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Jon Robinson’s camera caught a spotted salamander, oily and pop-eyed, scurrying through verdant ground cover on its way to find a partner for the horizontal tango. The assignation was in a place called Hollywood Swampnot in some amphibian Southern Gothic potboiler, but less than a mile from the Greenbelt Metro station.
They don’t call this part of the Metro system the Green Line because of its ecology. The rise of development in Prince George’s County has meant the loss of woods, farms, and other places where nature once held sway. Robinson, chair of the Maryland chapter of the Sierra Club, says that the salamander’s mating area and the 128 acres of wetlands in the surrounding Indian Creek valley are “all going to be destroyed if this new development”a shopping-residential complex on the land owned by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority and A.H. Smith”goes through.”
Robinson was thrilled, then, when Janet Palmer called to tell him about a photo exhibition about the area she was mounting at Prince George’s Community College (PGCC): “When somebody volunteers to do something like that, it’s like you’ve struck gold.”
Like Robinson, Palmera software engineer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrationwas inspired by Greenbelt. “I was walking back in the Greenbelt Metro area, and it was so pretty there,” she says. “I wanted to raise public awareness so that when land goes up for development, people will know what they’re going to lose.” As a former student at PGCC looking for a community-service project, Palmer contacted the director of the college’s Marlboro Gallery, Thomas A. Berault, and organized “Our Land: A Photographic Project.” The 17 photographers in the show, including Robinson and Palmer, depict Prince George’s County land in its natural state, worked over by machinery, and festooned with vinyl-sided McMansions.
The photographers aren’t utterly opposed to developmentor even averse to technological progress. Michael Basanta, a 1999 art graduate of the University of Maryland, created abstract Photoshop montages of natural and mechanical objects”a commentary on technology vs. biology.” Other photographers used digital enhancement to add color or streamline images. The result is not so much documentary as protest ballad, even in the more conventional photographs. For his contribution, Berault assembled groups of small pictures from building sites “to pound home the raping of the earthto talk about the repetitiveness of the scarring of the earth.”
“There can be common-sense development,” says Michael Bryant, who’s supported himself as a photographer for nearly 40 years, “a comprehensive design plan rather than Monopoly-game structures thrown out all over the board in strip-mall nonsense.” Bryant’s four color photos show farms in and near Glenn Dale: Three are still in agricultural use; the fourth, depicted in Simpson Farm, is now an all-too-familiar landscape of traffic lights and ticky-tacky houses. (An advertising sign in the corner, partially obscured by trees, reads “Upscale Ho.”)
The exhibit’s purpose of drawing attention to the county’s natural beauty has already been fulfilled, at least for one of the artists. Carmella D’Alonzo Doty drew inspiration for her arresting black-and-white landscapes from nearby Bowie and Croom: “These are areas that I whiz by in my car almost daily and never pay any attention [to],” she says. Working on “Our Land” led her to see her surroundings more clearly: “I drive past somewhere now, and if it looks interesting, I stop and get out and look. I got topographic maps and started to look for streams and wetlands nearby. It became a challenge to locate and discover them….I don’t just whiz by anymore.” Pamela Murray Winters
“Our Land: A Photographic Project” is on view at Prince George’s Community College’s Marlboro Gallery to Sept. 13. Jon Robinson will lecture on “Uneconomic Growth: Who Profits and Who Pays” at a reception from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 7.