Gardens have a long and fascinating history. As transformed landscapes, gardens just as often provide nourishment as they do manicured sites of contemplation. Eschewing the fantasy of the bucolic family farm or the sublime horrors of corporate agriculture, the beautifully produced and designed Agroperifèrics by Ignasi Lopez explores the makeshift landscape of urban allotments. Translated loosely from Spanish, the title means 'peripheral gardens' or agriculture. Focused on reclaimed urban gardens on the outskirts of Barcelona, the book is equal parts field project and typology of urban agriculture, but in the end it’s an affectionate document of ingenuity and resolve.
While clearly agricultural landscapes, the true subjects of Lopez's book are the often haphazardly constructed structures that support and make possible the land's ongoing transformation. In one image, reclaimed skis function as fence posts, in another, oil drums serve as compost containers, and in yet another, concrete blocks form irrigation ditches. Crudely built sheds share space with overhanging tarps and rusted bed-frames. Holding plants in place or piping in much needed water, topes and hoses cut and snake through frame. In the face of urban constraints, as well as the looming shadow of modern agriculture, the men and women behind these spaces have transformed the landscape through sweat, pluck and determination. The images are a tribute to their hard work.
Although there are other precedents, the work most closely resembles that of the German photographer Simone Nieweg. Lesser-known than some of her Becher-trained colleagues, Nieweg's work also explores the agricultural landscape. Nieweg and Lopez share affection for the plants, soil, compost heaps, gates, irrigation channels and makeshift shelters that populate their pictures. They also have a keen eye for the often-alien seeming landscape of agriculture. At a time when most school children, and even adults, have a hard time identifying a vegetable in its native habit, this may be an easy task, but it is no less startling. Both artists turn a cool but romantic eye to the altered landscape. Quietly reverential, Lopez's images seem to constantly marvel at the strange and surprising ways in which people can do so much with so little.
While the human hand is visible through the images, the book is almost entirely free of people. In a single sardonic gesture, one of the book's sole figures, an older man with his back turned to us, wears a shirt emblazoned with the logo – URALITA, the book's unwilling corporate sponsor. This logo also appears on the shirt of a crude scarecrow later in the book. A large Spanish multi-national, Uralita manufactures construction material – undoubtedly used widely in both urban and agricultural structures. Just as Uralita's shirts have been repurposed for scarecrows or as a man's work shirt, the recycled and reclaimed materials, perhaps coming from the same company, are given a new life that belies their sleek intended purpose.
The book itself is a beautifully designed, hand-stitched object. Created by the relatively new publisher, B side Books, where Lopez is also co-editor, each volume is numbered and signed in an edition of 411. The varied image size and layout give the book a nice rhythm and pacing. Small images are paired with large, full-bleed images with smaller images. The backside of the book has a vertical cardboard bellyband with a small oblong pamphlet tucked underneath. In addition to a brief text by Lopez, the pamphlet also contains a text by Joan Nogué.
In his artist statement, Lopez calls these spaces "constructed paradises." The phrase succinctly acknowledges both the long history of gardens, but also the social and cultural significance of such human-made spaces. A hardy and determined breed, urban gardeners are unlikely candidates to build paradise. It takes quixotic resolve and messianic belief to transform what was once hard concrete into fertile soil, to fight the encroaching weeds, concrete and municipal overreach. Under constant threat from urban renewal and expansion, gardens are often the first spaces to be sacrificed. As land is increasingly monetized and maximized in tight urban spaces, gardens often make way for condos. In order to return each day, month or year, one must believe in the possibility and reality of creating a paradise. Even if it's only something as simple as a stalk of kale or bushel of carrots, even if it means rebuilding it one recycled brick at a time, you return. After all, a paradise lies ahead.
Please note: This review was originally published in photo-eye magazine on Jan. 24th, 2013. You can buy the book here.