Robert Adams is an octogenarian photographer whose subjects have mostly been in the American West. In this short book of short chapters — each with at least one color or black-and-white illustration of a work of art and Adams’ reflections on it — is encouragement for living meaningfully and deliberately in an oftentimes chaotic and confusing world.
Sometimes Adams and the artist offer consolation; sometimes they offer a way into greater meaning. Sometimes they do both of these things at once — for instance, see the excerpt accompanying this review, where Adams reflects on photographs taken by a Jesuit priest on Native American reservations in the 1930s.
Always, these very short essays offer a way of looking at a painting or photograph to understand better what is behind its composition and imagery. For instance, Adams points to a formation of birds flying above a lonely looking grain elevator: “Their flight — a gift of a few seconds that the photographer’s life has taught him to celebrate — entirely changes the picture.”
The book begins with two short essays on one of Adams’ favorite American painters, Edward Hopper. Adams’ approach to Hopper sets the tone for what follows, when he writes in the second essay, on Hopper’s famous painting (reproduced on the page), Early Sunday Morning: “It is affirmative but does not promise happiness. It is calm but acknowledges our failures. It is beautiful but refers to a beauty beyond our making…. There is a gloom that can be wonderful if it is reset by an inspired voice or melody or harmony or instrumentation. A song can sometimes speak right past the words, calling up intuitions that save us.”
This is an explanation of art as a spiritual tool, and as a resource for spiritual practice. Attention, Beauty, Wonder, Joy, and Imagination abound.
Altogether, twenty-nine artists are introduced by Adams in Art Can Help. Each one is used as an example of approaching life with honesty, affection, and integrity.