New York

Jan Groover

Janet Borden, Inc.

In the background of each photograph in Jan Groover’s “Le Chantier” (Roadwork) series is a brief swath of La France—mildly rolling fields and woods running away to the horizon, compact with scent and air and distinctly Gallic. Certainly the study of agronomy, climate, land use and ownership, history, and more would go a way toward explaining the particularity of these tracts of land, telling just why the images speak so clearly of a warm day in rural northern Europe, but no scholarship is necessary to read that code. At the same time, their Frenchness is discreet: this is a place without landmarks or sights, both lovely and nothing special. There are miles of this countryside. The sister town of some place in Ohio might be just over the hill.

In the foreground of each picture, and much more prominent, is a kind of wound, the skin of foliage peeled back to reveal bare earth, ample and raw. There are no people, all is still, but in a few there are pipes or heavy equipment. Yes, these things say, this is the twentieth century. The reminder is potent, because Groover, in addition to framing the pretty, distant landscape so that it lacks any temporal index—architecture, or cars, or a person in modern clothes—makes platinum prints (platinum-palladium, actually, a mixture of related metal salts), a process more common a century ago. (Atget, for example, worked in platinum.) The soft delicacy of her prints has an antique feel. A gently gray tone suffuses both earth and sky, making the scene look distant; instead of the clarity and contrast we see in gelatin-silver prints, we seem to look through a screen at something remote, in time as much as in space. Yet the details in Groover’s pictures, 12-by-20-inch contact prints shot with a banquet camera, are precise and fine.

Reviewing Groover’s last New York show in the Times, Roberta Smith remarked on the works’ “history-laden patina”: marrying subject matter and process, the photographer had used platinum prints to describe Romanesque churches and graveyards. For Smith, the results were “too weighed down by the past.” Groover may have taken that critique to heart: still working outdoors near her home in the Dordogne, she then shot the highway construction pictures on view here. A different photographer might have produced a polemic about the desecration of the rural heritage, and that motive may or may not figure in Groover’s thinking, but if it does, the complaint is mute. Instead there is a quiet difficulty: modernity lodged in an image that looks a hundred years old.

Bulldozed French earth, it turns out, is pristine, as calm as a zen garden. And the country around it looks as it must have for generations. Groover is not so much reconciling opposites as composing equilibrium in a field of contradictions—age, novelty, anonymity, familiarity, the picturesque, featurelessness, cultivation, and disruption. Cool and undramatic, these landscapes are immaculately elegant yet utterly disjunctive.

David Frankel