Irina Rozovsky, In Plain Air

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by MACK Books (here). Embossed hardcover,  9 ½ x 11 inches, 96 pages, with 57 color photographic reproductions. Includes a one-page afterword by the photographer. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: One of the legacies of Conceptual Art for photography is that intellectual stimulus is now prized in the art world over optical pleasure. The ascetic, chess-player Duchamp was interested “in the mind—not in visual products,” and artists who produced works that wooed the eye and reveled in virtuosity were condemned by his followers as backward and bourgeois, insufficiently rigorous. Suspicion of the “fine print,” begun in the 1960s as a healthy reaction against the hegemony of Ansel Adams’ and Minor White’s teachings, has led in careless hands to a less beneficial downgrading of technical skills and a general disregard for earnest sincerity.

Irina Rozovsky’s In Plain Air is self-consciously retardaire in celebrating nature and photography in a pre-Conceptual state of mind. Without a foreword or captions, the book consists purely of articulate color photographs showing all kinds of people enjoying moments of solace, bliss, relaxation, or meditative calm in a public park, at various times of day and in all seasons. The title, a pun on a phonetic translation of the French plein air, suggests an affinity with the open air practice of Impressionism, a movement revolving around scenes of leisure and one whose attitude could not be further removed from our politically turbulent moment.

The sights in Rozovsky’s book are general and democratic rather than time-stamped and privileged. The tiny printed dedication in front to F.L. Olmsted along with a line on a back page, explaining that all of the images in the book were made in Prospect Park, Brooklyn between 2011-2020, locates the pictures in a particular place. Without these cues during a perusal, however, we might be in any park in any U.S. city or suburb on the East coast, and in any year since 2000.

Public parks in urban settings are in many ways unnatural. They are planned and maintained by municipal governments who make sure that all of the elements—trees, grasses, flowers, plants, water, pathways—are looked after, cut, pruned, raked, replanted, repaved, cleared of refuse, and made secure, according to what that year’s budget will allow. The only factors outside the regulation of civic authorities are the ages and types of visitors, the cycle of seasons, and the weather.

All of us who “use” parks (a telling expression) either welcome these forms of control (less work for us) or ignore them, content with the illusion that when we enter a designated green space we are for a few minutes or hours “free” in the city—released from the oppressive dimensions of colossal buildings, of interior confinement, crowded sidewalks, noise, car exhaust, and commercial blandishments. Olmsted and his partner Calvert Vaux were masters at guiding us around their enclosures at a pace of our choosing, designing copses for bird watchers and open fields for dog walkers or athletes, along with bench-side water views for the less vigorous. In Central Park, enough exposed rock was left to impart a gothic cragginess to its geology; the smaller and younger Prospect Park has a 90-acre meadow and Brooklyn’s only lake.

Rozovsky doesn’t highlight the unnatural qualities of Prospect Park. For her, it’s an essential site for numerous and varied activities and for mental survival in a democracy that is also an indifferent urban jungle. She portrays it as a pleasure spot for relaxation, picnics on the grass, staring into space, strolling, exercising, canoodling, boating—the same way that Manet did the Bois de Boulogne, Monet and Renoir did La Grenouillière, and Seurat did La Grande Jatte. She favors solo figures or couples. Among my favorite images here is a young man who looks older than his years, his pale pink head perched atop a slumped body dressed in t-shirt and jeans. A portrait of a seated Black man with dyed blonde hair, leaning against a sycamore and holding his pit bull in a golden light, is a warm hued study in browns and yellows.

The frame of reference expands in a few cases to include clusters of visitors: an Orthodox Jewish family of seven, two children standing against a tree for a crouching (and hidden) photographer; an energetic group of five young African-American men in a dappled piece of woods; and a woman in a hijab reaching toward a man in a tree, the two of them set against an array of twenty or so small and distant figures. It’s conspicuous for being the only large group in the book, and even here Rozovsky leaves plenty of space around them. Everyone here is treated as an independent agent.

The edit is structured so that the park is given an identity apart from its being a respite for tired and busy New Yorkers. Swans are a motif, the s curves of their necks rhyming with the arabesque arms of tree branches in other images. Water and sunlight and open air are what attract everyone to the park, and the presence of these natural elements is felt in every picture, especially when the ground is thick in snow and people’s move at its mercy.

In Plain Air is a less enigmatic collection than One to Nothing, her 2011 book on Israel; or Island in My Mind, her 2015 book on Havana. Most of the images in those books were laid out as double-page spreads and were only tenuously connected to each other, sometimes jarringly so. The images here are more harmoniously joined; more often than not they’re horizontal rather than square, arranged as rectos with a blank verso, and printed on lusciously thick paper.

Rozovsky isn’t pretending that her subject matter is original. She knows her book will inevitably be compared to that of her former teacher, Tod Papageorge, whose Passing through Eden: Photographs of Central Park (2007) covered the same ground more thoroughly, albeit in Manhattan and in black-and-white. Justin Kimball’s Where We Find Ourselves (2006) is another ancestor. And before them both was the Canadian Center for Architecture’s Olmsted Project, which sent Robert Burley, Lee Friedlander, and Geoffrey James around the world between 1988-1995 to photograph Olmsted’s hundreds of landscape designs.

She hasn’t delved into Prospect Park’s less family-friendly areas, as did Thomas Roma’s In the Vale of Cashmere, his 2015 series on gay cruising sites in the woods. Sexual assaults on the perimeter are still depressingly common. In Plain Air has only one night-time photo, and it’s a good one, of a Black mother on a bench feeding her son. More pictures that probed into the shadows after sunset would have helped. But if Rozovsky has decided to show us only what is nourishing and hopeful about Olmsted’s park, that’s OK with me. She must have taken all of these photographs pre-Covid, as no one here is masked. And maybe because of that, the book feels especially welcome now, signaling an end to indoor solitude and a future when we can again at any time walk in the open air.

Collector’s POV: Irina Rozovsky is represented in New York by Claxton Projects (here). Her work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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