“Grassland” is a series of photographs by Phil Underdown made in the Shawangunk Grasslands National Wildlife Refuge, which was once the Galeville Military Airport. Superficially, it appears to be a deserted area which has gone into disrepair and grown wild; in fact, it is continuously engineered to create a specific kind of wildness in the interest of preserving certain migratory bird species who require a specifically grassland habitat.
Underdown describes his images as “a type of fiction; a story of a place told through the traces of its inhabitants…Signs of its past, present, and future mark its rationalized topography like small-scale reenactments of the dramas playing out in the world around it.”
The photographs are presented on his site in a very long horizontal page containing many same-sized photographs, somewhat like a film strip. This creates a rather disorientating effect when moving from image to image, because the horizon is constantly jumping around. I don’t know if this an intended effect or simply a matter of convenience, although the included “installation view” looks roughly similar except that some of the prints are of a larger size.
I think I would have preferred a presentation which equalized the horizon, because the way they are presented now detracts from the strong sense of place the photographs create.
There is also something about the editing of the sequence presented on Underdown’s site which I find dissatisfying. Some photographs do not seem to belong, like #024, #027, and #360, where aggressive low perspective, close focus, and shallow depth of field are the dominating characteristics, unlike the main body of the photography, which is characterized by rigorously upright perspective and an austere distance.
This is not to say that these photographs should be excluded simply because they are “not landscape enough,” but it seems to me that the contrast between near seeing and far seeing they create is not being put to much use, and that the sense of dissonance they induce is not forcing the viewer to see the subject more deeply or clearly, but simply disrupting his concentration.
I could, of course, be missing something. But the inclusion of #360, which appears to be a photograph of bird crap, seems particularly questionable; not that bird crap can’t be a good photographic subject (I believe Minor White did extraordinary things with bird crap on occasion, for example), but such an uninteresting depiction of it seems like a peculiarly halfhearted joke in this context.
However, the main body of the series is very good — particularly photographs like #466, #160, and #45353, in which the artificial traces are seamlessly merged into the “natural” landscape — in which a metal pole seems to grow as a plant among the weeds and trees, and vehicle traces take on the aspect of the spoor of great mysterious fauna.
This is exactly the sort of landscape photography which most appeals to me, because it does not pretend to represent an unspoiled wilderness or nature in itself. It shows nature as it must always exist in the modern world — in constant contact with the world of civilization. Beyond this, though, “Grassland” appeals to me because it is subtly but significantly different both from the sort of photography which merely illustrates the corrosive effect which the human civilization tends to have on nature, and from the sort of ever-more-familiar genre of urban decay porn.
I would also love to see — not necessarily as part of this project, which has a particular tempo and perspective that would likely not be compatible — more documentary photography related to the active efforts of the Fish & Wildlife Service to maintain and transform the landscape to the particular needs they wish it to serve.
Note: I’m only looking at the selection on Underdown’s site — so my thoughts about the editing of this series may be totally inapplicable to the work as it exists in book form or other larger sequences.