Robert Adams, The Oregonian
Robert Adams at the Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon
Originally published in The Oregonian

Since the mid-1960s, photographer Robert Adams has chronicled the changing landscape of the American West, recording the delicate balance between the natural world and civilization's boundless advance. The quietly sensitive black-and-white images that make up his prolific output mingle rapt awe and elegiac sorrow in their depictions of, for example, sun-blasted Colorado plains or Southern California urban sprawl, as viewed from a nearby foothill. In these exquisite photographs, Adams' eye is always trained on beauty, but, in his framing of it, he reminds viewers that it is often in peril, if not in need of salvaging.

When, in 1997, Adams settled in Astoria, his new home in the Coast Range became the main subject of his art. As evidenced by "The Question of Hope," a collection of photographs taken across Western Oregon, including Clatsop and Coos Counties, between 1999 and 2012, he has focused on the desolation of clear-cutting and, like a palliative, the incredible expanse of the Pacific Ocean. The first image one encounters in Adams' show at thePortland Art Museum depicts the darkness of a coastal forest, in which light punctures the cupola of tree-shade in defined rays. The silhouettes of a pair of slender trees crawl across an old growth, imbuing a simple image with a profound truth about the passage of time and generations.

In the ensuing images, however, that sense of enclosure is obliterated, replaced by the blunt, uninflected light of deforested hillsides. Throughout these images, we see spaces ravaged and forgotten, from a beer can perched on an enormous stump to piles of spindly sticks, the remains of an "immature" industrial forest, soon to be ground to bark chips.

Adams seldom permits a non-natural figure to enter into this group of images, though hulking deforestation machinery makes the occasional appearance. More moving, though, are the mournful images of the photographer's wife, Kerstin, who, seated and standing, communes with a stump so old that it towers above her, even with its monumental trunk felled.

In light of those tragic images, Adams' photographs of the ocean register with triumphant wonder. Frequently, the entire frame is filled with sea, sky and clouds, but, shooting at different times of day and with disparate qualities of light, these basic elements seem to contain infinite range. The surface of the water, frozen in an instant, appears delicately glassy, glinting sun, in one image and as smoothly windswept as dunes in another. Similarly, clouds veer from muted wisps to billowing, dramatically backlit scrims.

Unlike the clear-cut landscapes, the coast in these photographs comes to life in flocks of scuttling seabirds and beach-combing families. These figures stand in marked contrast to the abundant absence Adams captures in the deforested hills, as if to show that nature's beauty hinges on our appreciative awareness of it.