A version of this essay appeared in the catalog for the August/September 2010 exhibition, Deborah Garwood: Portrait of a Landscape. Imagery of Evans Pond, 1997-2009 at the Fundación Antonio Pérez, Cuenca, Spain. Garwood, meanwhile, who is also a contributing editor at artcritical, reviews the Mixed Use, Manhattan exhibition of New York photography at the Reina Sofia, Madrid.
The tranquil, beguilingly lovely Evans Pond, approximately 80 miles south of New York City in Camden County, New Jersey, is surrounded by a tangle of woods. It is also the subject of an ongoing, multipart visual exploration by Deborah Garwood, an artist, critic and scholar who grew up nearby. She has studied its history, learning that, in colonial times, it was a millpond established by Quakers in co-existence with the Lenni-Lenapes, a Native American tribal people; in the 19th Century, it was a “station” on the Underground Railroad; and now, it is a public parkland. Photographing it in different seasons and lights, she has captured Evans Pond’s range of guises and moods, a range that inevitably reflects her own. It is a prolonged portrait, a visual biography, the afterimage of which is a self-portrait, a visual autobiography, an alter ego. Investigated with singular dedication—she has photographed it one weekend a month for 10 to 12 months of the year every year since she initiated the project–it is part historical record, part environmental report and land survey, and part poetics of place, a meditation on the cycles of life, on what is lost and what remains. In Evans Pond: A Long-Term Study of a Single Place, Ms. Garwood taps a naturalist vein in American culture, one that is deeply attuned to landscape, to memories of wilderness altered by the encroachments of industrialization and (sub)urbanization, to the spirit of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman (Camden’s most famous resident)) and William Carlos Williams (who made a New Jersey river immortal).
Ms. Garwood’s suites of modest sized images, 2,3, or 4 to a suite, are most often gelatin silver prints although some are in color. Taken with a variety of cameras–from view cameras to box to digital—and using different films and processes, Ms. Garwood has created an archive of the medium, synopsizing its aesthetic and technological history. The pictures themselves vary, the clear brilliant colors of digital prints in contrast to the dreamy tonalities of the black and whites, the former very much of the present, the others moodier, some in soft focus and less crisply perfect, evoking 19th-century scenes. It is a survey in real time but also a survey of the history of the medium, the pond seen through the camera eye of different periods. The point of view can be close-up or more panoramic, looking upward or straight-on, creating in its sequencing an immersive experience. These still photographs, formatted as diptychs and three or four-part sequences are installed so that the resultant rhythm creates a cinematic sense of movement, the progression slowed, stopped for a moment by the shift from one image to another, by the intervals between images, the site deconstructed and reconstructed. The effect is like that of a film in slow motion, one with a pause button handy.
Evans Pond, as a project, seems straightforward, factual but, ultimately, it is much more quixotic, a kind of fine, understated madness, an act of private possession as well as public presentation—which is what makes it particularly gripping. Who photographs a pond for 12 years? In Ms. Garwood’s narrative, we are quietly offered a place, unpeopled because people come and go although their presence is implicit. With that, we are also offered reassurance as well as Ms. Garwood’s stubborn belief in some imagined beauty, in the invincible, renewable earth.
Lilly Wei is a New York-based independent curator, essayist and critic
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