In late 2009, Warren Buffett made headlines for investing in the railroad industry, thus marking it with the imprimatur of market confidence. It was a provocative move considering the general disappearance of trains from the national consciousness and the American landscape in general. Earlier that same year, Jeff Brouws began a body of work in which he investigates the forgotten legacy of the numerous competing railroads servicing Dutchess County in Upstate New York during the late 19th Century and into the first-third of the 20th. With The Machine in the Garden, Brouws masterfully shines a light on the vicissitudes of capital that govern the successive layers — material and psychological — of economic and cultural infrastructure. And indeed the railroad is a cultural phenomenon as much as anything else: as the dominant mechanism of growth and development in the 19th Century, it fundamentally determined the way that people and communities related to one another. Like nothing that came before, the railroad restructured the modern organization of time and space. And yet that time would seem to have passed.
The title of the exhibition is drawn from cultural historian Leo Marx's influential book The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. The concurrent development of photographic and railway technologies which ushered in the industrialized modern era has been widely remarked upon; Brouws uses the former to reflect on the historical imprint of the latter. Working within a 10-mile radius of his home in Stanfordville, New York, Brouws has uncovered the concealed histories of the "machines" that once cut across the pastoral landscape. In the last quarter of the 19th Century numerous railroad mainlines sprung up in Dutchess County to serve the independent dairies and other local agricultural producers, while competing railroad corporations also produced redundant infrastructure that outran the demand for local service. In the final hours of the Great Depression most of the rural lines folded, the tracks and ties uprooted and the material repurposed. But today the right-of-ways, the paths cut by the tracks through field and forest, still remain apparent if one knows where to look.
Their traces exist in the permanent embankments and scars through stands of trees, testament to the cycles of capital investment and divestment. Even after nearly a century of disuse, the imprint of the railroad remains in these rural areas where lesser financial investment ensures a slower rate of change. Above the impress of the railway lines, the canopy of the trees frames a vista looking into history, in which the past and the present are overlaid. Matching an elegiac aesthetic sensibility with a respect for the natural and socioeconomic forces that underlie their subject matter, these beautifully executed color photographs invite us to read the script written on the land by over a century of human intervention.
The Machine in the Garden is Jeff Brouws's fifth solo exhibition at Robert Mann Gallery. His photographs have been included in recent exhibitions at the Princeton University Art Museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the Nevada Museum of Art. His monographs include Approaching Nowhere (2006), Readymades (2003), Inside the Live Reptile Tent (2001), and Highway: America's Endless Dream (1998). Born in 1955, Brouws lives in Stanfordville, New York.