I went out photographing in the Commonwealth today for the first time since starting my master’s program. While I would have preferred the opportunity to go out and work on my projects over the last nine months, the absence gave me time to think a bit about what I’m doing and where it’s going.
So I found myself in Upton and Northbridge today thinking about one of the recurring themes in my project: new subdivisions.
I have been told that my work is political or has an anti-growth message, but I don’t think so and certainly haven’t consciously tried to impart any particular message. In my mind, my project is primarily about how the six million people in the Commonwealth fit into this rather old landscape, about the margins where people and nature meet. And today I realized that, although towns in Metrowest and other suburban areas are all subtly different, they all follow a number of general principles.
First, dispossession. Historically native peoples and then farmers and poorer people have ceased to hold land. Towns divest themselves of common land, and it becomes fungible. It ceases being inchoate when subdivided into lots and stripped to a tabula rasa state. Infinite, terrifying potential is transmuted into something real and limited which we can comprehend and apprehend. This tends to be when I started to get interested in a scene.
Today I became aware of a certain kind of violence visited upon the land during suburban transformation. Most (if not all) of the trees in a wide swath are felled. Rock is blasted, pulverized, and excavated. The ground is stripped, leveled, compacted, and then replanted with new grass and thin trees. It’s not all like this, of course, but I realized that many of my photographs reflect this microcycle of destruction during construction. Nature itself has to be dispossessed and made anew.
And yet, at the same time, we prize the presence of small portions of that primordial nature at the margins of property because (thirdly) new suburbia is founded on human dislocation and separation. We move to new places and live next to people we don’t know or have time to get to know, and we feel the need to have some separation from them. Plus the goal of suburbia — in this Commonwealth at least — is the negation of the urban and its problems. (If it’s not a conscious goal, it’s at the very least a conscious accident on the part of town planners and residential developers.) This negation has in its manifestation a measure of wildness and nonlinearity.
But this elevation of the “non-city” shouldn’t be equated with a total lack of order, for the final aspect of exurban development is unachievable Platonic perfection. Just look at the closely manicured lawns free of weeds and ornamentation, or consider the carefully chosen shrubbery and the fine expanses of mulch bordering everything. Exterior perfection and harmony mirror a desire for household and familial perfection.
In my Commonwealth images, I have been trying to show the outward appearance of these changes, the margins between wild and tamed, the self-similarity of suburbia, and the absurd ways that things go awry. It’s not political, per se, as I don’t have any suggestions in mind that I wish to advocate. My goal is to show a slice of our inner thoughts by examining the outward appearance of our things.