email: srusten@msn.com | Phone: (845) 887-5662

Rural Considerations 1983 - 1993


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“In 1983 I purchased a small farm in the Upper Delaware Valley area of New York, to provide work space unaffordable in Manhattan. With its unique geography, rocky mountain land with no serious roads to handle volume traffic, the area was virtually ‘a land that time forgot’, a place of seemingly unspoiled natural beauty. Deer and other animals run wild through the forests, Eagles and Hawks soar overhead while Blue Heron wade the rivers in search of fish...“

The above was the introduction to a more lengthy description of this series written as application for a Grant in 1989 from the NY State Council on the Arts under their now defunct ‘Supported Work’ program. Not only did I receive the Grant I was awarded the maximum amount and I later discovered that this was one of the largest such this institution had ever given a Photographer Artist. As the ultimate validation, in 1993 images from the series were accepted to the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art by Peter Galassi, Senior Curator of the Photography Department, appointed as replacement for long term Director, John Szarkowski, the man who almost single handedly put the medium on the map as a serious ART. I could ask no higher honor than to be included in this most prestigious club.

But at the risk of it seeming self serving, if ever an Artist deserved such honors it was ME for this work specifically. For this was no sophomore self assignment or a project slapped together just for the purpose of a Grant, but instead the documentation of what can be described as an odyssey of the SOUL, my personal experience of what to me was a brand new world after a previous lifetime as a City Boy Artist lived out in those smoky Jazz Clubs of legend, through the 50s and the 60s and on through the 70s cruising the Art Bars of SoHo—I had lived the Cinema fantasy of the Hot urban Artist, the Westbroadway Kid don’t you know, and now here I was in the boonies breathing air so fresh my corroded city lungs were bursting with joy, my spirit now calmed by a quietude I could never have imagined in the Honking Horns and Police Siren All About MONEY universe of MADhattan. Suffice it to say that this new adventure can be fairly described as having been an epiphany for me.

And actually I went as deeply into this new universe as one could go, as a further embrace of this new world I did not just stand on the bluff overlooking the river that lives at the heart of it, I donned a pair of waders and entered that watery world—it was one of the things I had always wanted to do going back to an outing I went on with a friend from Ohio and his family years earlier in which he had introduced me to Trout Fishing, which he had naturally gotten into as a boy from a more rural world himself. This had lingered in my mind as signifying the ultimate break with the urban Rat Race where as most accurately depicted in the Film ‘The Devil Wears Prada’, one has to be umbilically tethered to communication on almost a 24 hour basis and be ready to literally devote one’s Life to the ‘Company’. In contrast, when you get into Fly Fishing which is the ultimate realization of that quest for the beautiful and elusive and also most fragile creature that is a Trout, you have to abandon such connection along with the terra firma itself. When you wade into that River of Life and you walk around the bend into the mist, you are gone from all that, not only is there no Beeper or Cell Phone ( you’d be an IDIOT to bring same ), not even your spouse can reach you on this rendezvous where as it is said, a Human Being can meet their own soul in a way they never imagined before.

So deeply did I immerse myself in this pursuit and the perfection of this new Art, that suffice it to say I explored almost every Trout stream and river that the Catskills is famous for, in addition to the Big D as the Delaware is known, so many others that are the stuff of a Trout Fisherman’s dream, the East and West branches of the Delaware, from Shinhopple down to East Branch on the former, Deposit to Hancock on the latter, the fabled Beaverkill and Willowemoc, the Esopus in Ulster County just outside Woodstock, the Schoharie in Greene County. I used to wade into the Neversink at the bridge in Hasbrouk and follow it downstream through its twists and turns three or four miles, like walking through the Amazon you know, picking blackberries off the bushes lining the banks. I’d walk on down to the big pool down below where Brother Beaver made his home and like to scare you to death smacking his powerful tail on the water, which was the signal to turn around and walk on back all that way this time against the current. Yeah yeah, this here City Boy got a LOT of exercise back then and a hell of a lot more healthy than trudging up the Avenue of the Americas that’s for sure.

SO anyway, to sum this up, I really GOT INTO this experience on which this series of Pictures is based. For over a decade it was my LIFE you know, nothing at all superficial about it. But what I have described so far is just one aspect of this exploration, the sociological even more essential to the accomplishment that is the Photographs themselves. For despite the beauty of the flora and fauna, the more commonplace experience of the Natural World, the fact is that Sullivan County which is the predominant locus in which these images were made is recognized by the state as one of their poorest—with the ‘Borscht Belt’ Resort industry long gone, at the time that I began this series the County had almost NO Economy whatsoever, the bulk of the populace living on the most meager incomes if not availing themselves of Food Stamps and Welfare. In addition, this having always largely been a habitat of such lower income people, there was no architecture to distinguish it such as you might find in New England or New Mexico and going further yet, what riches of such kind might have existed during the heyday of the Resorts even longer ago were now largely in a state of ruin—walk through these woods and don’t be at all surprised if you come upon an abandoned swimming pool or the foundation of a once elegant home along with the residue of abandoned Bungalow Colonies. For the most part what you’ll find in the way of houses in these parts are nondescript wood frame structures of the cheapest materials if not ramshackle Trailers, as depicted in two images provided as samples in this Website, the House at Hale Eddy and the Veterans home. (At this juncture there has been considerable improvement in this regard but ironically, from my perspective as a Photographer, the new more beautiful homes that have been and are being built, have little interest for me seeing as you can find same just about anywhere. They did such a job of improvement to the Town of Jeffersonville in relation to a TV series that featured such, I no longer have any interest in picturing that either.)

To put this more simply, Sullivan County as I discovered it back when I bought my house up there in the early 80s, was a most ‘soulful’ place that embodied a profound contrast between economic impoverishment and pastoral splendor, the perfect locus for the kind of work that I do as a Photographer with one eye on the sociological and the other tuned in to the metaphysical. You will see all of this quite clearly in the pictures themselves but the one thing I would like to add that explains the profundity of the work as it was obviously understood by the Panel that awarded me that grant and the astute Curators of MOMA, is that as I myself did not become fully aware of until I was already well into the work, there was a running metaphor that is the finding of Beauty in Ugliness. Consider again the two images of the homes provided here, the House at Hale Eddy as you can plainly see is one of those I related about earlier as made from the cheapest materials, and yet captured in this beautiful Light I have managed to depict it as the owner might see it, a humble yet sweet little place which located as it is just above the Delaware must have provided the inhabitants with a pleasure beyond the value of what money could buy. The Veterans home is interesting in the same way, it’s just a rude shack is what it is, from the looks of it one cannot be sure if it’s even really a Trailer, it could be made of just some boards nailed together. And yet notice that despite the poverty of this Veteran as unabashedly proclaimed in his plea for Help, the lawn has been mowed and the Mower stands beside the structure as evidence of the pride he takes in the place regardless.

In another image not shown that makes this metaphor even clearer, a dead Deer, what we know as ‘Road Kill’ is being eaten by maggots which as any student of Nature understands represents the ongoing recycling of Life and is therefore not really as negative an image as the less astute might consider it to be but really a most positive image in the way indicated, the Deer’s carcass provides food for the Crows and Vultures, those Eagles and Hawks mentioned earlier, when they are not dining on it the maggots take over and we can be quite sure a Coyote is lurking nearby ready to drag it off into the woods to have his own necessary feast. Yet another image of importance in this way, also not shown here, is of a simple patch of Weeds also by the roadside. At the time I made the picture I had no idea WHY I was doing so other than for whatever reason I felt compelled to do so—after much study it finally came to me, this was the ultimate image of this metaphor in that the Weed is considered an ugly interloper in our Flower Gardens when in fact it has a vegetative symmetry as beautiful as any other plant and it also produces its own lovely flowers.

SO Beauty is in the Beholder is the moral of the story I guess. I say it that way because Artists only pose profound questions but would not claim to have any answers. As a practitioner of what is known as ‘aesthetic document’, mine is an Art of Description, I photograph whatever I feel inspired to picture but that inspiration always deriving from an inner understanding that what it is I am Seeing is of some genuine importance or profundity whether I fully comprehend what it is at the time I make the picture or not. Another better way to put it as I have done in my other writings on the subject is that “Something resonates with the Hard Drive of my soul that then motivates the click of the Shutter.” Of course, it also depends on the quality of the ‘Files’ one has stored there...

Shelly Rusten