Adam Pape’s latest book explores how NYC parks provide a space for people to do what they like
Photographer Adam Pape was optimistic about moving to New York in 2011. But the memories from those first months in the city feel right out of a film noir. “Within a couple of months of being there, a close friend of mine died in a bike accident in Brooklyn,” he recalls. “Then a week after that someone tried to take my phone and punched me in the face a couple times. Right after that, I was running around the Hudson for exercise, and there were two detectives and a body bag on this pier.”
“It’s one of these things where I feel New York can test you,” he concludes, alluding to the sense that New York has a mind of its own. It’s this feeling which is at the core of Dyckman Haze, Pape’s latest book which looks into the sort of magic that takes place in the parks of uptown New York, where urban dwellers go to escape the grid and walk along lines unseen.
Pape began exploring the city’s many green spaces with his camera as a way to relate to his new home. He focused on Fort Washington Park, Inwood Park, and Fort Tryon Park, where he discovered a bucolic ambience of abundant wildlife and romantic views of the Hudson River. But the scenery was just one part of the park’s appeal. “I was making pictures in this landscape and I saw skunks playing,” he remembers. “It was very strange. As I was walking through the rest of the park that evening, I just saw more and more.”
The photographer was hungry for pictures of New York “that nobody had ever seen before”, adding that he found a “spirit guide” through a landscape that has been so heavily mediated by culture – through films in particular. “I was trying to generate this view of New York at night that wasn’t so dire, but instead was one that was filled with a fantastical atmosphere and humour,” he says.
Besides the park’s skunks, Pape met many different human characters during his strolls. ”A lot of the teenagers were there to smoke pot,” he explains. “Lots of bingo games were held on Saturday and especially older people. Birthday parties for little kids. A soccer match.” The park becomes an “escape”, but not in the sense of surviving, or fleeing danger, the photographer explains. “I see it as trying to escape monotony.”
“I was trying to present this landscape as something that is not just another box – whether that’s a cubicle, an apartment, or a train car – but instead something that’s a little bit stranger,” he explains. Through Pape’s lens, New York’s parks take on a mythological quality. One image depicts a man’s body hanging upside down, his head facing the ground as if he was looking at his own shadow. Another is seen resting his forehead on the nose of a majestic white husky. Skunks drink from puddles and eat trash under the moonlight.
Some of these images, Pape explains, were the result of strolling through the park, seeing something commonplace yet interesting, and asking the person to repeat the action. Other times, things would get a bit weirder, as with the portrait of a man seemingly kissing a chess board, his eyes half-closed. “That was this fella Tony that I met”, Pape says, “who was showing me how to ‘blow the river’, which was this way in which to get the smoke from the blunt go along the table.”
To a certain extent, Dyckman Haze also shows the ways in which the park and its inhabitants – both human and animal – adjust to one another. People find creative ways of using the space to fit what they want it to be. “There is a photograph in the book that is of a 1930s lamp post, but it’s been opened up and rewired and there is an extension cable hanging out of it, and then there is an iPhone charger attached to that,” the photographer says.
“Even though (the park’s architects) intended certain uses of it, people are finding other ways of escaping into it,” Pape notes. “I’m sure they didn’t intend for there to be multiple skunks eating garbage every night.”
The book opens on a view of the river banks and Manhattan’s skyline, a train “forever going and coming and taking you to work and out of it”, Pape muses. Towards the end, a scene evokes a similar melancholy. But everywhere in between, the images conjure up an otherworldly space in which to find refuge.
Dyckman Haze is published by Mack and available now