Celebrating the Uncelebrated

An exhibit at the D&R Greenway looks at preserving the spaces in between the historic sites.

By Adam Grybowski
PEOPLE love the now and the then, juxtaposed together,” says Jack Koeppel, curator of the D&R Greenway Land Trust exhibit Our Historic Landscape: Past, Present and…Future?, a series of turn-of-the-century photographs set against contemporary views of their depictions.
   To test Mr. Koeppel’s conjecture, consider two photographs of the Kingston Bridge that are on display. The first photograph is from 1912. Four boys sit on the bridge holding fishing rods, their feet dangling over the side of the bridge and their lines dangling in the water. A bicycle rests on its side in the grass.
   Now contrast that sepia-saturated scene with a months-old color photograph of the bridge, which is still around and still serving fisherman. In the scene three people holding fishing rods peer over the bridge, waiting for a bite. Not much has changed.
   ”Some things don’t change,” says Mr. Koeppel. “The names and faces of people change, but their activities don’t.”
   Structures, landscapes and people from Princeton, Montgomery, Hopewell and Lawrence are all represented in the exhibit, with a focus on historic sites, historic farms and farmhouses, and waterways such as Carnegie Lake and the Millstone River. Coincidentally, nearly half of the exhibit’s images are from 1908, Mr. Koeppel says.
   While the exhibit provides a 100-year anniversary of sorts for these images, it also illustrates the fact that many of these sites are still serving their communities. From biking to running, kayaking to rowing, the activities represented by these places provide “a direct correlation between the effort to preserve land and our enjoyment,” Mr. Koeppel says.
   The original vision for the exhibit was to highlight the historical aspects of preserving land. The D&R Greenway has preserved more than 10,000 acres in central New Jersey since its founding in 1989. While the exhibit highlights many well-known and historic sites, Mr. Koeppel hopes it will also inspire people to ask how lesser celebrated spaces will be preserved.
   Mr. Koeppel and D&R Greenway Executive Director Linda Mead visited the Historical Society of Princeton, combing the archives for photographs. They decided to expand the exhibit’s scope by offering members of the Princeton Photography Club the opportunity to “adopt” an image and discover what had become of the place it depicts.
   The result is a meditation on the passing of time and the continuity between generations. Reflecting on his experience exploring what has become of the past, the fine art photographer Igor Svibilsky, whose work is represented here, says, “This was indeed an unusual feeling to find the exact spot (represented in the historic photograph) and realize the passage of time.”
   Working from a photograph of a working farm, Mary Leck discovered it was the site of what is now the intersection of Washington Road and U.S. 1 in West Windsor. Commuters may gaze wistfully at the once nearly vacant lane that has become an often-clogged artery of day-to-day travel.
   Ms. Leck supplements this juxtaposition with photographs of found objects near the site, such as a bedspring rusting among the weeds. “It’s something that’s gone, but not completely,” Mr. Koeppel says.
   Mr. Koeppel and Ms. Mead chose 22 images. Many of the original images were small and not in great shape, Mr. Koeppel says. He had them scanned and blown up in a high resolution to bring out the details. The quality of a photograph of the Canal Bridge at Griggstown was particularly murky. Examining its details, Mr. Koeppel and others discovered that the bridge, which is still there, was originally a swing bridge that would be lifted and moved so boats could pass. “We’re constantly learning,” he says.
   The exhibit pays homage to the area’s rich history, revisiting Revolutionary-era structures and landscapes, including the Princeton Battle Monument, the Thomas Clark House and Rockingham, where George Washington wrote his Farewell Address to the Armies of the United States.
   ”The incredible and significant history of this area makes us proud of where we’re from,” Mr. Koeppel says. “History is not strictly textbooks. It’s still here in the present.”
   And while these key historic sites have been well preserved, the same cannot be said of less prominent places. On the one hand, certain photographers, locating the subject of their historic photograph, were amazed to find structures still in place. On the other hand, New Jersey has altered so many landscapes on its way to becoming the most densely populated state in the nation.
   Mr. Koeppel expresses concern for the preservation of less celebrated space. “The main thing to consider is the spaces in between the historic sites. How will they be preserved?”
Our Historic Landscape: Past, Present and… Future? is on view at the D&R Greenway Land Trust Marie L. Matthews Gallery, One Preservation Place, Princeton, through Sept. 5. Gallery hours: Mon.-Fri. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (609) 924-4646; www.drgreenway.org