and Upper Jetté Galleries, the series was made during the late 1990s and early 2000s in response to the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark Expedition through the American West. Beginning in Astoria, Oregon—where Adams resides with his wife Kerstin—the photographer traveled East in a journey that reflected on the environmental consequences of westward expansion.

A photographer himself, Associate Professor of Art Gary Green worked in conjunction with Carolyn Muzzy Director of the Colby College Museum of Art Sharon Corwin to organize the show and come up with its concept. Of Adams’ artistic interests, Green said, “He’s always interested in the landscape, how we’ve ruined the landscape, how we’ve mismanaged the landscape, particularly in the Northwest how they’ve clear-cut many of the forests.” As such, the series highlights many of these themes as an objection to the celebration of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. With the Western frontier now depleted, Adams’ journey East represents a search for something new.

Green explained, “He didn’t want to make work that glorified [Lewis and Clark], he didn’t want to make work that was so disturbing that no one would care to look at it; he wanted to show what had happened to the forests, how much of the rainforest had been devastated from clear cutting and herbicides, but he wanted to find a reason to hope for something in the future.”

In terms of the show’s layout, Adams’ photographs were arranged chronologically such that the viewer recreates Adams’ journey as he or she walks through the space. Throughout, the work is accompanied by written reflections and annotations by Adams such that the entire space feels like a loose take on a travel journal.

Though Green has been familiar with the work of Robert Adams since the 1970s, he explained that it wasn’t until he returned to graduate school that his work truly began to resonate with him. Adams, who has since become one of Green’s role models, thus was a natural choice when Green and Corwin sat down two years ago to discuss the prospect of doing a landscape show in 2016. As the idea evolved, the Museum decided to fit the show into a larger theme for the Center of the Arts and Humanities, which is how the “Human / Nature” theme for the 2015-16 school year was decided upon.

The photographs on display are borrowed from the Middlebury College collection, and comprise the entirety of Adams’ original series. In order to accommodate such a massive body of work, Green was charged with the task of making sure that it fit the space while maintaining the integrity of the work. Green said, “I went out and was able to visit with Robert Adams and his wife Kerstin before we borrowed the work to talk to him about his thoughts. At that time,” he explained, “I thought we could only do some of it, and I was concerned he wouldn’t want to do that.”

All 164 pieces were eventually incorporated into the space, while only a few minor changes were made in the order of their presentation. Aiding Green in the process of organizing the show was Anne Lunder Leland Fellow Andrew Gelfand, who received his undergraduate degree at Harvard University where he studied art history and was involved in on-campus theater. He said of his studies, “While I was there I was doing work in the division of American and European Art in the Harvard Art Museums.” In terms of his involvement in the Robert Adams show, Green credited him with doing “a lot of the nitty gritty. He kept it all on track,” he explained.

While the logistics of organizing such a large body of work was daunting, Green said, “Adams is somebody whose work is difficult to get, so to get a whole group of it is a real challenge and a gift so we thought ‘lets do it.’”

In comparison to most college museum exhibitions, Green said that this show is almost unprecedented in scale. “This is really unusual to have an entire portfolio of work exhibited in a college gallery, its almost unheard of. It’s amazing to see the entirety of it as he imagined it, every single print, in a college museum.”

The experience of walking through and seeing the entire series is part of what makes the show such a moving experience. Gelfand said, “Turning Back” is this directional change that he is going to retrace and document the clear cuts.” He continued, “Then to give a sense of contrast, he very early into the series introduces these old growth forests that have never been cut where trees can live up to centuries, and that’s kind of the natural history underpinning.”

webaetreesOn April 28, 2016, the exhibition will be featured as part of the Colby Liberal Arts Symposium which celebrates community scholarship. As part of the annual event, Associate Professor of Art and Department Chair Tanya Sheehan will join Green and Assistant Professor of Art Photography at Syracuse University Susannah Sayler on a panel to discuss the cross section of photography and activism. While Green said he sees differences between his own artistic interests and those of Adams, the discussion will be motivated by the political statements that “Turning Back” makes.

Green explained of Adams’ photography: “His is more a cross between journalism, propaganda, art. And then my work is very covertly political. In other words it’s there, but it’s very much in the back, so we’ll have a panel talking about that and Tanya’s class is going to be a part of that as well.”

The exhibition is open to the public, and will be on view at the Colby Museum until June 5.