Photographer John Gossage Reflects on “The Pond”

Celebrated photographer John Gossage first came to Washington, D.C., as a boy to attend Walden, an experimental school in the mid-1960s. His first book, published in 1985, was aptly titled The Pond, and explored marginal spaces in the modern landscape. It is widely considered one of the most important works of its kind, and features several photographs from the Washington D.C. area.

For the first time ever, the photographs from the book are featured in an exhibit, "The Pond," at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The show opens today and runs through January 17, 2011. Twenty-five years and 18 books after he produced The Pond, Gossage and I had a conversation about his first major work and whether or not Henry David Thoreau was onto something.

How does it feel to be revisiting The Pond after its original publication in 1985?

The Pond was actually my first major circulation book. I did one limited edition book with my gallery before that, but there were only 14 copies made, so this is the first one that really went out to a book-buying public. I have lived with it an awfully long time. Now, I've started looking at it again.

A contemporary artist’s job description is, if you have great ambition, make great work. But then you’re also obliged to set the context in which the work needs to be seen. The odd thing is, for the first edition I decided—since I wanted it to be emphatically a book—that the book was the original, instead of a catalog from the show. I never did a show of it. This is the first time I’ve ever seen it all up on the wall, which was really interesting for me. I actually sort of liked the show. I’m so used to . But it actually is a new way of looking at it.

Untitled, from the series The Pond. John Gossage. Courtesy of the American Art Museum.

How does it affect one's perspective?

With books, you get a picture, and then you turn the page, it passes into memory and you get another picture. So you’re seeing one image at a time. To actually stand in a room and be able to scan multiple images is a very different experience. You see where you’re headed and where you’ve been at the same moment, because the book is a narrative. It’s actually about the proposition that there is such a thing as narrative landscape, which doesn’t really happen in literature, or it’s hard to pull off in literature, which is more character-driven. In photography, there is that possibility of being able to do that. So that’s what I wanted to experiment with, because I had not known of it being intently done before.

Photography books tag along on the literary model; you start at one point, and you end at another. With shows, no matter what intention you have, there are three rooms at the Smithsonian that contain the show. And with all intent, you want people to start at the start. But, there is absolutely no expectation on my part that at least half of the people will come in the right door. It doesn’t happen. You can’t herd people like that. I don’t herd like that. So they will see them in the order that they see them.

Speaking of literature, at the time you were taking these photos, what did you see as the connections between The Pond and the work of Henry David Thoreau?

Well, the reason I came to Washington was to go to a place called Walden School. So let’s put it this way: I’ve read Thoreau. Or else, you fail certain courses at a school called Walden.

One of the things I wanted to reference is Thoreau’s vision in Walden Pond of nature being a respite from the city, being this sort of philosophical escape from the 19th century. And it wasn’t quite true anymore. It’s a wonderful book. But what, in the late 20th century, could you say about going to the edge of town and looking at a pond? What does the pond look like now?

Which came first: the concept for The Pond, or the actual photos themselves?

The photos. I don’t work as a conceptualist. Let’s say the conceptual art model is that you have a project idea, or a set of concerns, and then you illustrate those concerns in whatever manner you see appropriate. For me, it has always been that the world suggests far more subtle and interesting variations than I could ever come up with. At a certain point in each project, you get an idea and you investigate it. But I always take my prompting from the work being done. And back then, I had some pictures and I thought, yes. And then I filled it out.

Is there anything you'd like to add?

I'm tall and handsome.

To see for yourself, Gossage will be at the American Art Museum on October 14 at 7 p.m., for a conversation with museum-goers about the exhibit. His book will be re-issued with a new introduction written by the museum's curator of photography and will be available for purchase in the museum store in September.

Get the latest on what's happening At the Smithsonian in your inbox.