Photographing Urban Margins: Jennifer Colten’s “Wasteland Ecology”
Ecologically speaking, the phrase “edge effects” refers to the border between two habitats and interactions between two kinds of built environments. Symbolically, I understand edge effects to be the meeting place between two different kinds of perspectives; the synergies between photography and environmental history present an example of such edge effects.
The work of American photographer Jennifer Colten offers an ideal case for understanding photography’s impact on our relationship to the environment. Coltenˈs series Wasteland Ecology, captured in 2014, is dedicated to photographically examining ecological edge effects. In her own language, the photographer is particularly interested in the peculiar places of the “margins of the urban environment”, which “are neither built for purpose and use, nor are [they] completely wild and untouched.”
Coltenˈs records are not intended as scientific observations or classification, despite the fact that they shed light on the diverse biologies that inhabit edges. Nevertheless, her work suggests the surprising biological diversity that can be found in forgotten marginal zones. Her photographs also reveal a kind of unplanned ecological restoration in the ruined, forgotten, or otherwise indeterminate places that have been described as “terrain vagues.”
In 1997, conceptual artist Hermann de Vries took up the phrase “terrain vagues” to build a landscape installation in Münsterˈs city park. Entitled “sanctuarium,” this installation created a protected place in the strictly cultivated artifice of the park. Here, plants would grow wild and unhindered to point out the sharp contrast between the site and the surrounding landscape.
Coltenˈs Wasteland Ecology examines both a recovering biodiversity in forgotten marginal zones, and also the expression of edgeland. Using scientific nomenclature, Colten creates an explicit dialogue between environmental history and the iconic works of American nature and landscape photography to which her own work frequently refers. Compared with the work of conservationist icons like Ansel Adams or Eliot Porter, Colten’s photographs present a completely different idea of nature and the environment. Porterˈs still lifes, for example, create wilderness microcosms using fungi, lichens, moss, and fallen leaves in bright, colorful pictures. His idealized depictions of vegetation convey the impression of harmony and untroubled beauty in nature, and demand protection for these untarnished idylls.
With her records of ruptured non-places, Coltenˈs series rejects this idea of intact nature. Her photographs simultaneously quote and question Porterˈs photographs. Although they depict details and scenes that evoke still lifes, Coltenˈs images are dominated by a subtly colored gray in contrast to Porterˈs rich colors. Often, the photographer highlights the melancholy of inconspicuous shrubs, bushes, and hedges located at urban marginal zones, emphasizing a place’s desolation in its cracked soils and dead grasses.
With her focus on plastic or glass fragments, Colten observes the devastation of the land without leveling an accusation. By picturing garbage as a remnant of civilization, her work also takes up Marion Shoardˈs definition of edgeland as being marked by trash. And yet Coltenˈs fine compositions quite often evoke the impression of calmness and tranquility, suggesting a peaceful coexistence of grass covering over the scars of a ruined landscape.
Coltenˈs unassuming records of forgotten nature borrow from a genre created in the early 1980s when Michael Schmidt brought together American and German photographers for an exhibition at the VHS Kreuzberg. Schmidtˈs photographic depictions of post-war depression in a divided Berlin used gloomy black-and-white images of “nowhere”-places on the cityˈs periphery to give the impression of political limbo. Inspired by this encounter, John Gossageˈs photo book The Pond (1985) and Lewis Baltzˈs San Quentin Point (1986) employed bushes and thickets as symbols of uncertain environmental conditions. Moreover, Gossageˈs and Baltzˈs photographic methodology can be traced back to Henry Thoreauˈs intense nature studies. For both their photographic series, Gossage and Baltz walked around an area just like Thoreau once did with Walden Pond. They examined the site by photographic means in order to create environmentally sensitive data.
Much as for Gossage and Baltz—and Thoreau before them—this immediate physical experience of space is essential to Colten’s thorough exploration of the environment. She repeatedly returns in her wanderings to the same marginal places, attempting to better capture their peculiarities. In her work, the thicket also is used as a metaphor to give these marginal, indeterminate locations environmental meaning. Moreover, Coltenˈs work creates a direct contrast to the glamour of romantic, transcendental panoramas like those created by Ansel Adams.
Taking up this heritage, Coltenˈs photographs break with the tradition of idyllic landscape and nature imagery, but also point to a further shift of perspective. In the 1970s, the work of the New Topographics like Lewis Baltz and Robert Adams suggested the dichotomy of nature and culture by portraying sharp contoured borders between suburban settlements and the surrounding environment. Using the slogan “new frontiers” their photography focused on the human-made landscape. In contrast, Coltenˈs images, although very much focused on anthropogenic environments, donˈt emphasize hard distinctions between humans and nature. In Coltenˈs photographs the human-dominated occupation of nature is only present as traces. Like a forensic record, her shots preserve bulldozer tracks or broken branches that recall a prior incident.
Coltenˈs interest in “non-sites” and her exploration of how space can be separated from function also refers to significant works of conceptual art such as Robert Smithsonˈs A tour of the monuments of Passaic, New Jersey (1967), though her own work is more photographic. While Smithson uses a contradiction between photography and text in his depiction of the industrial wastelands of New Jersey to undercut the myth of progress, Colten offers a far more conciliatory impression of post-industrial edge lands. Relieved of representational duty and human utility, Coltenˈs landscapes give rise to an uncanny, but attractive calmness. Her shots simultaneously present a foregone devastation of the land, but they also convey a kind of tranquil peace.
Wasteland Ecology, by focusing on edgelands, projects a new ecological awareness that rejects the hard distinctions between industrial or suburban spaces and pristine “natural” landscapes. Coltenˈs photographs do not suggest a violent nature striking back, but instead give the impression of a resilient nature, in which a fragile coexistence between humans and environment seems possible, despite evidence of prior destruction.
Jennifer Colten’s photographs question and readjust our cultures of nature.
Gisela Parak received her Ph.D. in 2008 from LMU Munich. Her areas of expertise include Art History, American Studies, History of Science, and Environmental history. She currently serves as director of the Museum for Photography at Brunswick, Germany. Her second monograph, Photographs of Environmental Phenomena: Science, Politics, and Land Management in the Wake of Environmental Awareness, is under contract with Transcript, Bielefeld and will be published in 2015. Contact.