The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

Coastal
Accra Shepp
The Islands of New York
Photo by Accra Shepp . Source: queensmuseum.org
Accra Shepp, "Joe Maldonado Tottenville Marina, Staten Island" 2012 <++>

There is probably no more felicitous a location for presenting photographer Accra Shepp’s on-going exploration of New York islands than the Queens Museum.

And specifically, along the walkway of its famous Panorama of New York.

As an artwork the Panorama is about the flow and sweep of the city, the arteries and connections — how New York fits together as a larger organism. A huge scale model of New York City, commissioned by Robert Moses for the 1964 Worlds Fair, the Panorama includes every building (at least 865,000 of them) along with all the bridges, highways, parks and waterways. Buildings have been added and updated from time to time so it stands as a fairly accurate representation of the city today.

Accra Shepp’s photographs act as a counterpoint to this vision. Not that they are ‘people pictures’–– most have no visible humans. Rather, it is the scale and point of view that differs, for we are standing on the ground, looking around eye-level. In them we see roughly what Shepp saw as he took them. Most of the ‘action’ in the frame occurs in the middle distance––no dramatic close-ups or detail shots here. Many are panoramas made by placing individual photos in a line, so we do not feel the distortion that often comes with panoramas made with a single exposure.

Photo by Accra Shepp . Source: queensmuseum.org
Accra Shepp, "Bowery Bay (with view of Francis R. Buono Memorial Bridge to Rikers Island), Queens"<++>

O.K, so what’s in the pictures? Well mostly junk and big rusty stuff.

A view over Bowery Bay includes the bay and some trees growing on an old landfill dominated by the pylons of the bridge to Riker’s Island and the edges of the sewage treatment plant on the Queens shoreline. (Large format buffs will also note the reflection of the photographer and his Deardorff in the central mirror.)

Photo by Accra Shepp . Source: queensmuseum.org
Accra Shepp, "Twin Island, Pelham Bay, The Bronx" 2010<++>

“Twin Island, Pelham Bay Park, The Bronx,” a rocky outcrop on the shore of Long Island Sound, shows the natural world at its purest. Even it is not untouched by humans. During the long ago construction of Orchard beach, Robert Moses connected the ‘island’ to the Bronx mainland.

Photo by Accra Shepp . Source: queensmuseum.org
Accra Shepp, "Dead End, City Island, The Bronx" 2010<++>

More complex relations between humans and the shoreline are featured in the shot taken at the end of a street in City Island showing a trimmed hedge, a cute white gate, a sign marked “End,” and a neatly painted “Private Property – Keep Out” sign overlooking Long Island Sound.

The images that include people come in two flavors: groups of middle-class people doing middle-class things along the shore (on a sloop, building sailboats) and those of working class people, like Noe Maldonado at a shipyard on Staten Island, who either work on the shoreline or fish along the shores of Manhattan. (The latter two images remind us that, despite the best efforts of the luxury-condo developers, the shoreline of New York has still not been totally gentrified.)

Photo by Accra Shepp . Source: queensmuseum.org
Accra Shepp, "Eltingville, Staten Island" 2012<++>
Perhaps the most powerful image in the show was taken shortly after Hurricane Sandy. We see a working class neighborhood on Eltingville, Staten Island strewn with the wreckage of half dozen or more boats pulled from their moorings and left ashore. I did not feel particularly sorry for the boat owners, and actually, the houses look relatively unscathed. Rather, it is the simple wonder of it all that holds our attention, our strange connection to the land and our attraction to the sea.

Photo by Accra Shepp . Source: queensmuseum.org
Accra Shepp, "Village Community Boathouse, Manhattan" 2013<++>

Shepp intends to continue shooting this series until he has photographed all 40 (past and present) islands in the city. His theme, at least as represented by the 14 images in the show, is the often-ragged relationship between the man-made coastline, and the insistent pressure of the ocean to overwhelm it. We look forward to the complete collection of island photographs by this most honest and straightforward photographer.

Accra Shepp
The Islands of New York
Curator: Louise Weinberg

Queens Museum
NYC Building Flushing Meadows Corona Park
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Sunday, February 2 to
Sunday, May 11, 2014
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