Power rangers

Photographers roam the electric grid
By GREG COOK  |  January 21, 2009

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CONTRAST AND COMPARE: One of Ryder’s triptychs.

"I spent a lot of time in a car as a kid," Adam Ryder told me recently. The Brooklyn photographer grew up in Alexandria, Virginia, with relatives spread out around the country. His dad had a fondness for making long drives to visit them. "So I had a lot of time to sit and think about the landscape."

He was fascinated, he said, by long-distance, high-tension power lines and their scruffy right-of-ways. "It's a lot of what you see along the highway. And it's kind of got this magical quality, because it's this sort of land that nobody owns."

For "Off the Grid" at Stairwell Gallery (504 Broadway, Providence, through February 5), he and Brian Rosa, a pal from his undergraduate days at Clark University in Worcester who is now researching urban planning in Mexico City, set off to explore the territory under and around power lines. With a grant from the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, they used mapping software to locate spots where electric lines and highways crossed in Rhode Island, and in October made four trips across the state. They returned with visions of scrubby feral places, fringe zones, and no-man's lands.

Rosa photographed a squat turkey coop and wood shed standing parallel to the lines, a lonely access road behind some giant brick box building, a muddy puddle reflecting the power lines above, a complex of garages, and a sliver of moon and pink clouds behind diagonal wires. The images have a detached, observational tenor.

Meanwhile, Ryder set himself rules — looking for something interesting within a half-mile on either side of the lines, "to find out how the landscape was changing because of that kind of clear-cut swath that the powerlines make." The center panels of his resulting triptychs focus on electric lines, sweeping over our heads, and up and down over towers, off into the distance. Side panels over lyrical visions, framed by breaks in the foliage. On the left panel of one triptych, lichen speckles a tumbled-down rock wall in a wood, while on the right panel, a white horse dappled with black spots stands amidst brush. Another shows, on the left, a rusty old white Camaro and, on the right, brush bordering a pond with large exposed rocks on the far side.

Ryder and Rosa's artistic influences include the Los Angeles-based Center for Land Use Interpretation's quirky part-art, part-urban planning investigations and Frank Gohlke's photos of grain elevators and roadside America. The two photographers also acknowledge roots in the lately popular artistic practices of mapping and psychogeography (which, in art circles, means seeking a new psycho-emotional awareness of the landscape).

But their project most reminds me of the 1998 book Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places by John Stilgoe, a professor of "the history of landscape development" at Harvard. Stilgoe's writing is a tad schmaltzy, but he wanders the world as a sort of planner-historian-philosopher, making observations that lead to richer understandings of why the landscape looks as it does.

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