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Genius Loci: The Spirit of a Place
“It is in vain to dream of a wilderness distant from ourselves.”
Henry David Thoreau, Journal, August 30, 1856
The spirit of a place, the genius loci, is most easily discovered in places to which one have never been. In my images, I try to summon a glimpse of the singular, the unique to be found in a place and time. Strolling idly, we gather the details of an unfamiliar place so that, later, they can be forgotten and exchanged for a sense of familiarity. This forgetting comes as some relief, as we are everywhere surrounded by the opposite of the sublime: the chilly, early morning bus stop; brutalist office buildings; a disused parking lot; the forbidding bank building; a misshapen drive-thru; the abandoned strip mall. My images offer a way to disrupt this exchange of the new-yet-ordinary for the familiar-but-rote, revealing an intimate landscape that mostly goes unseen.
Our planet could be seen as divided into three, overlapping spheres. The first sphere is Nature’s domain, the wilderness that has everywhere atrophied over the last two centuries. The second sphere is the terrain of humankind, having surged where the wilderness shrank, and is the familiar domain of cities and towns, farms and shopping malls, homes and yards, streets and highways, and all the other parities of our habitat. The third realm is the dumping ground, the wasteland encrusted with our spent capital and unwanted labor. Here and there are the catastrophes of our craft, the poisons of our industry, and the ruins we build to contain the consequences of how we live.
Time and again, Western artists have used landscape imagery to critique their era by imagining a utopian destination either in a mythic (pagan) past, or in a more promising (biblical) future. German painters of the Enlightenment offered their landschaft scenes of the Black Forest as an alternative to the urbane excesses of Roman culture, and again later in French culture. The Dutch took their notion of landschap with them to the New World, and the Hudson Valley Painters offered a Promised Land of hope to inspire colonists to settle the wilds of Upstate New York. Later, photographers like Carlton Watkins continued this project in the American West. His first photographs sent back East were of an edenic, sunken valley called Yosemite. Contemporary photographers have critiqued our era by turning their cameras on the our polluted wastes: A dystopian present portends an apocalyptic reckoning. Everywhere the artist’s landscape has been more inhabited by myth and legend than people.
My art practice, in contrast, is located entirely in our habitat — the built landscape — bookended by the diminished Wilderness and the swollen Wasteland. My imagery has no critique of our misdirected present, and no normative prescription to lead us toward a more promising future. What I do see in our habitat is something intimately us. I see the human landscape in tenderness, brimming with our foibles. I try to chronicle the eccentric variety of marks that we visit upon this landscape. Garry Winogrand once remarked, “There is nothing as mysterious as a fact clearly described…” and this comes close to summarizing my approach. In my work, I hope to show how our landscape is incredible, full of humanity, and often more beautiful, more wild than we suppose, as we hurry by.
While the trajectory of my imagery streams from the documentary tradition, my process might be more related to cinema. When I have found a locale of interest, I surround it with images, discovering it over and over again. Later, I try to tell the story of that place — the spirit of the place — by sequencing only a handful images into a panoramic vehicle. Ultimately, what I create seems, alternately and simultaneously, like a sequence of interconnected images and a somewhat curiously formed landscape. It is my hope that this process creates unique images that offer a new way to see our landscape and ourselves.