S.B. Walker’s Walden opens with a quote: “The highest condition of art is artlessness.” It’s an incisively chosen selection from Henry David Thoreau’s treatise on nature, solitude, self-reliance, and truth (also called Walden), and it sets up the lens through which we, as viewers, are meant to absorb Walker’s work.
Rife with paradoxes and contradictions, Thoreau’s words lead us into the world that Walker has created at Walden Pond, a storied lake in the countryside of New England whose environs captivated nineteenth-century figures like Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
The quote that Walker has selected from Thoreau’s Walden defines its world through contradictions. The statements are antithetical (“He who resists not at all will never surrender / When a dog runs at you, whistle for him”) and every response differs from expectation: “Stand outside the wall, and no harm can reach you.” Contradiction and conflict, Walker seems to say, are part of the modern experience of Walden Pond. Thoreau may have championed seclusion and communion with nature during his two years living alone here, but the current interaction between humanity and the natural landscape in this area runs counter to his aspirations.
Walker doesn’t waste any time making his point—the first image in the book features three figures that are each, in different ways, prevented from communing with the natural world around them. Although they exist in the same photograph, they move in worlds distinct from one another.
Two of the three figures are distracted by external factors that have invaded this natural space: one reaches for an inflatable toy, and the other is seated on a boat emblazoned with “Walden Patrol,” which breaks the surface of the water as it moves across the frame. The third figure, in the foreground, stands in water up to his waist. Motionless, he gazes out at the water and the dark woods beyond—and yet his view is broken by evidence of technology and consumerism. He is a clear stand-in for Thoreau’s concept of man’s deep communion with nature, and yet his interaction is cluttered by nearby activities that pervert the experience of Walden that Thoreau valued so highly.
This concept is especially apparent in “Lily, Blind, Sitting Near Mushrooms.” The girl’s body is almost entirely covered by clothing—from her dense puffer jacket to the heavy sweatpants on her legs—which prevents any interaction with the climate or environment.
She is, as Walker says, blind—but also deaf: her eyes are closed, and her ears are concealed behind dense white headphones. She’s numb to the world around her. Even the vegetables next to her have been stripped of their purity—they’ve been dug out of the landscape, and one potato bears a sticker reading “$5.”
The relationship between man and nature in Walker’s book is multilayered and capricious. Human noise overtakes some of the images—bathers play with their phones and listen to music—and yet the natural world isn’t always a passive player. Frequently it surges forward, threatening to drown out the figures at its periphery, as in “Thoreau’s Cove, Three Graces” [the cover image of this article], where wild branches encroach ominously on the small patch of land where three women sunbathe.
Oftentimes, however, the natural world is cowed and subdued: nowhere is this more apparent than in the sequence of photographs depicting the development and construction in the surrounding area. In one scene, two people empty their massive bags of leaves into a landfill; in another, a small cabin (not unlike Thoreau’s) is dwarfed by a pile of dead branches and dry leaves. When we finally come across a shot of a sawed-off sapling, its raw trunk facing the lens dead on, it’s almost a shock. In the background, glowing amidst the inky blackness of the surrounding vegetation, is a spectral human figure.
Man and landscape in Walker’s images are not cohesive. The people in his photographs are conspicuous—they do not blend in with their natural surroundings—and oftentimes only after looking at them does the viewer turn their attention to the natural splendor that occupies the rest of the frame. This awkwardness, the push and pull, is evidence that the relationship between man and nature isn’t balanced or harmonious. Either humans dominate nature, or nature dominates us. It’s either/or—the communion that Thoreau hoped for is nowhere to be found.
Despite this modern failing, all hope is not lost: Walker also captures people who seek out the quiet corners in this landscape, immersing themselves in the dense thickets and cool water. These images beg the question—how does Walker’s own interaction with this place compare? Yes, he spends his time observing his surroundings through the camera’s viewfinder, and yes, his mind is clearly occupied by external factors. But the book’s quiet moments—shots of a puddle that looks like a portal to another world; a frozen lake covered with snow—reveal a reverence for this place. His photographs maintain a balance between social commentary and a genuine connection to the natural splendor of the pond and the surrounding woods.
Walden builds a rich world that encompasses a set of complex emotions and reactions, including Walker’s commentary on the environmental and social activities around the pond alongside his appreciation for the unique beauty of the place. It’s a carefully crafted series of observations about spirituality, artifice, and introspection in the modern era, bound together in the contemplative pages of a beautifully printed book.
by S.B. Walker
Includes an essay by Alan Trachtenberg
Publisher: Kehrer Verlag
Hardcover: 124 pages