About photobooks – old and new.
Title: Walking the High Line
Author: Joel Sternfeld
Published in 2001 (first edition, first printing) by Steidl
4to, 56 pages, hardcover with photographically illustrated dust jacket.
“Walking the High Line” by Joel Sternfeld documents the environment and atmosphere of an elevated NY Central Railroad track, abandoned in the middle of the city. The track is two stories high, running from 34th street to Gansevoort street and covers about one mile and a third. The photobook could be seen at first as an urban landscape photography project, centered on this specific site, revealing the beauty and paradox of a derelict railroad. But this is more than an abandoned railroad track; it is an industrial archeological piece. As Adam Gopnik says in the accompanying text, “The past is not buried in the ground but held up in the air, on the upper floors”.
In Sterneld’s photographic motivation there is however another intention. This project seems more a call or a manifesto in defense of this abandoned structure, when intense politics surrounded the High Line. The photographer was approached by a group called the Friends of the High Line, which emerged with the hope of keeping this archeological piece integrated in Chelsea, where real estate boomed. After being abandoned in the 80s, a group called CPO – Chelsea Property Owners – pressed the local government to tear down the High Line. That never took place, mainly because no one agreed on who should pay for tearing it down. While this issue was not being solved for several years or even decades, Friends of the High Line emerged, led by Robert Hammond and Joshua David.
In Sternfeld’s perspective, on this elevated track seasonality resides with authenticity and purity, which is unseen anywhere else in Manhattan. Sternfeld walked the High Line throughout the four seasons and captured with detailed the integration of the natural and the industrial, a landscape constantly changed by the different colors of the vegetation. The four seasons are clearly distinguishable by the color of the plants, grass, bushes and weeds. The real Spring, as Sternfeld says, and its true colors are here, not in the constructed Manhattan. And these photos give a genuine feeling of this landscape, which deserves to be preserved, restored maybe, but not completely changed. In the photographer’s opinion, this is a peaceful high place in NY, despite or maybe because of being derelict.
When this book was published, the High Line’s friends were raising funds to get a Certificate of Interim Trail Use to save the Line. Progressively the project became a suspended garden, maybe as visionary and magical as the Suspended Gardens of Babylon, seen today as one of the seven wonders of the Ancient World. The project could have been considered a fantasy, but as seen in these pictures, the natural elements were already progressively taking over the derelict industrial structure. After all, a park was not that unnatural for this elevated railroad track.
This structure that runs trough three different neighborhoods, is in Sternfeld’s mind the way the city ought to have been, with the authentic experience of its natural environment. And the photos convey well that experience, which is more than a simple promenade usually arranged and artificially organized by Men.