Photo Books

Urban Oasis: Adam Pape’s Dyckman Haze Shows NYC Parks as Transformative Spaces

December 21, 2018

By Conor Risch

Spending time in New York City’s parks can be like stepping out of one dimension and into another. They offer respite and a chance for an experience that can’t be had in the city’s buildings or on its sidewalks. They are places where the city’s inhabitants—both human and animal—can find a niche.

The parks in Manhattan’s northernmost neighborhoods provide the setting for photographer Adam Pape’s new book, Dyckman Haze (MACK), a series of black-and-white photographs that consider the green spaces and wooded areas of Inwood and Washington Heights as otherworldly sites of activity and drama and mystery. Pape’s images depict people and animals he encountered in the park while working there over the course of several years. We see teenagers smoking or lounging together on blankets; people dancing and climbing and exercising, building fires or fishing in the Hudson River. We see dogs wrestling, raccoons searching the trash and skunks drinking from puddles and lurking behind lamp posts.

© Adam Pape

Through repeated visits over the course of several years, Pape was able to “see the landscape unfold,” he says. © Adam Pape

Made mostly at dusk and at night, Pape’s images are full of shadows and dark corners. His sequence feels at times foreboding, and at other times magical and humorous. “I think of precariousness a lot, both in the natural environment and in the world in general, and I feel like there’s that underlying tension in some of these pictures, too,” Pape says. “We’re not quite sure where these things are going to shift. There are surprises both good and bad.”

Pape first began visiting the parks when he moved to New York in 2011 and was living in Harlem. His first six months in the city were rough: A friend was killed in a bicycling accident and Pape was jumped. To the Smithfield, Virginia native, the wooded areas of Fort Washington Park, Inwood Park and Fort Tryon Park felt familiar, but also strange because of their unique place in the landscape of the city. “It was a space that I would keep going to, a space [where] I found that I could interact with people on a different level, which was important. And then I found the skunks.”

Seeing skunks in Fort Tryon Park and realizing how many of them were there prompted him to begin photographing at twilight, when they are active. Introduced gradually in the book’s sequence, the skunk adds a bit of levity, and also acts as a kind of “spirit animal” that guides the reader through the landscape, he says.

When people began inquiring about what Pape was doing with his flashes and long lens, he expanded his work to include people, other animals and the landscape as a whole. He went to the park after work a couple of nights a week and on weekends. There, he would strike up conversations with people who approached him or who seemed open to being photographed. “You’re always trying to gauge [people’s interest], and you offer the proposition or talk about the pictures you’re making, and also offer to share whatever it is that you make,” Pape explains.

© Adam Pape

Adam Pape was initially inspired to photograph by the skunks in Fort Tryon Park. Later, he expanded the project to include other animals. © Adam Pape

The photos aren’t staged, but Pape says he doesn’t feel like the photographs are “necessarily documents either.” He would sometimes ask subjects to repeat an action, or he would look around for a place to make a portrait. “But it was never anything more than witnessing what was happening already and going from there.” One man appears to be kissing a stone chess table in a sort of religious gesture. Another hangs horizontally in the air as if he’s levitating. In this way, the photographs “transcend what was actually happening in the moment, especially in the context of the other images,” Pape explains.

His use of flash, and the way black-and-white “doesn’t really show a temperature or a time of day easily” allowed him to make photographs “in all the seasons” that were esthetically unified. He hoped to heighten the viewer’s sense of the park “as a transformative space,” Pape explains, where people go to escape the everyday grind. “Which is also what I was there for too, I guess,” he adds.

Any body of photographic work bears signs of the photographer’s process, but Dyckman Haze is particularly interesting to consider as a reflection of the photographer’s journey. “The potential of this project wasn’t revealed immediately,” Pape says. Only after frequent returns did it begin to take shape. “To keep going back and seeing the environment in different times of day, different weather, you just really see the landscape unfold in that way,” he explains. The camera also leads to conversations with people who “tell you and show you things that you couldn’t have imagined or thought of in the first place.” In that sense, Pape’s book is also a story about the physical and intellectual search for possibilities, and the way photography transforms the photographer.

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