The Addendum

Valuing Negativity

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Robert Adams is one of the few American photographers of note who also writes about the process of making photographs without becoming pedantic about it. He starts his essay on the photographing of evil with an example of a small colorado railroad town, a mining town. The example gives me pause: after all, I love the human-altered landscape. Evil? Sure, I understand why Adams disdains what mining has done to the Western landscape, but of all the things to start an essay on the photography of evil with, these seem like heavy, provocative words.

This is not to say that there isn’t negativity here, and one has to give credit to Adams: he is, after all, trying to build a case for a photographer making pictures of such negativity. In a medium that seems to have given itself over to populist romanticism — twilight vistas, coastal drama, the postcard or promotional or public-relations image — a bit of realism, a bit of negativity is a welcome thing.

For me, I cite negativity as one of the things that has attracted me back to making railroad images. The contemporary railroad has much about it that is regrettable. As part of a larger industrial rush towards ultimate efficiency, it has largely abandoned much of the rural West to decay. It asks employees to work farther and farther from home under far less stable conditions, as if unreasonable expectations become reasonable if the pay is high enough. The world of the railroad worker is increasingly isolated from society and from other employees, a place of inhospitable solitude which leaves little room for family much less friends.

While Adams was, I think, making a case for finding beauty in the negative, I would make the corollary case: that when a genre focuses too much on beauty alone, it loses some relevance to the world. Negativity is not something that one might strive to find beauty in, but rather is a necessary balance against the dangers of rampant romanticism. Negativity is needed, it grounds the photographer and the photographs.

On a related note, for anyone serious about photography, especially landscape photography and related sub-genres, I recommend securing copies of Adams’ Beauty in Photography and Why People Photograph. Both books contain essays on photography that are highly readable yet also highly thoughtful. You will likely find yourself frequently agreeing with what Adams says about this medium, but also on occasion disagreeing heartily. At all times you learn. They’re both relatively cheap and both worth picking up.

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2 Responses to Valuing Negativity

  1. Scott Lothes says:

    I’ve enjoyed Robert Adams’ photographs, essays, and interviews for a few years now. Two of his books, “Along Some Rivers” and “Summer Nights,” were among my first “serious” photography books. I think, more than anything, that Adams is extolling photographers to work with passion. “Evil” is a negative word, yes, but more than that I’d call it a passionate word. In photography I’ve seen both romantic landscapes and highly critical views of negativity that were equally powerful and moving to me because I could sense the photographer’s passion…and I’ve seen both romantic and negative photographs that fell flat because the passion wasn’t there.

  2. And it never ceases to amuse me that, in a medium where tangibility is so central, the definition of achievement is so often expressed in qualitative, intangible terms!