JTF (just the facts): A total of 28 black and white photographs, framed in dark grey and matted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the smaller viewing room/office. All of the works are vintage gelatin silver prints, made in 1979 or 1980. Each of the images is sized roughly 7×9 and no edition information was provided on the checklist. A monograph of this body of work was published in 1983 by Lustrum Press. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: While there are countless places of awe inspiring natural grandeur in America, the New Jersey Meadowlands don’t really deserve to be included among our most treasured wonders. Just a few miles across the river from the frenetic vertical density of New York city, the swampy tidal flats that make up the Meadowlands extend out with sweeping horizontal monotony. Cut through by the New Jersey Turnpike and dotted with belching factories, chemical plants, rail yards, and other industrial architecture, it is landscape filled with scrubby weeds, muddy rutted roads, and concrete backlots punctuated by electrical poles and towers. Long infused with chemical runoffs and noxious fumes, its marshes have became synonymous with the blight of polluted ugliness, even though the stubborn resilience of nature continues to try its best to soften the edges of past environmental mistakes.
Such an overtly toxic stew of industrial development and overlooked nature wouldn’t normally be considered a particularly promising photographic subject, but back in the late 1970s when Ray Mortenson made the pictures on view in this excellent show, American landscape photography was going through a period of active questioning and transition. In contrast to the grand majesty of Ansel Adams’ views of Yosemite, photographers such as Lewis Baltz, Robert Adams, Joe Deal, Frank Gohlke, and others were pointing their cameras at the consequences of rapid American expansion – unwieldy suburban sprawl, soulless tract housing, cookie-cutter industrial parks, and other elements of the newly built environment – and capturing these results with both conceptual rigor and heightened environmental awareness.
Mortenson’s superlative pictures of the Meadowlands (from 1979 and 1980) fit right into this prevailing mood of intense scrutiny. They unflinchingly document mid-range vistas of dirt piles, train tracks, smokestacks, chemical tanks, semi trailers, garbage dumps, and stagnant pools of who knows what, showing us the unadorned reality of our own choices. And given this subject matter, we might expect that these images would be consciously repulsive, the foul visual evidence for a certain kind of argument.
The unexpected twist in this story is just how truly beautiful Mortenson’s photographs are – their consistent grace and thoughtfulness upends our instinctive negative reaction to the marred landscape. Compositionally, the pictures are repeatedly grounded in the flattened layers of space, the foreground, mid ground, and background transformed into strips that sit on top of each other like sediments in a geological cross section. This squared off, frontal formality gives the images a kind of quiet order, the inherent messiness of the landscape controlled and reimagined with an eye for structure and balance. In some pictures, insistent horizontals like train tracks, a line of boxcars, or overhead electrical wires make this chopping up of the landscape seem obvious. But when Mortenson uses the same approach with a rain puddle, a pile of dark dirt, a drainage ditch, the spiky weeds along the roadside, a flat rooftop, or an expanse of dry nothingness, the controlled clarity of his vision comes through with more flair. And just when this layered flatness might start to get repetitive, he breaks up the planes with the bold perpendicular verticals of smokestacks and telephone poles or the off kilter angles of discarded sewer pipes.
For those with an old school appreciation for the technical brilliance of a finely crafted black and white print, this show offers some of the most tonally nuanced examples of the power of great printing I’ve seen anywhere this year. Gradations of contrasting light and dark make the layers in Mortenson’s landscapes stand out, running from the deep blackness of earth to the softness of a delicate grey sky, with countless carefully managed steps of light and texture in between. These are the kind of prints that encourage (and merit) nose-to-the-glass inspection, their relatively small size and astonishing sharpness pulling the viewer into their details. Surfaces like dry grass beds, snowy vacant lots, glimmering water, and seas of roadside weeds shifting in the wind seem to come alive, their lush tactile richness magnified by fuller attention.
By the end of the show, the harsh industrial grittiness of the Meadowlands is like a faint memory. Mortenson’s eye has transformed this damaged land into a playground filled with meticulously plotted formal exercises, each one an unassuming symphony brimming with gloriously durable photographic harmonies. This is a gallery show well worth a special trip or a detour, if only to be reminded that resonant intelligence and subdued vitality can still be discovered in pictures of unsightly landscape trauma.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at $5500 each. Mortenson’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.