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Looking for the Incredible in a Simple Moment

Ninety-nine years after the first home was built in Berthoud, Colorado, a 39-year-old photographer walked the streets of this small town at night. In front of a modest house lit by streetlight, he made a picture of the shadows of leaves playing across the clapboards. Beneath, through a half-opened window partially obscured by houseplants, the photographer captured the flicker of another shadow, a human figure.

There is nothing earth-shattering about this moment. Anyone who has walked a dog on a summer night has glimpsed something similar. Nevertheless, this moment was made permanent and, nine years later, became the cover of Robert Adams’s 1985 book, Summer Nights.

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Robert Adams, Berthoud, Colorado, 1976. Yale University Art Gallery Purchased with a gift from Saundra B. Lane, a grant from the Trellis Fund, and the Janet and Simeon Braguin Fund.

Five years later, I discovered this book in the library and the course of my life was changed. I took a summer photo class and began walking the residential streets of Minneapolis at night hoping to capture the flickering shadows just like Robert Adams. The work was immature, but I was beginning on my path.

Another 13 years later I sent Mr. Adams a maquette of my first book, Sleeping by the Mississippi. He wrote me back with the lines of a poem by Czeslaw Milosz: “I have read many books but I don’t believe them / When we hurt we return to the shores of certain rivers.”

Ironically, Summer Nights is not only a book I believe, it has become one of those shores for me. Over the years I’ve returned to it again and again to remember why I became a photographer. In 2012, I wrote Mr. Adams another letter. “I’ve decided it is time to go out and make some new night pictures. It has been 22 years since that first photo class and summer is around the corner. While I might be a better photographer technically, I wonder if I can muster up half as much enthusiasm for pure looking as I did back then. Any advice?”

Mr. Adams didn’t provide much advice beyond telling me to carry ID. But he did write this: “I’m envious…I think I could have photographed a whole lifetime at night.” I wanted to feel the same way, but the pictures I made failed. I was trying to find something incredible rather than honestly seeing the simple world around me. This is what gives Adams’s picture of an average house so much power. “The incredible is not a part of poetic truth,” Wallace Stevens wrote in his 1951 book The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination. “On the contrary, what concerns us in poetry, as in everything else, is the belief of credible people in credible things.”

In Adams’s picture of that house, his belief is credible. I can feel myself standing behind his camera, gazing into the half-opened window with a mix of voyeuristic delight and humane identification. Ultimately, this ability to identify is the success of the photograph. Looking at it now, it is no longer 1979 when it was made, or 1990 when I first saw it. The picture itself is a window half-open for me to walk into. “The house was quiet and the world was calm,” wrote Wallace Stevens in his poem of the same name, “The reader became the book; and summer night / Was like the conscious being of the book.”

Alec Soth’s essay was originally published as part of the Hillman Photography Initiative‘s This Picture project, which explored the breadth of response a single image can trigger.