Art review: John Gossage's 'The Pond' at Smithsonian American Art Museum

"The Pond," John Gossage's unpretty answer to Henry David Thoreau's "Walden" from 1985 reappears at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
By Sarah Boxer
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, September 4, 2010

Twenty-five years ago a cult classic crawled from the muck -- "The Pond," John Gossage's unpretty answer to Henry David Thoreau's "Walden." It is a book of black-and-white photographs, a troubled narrative in pictures, a response (more or less) to a derelict pond behind a shopping center in Queenstown, Md. In 1985, Aperture published the book, trying out its first purely typographic dust cover -- giant dark-blue capital letters on an algae-colored background.

It didn't sell, Gossage said during an interview in his apartment in Washington's Kalorama neighborhood.

Things have changed. "The Pond" is back. It has just been reissued by Aperture, with the same bold cover design by Gabriele F. Götz, but with the colors reversed (algae-colored letters on a blue background). The Smithsonian American Art Museum has been given a set of "Pond" prints (on view until Jan. 17). And "The Pond" now stands alongside other chronicles of the man-altered landscape -- Robert Adams's "The New West," Stephen Shore's "Uncommon Places" and Lewis Baltz's "The New Industrial Parks Near Irvine, California" -- as one of the "monuments of the New Topographical mode," the photo critic Gerry Badger notes in his essay for the new edition of the book.

What's more, this time around Gossage has even provided us with a clear and direct passage into his eponymous pond: At the start of the book, he has added a photograph of a ladder leading politely from the pond's sandy bank into the muck. What a helpful gesture! And so uncharacteristic!

Gossage, you see, is a chronicler of impenetrables -- borders, walls and, as he put it, "stuff, whatever gets in the way." His other photo books include "There and Gone" (1997), whose subject is borderlands; "Berlin in the Time of the Wall" (2004), focusing on the "last 20th century walled city"; and a book of color digital photographs taken around Kalorama, "The Thirty-Two Inch Ruler" (2010), which Gossage describes as "four inches short of normal."

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In 1982, Gossage found the pond of "The Pond" while commuting to his teaching job in Maryland. He saw a body of water surrounded by a body of land not far from civilization. Le terrain vague. He got out of his car. "Some kids playing war games had booby-trapped the woods" with barbed wire, sticks and knives, he recalled. Pointing to one of his pond pictures, featuring a tree with a knife, barely visible, sticking into it, he asked: "How do you make a picture of that and not overdramatize it?" Somehow he managed. There are people who have owned a copy of "The Pond" for years, Gossage said, and never even noticed the knife.

To read "The Pond" (or to go through the exhibition) is to follow Gossage on his walkabout, much the way you'd follow a troop leader you don't quite trust on a hike through an unsavory place that neither of you has ever visited. It is "neither nature nor culture; too damaged to ignore, but too mundane to prompt much affection," as curator Toby Jurovics notes in the wall text of the Smithsonian American Art Museum exhibition. You must brush away blurry branches invading the foreground to get a clearer view. And what do you see?

"Here," Gossage said, pointing to a photograph of a sandy path at the beginning of the book, "you're standing on the pavement looking at what stands for nature; it invites you to take a walk." So you turn the page. The next picture shows a tiny, spiky, black bush on the sandy path. Then comes a picture of a single muddy footprint mushed into the path, followed by a picture of an old board on the path. "It is unromantically and specifically a board."

Next comes the dark imprint of a tire track on the path. You know where you're supposed to go -- the path is a path -- and where you're supposed to look, but do you really want to? It's intriguingly uninviting.

"Here it's Indian tracking time," said Gossage, pointing to a photograph of a landscape with sticks and a rock and some plastic mesh spread out like a ladder laid flat. "Some things are more important than others." And now, he said, pointing to a puddle, "I give you some pond. . . . Well, it's basically a puddle."

Finally, after another picture of yet another puddle in the middle of yet more sandy track, littered this time with a sun-bleached Coors box, you can breathe. "Look up," Gossage instructed. There are two facing pages of branches photographed against the pale, pale sky. Why has he broken his pattern of using only one photograph per page spread? "I want you to look both ways."

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