Ambulance Chasers, by Abraham Adams (2022). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Ambulance Chasers, the most recent book by the artist Abraham Adams, contains a fair amount of text – a long conversation at the end between Adams and the art historian David Joselit, and fragmentary comments by Joselit running throughout – but core of the book is wordless, and beautifully simple. Adams presents a series of diptychs: on the left is a close-up photo of a face, rephotographed from a billboard advertising a personal injury law firm – just the face, with the rest of the advertisement cropped out; and on the right is the landscape across from the billboard – what the face would be looking at, if it could see. Faces and landscapes, facing each other, page after page.
The lawyers depicted are almost all men, all in suits, all clearly straining to project competence and gravitas. Some smile, some look stern, a few look a little uncertain what to do in front of the camera. The vistas they are paired with are modern and unlovely in a variety of ways: empty intersections, bedraggled parking lots, scrubby highwaysides, overpasses, exits. There are a few blue skies, a few pleasant trees, but that’s it. No one really wants to look at a billboard, after all, so nothing across from one will be particularly nice. These are degraded landscapes, places people pass through as quickly as possible.
With these “non-places” as their companions, we can see that the lawyers, too, are strangely degraded, though in a more subtle way. Much of the detail of their faces is simply missing. Their skin is poreless, washed-out, denatured – photographed, then photoshopped, then photographed again, until what’s left has the shape of a person but not the texture. The backgrounds they are on are all flat color, making many of these people look pasted on. Their teeth, when they are visible, are almost inhumanly white. I’m tempted to say these lawyers look AI-generated, but that isn’t quite right – one of the telltale signs of AI imagery is that it’s too vivid, too glossily detailed and arranged. Instead, these are real people made to look as generic as possible, an attempt at inoffensiveness so clumsy and glaring that it becomes repellant in its own way.
Adams’s work is part of a long history of “typological” photography, as Joselit puts it: the societal cross-sections of August Sander, the industrial grids of Bernd and Hilla Becher, the deadpan photobooks of Ed Ruscha. Of these, Ruscha is the closest analogue. They share a sly, po-faced silliness – the sneaky humor of Ambulance Chasers, as in Ruscha’s Various Small Fires or Twentysix Gasoline Stations, builds as its repetitions accrue, and its commitment to the seemingly arbitrary project persists. But Adams’s work is more pointed and, crucially, more interested in what lies beyond the photographs.
Several of his previous books were explicit in their focus on the act of omission. His 2016 book Before collected the first halves of a wide variety of before-and-after advertising images – just the problems, shorn of their solutions. His 2018 Nothing in MoMA presented a suite of photos taken in MoMA that contain no art, no people, and no text: a perverse tour of the museum’s empty corners, unused stairwells, and blank walls. Both books perform a quiet, gently discombobulating magic trick, making the omitted – the invisible – in many ways more present than the visible, as what we aren’t shown shapes every aspect of what we see, and how we think of it.
Ambulance Chasers is Adams’s most expansive project yet. It gives us more to look at, and yet the invisible is, in an odd sense, even larger than it is in his other books, and more specific and detailed in its implicit presence. Both halves of its diptychs are very clearly deformed by vast external forces. The landscapes are crusted over by decades of decisions by corporations and governments, national and local: where to run highways and powerlines, what they should look like, what kind of buildings to build where, how they should look (or how little anyone cares about how they look), and on and on. The faces of the lawyers, meanwhile, come to us filtered through what they think authority and accessibility looks like, or rather their attempt to display what they think their audience thinks it looks like: what kind of hair and clothes an average injured person would trust most, what kind of smile or stoic gaze, what kind of tie, what kind of skin (they are, not surprisingly, almost all white).
Unlike Adams’s previous books, what is omitted from Ambulance Chasers is invisible not because he is refusing to show it to us, but because it is too big to see. All these images are the direct outcome of things that are unavailable to any camera – a vast, interlaced arrangement of legal, financial, and administrative systems. It is these systems that result in there being a need for personal injury lawyers, in their needing to advertise in precisely this way, and doing so in precisely these locations – which, as a result of yet more, complexly related systems, look like this.
In the conversation with Joselit that closes the book, Adams talks about how the project originated in his experience of feeling “at odds” with the city he found himself living in, one that, among other indignities, was full of billboards. I’ve known Adams for many years and am, in fact, now living in exactly the place he is referring to: Providence, Rhode Island, in a neighborhood just a few blocks from the I-95 highway. Billboards abound on this blighted stretch of road, which bisects Providence in a way that is deeply hostile to its inhabitants. Ambulance Chasers, then, is built on Adams’s resentment against one of the many indignities visited upon American communities. (In this sense, the book’s major predecessor is not Ruscha’s work but R. Crumb’s “A Short History of America,” which charts the similar fate of a single location, as it declines from pristine wilderness to paved, powerlined, billboarded “civilization.”)
Yet, for all that, the images in the book can inspire sympathy as much as anger. The advertisements at its center are for a service that many people genuinely need – people injured in a country without much of a safety net, and in which they are largely forced to figure out on their own how to defend their interests. Ambulance Chasers confronts us with the absurdity of these landscapes, and these blank figures gazing down upon them. But it is also easy to imagine being in any one of these places, looking up at one of these faces, wanting to trust it; needing, in fact, to find someone to trust – for those times when we encounter the worse things that are out there, just beyond the frame.
Gabriel Winslow-Yost is a longtime member of the editorial staff of The New York Review of Books. His writing has appeared in the NYRB, Harper's, and other publications.