JTF (just the facts): A total of 15 black and white photographs, framed in white and mounted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space. All of the works are archival pigment prints, made between 2010 and 2013. Physical sizes are either 16×20, 24×30/24×32, or 30×40, and all of the prints are available in editions of 5. (Installation shots below.)
A monograph of this body of work was recently published by Kehrer Verlag (here). Hardcover, 124 pages, with 58 black and white reproductions. Incudes an essay by Alan Trachtenberg. (Cover shot below.)
Comments/Context: Located in the suburban forests just outside Boston, Walden Pond is an unlikely landmark in the history of the American environmental movement. Celebrated by Henry David Thoreau in his meditative 19th century book Walden; or Life in the Woods, the humble New England pond and its surrounding woodlands have become synonymous with the author’s transcendentalist views and his aspirations to lead a simple life of solitude and introspection in harmony with nature. Since its publication, the book’s heady mixture of attentive spirituality and independent self-reliance have been a catalyst for countess efforts in support of wilderness preservation, furthering the mystical reputation of the place.
Over time, Walden Pond has become much more than just a physical location – it is now an almost romantic symbol of “wildness”, or perhaps a uniquely optimistic ideal of pristine American nature. Designated a National Historic Landmark and part of the Walden Pond State Reservation, Thoreau’s old stomping grounds have come to represent a particular elevated state of mind, but are also subject to the mundane realities that face most public parks in America, which is where S.B. Walker and his large format camera enter the story.
A native of nearby Lincoln, Walker spent four years trying to make sense of the contradictions of Walden, its modern form not exactly the definition of a place one might visit for thoughtful solitude or self-refection. In the summer, families flock to Walden to swim, setting up impromptu clusters of lawn chairs and towels on its narrow sand shores. They wade in the water (taking selfies of course), eat ice cream from the snack bar, trap minnows in the streams, tend to infants with tenderness, and take hikes along well worn paths flanked by wire fencing. In short, they do exactly what countess other Americans do across the country when the weather turns warm – they look for refuge in a nearby park, only to find it far more inundated with crowds and man-made intrusions than they ever imagined or remembered. For a natural treasure known for its brainy cogitations, there are certainly plenty of people to be found interrupting the contemplative silence in contemporary Walden.
Walker’s subtle landscapes are full of this understated tension between unspoiled idealism and everyday reality. A gently sweeping meadow view with dots of tiny wildflowers, tightly executed in nuances of grey, contains a discarded heap of Astroturf in the foreground, the texture of the ugly fake grass intermingling with the real stuff all around. A white winter scene uses a similar visual motif, the foggy moisture rising from the frozen surface in soft reflective elegance, only to be rudely interrupted by a crinkled shopping bag from Target discarded on the ice.
Other human alterations are more overt. Walker captures a decaying house overrun by thickets of vines and greenery in the process of being torn down, the statuesque tree in the front yard roughly chainsawed, the whole property the victim of an eminent domain case connected to the expansion of the nearby Route 2. In another image, a dead trout dangles on the shoreline, seemingly suffocated but perhaps just stranded in an overstocked pond.
Walker balances these many paradoxes with a few moments of textural found mysticism worthy of Minor White. A fallen soft serve ice cream cone melts into the pebbled back concrete like an expanding galaxy. A watery puddle along a hiking path reflects the surrounding trees like an enveloping mirror. And frozen black ice reveals tiny fissures and bubbles, its surface full of mystery and exacting detail.
In general, Walker’s photographs have been executed with a level of artistic confidence and technical skill that we don’t normally find in early career shows. Not only have the prints been consistently produced with exquisite care and attention to the subtleties of black and white tonalities, Walker has allowed himself the freedom to tell his narrative from multiple perspectives – there are landscapes, still lifes, intimate portraits, and more casual found oddities, and no one genre dominates the story. This breadth gives the project a robust sense of three dimensionality – he hasn’t just showed us a parade of oblivious beachgoers for example, but he has interwoven other aspects of the what he sees at Walden Pond into a richer and more complicated conclusion than cheap shot ugliness would have provided. In fact, Walker seems to have found many fragments of beauty in unlikely places, from the sinuous twist of an isolated birch trunk to the grand face and tanned skin of a towel-headed swimmer.
If we take the broad sweep of American landscape photography and watch it swing like pendulum from the grandeur of Carleton Watkins and Ansel Adams all the way to the dispiriting suburban sprawl of the New Topographics photographers, Walker seems to have aimed for (and found) a new middle ground, where the messiness of human use can still be balanced by moments of grace. His pictures acknowledge the awkwardness that now pervades many of our “natural” spaces, but doesn’t give up on the our power to see the sometimes muddled (and ironic) beauty of what remains.
Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced at $2000, $3500, or $5000, based on size. Walker’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.