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Art / Robert Adams at SFMOMA

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I'd nev­er heard of Robert Adams before I saw his show at SFMOMA. Called "Turn­ing Back," the pho­tos doc­u­ment the destruc­tion of the old-growth forests that Lewis & Clark passed through on their jour­ney west­ward. The title refers to the impli­ca­tions and com­pli­ca­tions of west­ward advance­ment. When Lewis and Clark reached the West Coast, they turned back and head­ed east; the vast dev­as­ta­tion in Adams's pho­tos con­veys the sense that — these days — there's no turn­ing back."Turning Back" is bound to strike a chord with peo­ple. It evokes indeli­ble Amer­i­can ideals and icons — the nat­ur­al beau­ty of Amer­i­ca, the promise inher­ent in the West, the brav­ery of Lewis & Clark — and presents it in a for­mat and style eeri­ly reminscent to anoth­er pho­tog­ra­ph­er named Adams — Ansel. Where­as Ansel's clas­sic pho­tos endeav­or to com­mu­ni­cate the vast­ness and beau­ty of Amer­i­ca, the best of Robert's man­age to con­vey an equal­ly vast devastation.While I walked through the show, I thought a lot about my hike on the PCT, which took me through a few of the same forests fea­tured in the show. As I approached the north­ern part of the west coast, I was pret­ty curi­ous about the clear cuts. Of course I knew that it would be depress­ing, but real­ly I had no idea what to expect. I imag­ined a sort of Lorax‑y land­scape of smooth hills dot­ted with lit­tle stumps.As I hiked through the vast clear cuts of North­ern Cal­i­for­nia, Ore­gon and Wash­ing­ton, I was stunned *not* by the absence of trees, but the obvi­ous bru­tal­i­ty sur­round­ing their removal. In the new­er clear-cut areas, there was upturned earth every­where, huge mounds of soil, man­gled stumps — I've nev­er been on a bat­tle­field, but there's prob­a­bly more a few sim­i­lar­i­ties between the two. In some places, the dirt mounds and fall­en trees com­plete­ly oblit­er­at­ed the trail, and we had to do some pret­ty thor­ough route-find­ing before we made it through.In the areas that had been clear-cut years before, the trees grew in thick clumps. One didn't so much hike through them as swim, or claw, or climb. The small trees were them­selves fight­ing for space, and their branch­es were so dense­ly inter­wo­ven that the ground was invis­i­ble for hun­dreds of yards around. In the morn­ings, before the dew evap­o­rat­ed, one could eas­i­ly get soaked in the space of twen­ty yards while push­ing through the branches.Adams's pho­tos con­vey the bru­tal­i­ty and upheaval well, though I real­ly wished that con­text had been pro­vid­ed along with each pho­to — where was it tak­en? when? what used to be there? I want­ed to con­nect with specifics of geog­ra­phy and fit the pieces together.