17-inches by various lengths
Camden, NJ is also printed 36 x 92-inches
All are archival pigment prints on Canson Baryta Photographique paper.
I first started making pictures in New Jersey about a year ago as a pre-dawn driver and “guard” for my artist-photographer friend, Lynn Saville. I went back many times, fascinated by the ruins of gas stations and other buildings. Soon I noted to myself that WOW – there were a lot of pole-mounted solar panels. They were everywhere.
In my research I found that New Jersey had established a requirement to provide about a quarter of its electricity from renewable energy sources by 2021. In response, PSE&G (one of the electric companies in New Jersey) initiated their “neighborhood solar” project. They installed 174,000 solar panels in 300 communities.
The solar panels appear diminutive in the landscape, a visual corollary to their negligible effect on our consumption of fossil fuels. They provide power for about 6,500 ‘average homes’ – less than one-tenth of one percent of the electrical needs of New Jersey. Yet their ubiquity creates the appearance of efforts by PSE&G to ‘go green.’
Beyond the Pretext
I love to travel and most of the time I spent on the road I’ve been a tourist.
J.B. Jackson, one of America’s great scholars of human geography and cultural landscape, focused his attention on what he called “vernacular landscapes” – the everyday built environment. He noted that as one becomes a more experienced tourist, one begins to wander beyond guidebook suggestions to explore workaday surroundings. I agree that there is no better education than to spend a day wandering, observing and exploring an unfamiliar place.
Jackson’s approach has resonance with ideas put forward in psychogeography, a mode of landscape discovery that derives from the Situationist International thought of the 1960s. Psychogeography focuses on playfulness and unscripted wandering to arrive at a new understanding of the urban landscape.
Further back, European landscape painting that included what people added to the natural world became popular in the early 17th-century, particularly in global trading countries such as Holland and England. It is interesting to note that elite tourism started at the same time. Who we are as a culture is directly reflected in what we build, maintain and use. It was also a matter of colonization – needing to know the “other” and their habitats in order to economically make them useful. Along with that came the grand tour, to visit and learn about the ‘wonders of the world.’
The landscape as altered by people is a Deleuzian rhizomic plateau. Wherever you look you can see a node, a point of interest where every element has the same value, but all are different. The pretext for “Jersey Electric” functioned as both an instigator and a delimiter, confining my fieldwork to places in New Jersey that had a pole-mounted solar panel. The pretext was a tool that reduced the landscape options to those I found most interesting and that still connected to my core environmental concern.
Although the formal strategy of serialization has played a key role in the history of art photography, my goal wasn’t to document all examples of the 174,000 pole mounted solar panels! Rather, I looked at the panels rhizomically—as shared markers, bureaucratically imposed across the extreme diversity of New Jersey’s vernacular landscapes. While these pictures represent a documentary project that takes the solar panels as its pretext, they do not need to be seen in a group or as a series to be appreciated. Each panorama can stand on its own as a subject of interest.
As I developed this project I realized that I needed a wider and larger field of vision to represent my subject so I began using a motorized head with my camera to create repeatable panoramic views that could be layered and stitched together with great precision in post-production.
Through an accidental technical quirk, I discovered that people began appearing in my photographs as important compositional actors. At first I resisted this, trying to time my exposures so that nobody would be in it, but then I discovered that people, as they walk through the photographic frame – like dancers in a Merce Cunningham performance – added a new layer of fascinating information. They marked time. The pictures were no longer decisive moments frozen in perpetuity, but indecisive moments that revealed the small and contingent changes in a landscape scene that happen in real time.
The ghosting of people in photographs can’t help but make a reference to mid-19th-century wet plate photography that often showed blurred or shadowy figures in motion due to the extremely slow exposure time of collodion plates. Clever photographers used the ghosted images of departed souls to comfort the living, creating a lively trade in ‘spirit photographs.’ The famous motion studies of Edward Muybridge are also evoked by the sequences of subjects moving more parallel to the shutter plane.
Serendipity plays an important role. As Cunningham and Cage both demonstrated, one has only a single moment to capture poetry. As I stand with my camera for a period of time, making multiple exposures, I am aware of the poetic potential that each new captured moment may bring.
In post-production I edit the images to allow those multiple accidental moments to appear and play out on the landscape ‘stage’: a family arrives to manage their garbage cans; a man rides by on his bike and glances my way; a hired worker mows the lawn in an affluent suburb; a young woman walks home with her shopping bags. Back and forth. Up and down. The landscape changes and as it changes it speaks of the living environment that these solar panels watch over, like strange sentinels from another universe.