During a period of economic growth in the 1960s and ’70s, a substantial shift in the commercial geography of Denver and the wider Colorado region began to gather momentum. Encouraged by their employees, who recognised the area’s natural beauty and the prospect of a new beginning, a number of businesses, their attendant service industries and communities of labour began to resettle in what Jack Kerouac, writing in On the Road, had called “the promised land” little more than a decade earlier. In 1995, Robert Adams returned to pictures he made throughout this time and worked with curator Thomas Weski to select the 193 photographs that comprise this small, solid and deeply affecting book.
After a spell in California, Robert Adams had returned to Colorado in 1962, to teach English. He would photograph in his free time and, witnessing these migrations, had by 1967 cut his teaching by two-thirds so that his photography might progress. Over an extended period, and against a world unsettled by political unrest in Europe and war in Vietnam, Adams steadily photographed the region and between 1968 and 1974, he produced two books. The New West (1974) and Denver (1977) both held an authority previously found in the survey photography that had marked out the West a century before. Yet there was also something more. These photographs were idiosyncratic, collecting a singular vision borne of reflection, routine and perhaps even isolation.
The book is built upon what seem like contemplative, pedestrian journeys. There is a sense of walking from the edges of towns, through the grasslands, past fly-tips in unkempt peripheries, then moving through the tract housing and low-rise apartment blocks, the flat rectangular factories and arriving at the cavernous shopping areas before returning. The photographs, although diverse in form and freely made, emphasise the monotonies of architecture, the functionality of homes, the uniformity of sizes. Many pictures are spare of immediate drama; foregrounds are empty except for scrubland and concrete highways pave in whole half frames – or seem to show little but the litter that falls from cars and blows, until it is snagged on the slopes at the edges of highways.
The book has been carefully reproduced, so close to the originals that it is possible to understand the effect those six inch-or-so high originals would create when stretched around galleries over recent decades. Diner windows veil dark interiors, welling to black; figures are nearly lost in the shadow of unremarkable buildings, or fading under what Tod Papageorge would later describe, when writing about these pictures, as a light of “virtually nuclear intensity”. When he was making the work Adams moved between two cameras. The rectangle of a more traditional territorial survey initially dominates the book, before the square format becomes a preferred way to photograph the interiors of shops, offices and homes. In retail areas, adults are seen alone and often from a distance. They sit at tables in vast yet mostly empty malls. The square seems appropriate and stifling, offering no sense of how those workers, who have passed through the streets so freely until now, may ever leave the factories, thrift stores or supermarkets of this Colorado town.
The effect of What We Bought is accumulative. Adams writes in the book’s introduction of “what we purchased, what we paid and what we could not buy”. It’s useful to recognise the personal inflection of the book’s title, in contrast to the detachment that announced his earlier publications. Perhaps, looking at the work 30 years on, the photographer has allowed an expression of seasoned, slowly realised anger. What many pictures include, though hindered by the hoardings, telegraph poles and trees that Adams clearly shares with Walker Evans, is a sense of the settlement’s edge. The photographs seem to map a sense of isolation, even insignificance against the wider America beyond. Gradually it becomes clear that, tucked under the tall, midday skies of this American West, the horizon promises nothing.