Jordan Baumgarten, Good Sick

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2018 by GOST Books (here). Hardcover, 96 pages, with 44 color photographs. Includes a text by the artist (on a loose sheet). In an edition of 650 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: When photographers go in search of potential new subjects and projects, one practical rule of thumb is to start with a topic that is both physically nearby (or easy to access) and something about which the artist already cares deeply. This kind of straightforward thinking has led to countless photographic studies of families, relatives, and friends, and of life in local communities where the photographer is an insider, or at least an engaged participant. And it has consistently been the case that when active attention is paid to a forgotten group of people or an overlooked (or mostly unknown) place, broader and deeper truths can emerge from the nuances and details only a local might notice.

When Jordan Baumgarten moved to the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia a handful of years ago, it doesn’t seem likely that he was actually thinking about deliberately making an in-depth photographic study of the opioid crisis that had been sweeping through America for the better part of the past decade – he was just settling into his life.

The truth is that such a subject is incredibly hard to photograph, mostly because it is an intellectual abstraction and aggregation of many different forces, some of which are largely invisible or at least difficult to capture with a camera. Of course, the increasing spread of heroin (and its relatives) in our cities and towns is directly wrapped up with with processes of drug trafficking and the various modes of use and addiction, but it also connects more indirectly to unemployment, homelessness, mental illness, city budgets, policing strategies, government intervention (or lack thereof), and a whole host of additional secondary and tertiary factors that come together to create environments where destructive drug use can thrive, both in and out of the shadows.

For Baumgarten, though, the original impetus behind his recent photobook Good Sick was much more elemental – he looked out the window of his new home, slowly saw what was going on in the streets and vacant lots nearby, and cared deeply enough about what he observed to pay closer attention. What he then found was the national opioid crisis, but on the scale of his own neighborhood – not necessarily entirely representative of what was happening elsewhere, but at least one small hyperlocal slice of the forces at work across the country. And so he began to make pictures.

Part of the struggle we as viewers face with a project like this one is how we can come to grips with the opposing forces of beauty and ugliness. In a context like this one, it would be certainly possible or even logical to make an endless string of grim and hopeless pictures – unfortunately, the reality on the ground doesn’t offer too many glimmers of sunshine. And yet, when an artist like Baumgarten does find moments of unlikely aesthetic beauty in such a depressing situation, we often feel justifiably manipulated, like the real and urgent tragedies of others are being made unnecessarily sunny by an arms-length artist reveling in photographic textures, surfaces, and the play of light.

Baumgarten pushes through this knothole by clarifying upfront his position as an involved participant. In a short accompanying text, he places himself in the first person – “I watched a man fire an assault rifle into the air” or “I stumbled upon a prostitute giving a man a blowjob in the field with the high grass” – and so even when his consistently well-crafted pictures capture a fleeting bit of overlooked tenderness in this harsh environment, it is his authentic human reactions that we are seeing, tempered by hard realities he has experienced firsthand. So I, for one, give him a pass on the usual charges of exploitation or insensitivity that often arise in cases like these – he’s waded into his own neighborhood with genuine concern, and it is absolutely appropriate for him to be empathetic and even cautiously optimistic.

In many ways, the physical setting of the nearby streets of Kensington forms the underlying framework for Baumgarten’s investigations – and it is the decisions that have created this specific urbanscape that start this artistic ball rolling. Central to the story are the vacant lots, which have been vacant so long that nature has largely reclaimed them. Overgrown invasive bushes and vines pile into dense thickets and space-covering jungles, and the unmown grass and weeds are waist high, tall enough to provide coverage for a whole range of out-of-sight activities. And while the lots are hemmed in by fences, dirt alleys, and decaying buildings, Baumgarten’s images capture the sense of untamed (and unpoliced) wildness found there, all within the larger boundaries of a major urban metropolis.

The two pictures that open the book set the stage. The first shows us a thickly layered arrangement of unruly growth, the bushes and trees tumbling over a crumbling rock wall, some of the leaves turning red with the coming of the fall season. And while we might mistake this scene for simply nature run wild in a corner of the city, the second picture changes that context. In the same exact framing, a young man now emerges from a hidden path in the covering greenery, carrying an armful of blankets. What he has been up to we can’t discern, but suddenly these gangly weeds are found to be inhabited, and that change of mindset haunts the rest of the book. These vacant lots and overlooked corners are undeniably in use.

In many cases, Baumgarten’s photographs capture the hint of activity, or maybe just action paused for a moment until the unwanted intruder (that is, the artist) cleared out. Flattened areas of weeds imply bodies lying down, as do towels and sheets spread on the dirty ground and later left behind, and it doesn’t take much imagination to see these as quick secluded spots to get high. Further into the overgrowth and deeper into the bushes, makeshift sleeping areas and camps take shape, with elusive inhabitants glimpsed changing clothes or coats hanging on trees. Here a fleeting visit turns into a more permanent home, with old tires and blankets used to construct protective forts.

But this kind of subtle misdirection is brazenly interrupted by an image of a man having standing sex with a naked woman bent over on a path through the long grass. This pants-at-the-ankles coupling takes place in the midday sun right out in the open, without much in the way of modesty. Later we see what we assume to be the same woman standing naked except for her white socks as she gets dressed, and the surprise is that she is significantly pregnant, her belly swelling out in a wide curve. Her condition makes these pictures all the more desperate and disheartening. It seems sex workers are also using the vacant lots as somewhat discreet places to meet customers, the cash business of prostitution becoming inextricably mixed up with cash business of drugs.

While there are a handful of actual portraits in Good Sick, it’s not at all clear that any of Baumgarten’s subjects was entirely cognizant of his presence. Some have closed eyes, seeming to turn inward, shutting out the world or wandering into an ecstatic trance. Others are noticeably more wasted and out of it, falling down into the gutter or drooping open-mouthed, unable to function normally. A series of three images spread out across the book offers a concise symbolic summary of these lives – in a nondescript part of the woods, a man digs a hole, and with each successive image, he gets deeper in his grave-like pit, until all we can see is the crest of his back.

When Baumgarten turns his camera to the buildings and in-between spaces nearby, the spiraling decay of the neighborhood takes alternate forms. Many of the structures are boarded up and for sale, certainly unattended or perhaps invaded by itinerant squatters. Inside, empty rooms bear the dents and scars of hard living, with unpaid bills and quick score phone numbers pinned to the wall. Outside, menace quietly lurks, its echoes found in a pair of claw-like scrapes across a dusty window and what looks like a black dog (but might just as well have been a mountain lion) slinking along a fence line. A hasty scrawl on a door seems to sum the situation up succinctly – UR FUCKED.

When Baumgarten pulls in closer to capture small arrangements or what are effectively found still lifes, he finds plenty of moments of alternative photographic beauty. A greasy paper plate left on the sidewalk shines with an electric orange glow. Fallen cherry blossoms gather in a puddle, creating a dappled pink surface. A black plastic phone dangles from the treetops, perhaps tossed up into the branches in a fit of frustration. Hopelessly cracked sidewalks in one image transition to a spreading stain in eye popping saturated red, almost like blood, but more urgent. And a perplexing arrangement of tiny oranges around a steel girder hints at some larger order that we can’t quite comprehend – what we can understand is the peeled back chain link fence, and the baseball bat left leaning against the wall, ready in case it is needed.

“Good sick” is apparently street slang for the nausea that accompanies a heroin high, and Baumgarten’s repeated pictures of the buildings on fire and smoke in the air seem to imply that the whole neighborhood is struggling with the traumas of the disease. While there are surface echoes of the work of Katy Grannan and Gregory Halpern in his pictures, Baumgarten’s project gets in even closer, making these uncomfortable realities personal. There is something very intimate about the way Baumgarten has embraced the troubles of his neighborhood, and it is that compassion and subtlety that makes Good Sick so memorable.

Collector’s POV: Jordan Baumgarten does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As such, interested collectors should likely connect directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

Read more about: Jordan Baumgarten, GOST Books

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