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Artist Statement for The Landscape Before Me: Cape Cod 2000 - 2012

    I am a photographer and photography is the medium I choose to see, feel, and think about the world I live in. It is how I best communicate. My projects lead me to readings and research in history, geography, and literature which in turns informs my understanding of what I am seeing and how I capture it. I have used the medium in diverse ways to best match the craft to the image and an important goal for me is to reach broad audiences from multiple disciplines.

     With the Cape Cod landscape work my vocabulary is chosen to reflect both permanence and mutability; human intervention imprinting the environment; and where sky, sea, and land blend into and mirror each other. I make two dimensional interpretations of this highly transitory three dimensional record of change: naturally occurring and that inflicted by human presence. I am acutely aware of the transitory nature of this landscape and work to capture “things as they are”, while there, for 3-5 feet of the dunes fall into the ocean each year.  Although color and color of light is a known quality of the Cape, I find that it coats the landscape rather than reveals or articulates it. I have chosen to work in black and white and believe it best describes the essence of this landscape. I seek image opportunities that describe and record this place not only geographically and environmentally, but poetically. My images were made through all the seasonal cycles of the year, with Polaroid positive /negative film and the final works are toned silver gelatin prints, and archival ink jet prints. The Polaroid instant on-site print is in effect a sketching and constructing tool.  As a visiting artist at Cranbrook Academy of Art, large ink jet prints 40”x 50” were made and opened up new and exciting possibilities for the work. I have been fortunate to have had two artist in residencies  in dune shacks in the Cape Cod National Seashore [ 2003 and 2007 ] these provided unique opportunities and uninterrupted time, it showed me what was possible when the normal restrains most artists grapple with our removed.The Cape series contains both constructed, multi image panoramics and single wide-angle images. The panoramic [macro] images include a micro level of detail. With the single images [micro] the camera is protruded and close .5 - 2.0 feet from the subject and I seek to infer the macro. I have worked these formats back and forth upon each other, each phase feeding the next. This work has been exhibited as an on going project in a diverse range of venues from University galleries to broad audience spaces on the Cape like the Wellfleet Library and the Cape Cod Salt Pond Visitor Center. The two dune shack residencies, a program the National Park Service supports to perpetuate the creation of art in the parks, seeks to continue the instrumental role art has had in building advocacy for parks. One aspect of the three major bodies of in-depth work  [Philadelphia’s Water Front / Ben Franklin Bridge, Berlin: Pre and Post Wall, and Cape Cod] I have spent 30 years working on shares is they are studies of places in transition. With time the work is redefined  the landscapes have disappeared or been altered and the work takes on the additional layer of becoming a historic record which serves an even broader community in a different way. A primary goal of the work attempts  to deal not only with how one perceives a place or thing  but how one thinks of that place after encountering a visual representation of it.

James B. Abbott

Site/Sightlines Berlin: 1988 - 1992 Photographs by James B Abbott
Statement by Carl Toth

Although the Iron Curtain was a metaphor that dominated the Cold War, the Berlin Wall was its physical focal point, at least for the generations that grew up in the 60’s. Perhaps John Kennedy’s famous visit to The Wall in 1962 is part of the reason for its symbolic importance. Although Jim Abbott was only a child at the time of Kennedy’s visit, he was living in Washington,D.C., and so was more aware than most children of political events and of Kennedy’s activities. Perhaps these childhood memories added a bit of nostalgia to Abbott’s first trip to The Wall in spring of 1988. Rather than finding a moment o of the past, however, he found a site of intensity and complexity that sparked his creative interests and initiated a five year photographic project.

By the time of his first visit to Berlin, Abbott had been photographing architectural details for many years, and walls were in fact one of his favorite subjects. As important, however, is the fact that he had also done significant work in collage. In Berlin he immediately responded to the dynamic collusion of graffiti and slogans which daily transformed the surface of The Wall. Ultimately, he began to find similar juxtapositions pervading the environment bordering The Wall, and his sensitivity to the complexity and intimacy of “neighborhood” began to shape the work as a whole.

Abbott’s attempt to present The Wall as inseparable from the idea of neighborhood, creates a level of intimacy that dramatically counters the grand forces that we usually associate with bisected Berlin. In a sense, his work is a significant record of the nuances of a location that had experienced an overwhelming transformation. Abbott has always been more of an essayist than a reporter, however, and his images gives us more than literal appearances. Looking at a group of his photographs today makes it clear that what he found was not so much a remnant of a somewhat tired conflict, but something more like an active fault line; a fissure along which the heated political energies of the western world were emerging. It is a testament to his insight that in the small “lave flows” and “steam vents” that he found along The Wall, Abbott sensed imminent eruption.

Given this explosive potential, to say nothing of The Wall’s tragic history, the understated quality of Abbott’s vision is remarkable and impressive. Whereas other artist might have presented The Wall as horrific nightmare, Abbott gives us the Wall and its surrounding neighborhoods as fragments of a dream, strangely silent, distant, and even beautiful. That is not say that there is not the occasional image that shakes us, but these are made all the more jarring by the the context of cool restraint in which they reside.

Perhaps most haunting is the fact that, to a large extent Abbott makes The Wall and its surroundings strangely familiar rather than exotic. He does this most often by paying careful attention to the things others discard or see only in passing - the trash and advertisements that accumulated along The Wall, abandoned cars and buildings, and even after the fall, abandoned guard towers. Often in these pictures, through subtle analogies and visual metaphors, he shows us a world that is filled with micro walls and gaps in walls, and fallen walls. In this way he emphasizes that the forces that surround the Berlin Wall were not unique to a specific time and place. Abbott convinces us that The Wall is an archetypical for through which, consciously or unconsciously, some grand mythology is constantly playing itself out- and constantly reinventing itself. The Berlin Wall was simply one of its grander, tragic and most frightening manifestations.

Carl Toth
Artist in Residence at the Cranbrook Academy of Art from 1972 - 2008



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