by Peter Croteau
The most moving experiences sometimes happen in the most unsuspecting of places. In
Peter Croteau’s “Unnatural Wonders,” transitory, sublime expressions are made with seemingly unimpressionable dross piles made in urban development. In the following interview with Newfound, Croteau discusses his work, his thoughts on landscape photography, his relationship to the Hudson River School, and where he plans to take “Unnatural Wonders” next.
Q. Can you tell us a little bit about how your series “Unnatural Wonders” began? How did you first come across these ephemeral dross spaces?
CROTEAU: I first encountered spaces of dross as a teenager. I explored abandoned and industrial spaces hidden in the woods near Delaware Water Gap in Pennsylvania. A few years later, I discovered the book “Drosscape” by Alan Berger. This book explained the concept of “dross,” where it occurs and what functions it has to society. According to Berger, dross is a waste landscape created during the process of urbanization. It exists in a transient state waiting to be reaggregated into use by society.
Dross can be seen in three main forms: wasted spaces, wasteful spaces and actual waste. Wasted spaces. Wasted spaces are areas that were once used by society but have since fallen away from use. Wasteful spaces are areas that are intentionally planned but see little to no use: such as vast expanses of parking lots and voided land for separating sections of the landscape. Spaces of actual waste are those where the consumption of land and materials are more opaque: including construction sites, junkyards, and dumping sites.
I began to develop “Unnatural Wonders” in graduate school at RISD. A shift from my previous work occurred when I was photographing piles of snow at night. I was interested in the liminal quality of snow, and the strange contrast snow has with the night sky under parking lot lights. One of the photographs I came back with was different from the others. I had moved closer to the space, transforming the camera frame into something ambiguous and otherworldly. Excited to use this ambiguity to represent the landscape, I decided to return to many sites of dross that I had previously photographed to transform them into something other.
One of my main inspirations for the project was Joe Deal’s last body of work, “West and West.” Deal became tired of the amount of photography that replicated New Topographics aesthetics and only focused on humanity’s impact on the earth. He felt that photographs of suburbia, and man-inflicted landscape, are in danger of becoming too familiar and easily dismissed. With the oversaturation of images of ravaged landscapes comes a sense of complacency in the amount that we consume from the land. In “West and West,” Deal decides to turn the other way and re-imagine the Great Plains as how they may have been before we were there, as he imagined them as a child.
I found this act of reimagining the world key to my process as I began to reframe spaces of dross. I found that the process of turning a mound into a mountain was an act of reimagining the landscape as a wild space.
Q. How would you classify your work? Your work acts as part fine-art photography, part documentary, and part landscape. Do you think the term “landscape photography” limits the description of your work and the work of other photographers that explore the landscape as a subject?
CROTEAU: I view myself as an artist who uses photography as a medium to represent the landscape. I am not a documentary photographer. I do not create photographs that are meant to communicate a story on a surface level and try to tell the truth. I see myself as a creator of new or potential realities. Through my use of framing and lighting, I transform familiar, mundane spaces into mysterious, liminal atmospheres.
I do not find the term “landscape” limiting to my work. The goal of my thesis at RISD was to look at a history of landscape representation and respond to it. Whether intentional or not, representations of the landscape have created a sense of identity not only for the artist but also for people who occupy that land. The design and creation of landscapes show the values of a certain society.
Q. At Newfound it is our mission to explore the meaning and implications place has in our search for meaning and self. What does “place” mean to you?
CROTEAU: I associate the term “place” with a feeling of nostalgia. Before “Unnatural Wonders,” in my series “Roadside Sublime” I returned to a place I had previously lived to explore that landscape for spaces of dross. In this process I felt a great sense of nostalgia for a time past while at the same time I observed the creation of new landscapes. I feel nostalgia is a force that drives landscape photography. Capturing a landscape is like capturing a memory of a place.
Q. Do you feel like your understanding of the landscape changes when you photograph it or do you find it just strengthens the understanding you might already have?
CROTEAU: I feel photographing the landscape does both. Stumbling upon a poignant juxtaposition or framing the landscape in a new way changes my understanding of that landscape. A shift in perspective, whether visual or mental, is an unintended but welcome consequence. If I go out searching for something in particular or have a specific location I plan to photograph then it can strengthen the understanding I already have.
Q. Do you find traveling is a necessary element in photography? What is your favorite and least thing about traveling for your work?
CROTEAU: Traveling is an absolute necessity for my work. I will often make notes of places I have passed so I can return later to photograph them. I will then wait to find specific lighting and skies in order to reference the Hudson River School. Since spaces of dross are everywhere, I sometimes do not have to travel far to make photographs. Many of the photographs in “Unnatural Wonders” were taken in the city of Providence, R.I.
Q.”Unnatural Wonders” is shot with a large format camera. There is such a rich history of landscape photographers who have trekked through the landscape with their large format cameras. Photographers like Eadweard Muybridge come to mind. Do you work predominately in large format? What is it like to shoot with such a large camera?
CROTEAU: I work primarily with 4×5 and 8×10 cameras. I feel they are a necessity to my work. The way the camera functions allows for precision control of the composition. The camera obscura that is reflected onto the ground glass upside down aids this process. It allows me to see the world more abstractly, breaking the world down into shapes and forms. The heavy weight and need for a tripod slows down the speed in which a photograph can be taken. This is a good thing as it makes me have to think about the photograph before I take it. I pre-visualize my frame imposed upon the world before I make a photograph. Using a view camera makes me have to think about my perspective and how the frame will change if I move the tripod a certain way.
Q. What is next for you? Do you have any exciting news you would like to share?
CROTEAU: I am continuing to work on “Unnatural Wonders.” I see “Unnatural Wonders” as an overarching series that will contain multiple subsections. The first part is called “Mountains.” It contains photographs from my time at RISD and focuses on mountainous forms found spaces of dross. The second part, which I am currently editing and sequencing, is called “Aerial Views.” It contains photographs that seem as if they have been taken from some sort of aerial craft. The third part, which is also currently being edited and sequenced, is called “Interglacial.” The project contains photographs of a single space from last winter. I photographed snow in the form of a mountainous range. The project shows a process of change as the form melts away turning from snowy peaks into decrepit mounds of dirt and garbage. This transition references thousands of years occurring as the earth shifts from the Holocene epoch into the theorized Anthropocene epoch of today.
Peter received his Masters of Fine Arts in Photography from Rhode Island School of Design in 2012 and his Bachelors of Science in Photography from Drexel University in 2010. He currently lives and works out of Providence, R.I.