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On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, photographer John Gossage was quietly working in his downtown studio, a block from the White House, while the rest of the world lost its mind.
There he had no windows, no television, no radio—just a black-and-white series to develop. It wasn’t until late morning that he emerged from his work, walked downstairs to head home, and had a jarring abutment with reality. “Everybody was moving in one direction,” says Gossage, now 64. “There were cars with sirens and lights going the other way at 70 mph, and I could see smoke hanging over the city.”
Gossage didn’t know it that afternoon when he walked back to his apartment in Kalorama, but his leafy, well-heeled neighborhood was about to become his own personal sort of perdition.
As Gossage approached his home that day, he saw a black armored SUV parked across the street with two heavies decked out with bulletproof vests, sunglasses, and some serious weaponry. He went upstairs to watch CNN, and put his neighbors out of his mind.
A few days later Gossage was jogging, and saw a similar scene—only this time, the men were bundling then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld into the SUV. It turned out that Rumsfeld lived a few blocks away, on Kalorama Road NW across the street from the French ambassador’s residence. “I did not share the Bush administration’s outlook or policies,” Gossage says. “And as things started going downhill, that’s when I realized that I was living in the middle of hell.”
What for some might have been unsurprising—why wouldn’t the secretary of defense live among embassies, diplomats, and the mansions of the über-wealthy?—was to Gossage a revelation, and it placed this artist’s observational instincts face-to-face with the politics of reality in a way he hadn’t experienced before. His celebrated photography books frequently examine urban environments with a singular eye, seeking out the underappreciated and unseen. 2004’s Berlin in the Time of the Wall is culled from a 20-year surveillance of the city, while 1984’s Hey Fuckface! is a study of hazardous waste sites around Staten Island and Syracuse, N.Y. Despite its occasionally confrontational nature, Gossage’s work has never been overtly political.
Until now, that is: Though Gossage had only worked in black and white until 2001, he decided to attempt using color to document Kalorama and the hell it came to represent for him. From spring 2002 to summer 2003, Gossage crisscrossed his neighborhood in search of imagery that embodied the local underworld he saw in his mind’s eye. The images he collected became The 32” Ruler, which is one half of a double-sided book that also includes The Maps of Babylon, out this fall, after several production delays, from Steidl.
The pictures can be striking as well as subtle. They aren’t blunt visual commentaries that invoke patriotism, compel outcry, or foster rage. They’re more meditative than that: a pair of discarded champagne bottles half-hidden in a jumble of recycling. The hood ornament of a Jaguar leaping menacingly into the unfocused beyond. A torn car cover flecked with seedlings.
“John has the knack of photographing nothing much at all and making it feel monumental,” says photojournalist Martin Parr. “He squeezes photographs out of places where other photographers would struggle to find a photo. He finds all kinds of sinister and surreal goings on, and pulls this all together into a strange and compelling book.” Gossage’s take is more modest: “I’m interested in finding the exceptional in the ordinary.”
He wasn’t yet 18 when he had his first show in New York. Since then, he’s exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, D.C.’s Corcoran Gallery of Art, and Hannover, Germany’s Sprengel Museum, and shared wall space with Jasper Johns and others. In September, his well-known series The Pond, which documents an unidentified, Walden-esque body of water somewhere near Baltimore, will be displayed in its entirety for the first time at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. It was published as a book in 1985.
“John Gossage is the most talented and most significant photographer of his generation—a generation rich in excellence,” says Lewis Baltz, a celebrated photographer himself. “Alongside Ed Ruscha and Richard Prince, Gossage’s achievements in the book format have been an invaluable contribution to the field and an inspiration to the rest of us.”
Rumsfeld’s take on the Gossage oeuvre, however, is unclear. He did not respond to a request to be interviewed for this article.
On a hot, humid morning earlier this month, I meet Gossage at his Kalorama apartment. He answers the door with a bright smile, dressed in black jeans, a blue- and white-striped Brooks Brothers shirt, and tan work boots. He has slicked-back gray and white hair with a matching beard. The neat apartment boasts a number of bookcases carefully filled with hundreds of Japanese photography books, while original prints from Alexey Brodovitch, Sid Grossman, and Robert Frank sit alongside a picture of Billie Holiday in her coffin that Gossage’s teacher, Lisette Model, shot. “Billie knew she was dying and she wanted Lisette to photograph her spirit leaving her body,” Gossage says.
After an espresso, we walk out into the appropriately hellish heat to retrace the footsteps that lead to The 32” Ruler. As we walk past the perfectly manicured lawns, the imposing, castle-like homes, and luxury cars, Gossage identifies shots from the book. He points out Rumsfeld’s former residence, an innocuous-looking brick three-story. “His back neighbor is the Syrian Embassy,” Gossage says. “I figure half of politics is just trashcan disputes. A ‘We’ll bomb your country if you don’t take your cans in when you’re supposed to’ mentality.”
Though almost a decade has passed since the pictures were taken, it seems like little has changed. We see the tree where a grinning Halloween skeleton once hung, though nothing is hanging on the branches on this morning. A vine-crossed window and a ledge where a temporary mailbox once sat appear indifferent to the years. Looking back and forth between the book and the carefully maintained world around us, everything begins to feel somewhat manufactured. “It’s a stage set,” says Gossage.
However, as we weave through the quiet streets, some cracks start to show in the elegantly constructed façade. More homes than you would expect have “For Sale” signs staked in their lawns. Several former embassies lay in disuse and disrepair, covered in unchecked creepers. With chinks in its moneyed banality, Gossage’s Kalorama is beginning to look somewhat earthly.
Hell—or at least this one—isn’t recession-proof.
Photos by John Gossage