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By Suzanne Révy
Since the earliest days of photography, the American landscape, rich with visual possibilities, has been a favorite subject for countless photographers. In her essay, Undecisive Moments, photography historian Martha Sandweiss noted how the influential narratives of the American west were developed through albums, books, murals and panoramic photographs. These early, myth-making images, often commissioned as surveys for railroad companies, introduced glimpses of the vast western landscapes to east coast audiences in the latter half of the 19th century. This American Landscape is the theme for the New England School of Photography’s 2nd Annual Juried Group Show at the Garner Center Gallery in Waltham, MA. Juried by master photographer and educator Jim Dow, the show features work by twenty-three photographers who explore several narrative threads in our ever-shifting and restless country, from intimate backyard spaces to dirty urban environments, vernacular architecture and the tension between abandoned manmade structures and the natural environment that inevitably reclaims them. This American Landscape will be on view through June 1st, 2018 and TONIGHT, Tuesday May 8th, there is a free, public Opening Reception from 5:30pm to 7:30pm.
The show opens with a lushly printed black and white image, Sagging Roof by Mildred Alpern, an intimate view of a small private yard with a neglected garage, its roof covered in leaves, moss and branches. Further explorations of private spaces offer dramatically different American backyard traditions, such as those found in Lydia A. Harris’ Untitled Sylvan, NC and Robert Castagna’s The New Backyard. In the first, weeds grow with abandon around a paper shooting target perched within an overgrown, partially fenced garden while in the second, we get a bird’s eye view of a highly manicured lawn, pool, patio and graphic patterned outdoor umbrellas.
Gritty urban views are featured in Robert Welsh’s image of an elevated train station in North Hampton Station with its muted colors seeming to emphasize a layer of dirt on the surfaces. Peter Nicholson’s image of a delicate plastic bag floating above a chain link fence and the edifice of two buildings implies the random shifts of wind that swirl through built up spaces and the sometimes carelessness of those working or living in urban environments.
A staple of the American landscape is the vernacular architecture of suburban and rural locations. Richard Green’s “Petrified Wood Texaco Gas Station” that sells no gas, cloaked in the warmth of dusk light, is a stunningly beautiful print. Robert Castagna’s wedding shop, Kory’s is a barren urban environment on an overcast day. It reveals little regional distinction, but for the unusual wall across the street and distinctly different architecture peaking above, which subtly suggests its location along our southern border.
Social, cultural and economic shifts play themselves out visually in the landscape, revealing our defining American restlessness. Kathy Tarantola’s images from the southern New Jersey shore depict three small cottages dwarfed by larger dwellings. Our desire for ever grander homes, even those in sleepy beach towns, have left only traces of the diminutive single story cottages that were the mainstay of visitors to the shore of decades past. Indeed, engaging with nature from the comfort of air-conditioned car or diner, as in Jim Rohan’s “Open” marks a fundamental shift in how many Americans engage with the natural world. And yet we build, then neglect, so many structures in the landscape. Andy Cross’s abandoned Sundowner Motel appears to be turning into the dust of the surrounding desert and James Marquis’ weeds overtaking a manhole cover is a disarmingly simple yet potent image.
As with many juried “call for entry” exhibitions, this one has a few misfires, but more than enough gems to make it worth a visit. The tone and tenor of the show mirrors many of the grand narratives of American life as they are revealed through evolving, shifting, and ever altering landscapes.
Featured Image (detail) by Andy Cross, courtesy of the artist and the Garner Center Gallery
For more information, go to: https://www.nesop.edu/events/the-garner-center/juried-group-show/