Gerard Malanga’s Ghostly Berms
One of the chief glories of art is that it gives us new ways to see things. It’s always the enemy of the received idea, the complacent notion. Art reveals what is hidden in plain sight. It makes us look twice, think twice. For this reason, anamorphosis and trompe-l’oeil play important roles in art. They tell us that things are not always as they seem, a truth we have yet to integrate into our political ideas.
Gerard-Malanga is a renowned photographer and poet. He adheres to an array of film rather than digital cameras, and he frames and shoots with the patience and love of a poet listening to his muse. He sees what most eyes glance over, he arrests the iterations of past lives on our faces, and the ghosts of past endeavors. And in this latter project he has given us Ghostly Berms, an ongoing capturing of the remnants of the Harlem Line, a rail line that used to run between Grand Central Station in Manhattan and Chatham in Columbia County just south of Albany.
Malanga traveled on that line as a young man. As he takes these fey black and white images he remembers the illuminated cars, the talk, the cigarette smoke, the conductor’s calls, rattling along the now ghostly berms.
The rotting ties and trestles, the rusting overpasses, the stone and cement abutments are hardly noticeable now. Bullbriar encroaches them and trees struck by lightning break over them. The steel tracks have been lifted for scrap. But the berms remain like sutures.
Malanga’s photographs, exhibited in Hillsdale, just outside Hudson, New York, call on us to think of the many lives that rumbled along those berms, the buildings they saw, the many dramas being played out in their beings. It’s unlikely they imagined what Malanga would see forty years later. Many of them have gone the way of the tracks. The force of Malanga’s collection-it’s still being composed-is that in its entirety it constitutes a kind of alembic in which our own impressions are mixed with his and with those of the ghostly passengers. It is a kind of alchemical operation in which we ourselves are elements of the whole. The elixir, of course, is Malanga’s eye, or rather the sensibility of that eye. The eye is, after all, a protrusion of the brain.
The valleys of New York are palpably haunted. Malanga has turned one of the most common lingerings of a past time and made it part of our consciousness. Technically, what he has done is a considerable feat. Any good photographer will tell you that shooting brambles, gravel, bare second-growth trees and subtle scars of the earth is not an easy task. The scenery wants to become a kind of gray putty, it wants in fact to disappear, and Malanga has had to cajole it from its hidden sleep.