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A Wilderness Engineered

The Radical Transformation of Fresh Kills

Our Sacred Mounds (Undulations, East Mound), 2021.

ISSUE:  Winter 2021

A snow-covered hillock
under a cotton-wool sky, its smooth lines punctured by what appears to be a pipe or outlet jutting directly from the soil, hinting at machinery lurking beneath the skin of the land. A curving track, wending its way through a dense fringe of dry reeds, rain puddles shining and the tarmac rust stained, the color of dried blood. A mound of sand, carved into a delicate sculpture by rain, standing proud on a plain scarred with the tracks of heavy vehicles.

Jade Doskow’s extraordinary photographs of Freshkills Park, a “wilderness area” created on the site of Staten Island’s notorious landfill, offer us a new, unsettling approach to the pastoral in the twenty-first century. In this jarringly beautiful sequence of images, she presents us with a discomfiting environmental vision that interrogates what it means to be wild in a human-impacted world.

Initially opened as a stopgap measure in 1948, the Fresh Kills Landfill quickly swelled to become the world’s largest garbage dump. By the 1990s, it was the sole receptacle for all of New York City’s residential waste. At its peak, the landfill filled 2,200 acres—an area about three times the size of Central Park. Steaming garbage towered in heaps twenty stories high. Herring gulls amassed overhead, screaming, wheeling. A powerful, fetid miasma lifted from the rotting waste and drifted through nearby neighborhoods.

In recent years, an ambitious municipal project has seen the former landfill reborn as an urban park, with wild grassland cast across the eyesore like an invisibility cloak—its mounds capped with plastic and dressed in imported topsoil; its rotting innards carefully monitored—the methane extracted and noxious leachates drained. To see the site now is to look upon a steeply rolling hillscape that from some angles appears convincingly natural, yet from others feels deeply, undisputably artificial. Doskow, who first visited in 2018, told me she was “immediately enthralled” by the strange, slightly alien quality of the landscape she found there: “It defied any expectation, any description.” Right away she submitted a request to return to the site—which remains largely off-limits to the public until 2036—and received special permission to enter at regular intervals, in all seasons. Earlier this year, she was appointed as Freshkill’s photographer-in-residence.

Doskow works in large-format photography, a technically demanding discipline that requires advanced planning, specialized equipment, and years of experience. Photos must be composed upside down, as seen when projected onto the “ground glass”—a rectangular piece of glass about the size of an iPad that must be viewed from underneath a dark cloth. “It’s slower and more intentional,” she explains. “But the topography of the site is very unnatural and unusual; that’s hard to convey within the two-dimensional space of a photograph. With this camera—an Arca-Swiss technical view camera—you can skew perspective and focal plane; you’re controlling precisely how you translate the three-dimensional form, grappling with the complexity of the landscape.” It is, Doskow says, somewhat like sculpture.

The challenge has been capturing that uneasy Freshkills atmosphere: the way the initial impression of a picturesque natural scene might be undermined by the intrusion of subtle industrial tells, or subverted entirely as in The New Wilderness, Freshkills (2019), from the collection in which the mirrored surface of a flooded dumpster bears the shimmering reflection of trees. It is, says Doskow, a place that is awesome and horrifying at once: an uncomfortable beauty both provocative and profound.

In this, Doskow has taken inspiration from the work of the Hudson River School of painters, prominent in the nineteenth century and known for the grand, Romantic landscapes that did so much to concretize that specifically American sense of the sublime, and of their pursuit of a transcendental connection with nature. In those images, lone human figures might be seen to stand overlooking vast vistas where waterfalls tumble down sheer cliff faces, dramatically lit by a shaft of light; elsewhere, dense forests may shroud a mountainscape, say, while in the foreground a band of deer drink peacefully from a standing pool. “There’s this majestic quality to the pristine wilderness; humans are seen on such a small scale against the godliness of nature. I do try to bring that otherworldly energy into the photographs.”

Freshkills, then—a Frankenstein landscape in which nature sits daintily atop a mountain of man-made filth—is its inverse. A man-made wilderness, with all its contradictory implications. A heavily engineered ecosystem, that nevertheless has quickly been regaining ecological value. Glossy ibises, egrets, pintails, teals, and herons can all now be spotted wading in the recovering Freshkills wetlands. Wrens, sparrows, mockingbirds, and goldfinches haunt the scrub. Bald eagles cruise overhead. Ospreys nest over new-formed creeks. Swallowtail butterflies and dragonflies frisk through the reeds. Foxes stalk muskrats and cottontail rabbits across wildflower meadows.

Freshkills, as a subject, serves as the perfect emblem of our endlessly complex relationship with nature in the postindustrial world. And Jade Doskow—with her clarity of vision, instinct for the uncanny, and flawless composition—is just the person to show us around.



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