I grew up in the Chicago suburbs, but every summer our family spent several weeks in the mountains of Northern California. I was completely seduced by the open spaces and dramatic geography of the American West, and years later I moved here to be closer to the region’s astonishing natural landscapes. So I’ve always found it strange that Western cities are built with such disregard for their surroundings. How many of Yosemite’s millions of visitors own houses in the flood plain of the Sacramento River? Or drive I-95 through Las Vegas, oblivious to the desert springs below?
This dynamic — by no means limited to the West — makes sense when you consider the sharp divide Americans have drawn between the natural and the built. If nature is defined as the place where we are not, then there is no particular reason to care for natural systems that are not marked as “nature.” And yet my life in Phoenix, a city as indifferent to its setting as any you’ll find, is filled with extraordinary moments when the city and the natural landscape seem to merge. It’s no different in Ohio or New York. The photographers presented here look at everyday urban spaces and find that the natural and the built are in fact fully integrated in our experience of cities.
Michael Vahrenwald is a New York photographer whose work echoes the dramatic lighting and formal style of Dutch master still life paintings. His subject, however, is urban and contemporary: weeds growing through Manhattan’s cracked concrete surfaces, surrounded by litter. Vahrenwald’s Forest Floor series was inspired by the 17th-century Dutch painter and naturalist Otto Marseus van Schrieck. Van Schrieck painted still lifes of wilderness: his closely viewed and forebodingly lit scenes of flora and fauna on the forest floor compress whole ecosystems onto a few square feet of earth. Vahrenwald’s weeds and trash capture our attention because of their presentation, gorgeously lit against the black of the night. They hold it because of the genuine beauty of the weeds, and because these scenes, like Van Schrieck’s tableaux, seem to tell the larger story of their surroundings.
David La Spina is another New York photographer investigating the relationship of the natural and the built in the urban landscape. La Spina’s most recent body of work, Picturesque Cincinnati, takes its title from a postcard book commissioned by that city’s Chamber of Commerce near the turn of the 20th century. These days, Cincinnati is not known as a particularly “picturesque” city, and La Spina’s views are not likely to be endorsed by the Chamber of Commerce, but the photographs do not settle into easy irony. They show anonymous urban and suburban scenes, some fairly bleak and some fairly lush, but none stunningly beautiful or degraded. These are landscapes of the ordinary. Figures, usually alone and distant, provide a sense of human scale, which the urban infrastructure often overwhelms. We see the city and its people relative to the landscape they inhabit, and the potentially isolating effect of the built spaces in the photographs gives way to a more richly layered sense of place. This shifting of scales, along with an acute awareness of light, anchors the city in a certain beauty, tougher but more real than any postcard view.
Ed Panar, who lives in Pittsburgh, is a compiler of small moments, a celebrant of the everyday. Nothing dramatic happens in his photographs; nowhere exotic is shown. Rather, his prosaic images force us into a sustained encounter with the ordinariness of urban life, bringing together both meanings of the word pedestrian. In his ongoing body of work Out West, Panar reveals the fluidity of the interaction between the banal and the beautiful. (Panar also has a series, Back East, that produces a similar effect.) Some of the photos do indeed display the striking beauty of Western landscapes, but even this is contained within the bounds of ordinary life: Panar’s views are the kind you might have walking home from somewhere not far away, if you were to take that little detour that goes up the hill just a bit. We are a long way here from the majestic waterfalls and granite domes in Ansel Adams’s work. Panar’s photos seem to be saying that if we pay attention there is no need to venture far and wide, to scale the peaks or traverse the wilds — that something of value is just around the next corner.