Photographer Interviews

New Photobook, Exhibition Dispel Popular Myth of Thoreau’s Walden

May 4, 2017

By Conor Risch

It wasn’t until fine-art photographer S.B. Walker was studying abroad that he began to appreciate where he grew up. He was in Greece, feeling homesick, when he came across Henry David Thoreau’s Walden in the school library. He’d grown up near the pond in Concord, Massachusetts, made famous in Thoreau’s book, and remembered going to the beach there as a kid and “bouncing around in the woods,” he recalls. “Reading Walden and going back and walking those trails through the places Thoreau had explored, it really enriched my own sense of home and gave it all of this historical perspective that it didn’t have previously for me.” It also led him to create a series of photographs around the area, which was recently published as a monograph, Walden (Kehrer), and exhibited at Janet Borden, Inc. in Brooklyn.

Walker began the series, which he made between 2010 and 2014, while he was working in the archive of the nonprofit Walden Woods Project, a foundation started by musician Don Henley to preserve Walden and maintain Thoreau’s legacy. In the collection of photographs, he noticed that “the bulk of the images [of the pond and surrounding area] were unpeopled. This was odd to me because the Walden I know is swarmed by beachgoers, tourists, etc., and it’s been that way for a long time…. I think there’s a tendency for photographers to play into the popular myth of Walden as wilderness, and leave people out.”

© S.B. Walker

“Mike, birdwatching, July 2011.” S.B. Walker noticed that the majority of images depicting Walden Pond in the archive where he worked “were unpeopled,” he says. © S.B. Walker

In Walker’s photographs, we see an alternative vision of Walden as a place where people come to play and find respite from nearby cities and suburbs. The images include portraits, and candid or surreptitious images of visitors to the area or people who live in the surrounding communities. There are also landscapes, some of which are abstract, yet a majority of them bear some evidence of people: A large puddle caused by erosion due to the constant use of a trail; an old rug dumped in a field of tall grass; a dead snake laid out unnaturally in the mud by a human; a plastic shopping bag from Target floating on the pond on a dead-calm, misty morning. There is a tension in the photographs between “the ‘idea’ of Walden,” as Walker calls it, and the reality of the place. “I’m using the symbol of Walden as a foil to make a statement about society’s relationship to the environment in general.”

The more formal portraits Walker made were of people who are “regulars” with whom he grew familiar and who “were comfortable being photographed.” They include a photograph of an older woman in a bathing suit, her hair wrapped in a towel; a teenaged girl sitting in a folding chair holding a baby we assume is her sister or brother; a man in a tank top and jeans, with long, curly hair standing next to his car in a parking lot. The majority of Walker’s images are candid, however, depicting people doing what they do at the pond. We see a scuba diver plunging into a break in the iced-over surface of the water. A woman sitting on a submerged park bench with her husband or boyfriend. A young woman in sunglasses, waist deep in the water, checking her smartphone.

© S.B. Walker

“Submerged park bench, high-water, bathers, August 2010.” Walker photographs the loose community of people who use Walden Pond as a place for recreation. © S.B. Walker

In a handful of photographs, people are at first almost unnoticeable. Walker seems to be focusing his camera on trees, plant life or some other element of the natural landscape. Walker says he was interested in “illustrating how people situate themselves around the pond. There is a central beach, but there are also numerous groves and breaks from the trail [that winds around the pond] where people seek privacy.”

The trail that circumnavigates the pond, Walker says, is almost entirely fenced in to guard against erosion, but there are breaks where people can get to the water. “People who go there often have their spots they try to carve out and their informal meeting places,” Walker explains. “There’s a community there; it’s a loose community but it very much exists.”

As he edited the book, Walker says he arranged images into groups of similar types, using those to establish the rhythm and sequencing. The more abstract images were important, he says, because he wanted to “intersperse them to reflect Thoreau’s writing process, a method in which he often alternates between social criticism and natural observation to drive home his point.” There are also images that betray “a dry sense of humor,” that Walker associates with Thoreau. “I’m not sure one could stand him as a thinker if he didn’t [have that],” Walker says. “It’s a brand of humor that’s allowed me to identify with him and create images that are in dialogue with his work on numerous levels.”

In an essay in the book, the American studies scholar Alan Trachtenberg writes that Walker’s pictures “show something gone seriously wrong at this cherished site,” and while Walker understands how Trachtenberg sees the work, he doesn’t feel his series is “overtly negative.” Walker says he’s interested in “the question of what it means for Walden to be a somewhat degraded, heavily trafficked place in the midst of suburbia. If this is the fate of Walden, what does that mean for the rest of the earth? I still have a certain reverence for the place, but I think the landscape around Walden today is incontrovertible proof that Thoreau’s philosophy has not won out. At best we embraced his ideals concerning individualism but have ignored his call to respect our environment.”

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