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The Hidden World of the Nearby

although my imagees are usually c haraterized as landscape, the heart of my work doesnt easily fall into comon conc eptions of the terrm, namely ghe. vista with streans and mountgains. However, when special visgtas com along I dfo take advantae of them The images that I try hardest to make lie in the space between vista and macro. I love subtle textures and an am biguity of ascale . In many imagbes I deliberately avoid a proinent point of interest. I want the viewer to explore the image and to see the wonders of the details of nature. Images contain ahorizon only if it contributes to completing the composition. I also try to make the image extend without diminution from corner to corner as if cut from an infinite tapestry. OI tryu to encourage contemplation and a connection with nature with carefully rendered detail wht I call the nature of nature.

A rough draft preface to a digital book, The Hidden World of the Nearby. 1/29/14 John Wawrzonek

My approach to most of life has been to learn by doing. I never studied photography nor did I go to art school. I had exactly one “formal” lesson and it lasted all of ten minutes. I had a strong feeling that I did not want to imitate someone else’s style or choice of subjects. It felt best to wander and let myself respond unfettered by preconceptions. (Or it may just have been a manifestation of my father’s oft repeated ”you can’t tell ’im anything,”)

There was one image by Eliot Porter that inspired me, Redbud Trees in Bottomland that was the signature image of Intimate Landscapes, a book and an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 1979. It had Monet-like quality that I found attractive. So I set out to make images with this feeling. It took me five years to begin to find my own realizations.

I drove for driving seemed better than walking since I covered much more territory. When I hiked in the woods I literally could not “see the forest for the trees.”

What first stimulated my interest was a subject that was close by but that for years I had not noticed. The subject was springtime seen from the Interstate on which I commuted (I-90, the Mass Pike). After buying my 4" x 5" view camera I started to pay attention. What I first noticed were maple trees in the early spring where sprays of pink buds would appear. I could see these because parts of the Pike were elevated over the surrounding countryside where valleys in the roadway had been filled. I had enough sense to follow my instincts and to learn how to take pictures from the highway, although it was difficult, even dangerous. I tried to find other places from which to make the images but to no avail.

So I pulled my car off the highway and hiked the short distance to the place where I expected the best views: a maple swamp on the eastbound side of the Turnpike in Weston, Massachusetts. My instinct was right and I began to photograph

Much to my amazement the late spring the colors diversified and intensified. I was stunned by images that suggestion pointillism, images I found in this most unexpected of places. The sensation of texture was very much unlike that of the valleys and rocky outcroppings that I associated with landscape photography, but more like that of a tapestry. In retrospect I realized that despite my eight years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology it was not my intellect that was selecting these images but a visceral reaction to a part of nature of which I had not been aware. It was an odd and immediate sensation of butterflies, and it was strong enough to motivate my work for 35 years and curiously continues to be my guide to this day.

I photographed on the Pike for twelve years and made some of my best photographs there. At the same time my heightened sensitivity led to other discoveries: the salt marsh, a vernal pool at Walden, low-bush blueberries in Maine, and a second place on the Pike, the entrance ramp of the elevated cloverleaf at Exit 11 in Millbury.

My amazement at what I found grew year after year. I think it reached its height in October, 1991 when I discovered Wymans Meadow near Walden Pond and when I made the image Oak Trees with Orange and Green Leaves at Exit 11. It was from precisely the same location from which I had made Spring Sunrise I in 1985 the entrance to the Mass Pike eastbound. The idea of making these two images, one looking east into the morning sun and the other looking west made me incredulous that such wonderful photographs could be made from such a busy and very public location. I suspect that it was unlikely these images were noticed by commuters.

While making these photographs I received an assignment from New England Monthly magazine to photograph a stream though in Littleton, Massachusetts to accompany an essay by John Hanson Mitchell. While returning from an afternoon of shooting, my photography partner, Michael Conrad (who had come along to help direct traffic) spotted a stream passing under Interstate 495. I photographed this stream, known as Beaver Book, that afternoon and returned at sunrise for the next several days. On one of these days a fog obscured the distant view and some power lines. The image I made that day I called Dreamed Brook.

John Hanson Mitchell lived on a plot of land through which flowed Beaver Book. John had written a book about this area, known locally as Scratch Flats, called Ceremonial Time. Ceremonial Time was the history of Scratch Flats for the past 27,000 years. Following is the passage from Ceremonial Time that inspired the title The Hidden World of the Nearby:

“Wilderness and wildlife, history, life itself, for that matter, is something that takes place somewhere else, it seems. You must travel to witness it, you must get in your car in summer and go off to look at things which some “expert”…tells you is important or beautiful, or historic. In spite of their admitted grandeur, I find such well-documented places somewhat boring. What I prefer...is that undiscovered country of the nearby, the secret world that lurks beyond the night windows and at the fringes of cultivated backyards.”

This passage in turn stimulated me to write a short verse:

Out of the corner of my eye. in the hidden world of the nearby– Untended gardens thrive, or pass from time, unnoticed.

The experience of finding images in nearby and unexpected places continues to this day.

However, printing these kinds of images of images takes an unusual combination of technological prowess, a diligent search for the right images and a sensitivity to what makes a good image. The texture I search for reveals itself only in the accurate capture of the finest details and color. I found myself looking not for whole images but for texture and detail and then making compositions out of these elements. I still work that way after 35 years.

The joy of making the final prints is immense because despite everything I have done up to that point I have not yet experienced what a large detailed print reveals. It presents a closeness to nature not obscured by great elements of grandeur, but by an intimacy that is both encompassing and revealing. The beautiful and subtle way in which a leaf lies on water, the ruffling by the wind of the surface of a pond, the discovery of a thousand details that in various ways teach how nature works. And perhaps most of all, how the interactions and combinations of these elements make the tapestry through which nature reveals itself to me in a most wonderful way.

So what is my work like. It is, perhaps surprisingly not like my two best selling images, Dreamed Brook and Spring Sunrise I. These images were gifts. You would need to be artistically blind not to recognize them, but you could not create them. When I walked up the exit ramp to my special place along side the Mass Turnpike on May 17, 1985 and saw the mist billowing off the vernal pool below, the sun creating a golden glow shining through the mist, the poplar trees with white leaves I thought to myself, “don’t screw it up.” I made as many exposures as I could and one of them was perfect.

I try to find images that are not, at first glance, obvious. I look for detail and color that I can, in a sense, weave into a tapestry. Usually these images have many elements that can be mixed, moved, and aligned in nearly infinite ways. These images never have a horizon, they go edge to edge as if they extended into infinity, and they suggest, with varying degrees of subtlety where your eye should first pause and then how it should move. Sometimes I like the image to have virtually no suggestion of where to stop. So viewing is a different experience every time. And the sense of scale is ambiguous.

When the colors, light and patterns are right, these are the images most interesting to me, and those that I hope to find in my drives and walks. They can appear almost anywhere and they often disappear quickly and never return in exactly the same way, or they never return at all. The images I made at Wymans Meadow near Walden Pond in October 1991 did not happen again in the twelve years I kept my eye on the Meadow. Other wonderful images happened, but the brilliance of color, the green-violet water-shields, the intense reflections of colored leaves were a one-time event.

These characteristics make my images hard to see at a website, since they must be large and the detail and color must be as perfect as possible. That is the reason behind my wide format books, for they present a full-size section of a 24” x 30” or a 37½” x 30” print. The 24” x 30” print is the smallest in this exhibition.

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