Let’s face it—landscape photos of the Hudson Valley are a dime a dozen, especially given the power of the iPhone camera and sharing software like Instagram. Blindfolded in the Valley with a camera in hand, you could probably make a pretty picture, then share it with the masses: #HudsonValley. For this reason, making a standout landscape is particularly difficult.
Ryan Rusiecki, a recent graduate of Bard’s prestigious photography program, is up for the challenge. Having lived in various areas within the Valley, Rusiecki is both familiar with and curious about the myth of “upstate” New York. His latest body of work, Visions of Upstate, reflects his experience living in the area, mainly through rural and suburban scenes alive with light and movement.
What emerges in Rusiecki’s photography is a sense of openness to the landscape and, subsequently, his reactions to this visual inquiry: sometimes passivity, often romanticization, and—in the best of cases—surprise. In order to make pictures about the locale in which he was born, bred, and educated, Rusiecki simultaneously employs and subverts his preconceptions.
In the midst of this ongoing project, we had the chance to chat with Rusiecki about his photography practice in the Hudson Valley.
I grew up in Chappaqua, which is a small town located in northern Westchester County. The town itself is suburban but the surrounding landscape is woodsy and there are dozens of nature preserves. The Hudson River is only three miles east, but it wasn’t something I engaged with or studied in high school. When I began making photographs, I would travel to river towns like Hastings-on-Hudson, Tarrytown, or Ossining because they are dramatically sloped towards the river.
I was interested in studying at Bard because of the photography program. There aren’t many schools that have a department entirely dedicated to the study of photography. Aside from the usual considerations, physical place was not something I was thinking so much about.
When I arrived at Bard, I was shocked by how different the landscape was from where I grew up. The college is situated directly on the river. There is also significantly less development, a lot more open space, limited light and noise pollution, and complex weather systems. One of the rude awakenings, if you will, for freshmen at Bard is realizing that there is nowhere to get food after 9 p.m. At night, the landscape becomes absolutely silent. That was new for me.
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The built environment refers to the human-made landscape. It is a catch-all term that comes from an architectural perspective. While architecture generally refers to buildings and structures, the built environment refers to any human intervention with the land; roadways, farmland, recreational areas, and—of course—buildings. But most importantly, the built environment refers to the intersection of these components and how they relate to one another.
The process of placemaking is much more abstract in comparison. This refers to how meaning is ascribed to a specific place, which comes from the generation of associations or connotations. The meaning of place is never fixed and depends upon the cultural values of specific moments in time. The Hudson Valley is a great example of this.
Making pictures here is quite challenging. Certain experiences—like driving over the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge at sunset—simply can’t be rendered photographically. Sometimes, landscapes are too beautiful. But most of the time, the landscape is just plain boring. I spent over a year making really uninteresting photographs before I finally realized the visual language and perspective of this body of work.
That said, the experience of successfully making pictures becomes that much more rewarding. They keep the project alive. These pictures are often made when something unexpected happens, such as a massive barge passing by or when a storm system comes out of nowhere.
The most exciting part of making pictures in the Hudson Valley is the range of seasons and the transitions between them. The land takes on completely different characteristics depending on the time of year. Many places, most notably Tivoli, transition into ghost towns during January as businesses close and many residents leave town.
This past winter I was planning to take some time off from picture making so that I would be able to edit and print pictures from the previous seasons. I was surprised to find I was unable to put my camera down. When there are no leaves on the trees, the landscape opens. Houses and views once hidden by leaves are revealed—it’s really exciting.
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[At the moment], the Mid-Hudson Valley is experiencing a week-long heat wave with temperatures exceeding 95º Fahrenheit. I look forward to swimming this afternoon and hopefully exposing some photographs—if my camera can handle the heat. These dramatic seasonal shifts are unique to the region.
In my previous body of work I was more interested in the standardization and orderly forms of the civilized landscape, which I photographed in the middle of the day under harsh light. A lot like Lewis Baltz’ work, my photographs were without context, without a sense of place. I was under the notion that everywhere is nowhere and vice versa. There are pictures from Las Vegas alongside images of the Hudson Valley, but there is nothing in the images that would indicate this to the viewer.
I completely pivoted from this in my ongoing body of work. While I do still photograph what some might consider generic scenes, it’s important that I include visual elements—most notably the Hudson River—to establish a sense of place for the viewer. It’s my hope at least that the viewer can easily situate themself within the work. That said, this work is about my experience living here, and I don’t intend for it to function as an objective chronicle of the Hudson Valley.
Photography is ultimately about vision and the experience of seeing, that’s true. I took this quite literally in my previous work and exclusively used a 35mm lens to mimic human vision. In this body of work, I have been using a variety of focal lengths which I determine depending on the circumstance.
I want to compose photographs that guide the viewer towards my subject. A lot of my pictures are made using longer exposures. This makes visible certain elements that would otherwise be invisible to human sight, especially at night. These elements, a swaying tree or artificial streetlight, take on a spectral quality that extend the possibilities of human sight. More of a vision than the visible.
At night, the Hudson Valley takes on a frightening atmosphere very quickly. It gets so dark that the sound of footsteps takes on an ominous quality. I recently read Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” which recalled a lot of my own experiences of terror, such as walking through the woods late at night or getting caught in a torrential downpour. There is definitely a magical quality to the Hudson Valley landscape that reveals itself at the most surprising moments, which is something I am sensitive to when making pictures.
I experimented with scouting locations and used Google Earth to find vantage points. I also reviewed historical writing to find locations that may hold cultural resonance. While this has occasionally been helpful, I find it can also be distracting, and often results in tunnel vision or close-mindedness. There’s no substitute for going out into the field and being aware of your surroundings while remaining open to new possibilities. So, ultimately, this project has been about straddling the line between spontaneity and expectations with a lot of exploring thrown in the mix.
In regard to the process of operating the camera, I use a tripod, which slows me down and forces me to be more considerate when framing a composition. It is important that the entire image is in focus because it allows the viewer to scrutinize the entire image and all of its details, which heightens the viewing experience because it goes beyond the possibilities of human vision. This often requires a degree of trial and error, especially when shooting at night.
A few months ago, I was walking back to my car late at night when I noticed the railroad trestle over the Roundout Creek became illuminated by an oncoming train, which I decided to photograph. It took me a few exposures to find the right composition and verify the focus as my viewfinder was completely black. Since the highlights from the train lights were so bright in relation to the dark landscape, I had to determine the best exposure before the highlights became blown out. Fortunately, there are trains every 45 minutes. It took me three trains before I finally determined the correct exposure to be 42 seconds.
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From a semantic perspective, upstate refers to anything north of New York City. In fact, some people even consider where I grew up in Westchester County to be upstate.
I believe that upstate is more of an idea or a projection that refers to a specific landscape and lifestyle. I consider upstate to be within the parameters of being too far to commute to New York regularly and close enough to justify a day trip or a weekend trip, which refers to the area from Newburgh to Albany. The majority of my photographs have been made within this range, although I mostly focus on the Mid-Hudson Valley area, which I feel embodies the romance of the word “upstate” best. Recently, I have seen people wearing T-shirts with the text “upstate and chill” and even “Woodstock versus Hamptons.” The concept of upstate is very much a part of popular culture and collective imagination.
I envision the finished project to contain images spanning the four seasons that represent the multitude of experiences and landscapes contained within the Hudson Valley. It is also important that the final group of images function in different ways. Ultimately, I hope to assemble the final selection of images in an exhibition or artist’s book format.
At the time of writing, there are three to five images that I consider to be a part of this selection. It could take three months or three years to make those additional images. In some ways, I don’t want this project to end because it is very stimulating to be exposing pictures in the post-pandemic Hudson Valley landscape.