Banal Art, Robert Adams, and his influence

My friend, Neil Patton, has questioned my use of the term “Banal Art”. This was bothering me too, as it feels more likely to be read as “art that is banal” whereas I mean “art of the banal”.

I started to research the word banal by looking at other photography related uses of the word. One of the first references I found was a paper by Cecile Whiting called “The Sublime and the Banal in Post-war Photography of the American West”. In this paper, the book, “The New West” by Robert Adams, is discussed at length. This was a useful lead, as Robert Adams was an early and key influencer of my own photographic style and choice of subject matter. In the paper Whiting describes Adams’ work as the “aesthetic of the banal” (p58).

Adams’ images in The New West are of urban development in the prairies, West of the Colorado Rockies, and show a sprawl of monotonous, flimsily built “tract houses” with the occasional views of the distant mountains. Talking about the chapters of the book Whiting says:

“These sections catalogue the ways in which human-made things – utility poles, power lines, strip malls, billboards, trailers, tract houses, commercial buildings – overwhelm the entire region of The New West.” (p59)

To see images from the book, go to:

https://trequartieri.files.wordpress.com/2012/05/robert_adams_the-new-west_01.pdf

Similarly, many of my photographic subjects are also of ordinary, functional, practical things, constructed by humans, but that appear idiosyncratic, out of place when set in the remote, sparsely populated and sometimes sublime landscapes, I choose to photograph.

My choice of subjects, and the way I present them, may be highly influenced by Robert Adams but until recently, there have been significant differences in our motivations. In Adams’ images, the “banal even seems to spread beyond the photographic frame” (p59). He is emphasising the scale of the impact of human constructs upon the landscape whereas I tend to focus on how small the human influence is within my chosen landscapes. Whilst Adams is raising awareness of the effects of too many humans I am typically trying to celebrate the pioneer spirit of the few people trying to make a living in remote landscapes.

“Adams either approached his motifs at such close range that he captured only parts of a house, car, or commercial building, or he remained at such a distance that the suburban development sprawls laterally beyond the photographic borders.” (p60)

Either way, it is the banal elements of the composition that dominate the “natural” landscape. I put “natural” in quotes because, today, it is virtually impossible to find any landscape, anywhere, that has not been modified in some way by human activity. Whiting makes the same point in the following quote, summing up Adams’ work:

“Sublime wilderness may be nothing but a fantasy, but the banal, by coexisting with nature, may be more than banal: transforming a natural setting that has never been timeless or pristine, the banal is, in a sense, naturalised.”

This quote strongly resonates with my own attitudes towards human activity and the environment.

These two images, from Iceland, are examples from my work where I am attempting to show the banal human constructs as insignificant impositions within a large, powerful, and empty landscape.

Here “nature” is not overwhelmed.

My most recent images have taken a new turn. Instead of showing insignificant human constructs, that barely impinge on their environment, with the Lammermuir Windfarm, I was now following Adams’ motivations and techniques. Here I allowed the subjects to flow out of the image frame to imply their endlessness. Like Adams, I have used a strong, banal, foreground element, plus other distant turbines in order to have the windfarm appear to overwhelm the landscape, even beyond the frame.

The message here is of an environment being taken over by humans, rather than my usual message of humans pioneering against the far more powerful landscape.

Here again, the turbines and their service roads appear to spread beyond the edges of the frame, implying their domination of the environment.

Conclusions – Neil Patton’s questioning of my use of the words “banal art” have led me down a very fruitful research path. I have been influenced by Robert Adams for many years but finding this paper has really helped me to understand the ways he has directly influenced my practice.

This exercise has also helped me understand how I can better use scale, quantity and placement of my subject(s) to actively guide (I could never control) the meanings I would like viewers to find.

Regarding subject matter, it is reassuring to read Adams’ quote:

“Many have asked, pointing incredulously towards a sweep of tract homes and billboards, why picture that? The question sounds simple, but implies a difficult issue – why open our eyes anywhere but in undamaged places like national parks?”

As a landscape photographer who focuses on apparently banal subjects, I have often been asked similar questions.

Bibliography

Adams R. The New West, Aperture; New Ed edition, 2008

Whiting C. The Sublime and the Banal in Post-war Photography of the American West, American Art published by The Smithsonian Institution, Vol27, Number2, 2013

4 thoughts on “Banal Art, Robert Adams, and his influence”

    1. Hi Alan. I think it implies people don’t expect to see beauty where they live, that beauty is something to be contained in special places and only visited. I don’t think it is conscious but is a conditioned response of low expectations.

      1. I’ve just come back from a gallery where they were displaying a picture which was worth £12M. Of the people I spoke to none thought it was very good even after being told how significant it was. To me aesthetics is such a complex topic. I wish you luck.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *