In Plain Air, Irina Rozovsky’s latest book, is a documentation of a single public space within the vastness and density of America’s largest city. Rozovsky made all of the images from 2011 to 2020 in Prospect Park in Brooklyn, New York. The photographs depict social diversity and unity against the backdrop of a chaotic and divisive decade in the nation’s history. But this surface level contextualization does not quite do justice to the core of the work. If the viewer spends enough time and digs deep enough, the book slowly reveals an underlying truth about humanity.
Rozovsky’s images are perfectly composed and lit, photographed in an instinctive yet meticulous way. Although made over a decade, the photographs display a cohesive and consistent set of formal qualities. Simply put, these are aesthetically beautiful pictures. The images of nature exhibit an almost unearthly quality. Even though they exist within a bustling public park, it is as if these scenes exist in a state of perpetual beauty, completely untouched by human hands, and Rozovsky simply happened upon them and captured tiny glimpses within this infinitude. The soft and glowing light of dusk and dawn permeates many of these pictures, giving them a visual and atmospheric continuity.
The thematic division in the book lies within the subject matter. The sequence is divided between natural scenes of the park and human presence and activity within the same spaces. Relative to nature, humanity exists in constant flux and impermanence. We experience changes in social relations, life circumstances, and individual emotional states. We crave social and interpersonal connection, a sense of belonging and companionship. As a whole, nature does not need these things. It simply exists as an inherent evolution of the earth itself. This essential aspect of nature is rendered through Rozovsky’s images of trees bathed in golden light, bodies of water reflecting the seemingly infinite sky, and various animal species in their habitats. These are simple frames that do not need any embellishment; the landscapes themselves do all the work in demonstrating the complexity, diversity, and beauty of the natural world.
We do not know who these people are, what their lives are like, what they have suffered or endured. These portraits reveal an existential quality that is present in all of us, but often masked or suppressed in an attempt to satisfy our desire for connection and comfort.
The images containing human presence are either posed portraits of a single subject, or candid moments captured of people of diverse ages and ethnicities interacting in different ways: exercising, fishing, having a picnic, or sharing a lovers’ embrace. In many of the portraits, the viewer can sense a subtle distance, not between the photographer and subject, but within the subjects themselves. We are invited into a brief moment of these individuals’ lives through Rozovsky’s lens, but there is still an invisible wall, built by a lingering sadness or a distant memory, a regret or fear, a longing hidden just behind the eyes. They are unspoken boundaries that we as viewers cannot penetrate. We do not know who these people are, what their lives are like, what they have suffered or endured. These portraits reveal an existential quality that is present in all of us, but often masked or suppressed in an attempt to satisfy our desire for connection and comfort. We attempt to break down these walls within ourselves as a way of letting others in, only to build them up again, brick by brick.
At times, Rozovsky’s depiction of Prospect Park seems almost too perfect. Going through a decade’s worth of images made within the same square mile and editing them into a cohesive sequence is a difficult task. But the pictures and sequencing seem to be overly curated in a way that shows the park only in its best light, as a land of milk and honey. Occasionally, the viewing experience feels like looking at a book of portraits showing only the subjects’ best sides. There is an overly idyllic, often unrealistic sense of serenity and social cohesion. The beauty that is shown is an ideal visualization of beauty, the Platonic Form of natural perfection. But this seemingly glosses over the reality that many people find beauty in the mundane, the forgotten and abandoned aspects of a place. Beauty is relative, and often reflects our own internal states of mind and being. The result of Rozovsky’s portrayal of Prospect Park is a one-dimensional take on the concept of beauty.
The thing that separates humanity from nature is not politics, borders, or conflict. It is the distinctly human need and desire for social and emotional connection, the constant and conscious search for reflections of ourselves in others.
In Plain Air follows the well-worn formula of many other Mack publications: an embossed hardback cover, a weighty paper stock, and images printed with the same size and placement on each page. It is a simple aesthetic, which serves its purpose with certain bodies of work. The question with In Plain Air is whether the design feels repetitive and somewhat incongruent with the diversity of human subjects and natural landscapes shown. Some readers might see the relatively plain and conservative design as a mirror of the book’s title, doubling down on the overall austerity of its aesthetic.
The thing that separates humanity from nature is not politics, borders, or conflict. It is the distinctly human need and desire for social and emotional connection, the constant and conscious search for reflections of ourselves in others. Along with this comes the potential for alienation and isolation. Our individual and internal lives bleed into our social lives, interweaving a web of emotions and experiences that is universal. What we feel, others feel. What we go through, others also must endure. We share the complexity of life with all other humans. This dynamic offers the viewer a perspective of In Plain Air that is more nuanced and complex than merely being a documentary work about a single public park.
In Rozovsky’s photographs, we see a public space that serves as an equalizing element of society, a place where sociopolitical lines are erased and demographic barriers of race, gender, religion and sexuality are temporarily dismantled. But within this setting, invisible and unspoken boundaries still exist. There are barriers between humans and nature, as well as within the nature of humanity itself. Connection is present, but loneliness lingers. Intimacy exists, but distance remains.