Learning the Complex Beauty of Upstate New York's Post-Industrial River Towns
While walking the perimeter of Peebles Island one morning in 2020, I was struck by the remnants of this old tree. What caught my attention was the swirl of its trunk, and the way it still seemed deeply rooted to the cliff. Though dead, it was not done with this place just yet. I snapped a few shots as the sun came up from behind me, rays touching the tips of its brittle branches.
When I got home and reviewed my images from the walk, I noticed how the tree was ringed by a starry halo. The halo was actually foam floating downstream from a nearby waterfall, but the effect was provocative. I've gone back to this tree dozens of times; I love to catch it looking good.
When I first started exploring Albany, Troy, and Cohoes ten years ago, I wasn't sure what to make of it all. I carried a lot of negative feelings because on the surface it was a very dirty, very busy industrial scene, and - to me - incredibly ugly. Marked by too much concrete, interstates, trains, planes, trucks, canals, bridges, and the typical detritus of urban living, it felt like a bleak mass of over-wrought human infrastructure. It was very easy to photograph its flaws, almost too easy. Black-and-white images on rainy days of harsh and dirty streets, empty playgrounds, abandoned buildings, and oil trains cutting through the city center. Because I thought good art sourced in melancholy and despair, Albany and Troy seemed like the perfect places to go to let those negative feelings churn. I turned out some pretty good black-and-whites in those years. Upstate gray was the perfect palette to build my creative expression on.
I also remember a friend from those days who was keen to photograph buildings in disrepair, to capture damage and historic neglect. He was very critical of people who liked to photograph fall leaves, as if there was nothing in between. Simplistic, superficial, and boring, nature photography was for people who lacked imagination. True art required work, an unflinchingly critical eye, and was motivated by a desire to dig until a city's darkest truths were found and exposed. As a young artist, I thought perhaps he was right, so I adopted a view that was critical of fall leaves, too. I worked hard to find difficult truths and to catch my hometown looking bad.
For years, I seriously interrogated home. I learned its history then felt critical about what had fallen into disrepair. I saw what was here, then purposely went out on melancholy mornings and shot it in the rain. I let my art reflect feelings that the region had missed the mark with historic preservation, that this place I called home was unloved, inadequate, and failing. I was tortured and my artwork reflected an unhappiness deep inside. Is this really what it meant to be an artist? After a few years of this path, I couldn't tolerate it anymore because every trip out to explore ended in hopelessness. I felt a need to create, but didn't know how or from where. I wondered if my best creative source was dark and corrupted. And I didn't trust that talent could source in a place that offered rejuvenating energy, hope, or even a bit of sanctuary.
Since childhood, outdoors had been a place of comfort and safety. So, I continued to go out and look. I drove. I walked. I ran. I threw myself into my landscape and tried to find something meaningful and worthwhile. I returned to places I loved as a child. I retraced paths through the woods, visited waterfalls, walked through cemeteries, and discovered some cool historic remains I never knew about. I became motivated to find things worth salvaging, worth bringing back, I wanted to attune myself to something original worth sharing. So, I walked on icy tributaries in the winter, listened for peepers in dusky spring nights, and observed fog rise from the Hudson on humid summer mornings. While I resisted fall foliage in autumn, I instead discovered fields of milkweed and goldenrod and found trails dotted with innumerable types of fungi and mushrooms. Before long, I was letting go of the narrowness of criticism, and letting my perceptions expand and colorize.
Over the next few years I had some pretty big a-ha moments, but they came slowly and with much effort. Here are a few: 1 - I was landscape illiterate, which meant I often didn't know how to describe what I was seeing, or how to be attentive to it; 2 - I realized that the natural world in this region is not pristine but that it is in constant conversation with the stuff of humanity, and 3 - we are here because of a river, we are river towns.
As I started to let new ways of thinking and seeing influence my creative vision, I noticed how many times I would try to take a picture of natural beauty, but that human stuff kept working itself into view. Maybe it was power lines, or a tanker or ship. When I'd be wandering along the river in the morning listening to the sound of migrating geese, their call would be cut by the Amtrak train whistle. The convergence of human and natural stories became very apparent, so I began listening to their conversation. Yes, our difficult history of exploitation of natural resources. But yes, we all relied on the industrial stuff of extraction and destruction, too - cars, trains, electricity, gasoline and shoes from foreign countries. Was it possible that the two worlds could interact in a useful simultaneity? I began paying more attention to how human and natural infrastructures worked together. I became curious about time, convergences, and started learning different vocabularies so I could better understand and appreciate the complexities of this place I called home.
The big lesson of ten years exploring is that my evolution as an artist was critical. I experimented with then let go of ways that didn't feed my truest nature, and I kept seeking with care and diligence. I found that by returning to places again and again, across different seasons and at different times of day, common things that could easily be taken for granted took on a valuable significance. I became attached to the way ice melted away in March and shad bush bloomed in April. I listened for the call of the train in the distance and began to realize how distinctive it was to a region defined by a history of trains and transportation. I watched for nesting eagles and the cycle of a river's mud and flood. The waterfalls, once sources of power and electricity, were now protective hideouts. Bits and pieces of the region's manufacturing history floated back to me, and I learned to identify minks, fisher cats, egrets, wild lupine and columbine, steadily growing my vocabulary of both industrial and natural worlds.
I still throw myself into the landscape, but now it feels more like a conversation with a respected friend than an argument with a flawed enemy. Now that I know more about what I'm seeing and know how to talk about it, I can find numerous ways to catch my region looking good. It's a method that works for me and one that rewards my curiosity over and over. Like a boxer, I find my nuance of improvement has occurred in a small space, and I've let the small space of upstate river towns challenge me again and again and again.
NOTES 1. The Hudson and Mohawk Rivers converge about 5-6 miles north of Albany in Cohoes. Near that convergence, the Mohawk has a big, beautiful waterfall that is still harnessed for electricity. The Erie Canal begins at this convergence, too, and its first 6 locks are built to go around the waterfall.
2. This region has a huge transportation history. The first train in the country traveled from my neighborhood in Albany's Pine Hills west toward Schenectady, where Thomas Edison established General Electric's headquarters, thus Schenectady is "electric city."
3. Albany is a port city. Trains bringing crude from the west come right through town and that crude is pumped out of the trains so it can travel out of the port and down the Hudson on huge tankers toward refineries.
4. The Hudson is a major flyway for migrating birds. Eagles, once nearly extinct, have recovered to the point that there are hundreds of nesting pairs now. It has taken more than 30 years and massive amounts of legal and human efforts to achieve.
5. Thank you to Schenectady poet Ron Pavoldi for the very apt boxing metaphor.