JTF (just the facts): A total of 21 black-and-white photographs, framed in white and matted, and hung against white walls in the single room front gallery space. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, made in 2020-2022. Each is sized roughly 9×6 inches. 12 of the works are single images, while the other 9 works are grouped together into one set. All of the prints are available in editions of 5+2AP. (Installation shots below.)
A monograph of this body of work was published in 2022 by Aperture (here). Softcover, 6.75×9.75 inches, 224 pages, with 122 black-and-white reproductions. Includes an essay by Daisy Hildyard. Overpass is the first publication supported by the Aperture JGS Book Award. (Cover shot below.)
Comments/Context: Over the past half dozen years or so, Sam Contis has cemented her position as a photographer building meaningful artistic momentum. With a 2008 Yale MFA in her pocket, Contis first started to gain widespread attention with her Deep Springs project in 2017, a small subset of which was included the New Photography 2018 show at MoMA (reviewed here). From there, she spent time engaging with the archives of Dorothea Lange, a project which took shape as the photobook Day Sleeper in 2020, and which was tangentially included in Lange’s retrospective at MoMA that same year. In 2022, she received a Guggenheim Fellowship, and later that year, she published her photobook Overpass, which has now found its way to New York as a small gallery show.
The photographs in Overpass were made by Contis on recent walks in northern England, and generally fall into step with the visual traditions of a number of walking artists, like Hamish Fulton and Richard Long, who have made on-the-ground photographs during rambles, hikes, and longer treks. There is a personal intimacy embedded in image making of this kind, where we travel along with the artist, seeing what he or she observes or notices and embracing the slow methodical rhythms of moving on foot. Contis’s photographs in Overpass are all dated 2020-2022, adding a pandemic overlay to the backstory of the project; we can imagine that her walks were perhaps more solitary than normal, and that the open fresh air of the hills and farmlands provided a much needed mental and physical respite from the confinements of lockdowns and quarantines.
The history of walking in England has its roots buried deep in the soil, with centuries old footpaths that criss-cross the landscape, and the support for communal public walking is consistent and widespread, even across lands that are now held privately. Following various paths through the meadows and hills, Contis inevitably ran into real estate boundary lines of one kind or another, often demarcated by a stone wall, a fence, a stand of trees, a hedge, or some other obvious (or not so obvious) barrier. The English have developed a simple solution for walkers who must traverse these obstacles – a “stile”, or a makeshift structure that allows passage over, around, or through these barriers. Overpass is both a photographic taxonomy of these stiles, and a more meditative survey of walking, borders, and more abstract transitions.
Architecturally, the stiles Contis has documented along the pathways vary widely, from elaborate ladder-like staircases with handrails to more functionally rudimentary solutions, like a deliberate gap in a stone wall or a single plank inserted perpendicular to a fence as a stepping spot. Of course, there are also plenty of wooden gates, a few small sets of stair-like benches, and one location with small footholds interlocked with the fence rungs to allow a walker to scramble over. One image captures what might be an improvised two-in-one solution, with a bench-like wooden structure for the people (who go over) and a dark burrow or tunnel for the animals (who go under). Each stile is essentially a unique solution to a locally specific problem, with graceful lines largely less important than practical functionality.
In terms of rhythm, each stile represents a stopping point, or a break in the flow of walking. As we turn through the gallery, there is a distinct feeling of movement, with each new stile representing a break in the action, a rest in the music, or a pause in the visual conversation. It is at these points that Contis is paying even closer attention, noticing not only the presence of the structures themselves, but their textures, surfaces, and surroundings. Her photographs of the stiles are filled with tactile details and tonal gradations, including wire mesh, weathered wood, lichen covered rock, and even the reflection of one stile in a nearby creek or water runoff. She is also clearly aware of the passing seasons, of white snow offering contrasts with dark rocks, of the bare tree branches and dry undergrowth of the fall, and of the fresher warm light of the spring and summer. One set of pictures captures many of these themes in one succinct progression, bringing together the walk up to the landscape transition point and the observation of the stile itself, as well as several momentary observations of the nearby trees, where wind rustles the leaves, light dapples and shifts through the setting, and her attention shifts forward and backward in small increments, almost like the in and out of breathing. This set uses the stile as an anchor point or an impetus, but is largely centered on oscillations and undulations of patient looking, where tiny moments of magic reveal themselves very slowly.
A quick visual sweep of this gallery show will likely leave some visitors underwhelmed, but it is the modesty and calmness of these precisely crafted black-and-white photographs that gives them some durability. It’s clear that Contis has a fondness for these lands and for the humble ingenuity that the stiles represent, and that the process of walking and seeing has been an immersively meditative balm for her. Her pictures allude to implied tensions of ownership, crossings, and borders that shape the land, but largely leave these threads unexplored, at least overtly. What we feel most in these photographs is a kind of wry appreciation for patterns and flows of open country walking, where even an outsider can feel welcomed by the unexpected appearance a thoughtful aid left by the landowner. Such constructions and accommodations seem to signal that we are all welcome as part of the community of walkers, and that if we take the time to help each other even just a little bit, the forward motion can go on unimpeded.
Collector’s POV: The single prints in this show are priced at $3400 each, with the set of nine prints priced together at $25000. Contis’s work has little consistent secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.