Meadowlands Photographs by Joshua Lutz. Essay by Robert Sullivan. published by powerHouse, 2008
For ten years, Joshua Lutz has been exploring the meadowlands in northern New Jersey, a vast swath of wetlands abutting one of the most populated areas in the US. Meadowlands, Lutz's first monograph, presents this decade long project begun under the pretense of finding Jimmy Hoffa, but which ultimately developed into a record of this place, one denied of its natural state by human development. The sole text accompanying the work is a delightful essay by Robert Sullivan, which questions the true context in which the meadowlands should be viewed; as a swamp area with its reeds and herons? A euphemism for the beat up, dragged down local industry? Or what you see out your car window as you wind up the New Jersey Turnpike (which Sullivan poetically dubs the "Meadowland's Amazon River")?
Lutz's immediate focus becomes clear, showing the remnants of the untouched swampland while contemplating the unavoidable beauty that can be found in its degradation. The theme of conflict between the contemporary view of urban planning and the natural compositions of the landscape is carried throughout the work in a fantastical language of saturated irony. Removing the dust-jacket reveals a cover printed with an aerial shot of the lush green swapland, bursting with the color of life and new growth, showing unequivocally that this place is earth, the sun does shine here — but this is not the initial view we are presented with. Instead, the dust-jacket presents a pale, dingy landscape, cut and cross sectioned by bridges and antennas while the city sits low, dug in under a warm grey sky colored by a filter of smog and evening light.
Meadowlands, by Joshua Lutz. Published by powerHouse, 2008.
The interior images carry this initial relationship well, whether it be the plotted landscaping of a Days Inn under warm streetlights or an enormous red rock hill slowly encroaching on the grey concrete of a local store. All of these places sit on land that was unsuitable for coverage, where the earth was too weak to hold structure until man made it stronger in the mass "reclamation" of land pursued throughout the last century.
Lutz's broader landscapes beg comparison to the New Topographics photographers, especially Joel Sternfeld, whose recent Oxbow Archive (Steidl, 2008) might be Meadowlands closest relative in recent memory. However, where Sternfeld's environmentalist opus is unambiguous in its judgement and concept, presenting a tightly cast series of classical landscapes, Lutz's view is looser, broader — including sensitive portraits, interiors and urban scenes. The portraiture allows us to inspect the people who call this place home, but they do not sit in dismay of the environment surrounding them — instead, they exist with an almost heroic posture. Thousands flock to stadiums to hear their hometown hero (and what portrayal of Jersey would be complete without the Boss), parking lots boom with carnivals and community — trophies are stacked in windows as generations of little leaguers take to the fields every spring. The irony comes when Lutz quickly juxtaposes the warm light of life and movement with the dark doldrums of industry. This symbiotic relationship between degradation and life is inescapable on the island, and whether social or environmental, the layers continue to stack and the remains sink inward, each becoming the foundation for the next generation.