In the past I’ve written about how important Robert Adams is to me. His pictures and writing exist as separate ‘things’, but both exhibit a commitment and clarity that is lacking in much work.

While some people shy away from his use of language in relation to beauty, art and form, some of his essays cannot be ignored.

I rode the bus home this evening after pointing a camera at some silly things along the street. Adams’ 1981 book Beauty in Photography was tucked away in my bag, and sat in my hands for the short run across the lake.

I won’t be the bastard who types out an entire essay (my little fingers would be tired, let alone the question of ‘fair use’). Rather I’ll throw in this short exert from ‘Photographing Evil’, the forth essay in the small book, and urge all to ensure they have a copy sitting on a shelf somewhere in the house.

In response to juxtapositions like these there are critics who have asked for “concerned photography,” by which they mean photography that deals directly with social ills. Few photographers themselves have, however, supported the use of the adjective “concerned” as a way of distinguishing one artist from another; they know firsthand that all art is the product of concern. They believe as a consequence that it has social utility – it is designed to give us courage. Society is endangered to the extent that any of us loses faith in meaning, in consequence. Art that can convincingly speak through form for significance bears upon the problem of nihilism and is socially constructive. Restated, photography as art does address evil, but it does so broadly as it works to convince us of life’s value; the darkness that art combats is the ultimate one, the conclusion that life is without worth and finally better off ended. Which is to say that art addresses an inner struggle whereas journalism more often reports on the outward consequences of it. Perhaps this is what William Carlos Williams meant when he wrote that “It is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there.” We have all had the sad opportunity to watch that. And though poems and pictures cannot by themselves save anyone – only people who care for each other face to face have a chance to do that – they can strengthen our resolve to agree to life.

To value photography as art is not however to denigrate photography in the service of different ends. We owe a debt to the cameramen who worked in Vietnam, for example. Photographs like theirs encourage us to resist what evil it may be in our power to correct. Without honest reporters it would be easier to give up and to deny the complex imperatives of tragic politics – the necessity of trying to make the world better even while we learn that we will mostly fail.

Whether a person is led by concern to become an artist or journalist or reformer or a combination of the three must depend on the nature of his gifts and on the place and time in which he works. Who can identify the person we could do without? There have been occasions, for instance, when the threat to society has been so immediate and total that art has seemed to some artists irrelevant and thus impermissible; in consequence, as citizens of the world first and artists second, they have turned to making propaganda. I admire David Smith, for instance, for trying to speak out in the late 1930s with his production of the small bronzes called “Medals for Dishonor”, even though it is impossible to locate a single event that he changed by them. The fact that he took time away from his regular work must have forced others to consider the source of his anguish; anyone who had admired what he had done before had to ask what was now more important.

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