Last January we kicked off the new year with a photography show that examined the New Mexico cultural landscape, New Mexico Vernacular: Architectural Portraits by Robert Christensen. This year, we're also with photography: Power: New Works by David Emitt Adams. Both photographers explore overlooked but critical elements of our cultural landscape, but their focus and approach is decidedly different. Whereas Christensen highlights the gas stations, grocery stores, and other seemingly mundane structures that define everyday life, Arizona-based photographer David Emitt Adams explores the fuel that powers that life: oil. 

Adams explores the intersections between landscape and culture through the use of historical photographic processes. Printing his images on discarded cans, scrap metal, and other detritus he collects from the landscapes he photographs, he emphasizes the close relationship between civilization and the natural environment.  

The history of photography deeply informs Adams’ artistic practice, particularly in his use of wet collodion tintype, a technique developed in the nineteenth century. Unlike silver gelatin, albumen printing, and other methods that involve developing prints from negatives, tintypes are unique works made in-camera by creating a direct positive on a thin sheet of metal coated with a light-sensitive, dark lacquer or enamel.[1] Adams’ work examines the transformation of place through human intervention, particularly the Southwest within the last two centuries, stating that, “I began to see that the Arizona desert was far different from the scenery once photographed by Timothy O’Sullivan in the 1860s. I have explored this landscape with an awareness of the photographers who have come before me, and this awareness has led me to pay close attention to the traces left behind by others.”[2]

from Conversations with History, ongoing
I first became aware of Adams' work when a former Roswell-Artist-in-Residence recommended that I look at his website. I was immediately taken with his series Conversation with History, with its synthesis of desert landscapes and human detritus. Through the magic of contemporary photography, it's easy to erase our presence through perfectly-framed shots and Instagram filters, but in the work of Adams they're inseparable. 

Shortly after perusing his website, I had the chance to meet Adams in 2014, when he was passing through Roswell. I visited his portable studio, which he keeps in truck, as well as see some of his work in person. What stood out for me was a new series that Adams and I both thought would be well-received in Roswell, given its history with the oil industry: Power. Over the next two years, we maintained contact and followed the development of the project, eventually turning it into this exhibition.

Navajo Refinery, Artesia, New Mexico No. 2, 2015, wet plate collodion tintype on 55-gallon steel drum lid, 23/5" diameter. Courtesy of the Artist.
In Power, Adams turns his photographic gaze to the oil industry, an indelible component of American life. From the decline of the whaling industry to the development of the West, petroleum has played a critical role in our history since the nineteenth century, and continues to shape politics, international relations, and technological advancements.[3] In addition to its role as a primary energy and heating source, oil plays a vital part in contemporary material culture by appearing as a key ingredient in hundreds of products ranging from toothpaste to electronics.[4] It has defined the economic life cycles of numerous American businesses and communities through periodic booms and busts, and indirectly shapes our culture through its impact on museums and other educational centers, with many institutions deriving a substantial portion of their philanthropic support from petroleum-based industries.[5] Oil also remains one of the most contentious social, political, and environmental issues of our time, shaping discussions on climate change, community safety, and energy independence. With its multifaceted influence on history and society, oil is the lubricant of American life, the fuel that powers our lifestyles, political views, and world image. 

Signal Hill No. 3, Los Angeles, California, 2015, wet plate collodion tintype on 55-gallon steel drum lid, 23/5" diameter. Courtesy of the Artist.

Scattergood Generating Station, El Segundo, California, 2015, wet plate collodion tintype on 55-gallon steel drum lid, 23/5" diameter. Courtesy of the Artist.
Traveling through the western and southern United States, Adams has photographed refineries in New Mexico, California, Mississippi, Texas, and Arizona, capturing the industrial architecture that sustains contemporary life. Using a mobile darkroom, he exposes his photographs directly onto oil drum lids, enhancing the tactile quality of his work.[6] Through this practice, Adams transforms these discarded objects into meditations on the oil industry. Photographed at a distance, the refineries featured in Power appear familiar and unfamiliar, presented as both mundane structures, and almost mysterious power generators. Distinguished by their sepia-toned palettes, these images recall the photographic landscape tradition of the nineteenth century, while details such as automobiles firmly situate these works in the present.[7] Emulsion splotches, openings on the lids, and repoussé letters and numbers underscore the physical presence of the drums themselves, reminding viewers that these objects contained crude oil before becoming tintypes. Simultaneously photographic and sculptural, Power converses with both the past and present, underscoring the profound influence of oil through time.

Offshore, Pascagoula, Mississippi, 2015, wet plate collodion tintype on 55-gallon steel drum lid, 23/5" diameter. Courtesy of the Artist.

Port of Los Angeles No. 2, San Pedro, California, 2015, wet plate collodion tintype on 55-gallon steel drum lid, 23/5" diameter. Courtesy of the Artist.
Arizona Public Service, Tempe, AZ, 2015, wet plate collodion tintype on 55-gallon steel drum lid, 23/5" diameter. Courtesy of the Artist.

Ultimately, visitors are going to infer their own conclusions from their work, depending on their opinions and experiences. Some might see an homage to the petroleum industry, given oil's importance to so many Southwest communities. Others might see a criticism of it, particularly in light of Standing Rock and other recent events. Still others might focus on something else altogether, whether it's the history of photography or the American landscape tradition. Great art should support a variety of interpretations and provoke a range of questions; Power is no exception. As a multi-faceted portrait of American oil, it represents both an exploration of the industry as it appears in the twenty-first century, and a consideration of its historical legacy. It underscores oil’s enduring presence, for better or worse, in the American cultural landscape.

Navajo Refinery, Artesia, New Mexico, 2015, wet plate collodion tintype on 55-gallon steel drum lid, 23/5" diameter. Courtesy of the Artist.

[1] David Emitt Adams, interview with the author, 8 December 2016; Colin Harding, “How to Spot a Ferrotype, Also Known as Tintype,” National Media Museum, 25 May 2013, http://blog.nationalmediamuseum.org.uk/find-out-when-a-photo-was-taken-identify-ferrotype-tintype/. Accessed 23 November 2016.

[2] Grant Gill, “David Emitt Adams: The States Project: Arizona,” Lenscratch: Fine Art Photography Daily, 5 September 2016, http://lenscratch.com/2016/09/david-emitt-adams-the-states-project-arizona/, accessed 4 November 2016.

[3] PBS.org, Extreme Oil. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/extremeoil/history/. Accessed 4 November 2016.

[4] Petroleum Services Association of Canada, “Products Made from Oil and Natural Gas,” oilandgasinfo.ca, http://www.oilandgasinfo.ca/oil-gas-you/products/, accessed 4 November 2016.

[5] Holland Cotter, “Making Museums Moral Again,” The New York Times, 17 March 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/17/arts/design/making-museums-moral-again.html?_r=0, accessed 4 November 2016. Many of RMAC’s most significant donors have also worked in the petroleum industry.

[6] Adams, interview with the author, 8 December 2016; Becky Bartkowsi, “David Emitt Adams: 2013 Big Brain Awards Finalist, Visual Art,” Phoenix New Times, 23 April 2013, http://www.phoenixnewtimes.com/arts/david-emitt-adams-2013-big-brain-awards-finalist-visual-art-6556717, accessed 4 November 2016.

[7] Martha A. Sandweiss, “Undecisive Moments: The Narrative Tradition in Western Photography,” in Photography in Nineteenth-Century America, ed. Martha A. Sandweiss (Fort Worth and New York: Amon Carter Museum and Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1991), 99-129.


  1. Woodbury, Interesting. In Las Cruces there is one building with round windows, almost like a ship. I have not as of yet found another similar. -DAC


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