Washington's John Gossage is a poet of the bypassed. In his new book of photographs, he brings us to an orphaned land, a realm of birds and broken weeds, or mud and rust and dogwood -- not wilderness exactly, and not the city either, but a place left over. Most of us have been there. It is a place we half know.
The pavement ends abruptly as the book begins. But a rough path leads us on. Most Eastern Seaboard cities are fringed by these untended, scarred, self-healed gardens. As children we played war games there, muddy-elbowed, muddy-kneed, concealed in the underbrush. There, on winter afternoons, the tires of our bicycles broke the flash-ice on the puddles. Hobos camped there once. Lovers court there still. Arbitrary artifacts -- potholders and gym shoes, cardboard cartons, pillows -- rot there in the bushes. Memories and secrets lie there thick as dust.
Gossage understands all this. He walks, and we walk with him, and as he walks he sees. His 49 photographs are beautiful, subtly toned, mysterious. They hold from edge to edge, and yet in almost every one some unimportant detail, some trigger for reverie -- the asphalt's edge, a tire rut, a termite mound, a broken board, a leaf, birds wheeling in the sky -- leaps out to seize the eye. Not one stops the flow. Each one leads us on.
The volume is an odyssey of miniature adventures. Its last shot shows a doorjamb. It begins with a departure, and ends with a return.
The book at first seems free-form, almost casual in its narrative. Only when it's over does the reader comprehend the overarching memory -- of vagabondage, self-imposed isolation and minute observation -- that gives the book its mood, its iconoclastic spirit, its title and its form. A 140-year-old reference controls it.
Henry David Thoreau, "self-appointed surveyor of all across-lot paths," also hymned the suburbs, or at least the city's edge. When he left his home in Concord in 1845 to build his hut by Walden Pond, he did not travel far. He, too, studied details -- water bugs and gravels, sunsets over water, huckleberries, birds -- and such small things transfixed him. Small, gritty observations transfix Gossage, too.
Thoreau titled his journal "Walden, or Life in the Woods." Gossage's is called "The Pond." Although his new book never mentions Walden, it quietly evokes that word in more ways than one. Gossage has dedicated the volume to William H. Jackson, Alex Rode and Stanley Smith, who taught him, in the 1960s, in the long-since-closed Walden School in Washington. That five-teacher, 15-student experimental school sponsored by the Ford Foundation, says Gossage, saved his life.
No photographer in Washington has produced a book of pictures of such compelling tartness. Steve Szabo's on the Eastern Shore and William Christenberry's on rural Alabama seem to be, in contrast, heart-tuggingly romantic. Gossage, as an artist, has no patience with the perfumed. As a street kid in New York he hung out with Diane Arbus. The first portraits he displayed here, at Hinckley-Brohel in Georgetown in 1968 and at the now-defunct Washington Gallery of Modern Art in 1969, were almost Arbus-harsh. Since then he has photogaphed Berlin and Chevy Chase.
Looking at his images -- of barbed wire and litter and old tires in water -- one senses that Gossage is partially embarrassed by the conventionally beautiful. But he loves well-made books, and glimpses of the everyday, the often overlooked -- dull gray skies, and tire tracks, and the almost Jackson Pollock-like tangled interweaving of dusty, dying grasses -- and these loves convey another kind of beauty to his art.
Gossage, 39, is a teacher (at the University of Maryland), a scholar, a historian, an inveterate collector. As a free-lance curator, he has helped arrange exhibits of the photographs of Louis Faurer, Charles Pratt and Rawlston Crawford. With Jane Livingston, he has organized "The New York School," a fine, ground-breaking show whose third part is now on display at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.
"The Pond," published by Aperture, costs $40. It includes a kind of essay, more a memoir, really, by Denise Sines, the artist's wife. The edition is 2,500, though that figure is misleading, for there are seven versions: One of seven different prints (none appears inside) has been pasted to each cover. The book was printed in Germany, where, says Gossage, "printing costs are plausible." It is available in bookstores and at his local gallery, Jones-Troyer, 1614 20th St. NW.