In the 1940’s an airstrip was created when a wetland was filled and leveled. An artificial grassland was born. Over time the original trees and plants of the wetland returned only to be cut back by mowers and grazing animals. In the 1990’s, the abandoned airstrip became the Shawangunk Grasslands National Wildlife Refuge. Now the runways crumble as plants sprout through cracks in the tarmac, and the sun, rain, and snow take their toll. Mowers still cut the grass to hold back the succession to forestland and, in the outside world, the effects of development, changing agricultural practices, and habitat loss slowly press in on its borders.
Grassland exists in a hybrid state. Like an imitation of a natural landscape, it attempts to be something that is never was , and can’t be without constant intervention. This mowed plain, the ultimate ordered landscape, is a landscape of policy,; of decisions made in faraway offices where flatness and straight lines flow from an engineer’s pen rather than from some natural process. Trees appear like plots on a map, isolated in Grassland’s vastness, only at the edges allowed to grow unchecked. One year this half gets mowed, the next year that half. A tractor fills the niche that would be occupied by brush fires. For the grasshoppers who make constant take offs and landings in the late summer, or the coyotes whose droppings remind us of their presence, the creator of these runways is irrelevant.
After five years of photographing in its expanse, I am beginning to bring Grassland into focus. These images are a type of fiction; a story of a place told through the traces of its inhabitants – a tire mark here, a bird house or a puddle of broken glass there. Signs of its past, present, and future mark its rationalized topography like small-scale reenactments of the dramas playing out in the world around it.
Phil Underdown is a photographer currently residing in the Hudson Valley of New York. He received a BA in Photography from Hampshire College and a MFA in Photography from the School of Visual Arts where his thesis advisory was Frank Gohlke. His work is included in the collections of the Philadelphia Museum of At and the Smithsonian Museum of American Art.
For over five years, Phil Underdown has been documenting the 500+ acre Shawangunk Grasslands National Wildlife Refuge in his series Grassland. A decommissioned military airport, this lowland is a study in contrasts; instead of wildfires controlling the prairie growth, the grass is mowed by tractors. If not tended, the area would revert to its natural state, a wooded swamp. Underdown’s large format images and sumptuous prints duly convey the complicated status of this environment. From a snail oozing over the former tarmac to the lone trees that dot a limited horizon, I was taken by Underdown’s skillful storytelling, subtle imagery, and deft craftsmanship.
– Leslie K. Brown, 2008
Leslie K. Brown is the curator of the Photographic Resource Center at Boston University – a non-profit gallery, library, and resource center devoted to the New England and national photographic community. Known for innovative and engaging exhibitions, the PRC’s gallery program has garnered consistently positive regional and national press under her guidance. Besides maintaining the active PRC exhibition schedule, Brown has taught as an adjunct faculty member at the Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University and the Rhode Island School of Design. She regularly serves as an invited reviewer for portfolio review events, such as Photolucida and Fotofest, as well as a guest juror for juried exhibitions at regional galleries and museums.