Robert Adamns
The River's Edge, 2015 gelatin silver print image: 19.7 x 29.8 cm (7 3/4 x 11 3/4 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Stephen G. Stein © Robert Adams, Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

Robert Adams, one of the quintessential photographers of the American West, is best known for his skeptical renderings of tract-house suburbia. But the National Gallery of Art’s expansive retrospective of Adams’ work, American Silence: The Photographs of Robert Adams, follows a more complicated arc, one in which the artist flitted back and forth between pure nature imagery and chronicles of the built environment, often with nuanced reactions to each.

The exhibit features 175 works by Adams (born 1937), primarily made in Colorado, California, and Oregon. It focuses less on Adams’ chronological development as an artist and more on themes that can be found in his photography at any given point in his career.

One of those themes is an appreciation for the West’s unique landscapes, notably its sparse, fragile prairies. Usually titled simply by their location, these images focus as much on the sky as on the land. With attention to small tufts of grass, isolated trees, and delicate milkweed plants, Adams’ images offer less grandeur than those of his (unrelated) namesake Ansel Adams, but with just as much sweep.

After this grounding in pure nature, the exhibit transitions into Adams’ sensitive depictions of deteriorating Hispanic settlements in the region. In these photographs, Adams’ attention to architectural detail and his embrace of clear, bright sunlight with sharply delineated shadows owe a debt to both Edward Weston and Walker Evans.

In one particularly poignant image, Adams documents a gravestone that marks the resting place of a 6-year-old. The stone is decorated with the carving of a lamb. “This small lamb with big ears would have caused a 6-year-old to smile, as its maker would have wished,” Adams wrote. “To adults it offers a consolation; the direct gaze and neatly folded legs suggest the peace of innocence.”

Adams’ assessment of more modern developments is far less sanguine, regularly questioning consumerism, industrialization, and environmental degradation. These sentiments emerge gradually in the retrospective, starting with images of natural scenes that show only the most easy-to-miss intrusions of modern life.

In Carbon County, Wyoming, for instance, a viewer’s eye is drawn to the subtle, Y-shaped trails on a valley floor rather than to the tiny, abandoned car that Adams references in the photograph’s title. In his portrayal of Colorado’s Garden of the Gods, the illumination from a car’s headlights is no match for the sprawling natural site at night. And in an image in Boulder County, Colorado, Adams depicts the land beyond a U-shaped bowl of trees; from a distance, it looks like the roiling sea, but a closer look reveals that it is actually the growing expanse of the city of Boulder.

It’s when Adams zooms closer into these newly constructed buildings—his most famous works—that his argument with modernity becomes clearer. In some, he captures isolated figures inside their ranch homes at dusk, a Hopperian vision of alienation. At Pike’s Peak, an iconic point in the Rocky Mountain range, Adams focuses on a nondescript gas station with the ironic name of “Frontier.”

Yet even in such projects, it’s hard to believe Adams doesn’t, on some level, appreciate what he sees. He offers several appealing images of tree shadows against tract houses, and his photograph of the moon above a single tree in a parking lot is exquisite. In one image in Denver, even a shopping center—the bane of suburban existence—possesses a surprising architectural simplicity. In other words, the images quietly suggest that the developed West can be more complicated than one might assume Adams believes.

“Kerstin Enjoying the Wind, East of Keota, Colorado,” 1969, printed c. 1977, gelatin silver print; image: 19.1 x 18.9 cm (7 1/2 x 7 7/16 in.); National Gallery of Art, Washington, Pepita Milmore Memorial Fund and Gift of Robert and Kerstin Adams © Robert Adams, Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

The photographer is at his least persuasive in the section of the exhibit drawn from his book, Our Lives and Our Children, which was prompted by his nuclear fears after seeing a column of smoke rise above the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant, not far from his home at the time in Colorado. Using a hidden camera, Adams set out to secretly photograph fellow residents; he then organized these into a slow-burn chronology that climaxes in images of fear and rage. The project is manipulative and unworthy of the exhibit’s otherwise nuanced portrayals. (And, for the record, the burn near Rocky Flats that prompted the project was intentional and not dangerous.)

Following sojourns in Southern California—depicted in images of muddy firebreaks, smoggy skies, an ancient boulder in a trash-filled wash, and an evocative image of a stand of palm trees on a precipice—the retrospective closes in Oregon, where Adams has retired. Here, Adams documents the ravages of forest clear-cutting in a subtler, and more persuasive, fashion.

His work from this time includes a series of images of the massive, severed tree stumps that periodically end up on the shore of the Nehalem River due to clear-cutting further upstream. Adams’ stripped-down images of the coast, with their dominant, cloud-filled skies, echo his earlier photographs of the prairie, suggesting that Adams, despite his arguments with man’s heavy footprint in the West, may have found some solace in seeing portions of the region remain familiar, all these decades later.

American Silence: The Photographs of Robert Adams runs through Oct. 2 at the National Gallery of Art West Building, 6th Street and Constitution Avenue NW. Free.