Tim Carpenter, Christmas Day, Bucks Pond Road

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by The Ice Plant (here). Hardcover, 104 pages, with 56 duotone reproductions. In an edition of 750 copies. There are no texts or essays included. Design by Mike Slack and Tricia Gabriel. (Cover and spread shots below.)

This copy was purchased at the New York Art Book Fair, and a limited edition beer koozie (edition of 75 copies) was included.

Comments/Context: So much of the contemporary photography that attracts attention these days is constructed, staged, performed, or otherwise arranged in a studio that we might reasonably forget that one of the true joys of photography is making photographs while walking. Setting out on foot with a camera, whether in the city, the country, or somewhere in between, is a commitment to slowly observing the world around us. We walk, we see, we breathe in some fresh air, we stop to make a picture, and then another, and then we walk some more, the pace and rhythm of that physical movement slowing us down, giving us the space to take note of details that we often overlook in the hustle of our everyday lives. Photographing while walking puts us firmly at ground level, reminds us of the feel of our own feet and the turn of our own heads, and sets us out on artistic journeys of indeterminate length, duration, and purpose. Each trip can be a meditative flow, an attentive and methodical process of looking, and a much needed break and brain recharge all wrapped into one.

Tim Carpenter’s Christmas Day, Bucks Pond Road is a book of walking photographs, the images taken over a couple of hours, on a single winter day, in central Illinois. The landscape in that part of the Midwest is resolutely undramatic, the farms flanked by areas of scrub land, stands of trees, meandering creeks and low areas of standing water, and a few modest houses. The photobook follows along as Carpenter goes for a walk, perhaps after the holiday festivities died down or during a break before the family meal. While the skies were grey and the temperature was likely crisp and cold, it seems to have been a good day for a quiet wander.

Just a few pages into Carpenter’s photobook, it becomes clear that his eye continues along an aesthetic path originally charted by Robert Adams, Frank Gohlke, and other American landscape photographers who pointed their cameras not at the soaring mountains and majestic waterfalls that Ansel Adams made famous, but at the more humble stretches of country that reveal their unlikely beauty much more slowly. Carpenter’s pictures are filled with watchful stillness, where grubby textures become intricate, seemingly empty (or even “ugly”) vistas are filled with lyrical grace, and straightforward views of fallow fields or thickets of brush are found to have unexpected elegance and complexity.

The sequencing of the photographs in Christmas Day, Bucks Pond Road is a critical part of its success. There is the very real sense that we are walking along with Carpenter – we see him look at the trees along the roadside, then look more closely at something in that area, then turn and take in the view of the farmland across the road, before moving on to another view of the dirt, and another, before turning again back to the winter trees, the weeds, and the nearby creek. The book is a deliberate exercise in progression, the flow always moving forward with a sense of measured pacing. The “distance” between page turns is never more than a few strides, a movement closer, or a look ahead to something coming up – it feels human, and personal, and mindfully present.

While a gritty black tire skid on a paved roadway opens the photobook, our walk begins with an interrupted view of a creek, the frontal trees slashing through the frame. Carpenter then turns and we see that we have walked down from the road into a cluttered area covered in dry leaves and twiggy overgrowth (we can see the straight line of the guard rail in the background). Subsequent pictures explore the contrasting textures in this area, and then get closer to individual branches with dry blossoms and creeping vines with their tiny squiggled dry tendrils. Carpenter then turns back to look at the trees leaning over the water and then eventually climbs back up to the road. The short series likely took place in just a few patient minutes.

From the road, Carpenter continues, looking out at the marshy areas nearby, where dark tree trunks sit in among lighter colored grasses and slivers of water reflection. These few images remind us that Carpenter is acutely aware of both the nuances of middle range tonalities, and the compositonal divisions and angles created by the silhouettes of the vertical tree trunks. But then we’re off again, alternating between views of the crunchy flatness of the dark fields and his small discoveries along the roadside – a bird’s nest in a tree, the insistent black verticals of broken off trunks, a group of tall unmown weeds with prickly tops. Given that Carpenter’s views of the fields are often bisected compositions, with the darkness of the dirt and horizon treeline set off by the lightness of the sky, we might assume these farmland vistas would get boring, but this is far from the case – each one has its own story to tell, with particular attention paid to texture as a common thread. He shows us a strip of snow, the richness of the turned earth, the lighter harvested stubble, the ditch grasses that have grown longer, the curves and contours of different sections of planting, and the furrowed lines left behind by farm machinery. His findings are muted and sometimes infused with a sense of loneliness, but engrossing all the same.

As our walk continues, Carpenter follows the road, with telephone poles echoing the rhythm of his own steps. He soon comes upon a clutch of evergreens and other trees clustered by a bend in the road. He approaches, then turns, seeing past the trees out into the fields, using the extending branches as angular contrast to the vertical of a nearby electricity pole. He then walks closer, seeing a lone weed that is sticking up, and then notices the sawed branch stumps on a tree near the road. He ultimately moves in even closer to isolate this craggy, forlorn trunk and its painful cuts (the image appears again on the photobook’s cover), and then he circles back to the lone weed, this time seeing it from the other side. The next few images find him moving on, looking back at this spot from the road, two arcs of tire skids echoed in two curves on the nearby field. The measured tempo of this whole series encourages us to see through Carpenter’s eyes, as he observes the scene and then plans his images sequentially.

The book ends with photographs of a forgettable one story house set in among the trees and fields. Carpenter approaches from down the hill, looking up at the yard and the cracked driveway, noticing the dry grass, the dormant leafless trees, and once again, views of the muddy frozen farmland nearby. Whether this has been a one-way journey or a full circle hardly matters – the flow has slowed us down enough to see the minute changes that make the scenes different. In a sense, the pacing of the pictures has allowed our eyes to adjust and appreciate the tactile pleasures Carpenter has captured.

In many ways, Christmas Day, Bucks Pond Road is a kind of map. Each picture could undoubtedly be located in an actual place, and each vantage point could be oriented, the aggregation of the pictures creating an experience of the land that feels simultaneously methodical and surprisingly personal. Carpenter’s solitary process is built on invisible collaborations in two directions – between the artist and the land, and between the viewer and the artist. We watch as he engages the unassuming landscape with genuine interest and empathy, and his understated hopefulness infuses our experience of the pictures with small wonders. His winter walk is bracing and restorative, like fresh cold air in the lungs.

Collector’s POV: Tim Carpenter does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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One comment

  1. Pete /

    Seriously good photographs, if from a tradition that I suspect has had had its day. I get the description of enjoying walking along with Carpenter, and how that means something in itself. I had it looking at Lewis Baltz’s ‘Candlestick Point’ the other evening. A book I thought was kind of weak (after the earlier masterpieces) when it was published but now it was a pleasure feeling connected as he explored and made pictures back then. It’s a kind of temporal intimacy, more often experienced with paintings.

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