“New York City wilderness” might sound like an oxymoron–planned parks, tree pits, and cramped courtyards hardly count as untamed nature. But as photographer Leah Oates reveals in her series “Transitory Space: Prospect Park, Brooklyn, and Beyond,” on view now at the Brooklyn Public Library, otherworldly landscapes often hide in plain view here. In Oates’ trippy images, captured on 35mm film and manipulated in-camera using double exposure techniques, the trees of Prospect Park transform into ghostly silhouettes; pond scum resembles a Pollack splatter painting.
“The series is about paying attention,” Oates, who grew up in rural Maine, says. “It’s about the importance and beauty of nature amidst the constant movement of a city.” She focuses on how urban green spaces creep up on the imposed order of a city when they’re not obsessively pruned and cared for. In particular, she’s attracted to the unkempt foliage of Prospect Park, Van Cortlandt Park, and Pelham Bay Park, since these outer-borough spaces aren’t as well-maintained as the tourist-filled Central Park. “In Central Park, as lovely as it is, there are so many people, and you rarely have any privacy,” Oates says. “In Prospect Park, if you know it well enough, you can find parts that are private where you’re in full-on nature.” Her work, some of which is in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum, pays homage to that anarchic natural energy that can be easy to lose touch with in the city.
Trained at Rhode Island School of Design and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago as a printmaker, Oates opts for analog film, fish-eye or wide angle lenses, and manual in-camera manipulation to achieve her supersaturated colors and warped perspectives. They make Brooklyn’s wilderness seem the stuff of dark fairy tales.
“Humans think they control nature, but it might be the other way around,” Oates says. “That’s easy to forget when you’re in the city.”
Transitory Space: Prospect Park, Brooklyn, and Beyond is on view at the Brooklyn Public Library until September 25, 2015.
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