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New York in spring: Andrew Durbin turns to film as a way of diary-keeping

Last summer, I bought a Pentax K1000 35mm camera after a friend suggested I use film as a way of diary-keeping. I had complained to him that my rushed handwriting was becoming unreadable, even to me. ‘Try film,’ he challenged. ‘See how that changes the way you look at the world. It might slow you down.’ The K1000 arrived, from a seller on eBay, without a lens; a camera store supplied me with its replacement. Friends, lovers, strangers – all potential models – were uninterested in my experiments. I went to Prospect Park in Brooklyn to shoot more amenable trees and grasses. I wanted to capture those elements of public land that showed how the city conceived of the natural world within itself: what it valued of ‘nature’ (never very real anyway, huh?) and what it desired to leave out. Hills, artificial reservoirs, woods and walking paths, a quaint boat house with a dock of swan-shaped craft. Gone were the weeds and wildflowers, slayed no doubt by an early-rising park employee.

In his 1868 proposal for Prospect, Frederick Law Olmsted – the chief architect of New York’s Central Park and the most important American landscape designer of the 19th century – identified the qualities of the outdoors most suited for play: ‘a ground which invites, encourages and facilitates movement, its topographical conditions such as make movement a pleasure’. A ‘gracefully beautiful’ park, he argued, should resemble an idealized nature, were it also administered by the civilizing forces of Foley Square. Landscape engineering, Olmsted wrote, is not ‘merely [a work] of art but of fine art’. Or, as Le Corbusier phrased it upon arriving at Rio de Janeiro in 1929, it is ‘the affirmation of man’ against ‘the presence of nature’. I began, then, to think of my photographs as a quibbling essay on Olmsted’s ‘fine art’, though my results were unimpressive. They were blurry or even blank when the lab returned the rolls as digitized files, failing to capture anything remarkable of New York’s modest wilderness of millionaire-sponsored trees planted in honour of parents past.

Artists have long documented nature’s struggle against the pains of human administration. They have represented capital’s globalized efforts to define and control that nature, too: from An-My Lê’s series of photographs of an upstate New York mining operation, ‘Trap Rock’ (2006); to Allan Sekula and Noël Burch’s 2010 film essay on international ocean shipping, The Forgotten Space; to Anicka Yi’s The Flavor Genome (2016), which analyzes nature’s fragile hybridity of human and non-human life in the Amazon; to Otobong Nkanga’s recent ‘Alterscapes’ and indoor gardens. Nkanga’s first US exhibition, ‘To Dig a Hole that Collapses Again’, opened this spring at MCA Chicago and concerns contemporary mining practices and the commodification of natural resources. This is work that revises – in a century facing a three-metre-plus sea-level rise by its worrisome end – Olmsted’s ‘gracefully beautiful’ to the exigent real.

It is now spring in New York: the season between, when the northern hemisphere once again dyes itself green. We slough off our coats, hurl scarves into closets, sentence boots to their corners. Living things, which had withered under sunless skies, spread, flower, congest sinuses anew. In Prospect Park and elsewhere, the toil to cut back the creeping flora begins again, with workers fanning out to uproot and replant, or ‘landscape’. In March, the Whitney Museum mounted the first major American survey exhibition by the artist Zoe Leonard, which included some photographs from her series ‘Tree + Fence’ (1998). Leonard photographed New York’s trees as they bulged against the fences that enclosed them. Their wood seeping, like a viscous liquid, around the metal bars of railings, they modestly resist the city’s efforts to contain them – or, rather, exploit the Parks Department’s lack of attention to what each of its 5.2 million trees is doing and where it is going. They remind me of human fat pressing through the slats of chairs; yes, they are alive, they say, and in their way, fleshy and real.

Leonard took to the resisting trees after an extended stay in the Alaskan wilderness. When she returned to Manhattan, she discovered that the city’s plant life had taken on new meaning for her, new imagistic possibilities. She once said of one photograph from this series: ‘I immediately identify with the tree. At first, these pictures may seem like melancholy images of confinement. But perhaps they’re also images of endurance.’

I am clumsy with the camera, but I still think about the world I would like to correctly photograph. Often, it looks like the one Leonard has already captured in the even keel of black and white or rich colour. It also appears, in my mind’s eye, like nothing I have yet seen: neighbourhoods in verdure defeat, abandoned to vines stretched between empty apartment buildings. Reeds in high water on Canal street: new shores on old avenues, clogged with seaweed. Then I catch myself and remember that the point of my K1000 was to create a diary, that my challenge – still accepted, still quite sentimental – is to make a different record of my life than writing has thus far made. Isn’t it supposed to teach me something? Yes, yes. The images are mostly fuzzy, though some – recently, portraits of willing friends on unremarkable afternoons in plain settings, rooms with people at night, the Camperdown Elm in Prospect Park – have come out better, or at least clearer. They lack art, but not everything must boast such lofty ambitions. Instead, they are my own modest images of endurance, reminders that the world around us persists in all its varieties of being alive and that we are responsible to that life, despite strong efforts to hold it back, to cut costs, to hush things up and render us hopeless. It is a responsibility that begins in looking closely where we might not have thought to look before. We might find an image of unexpected defiance to help us carry the day.

This article appears in the print edition of frieze, May 2018, issue 195, with the title Images of Endurance.