“John Gossage: The Pond” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum to Jan. 17 A famous, ominous photo book benefits from the museum treatment.

Order Patrol: Sequence was sacred in Gossage’s book The Pond, but a new exhibition is wisely nonlinear.
Photo by John Gossage

“John Gossage: The Pond” offers a variation on a question frequently pondered by moviegoers: Is the exhibit as good as the book?

In photography, it’s more often a question of whether the book is as good as the exhibit, at least in recent times. But with The Pond, the contrast between book and exhibit becomes the central tension of Gossage’s work.

For its devotees, The Pond is no ordinary photographic book. Published in 1985, it featured 49 images of the titular wetland, located in Queenstown, Md., near the route of Gossage’s commute at the time. (He lives in D.C.’s Kalorama neighborhood.) The Pond is widely considered a landmark of “new topographic” photography—the movement that beginning in the 1970s sought to communicate the American landscape in ways that weren’t conventionally beautiful.

The pond Gossage found certainly fits this bill. It’s a seemingly nondescript place that would hardly have provided good material for Ansel Adams. It’s also fairly derelict, sprinkled with litter and surrounded by ominous-looking structures. For a while, the pond even dried up, though it’s since returned. (Gerry Badger, who contributed an essay to the just-reissued book, recently had to cut short a visit to the site due to the menacings of “hooded gangs.”)

The 25th anniversary reissue of the book, published by the celebrated high-art house Aperture, is treated with the fastidiousness of a religious relic—a tipped-in photograph on the front, high-quality reproductions, fine paper, even a dual-sided dust jacket that includes both the new cover art on one side and the original cover on the other. (The main difference is actually not all that much to fuss over—the deep blue and lily pad colors are reversed.)

The fussiness begins with Gossage himself, who envisioned The Pond as “not simply about a place, but about how we discover it,” according to Toby Jurovics, the curator of photography at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, in an essay in the reissued book.

“Rather than slowly gathering itself together from stacks of contact sheets and proof prints,” Jurovics writes, “The Pond was intentionally written, with a carefully constructed beginning, middle and end meant to be viewed in an order that could not be broken. Other photographers have presented their work in series or sequence, but few have been as committed to maintaining an order that, short of cutting the pages from the spine of the book to rearrange oneself, was intended as inviolate. Gossage wanted us to understand that his order mattered, that there was one best possible way to view the pond. ‘In making these pictures, I tried to do everything once,’ he says. ‘Each stop was specific, and all the pictures interlocked. When you have a destination in mind, you don’t double back.’”

Given the attention and care lavished on the book, it was never going to be easy for the exhibit—the first-ever mounting of the entire series—to match it. But it’s even more of a challenge given that, as a medium, an exhibit is not as rigidly linear as a book.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. You get the sense that Gossage has shaped and protected his version of his work with white-knuckled intensity; after a quarter century, some distance has done the project some good.

Specifically, having now seen the exhibit, I’m less convinced about the inviolability of Gossage’s magical ordering. Sure, I get that The Pond is, in essence, a guided tour by a devoted tour guide. But it’s also an attempt at wandering. This exhibit reminds us that The Pond is about individual images, too, not just the path it takes from Point A to B.

So, whereas the book directs the reader on a step-by-step tour, the exhibit claims no such authority. The images are not numbered and there are no directional arrows. Instead, anyone who enters its rooms can choose how to circulate—even, horror of horrors, in reverse order. This has the effect, intentional or not, of liberating the images from their orderly recounting.

And with an understated approach—using warm tones and often working under cloudy conditions—Gossage makes forgettable forms and objects memorable. A trapezoidal slather of asphalt. A tuft of dark grass set against bleached sand. A meandering, barely noticeable footpath through the shrub. A rectangular piece of detritus floating on the calmly rippled pond. A fence and its shadow that consist of two nested triangles. And not one but two images of sticks lying improbably parallel.

In one photograph, we see a discarded, tipped-over bottle lying amid the brambles, elevated by Gossages’s eye into a shining, halo-like form. Another image shows wires delicately wrapped three times around a pair of trees, an enigmatic sight because they’re not nearly sufficient to serve as a fence. Another focuses on an inexplicably discarded ladder that bridges a mound of sand and the reflective body of water, as resonant as if it stretched straight from Orpheus to Eurydice, from Earth to Hades.

The collection probably could have used some cuts; its woodlands, in particular, can get a little monotonous. Indeed, if there’s a single most striking image in The Pond, it’s one that eschews the woods and the water entirely—an image in which the lens casts upward to capture a flock of birds scattering in flight, looking like a handful caraway seeds tossed in the air and frozen in time. Unlike most of the photography in The Pond, it offers a sense of release rather than anxiety. In the exhibit, the image of birds is no longer chained to the numbered page. Here they can fly free—and so too can Gossage’s work.

 

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