EXCERPT FROM B&W MAGAZINE, Issue 83, June 2011

This article is based in part on an interview with Dean Brierly

Brooklyn-based photographer Paul Raphaelson has the rare gift of being able to find in nondescript, commonplace terrain what Robert Adams has described as the verities of geography, autobiography, and metaphor. In the process he poses intriguing questions about what might be termed a "new urban wilderness"—the often-overlooked spaces where flora and fauna interact on uneasy terms with steel and concrete.

Raphaelson's enigmatic images conflate the process of urban decay and nature's efforts at reclaiming a measure of physical space within the modern metropolis. The resulting visual tension produces a complex emotional resonance as well as an ironic sense of balance, with mankind and nature alternately in ascendance.

Raphaelson began finding himself drawn to the run-down and overgrown places in his immediate surroundings. These sites resonated with visual correlatives to the personal depression and professional frustrations he was undergoing at the time. The fit between his inner and outer worlds was, he says, too hard to ignore.

The pictures he began taking at this time eventually comprised the Wilderness series, which first brought him to critical attention. No less an authority than former Museum of Modern Art curator John Szarkowski recognized the originality of Raphaelson's conception and the formal elegance of its execution.

Most of the photographs were made within walking distance of where he lived, first in Providence, and later in Brooklyn. The sense of familiarity intensified his photographic curiosity as his ideas for the series matured and expanded. It soon acquired a complexity that could not be distilled into a single, concrete interpretation. Raphaelson has never cared to address the question of whether this work is about urban decay or the resilience of nature. "There were always so many examples of both qualities in the places I photographed. Sometimes one or the other would dominate, but the complex relationships between the living and crumbling things—physical or visual or metaphorical—were usually the interesting part."

The implications of a life force also draw attention to the city as habitat, which is by turns presented as vital and barren. The photographer's stance in this regard is decidedly neutral; he neither criticizes nor embraces the conceptual dichotomy that informs the images. Raphaelson doesn't impose his presence upon the urban topography, but lets himself be guided by the mood of each particular site in a kind of unconscious collaboration. He engages in a subliminal dialog with viewers, drawing attention to everyday views that go unnoticed.

"Europeans once thought mountains were hideous! They were examples of God's wrath, and didn't show up in pretty pictures. Just as empty lots aren't scenery for most of us today. We're in the habit of tuning them out on the assumption that they're ugly or uninteresting. I want to show that they can be beautiful—if you stop and really look. I try to encourage this through all the formal tricks of picture making, but really the most basic role of a photographer is pointing. By putting a picture on the wall, you're saying, 'look at this. ' That's not much of a superpower, but it can be an effective one if you wield it carefully. Now, obviously, I'm not the first person to find this stuff interesting or to point to it. The deeper questions are about how and why it's interesting. What, specifically, is being explored by a particular picture or sequence of pictures."

Raphaelson has another body of work, on the American Southwest, that complements the Wilderness series while achieving a kind of subtle inversion: instead of nature gamely poking its head out here and there in our cities, the focus is on man's intrusion into the wide-open desert spaces by means of fences, roadways, commercial structures, and refuse.

In some ways, this work is even more poignant than the city pictures. It's not enough that the urban environment tends toward inhospitability and sterility; we also have to leave our imprint on the pristine spaces between our cities. But Raphaelson acknowledges that photographers like Robert Adams and Lewis Baltz mined this territory decades ago; he naturally feels an imperative to bring a fresh articulation to this subject matter.

Perhaps his contribution lies in a visual spatial density that borders on the abstract. Raphaelson merges pictorial elements toward a non-figurative state, fully engaging the viewer's interpretive skills while still allowing for an aesthetic response. Such tableaux typically mix perceptual pleasure and disorientation, with no clear demarcation between the two. The conflicting intimations of dead ends and new beginnings gives rise to a living presence that places these photographs in the realm of metaphysical poetry.

Raphaelson has for the past few years been working on a followup series titled Lost Spaces, Found Gardens. Although thematically akin to his black and white work, it's photographed in color, which inherently alters the visual relationships and emotional tonalities within the frame. "I hoped to explore those color relationships I'd been noticing. And I wanted to do something different from my old work—anything. I'd worked on the Wilderness pictures for so long, I was afraid I'd never be able to do anything else. When it felt like time to pick up a camera again, I needed to prove I could learn new tricks. Color was one. So was the square format, and so was doing some of the work handheld. I don't mean that I thought of the project as an exercise, but it served that purpose at a time when I needed it."

An even newer project combines images and text in aways that are both harmonious and discordant. The seeming incongruity reflects Raphaelson's tendency to make things difficult on himself, the hallmark of an artist who would rather risk failure than endlessly repeat past success. It's an affinity he shares with the photographers who have influenced him most—early American modernists like Edward Weston, Paul Strand, and Alfred Stieglitz, late modernists like William Eggleston and Stephen Shore, and 19th Century survey photography Timothy O'Sullivan.

The visual ethos O'Sullivan applied to his views of the American West (when it was still truly wild) corresponds to the approach of his 21st-century spiritual heir. As Raphaelson observes, "he figured out how to turn empty space into magic, and did it decades before anyone even noticed."

Dean Brierly


Every town has areas that lie on the outskirts of the town’s consciousness. Framed by rusty chainlink fencing and crowned by piercing barbed wire garlands, can be found what the American photographic artist Paul Raphaelson calls found gardens.

Raphaelson finds inspiration in the wild vegetation that invade the town’s blind corners behind broken padlocks and warning signs from long-defunct security firms.

Raphaelson’s photographs are typically taken in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and elegantly show what happens there when suddenly the asphalt splits and plants start to push their way out. Nature declines to give way to the town and with time invades all the abandond spaces of the city.

This is a liberating sign for Raphaelson, who delights in the uninvited plant community's contrasts with the town's often antiseptic geometry and sheen.

Even the most dreary regions of New York appear elegant and charming though Raphaelson’s framing and lens. Go exploring in Raphaelson’s New York and see the crumbling walls, the rusty fences, the cracked asphalt and the green flora in these boxed-in city oases. Have fun!

Michel Henri
translated from Danish by Struan Gray



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