Julius Kassovic, a D.C.-area photographer, has spent the last eight years focusing his lens on one particular location: Sligo Creek, a small, polluted, urban waterway near his home in Maryland. The images, made in a wide variety of atmospheric conditions, are on view through Oct. 5 at the VisArts gallery in Rockville.
Kassovic spent a career with the Peace Corps and turned to photography full time after retiring a few years ago. He spoke with Arts Desk about finding the creek, letting nature distort his images, and the gear he needs to take photos in the water. Here are lightly edited excerpts.
Are you from the D.C. area?
I was born on an 11-acre farm in Illinois. A creek ran through it, and I spent a lot of time down there with our goats. I have moved about quite a bit in my life, living on both coasts and abroad, but I’ve lived next to Sligo Creek for 10 years now, the longest ever in one place.
How did you first discover the creek you now document?
My wife and I moved to D.C. for work; a friend lived in Takoma Park, Md., so we checked it out and really liked the atmosphere and the green corridor of the creek. Finding a house near the creek was a real plus.
I started this series of photographs fortuitously. I was walking over a bridge on the creek in the fall of 2006 when I leaned over and saw
beautiful reflections of autumn leaves. I took some pictures with my film camera and then forgot about them till they were developed a few weeks later.
When I saw the prints, I thought: “Dang! I wonder if I can do that on purpose?” That’s when I began going down to the creek as often as I could, first in running shoes, then in waterproof hiking boots, and now with big wellies up to my knees (to get out and walk into the water), plus a cane (those are slippery, moss covered rocks, and I’ve already fallen in twice), and a shower stool (waterproof, so I can sit on it and quietly compose).
How would you describe your photographs?
I have found that people are somewhat puzzled when they first see an exhibit of my photographs—-they’re not identifiable landscapes, nor do they seem to be abstracts. They look like something in between. I get questions such as, “Are those trees real? If they are, how come they have water and leaves floating over them? How come you can see the bottom of a streambed through them? Is that leaf really floating in neon-looking lights? Is that water or ice or some kind of Photoshopped filter covering everything, or is that a double exposure?”
There is a simple answer: These are all single-exposure photographs depicting the interplay of light and water and skies and trees and leaves in the waters of a local creek. The blues and whites of the sky mix with the colors reflected from trees, grasses, and sometimes buildings on the banks; objects in the creek like leaves and grasses and rocks add to the mix.
Reflections that look like distorted mirrors when you stand on the bank begin changing as the camera gets closer to water level, with the reflected light diffusing and scattering in unexpected ways, often bathing the scenes in lurid colors. Nature itself is doing the distorting, the layering, and the rearranging of reality. I’m just trying to capture the phantasmagorical result before it floats away.
Is there something special about the creek to you, or is it notable for its ordinariness?
It’s my creek and I can go down to it whenever I am home. That not only makes it convenient, but also gives me the opportunity to really get to know my subject at different times and seasons. I’m not at the mercy of unpredictable conditions during a single visit.
And yes, as I’ve grown into this project, I’ve come to love the creek for its very ordinariness. An environmentalist friend of mine once called it a “crappy little urban creek.” From far away it is beautiful and green; up close it’s littered with junk: bottles, plastic bags, abandoned grocery carts. But it is also an astonishing bit of nature in this urban environment. Fortunately, it has the Friends of Sligo Creek to help protect it. They run educational programs and organize volunteers for sweeps of the creek twice a year.
My pictures are taken close enough to see a world where light and water and reflections interact in ways you can’t see just strolling by high on the banks. I had no clue that this world was there, but now I’ve spent the better part of a decade doing this, finding time whenever I can to walk up and down, or just sit there, and let the creek show me what it has on offer that day.
For the first four years, I did everything I could to work around and ignore the junk in the creek—-I wanted to show only its beauty. Finally, I came to accept that junk has become a part of this crappy little urban creek like the trees, leaves, grasses, and pebbles. So I shoot junk now too, but not to shock with ugliness. That’s a given. I try to show how a beautiful creek works with junk as it works with everything else and shocks us with beauty.
How different does it look in different conditions?
I shoot in some other places, but the conditions of Sligo Creek have been amazingly good for this project. With the big storms of the past few months, the creek bottom has changed dramatically, providing me with new photographic opportunities, and proving the adage that you can’t step into the same creek twice. Going down there is always a new experience.
I love the light that sometimes occurs in early mornings and later afternoons, but I have gotten good images at high noon, in overcast, and even rain and snow. My best seasons are fall and winter because the trees are casting colorful leaves into the waters and their bare branches make great reflections. Summer is most difficult for me because there are so many green leaves that I can’t see the trees for the forest. Winter ice can be very dramatic, but only two or three recent winters have been cold enough to make great ice.
Because it is an urban creek, it takes all the runoff from streets and parking lots, so after heavy rains, the stream gets deep, fast running, and muddy. That’s when I work on something else and wait for a return to slower, shallower and clearer conditions.
When I first started, I thought about arranging leaves and other things to make my compositions. I quickly gave that up in favor of searching for nature’s own compositions. Mine kept drifting away, and I just wasn’t as good as nature at making pleasing arrangements.
What are some of your favorite images, and why?
In this exhibit, I really like “Skylight” (left) because to me it is lyrically beautiful—-a lonely oak leaf floating in the reflected golden light of an autumn maple up on the bank. And “Current,” which is sort of its opposite: a dark shadow of a tree with leaves swirling about it, mysterious and a bit mystical.
When I look at these images, whether on paper or in the creek, I see the creek expressing aspects of nature—-sometimes bright and cheery, and sometimes deeply emotional. Sometimes it does that even when there’s junk in the shot.
When I started this project, I tried unsuccessfully to explain to people what kind of photography I was doing. “Abstract landscapes” was one clumsy term I tried, but realized that these were not landscapes but waterscapes, waterscapes that are close, personal, and emotive; “Intimate Waterscapes” seems to fit best. So that’s the title I am using in the exhibit.
What are the technical specs for your work?
I started the project on film with an SLR. That was about the time I went digital. For most of the project, I was shooting with a good pocket digital camera because I wanted the ability to work close and loose. I had tried working with a tripod, but found it too slow and constricting. I prefer the flexibility of shooting using my wrist.
Because I am shooting up close and looking for just the right composition of light and subject, a half-inch movement or less can make or break a shot. And the light and water keep moving. I often find myself shooting one-handed, crouching in the water, climbing out on a fallen tree, or leaning out from my shower stool. That’s when I tend to fall in the water.
The major drawback with a pocket camera was the inability to print large images from a tiny sensor. I am now shooting with a micro-four-thirds system and find that I can still handle the bigger interchangeable lens camera with one hand when necessary. While some of the new micro-four-thirds lenses are remarkably bright and sharp, I also use some of my wonderful old lenses going back to the ’70s.
Because I often shoot in very low light or conditions of glare, I use a computer to process my raw photographic files in order to come as close as possible to the vivid scenes I saw and to present them on paper as beautifully as the creek constantly does on water.
What others subjects do you photograph?
Fine art photography has been something of a stretch for me. My graduate work was in anthropology, and then I worked with Peace Corps for many years, so I was used to making documentary photographic essays of people, places, and projects. But I feel that my work with other peoples has made me sensitive to meanings that lie below surface impressions. That affected my life and my photography.
I’ve always had a variety of other photographic ideas to work with. Perhaps the most important is a project I began in 1980, photographing bottles, cans, and other junk that people discard. When we were teaching at a college in Pennsylvania, my wife and I took walks on Saturday and Sunday mornings; we saw the bottles of beer and soda that drinkers had left behind on Friday and Saturday nights. They were amusing because the bottles were arranged like the groups that had been drinking: not merely tossed by the drinkers, but placed by some unconscious drive into tidy compositions. So I made photographic compositions of their compositions.
I’ve been doing that for 34 years now, all around the world. So far I’ve only exhibited them once, at a show in Europe. The experience I gained over the years in making those tight compositions has helped me immensely in making my tight compositions in the creek.
Do you have a full-time job separate from photography?
For most of the time I was doing this project I worked downtown at Peace Corps, so I only had weekends and evenings to go to the creek to shoot. Sometimes when my bus was late, I managed to get good shots by jumping down into the creek while waiting for the next one. I retired a couple of years ago and now have the opportunity to spend more concentrated time in the creek and seeking opportunities for exhibits. This is now my full-time job.
What photographers’ work has influenced your own?
It may be a cliché, but Ansel Adams is a major influence. Perhaps more so is Eliot Porter for his use of color in intimate landscapes and Imogen Cunningham for the pattern and detail of her botanicals. Closer to home, Bert Shankman of Olney, Md., is perhaps the local photographer who has influenced me the most. Bert intensively photographs only flowers, but unlike anyone else, ever. And they never get stale.
Through Oct. 5 at VisArts, 155 Gibbs St., Rockville, Md.