John P. O’Grady is a man of many talents – he has been a professor of literature and environmental studies, is a phenomenal and unique photographer, and has written two books: Pilgrims to the Wild and Grave Goods: Essays of a Peculiar Nature. O’Grady is a spectacular example of an artist with a style all his own. As you read his essays and ponder his images, you discover connections and likenesses you may never have imagined, such as the connection between Richard Ronan, strawberries, and Tigers. After reading the essay, Flammable Witness, these links become clear. O’Grady’s writing and photography never fails to hold your interest, encompassing subjects ranging from mountaineering to Socrates, Rip van Winkle to Warblers, mysteries of Mount Everest to angelology. I had the privilege to interview him over email about his life, inspiration, and work.
So to start, it’s obvious that you’re largely inspired by nature, and it seems that the Catskills area is a focal point for you. Could you tell me why that is, or what makes the area stand out to you?
I have known the Catskills since before I was born. I have a photograph–from 1957–of my mother pregnant with me, standing in front of the old stone church in Onteora Park. Shortly after that my parents bought some land in Windham and built a house. My wife and I now live in that house, having moved back here a few years ago from San Francisco. I like to say that I spent most of my life trying to figure out a way to live the Catskills. At last, I have. I know I’m not alone in this. I’ve met a number of people who’ve had a similar experience.
How do you think growing up in the area has influenced you as a person, artist, and writer?
I grew up in two places: suburban North Jersey and the Mountaintop. My formal schooling took place in the Garden State but the Catskills were the school for my Imagination. “Rip Van Winkle” has always been my favorite story. I know where he slept and have visited several of his purported graves.
I had an uncle who was a collector of Hudson River School paintings. This was back in the day of Abstract Expressionism, when nobody was interested in representational art, so he was able to acquire some terrific works by Durand, Cropsey, Whittredge, and Inness. He also had a sketch by Thomas Cole. As a kid, I marveled at those landscapes hanging on the walls in his house. Each one seemed to glow with a formidable otherworldliness. Yet at the same time they possessed an aura of familiarity: I recognized those mountains, trees, boulders, and creeks depicted on the canvases. I wanted to find my way into those paintings and hike around in them.
I’ve always been an avid reader. It’s probably what kept me from getting into more trouble than I did when growing up. When I was fifteen years old, I came across Roland Van Zandt’s The Catskill Mountain House in the public library. It opened my eyes to the history of this place that I already loved, a history full of characters who appreciated these mountains as much as I did. I read the book twice. Then I discovered Alf Evers’ The Catskills: From Wilderness to Woodstock. Somehow I found my way to the Hope Farm Bookshop down in Cornwallville and became friends with its inimitable proprietor, Charles Dornbusch. He became my tutor in Catskilliana, providing me with lists of books he insisted I read and names of people I should meet, including the dean of Catskill Mountain Forest History, Dr. Michael Kudish. Mike’s 1971 dissertation–“Vegetational History of the Catskill High Peaks”–is one of my most cherished books. My dog-eared copy sits on the same shelf with my favorite volumes of poetry.
All of the above has shaped me as a writer.
You certainly have quite the connection with the mountains. Can you tell me about your upcoming show in the Kaaterskill gallery?
I’m still assembling the particular pictures that will go into this show, so I don’t have anything to say about them just yet. But speaking more generally, I like to hang out with my camera at the intersection of nature and culture. Nature is pretty sturdy whereas culture is more fragile. Some might disagree with that observation. But I am drawn to human-made things that are being reclaimed by nature and suggest a teetering on oblivion, or to scenes that have a quality of about-to-become-haunted-ness to them. Somebody once said to me, “Your pictures give me the sense that something just happened, or is about to happen, I don’t know what, but it’s unsettling.” I like that.
That’s an interesting concept. Are there any places you would consider your favorite “intersections?” I know there are plenty of places in the mountains that have been taken by time.
Over the years, I’ve done a lot of photographing at the Sugar Maples in Maplecrest, back when it was in a more decrepit state than it is today. The Windham Transfer Station provides a good spot for my kind of photo antics. I also like to take pictures at the ski areas, which the artist/writer Robert Smithson would have considered “ruins in reverse.” But nothing beats the industrial wreckage of the Hudson Valley, where all these old factories and plants are collapsing back into the arms of nature. They are abundant all the way from Glens Falls to Manhattan. Even so, such ruins are probably an “endangered species”. I feel a certain urgency to get out there and take pictures of them before somebody renovates them and makes them hip. Ghosts hate hip.
That reminds me, you talk a lot about conservation and nature “as-is” in your writing. How far do you think we’ve come in keeping the wilderness wild, so to speak? And for those of us who are outdoor enthusiasts, how do we experience nature without disturbing it?
The human relationship to nature is a game of hide-and-go-seek. Everything changes. What can be preserved? Alas, I know you’re asking a pragmatic question pertaining to policy and I’m responding philosophically. But I know little about policy, so I’ll have to defer on this one. Fifteen or so years ago I did publish an essay titled “How Sustainable is the Idea of Sustainability?” My conclusion was: Not very.
Read his essay, “How Sustainable is the Idea of Sustainability?” here, and make sure to stop by the gallery – John’s show opens Saturday, April 4th, with an opening reception on the 11th.