Photographer. His black-and-white landscapes dispassionately picture the American West but respect its inherent grandeur. Adams's detached aesthetic, concern with formal structure, and disinterest in self-expression or interpretation parallel similar tendencies in minimal, conceptual, and pop art. For a few years beginning in 1976, Leo Castelli represented his work in New York. Although the practice is common today, Adams numbers among the earliest photographers to be accepted in a major contemporary art gallery. Born in Orange, New Jersey, near Newark, Robert Hickman Adams moved as a child with his family to Madison, Wisconsin, and then to Denver, where he went to high school. After graduating in 1959 from the University of Redlands, he remained in the Los Angeles area to earn a PhD in English at the University of Southern California. By the time he completed the degree in 1965, he was already teaching English at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. He remained there until 1970, when he moved to Longmont, near Boulder, to work professionally as a photographer. In 1997 he settled in Astoria, Oregon, on the Pacific coast. In early work emphasizing the social landscape, he pictured architecture and interiors as well as outdoor suburban views. These photographs first came to national attention with his book The New West: Landscapes Along the Colorado Front Range (1974), an implicit indictment of environmentally degrading Denver-area development practices. As he subsequently pulled back to capture less densely populated areas, he frequently included signs of human impact such as telephone poles, roads, or logging operations. With time, inaccessible wilderness and impassive sea have come to dominate his vision. Often accompanied by his own texts, his numerous publications include Denver (1977), Prairie (1978), From the Missouri West (1980), Our Lives and Our Children (1983), West From the Columbia (1995), and Turning Back (2005), stimulated by the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Beauty in Photography (1981) and Why People Photograph (1994) collect his essays.
An important 1975 exhibition and accompanying catalogue positioned Adams as a leading figure within an emerging photographic tendency de-romanticizing the tradition of Ansel Adams and others who situated physical and spiritual grandeur in an inviolable nature. Organized by William Jenkins for the International Museum of Photography (now George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film) in Rochester, New York, “New Topographics—Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape” stressed the inseparability of cultural and natural processes in forming the visual environment. Besides German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher, others identified with the trend included important young Americans, such as Lewis Baltz (1945– ), Frank Gohlke (1942– ), Nicholas Nixon, and Stephen Shore (1947– ).