Adam Davies

What is the Antique in Truro

Essay written by the artist Taylor Baldwin for the issue, Urbanisms: Model Cities.

Published 5 May 2009, Triple Canopy

Adam Davies is a photographer with a foot in two centuries. He uses a traditional, large-format Canham camera with accordion bellows and a black-cloth hood, which you might imagine being employed by nineteenth-century government survey teams working on the American frontier. Indeed, Davies’s work responds to and recasts the idealizing nature photography of the Sierra Club school (most closely associated with Ansel Adams) and its progeny. While nineteenth-century nature photographers sought compositions that lacked any evidence of human presence in order to present a natural idyll (and later photographers systematically removed all evidence of human activity from the landscape), Davies searches for those places where the relationship between people and their environs is at its most ambivalent and most tenuous.

The photographs presented here are printed at a scale of up to thirty-two by forty inches from eight-by-ten-inch negatives. Seen in person, they provoke a welling and profound sense of anxiety and unease, though the scenes depicted in each image are deceptively mundane: concrete walls atop barren plots, a pile of felled trees in grey woods, a view from the underside of a highway overpass. With their contemplative gaze and acute attention to formal composition, these natural tableaux are more reminiscent of portraiture than of traditional wide-angle landscape photography (as is the comparatively narrow scope of Davies’s lens). But these are portraits without sitters, without subjects. The camera records man’s imprint on the environment in the same way that expanding concentric circles travel through the ocean for days after a large ship has sunk, inscribing the water miles away. The locale has no explicit relationship with the disastrous event and yet bears the mark of its passing; what is pictured is not the landscape, but the faintest traces of its disturbance.

Davies’s lens does not settle on icons of the past—there are no rusting steel mills or foundered fishing trawlers—but things as they are in the present. Davies shoots in flat, grey light, illuminating each object and space equally, without shadow. Although his photographs at times suggest some post-apocalyptic Arcadia, like a J. M. W. Turner painting set in the year 2075, they must be understood as indexical references to places that exist in the postindustrial here and now. The cities pictured—among them Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Lynchburg and Amherst, Virginia; and Truro, Massachusetts—have all endured a massive exodus of their primary industry, leaving them with signs of decay that are equally physical and psychological. What lies beyond the frame is unclear, but, for now, the landscape contains the evidence of these places, of these absences.