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

By Sarah Boxer
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, September 4, 2010; C01

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."

* * *

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."

These photographs are not meant to be viewed one by one. Nor are they meant to be viewed out of order. "The path through it is not random. There's a monologue going on," Gossage explained. His pond photographs tell a tale that is partly factual and partly fictional, like "Walden." What kind of tale is it? It's a walk that begins near a pond and ends just inside someone's doorway. Whose doorway? Gossage doesn't remember. Maybe it was the home of a colleague's friend, in Arlington, where "we had to feed his cat." It isn't important. The pictures, he said, "aren't documentary" and they "aren't physically connected the way they seem to be." (In fact, a few of the photographs, he pointed out, were actually taken in Germany while he was working on "Berlin in the Time of the Wall.")

The last page of "The Pond" shows a page torn from the chapter of Thoreau's "Walden" titled "The Pond in Winter." Were Gossage's photos taken in winter? No, he said, "I don't like being cold." Anyway, it wasn't the words of "Walden" that concerned him. In fact, the page torn from Thoreau has had all of its words scratched out with a thin black marker, except two, "The Pond," which are underlined in thicker red marker. Was Gossage trying to negate Thoreau or to embrace him in a modern way? Was he saying that "the pond" is all they have in common? "I wasn't so much going against 'Walden' " as "it was denied to me," Gossage said cryptically.

Talking to Gossage is a bit like looking through "The Pond": There are brambles and thickets, untelling details and unearned exclamation points, interrupting branches and helpful garbage, abrupt breaks and unexplained turns in the narrative. The path is full of impediments, impediments that lead somewhere. You are not sure where you have been, or where he is going. But you don't stop (for, as Jurovics notes, "it's too late to turn back"). And eventually you wind up in a different place from where you started.

* * *

Born in New York in 1946, Gossage was raised on Staten Island, mostly by his mother, a computer programmer at the Bank of New York. At age 14, he took a class from the photographer Lisette Model. When Gossage asked her who her favorite photographer was, she replied, "I don't think of things that way," and then added, "Atget. You wouldn't understand him." Gossage promptly bought a book of Eugène Atget's orderly, emptied-out photographs of Paris's streets, shops and monuments, and found that Model was right: "It made no sense to me."

His first photography job came that same year, covering sports for the Staten Island Advance. He became friends with the photographer Bruce Davidson. And he met Henri Cartier-Bresson. He remembers the receptionist's whispered words: "There's a child here to see you."

At 16, Gossage was expelled from high school "for not going to school." (He explained, "I will do anything to get out of writing.") Not long after that he got an assignment from Esquire magazine -- to photograph the very high school that had thrown him out. Diane Arbus was in the same issue. She was, Gossage said, "the smartest person I've ever met." Arbus looked at his photographs and warned him that "doing what others want you to do will ruin you." They took pictures of each other.

At 18, Gossage left New York. Why? Because one of his acquaintances said, "John, you're illiterate. There's got to be a Black Mountain-type place" for you, meaning a school that would stress the study of art as an essential part of a liberal arts education. Gossage went to the Walden School in Washington, and there, for two years, he was finally forced to read: Hemingway, T.S. Eliot and, of course, Thoreau. ("Honestly, I like Emerson better," he said.) In Washington, he met Walter Hopps, the curator, who gave him a show in 1968 and a studio the next year.

In 1975, Gossage's work appeared in "14 American Photographers," an exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art that also included Walker Evans, William Eggleston, Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand. That show, Gossage said, served as a kind of "wish list" for the dealer Leo Castelli, who signed up Gossage soon after. What kind of work was he doing? "Visually complicated photographs."

Despite his precocious start in photography, Gossage remained, as he put it, "more interested in the world than in photographs as objects." And that was what led him to the odd and ambitious aesthetic that would govern "The Pond": "I want to photograph everything I see. I want to make photographs that are as complex as the world."

It also eventually led him back to Atget. Now Gossage's most prized photograph, which hangs on his living room wall alongside photographs by many others, is an Atget print of a public park in Nice showing three men on a bench. There's a faint fountain in the distance and some tropical foliage in the foreground: "Just enough chaos in it to make it seem like the real world."

Every morning, Gossage said, he wakes up and sees not only the Atget but also Berenice Abbott's portrait of Atget as an old man, looking down at him from the wall. He sees a disapproving patriarchal figure, seemingly observing, "So, you're sitting on the couch. It's 9:30." By that hour, Atget had already done a full day's work, photographing Paris's empty streets at dawn, Gossage said, imagining his dead mentor going on: "Don't bother. Don't get up."

Of course, Gossage does get up, eventually.

Boxer is a freelance writer.

John Gossage: The Pond

runs through Jan. 17 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Eighth and G streets NW. Call 202-633-7970 or visit http://www.americanart.si.edu.

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