The “Jersey” exhibit at the New Jersey Department of State is different. It’s small. Its medium is the newspaper page. Its images of people, seaside locations, and a cow seem disjointed. And the “Jersey” isn’t the one that one most New Jerseyans thinks of in a state office.
But think again. “Atlantus” — the name of the exhibit and the project that created it — is all about two Jerseys, the old and the new.
And like the Garden State itself, the project was launched in New Jersey’s namesake, the Channel Island of Jersey – part of Great Britain but 14 miles from France.
More than just a display in a state office lobby, “Atlantus” is also an international and innovative pop-up show sent out in newspaper format throughout New Jersey, the Island of Jersey, and to Europe to commemorate the recent 350th anniversary of the establishment of New Jersey.
History, of course, is part of the project, and Lord Carteret of Jersey receiving a New World land grant in 1664 and calling it New Jersey is mentioned. But project coordinators and photographers Martin Toft and Gareth Syvret had another thought and focused on the human “common ground” between the two seacoast lands — separated by 3,000 miles of ocean yet sharing a common, history, language, and experiences.
Toft, 46, is a Danish-born, self taught photographer who has been teaching in Jersey since 2004, and calls himself an artist who “combines documentary and fine art approach to explore social, anthropological and cultural themes, often immersing himself in communities for months or years in order to understand the language, traditions, and heritage of his subjects.”
In a series of late night emails, he described the project, how the mythical island of Atlantis figured into the title, his life, and his trip to New Jersey:
— Dan Aubrey
‘Atlantus” is an innovative multi-functional DIY art newspaper and pop-up exhibition. With two copies of the 80 page “Atlantus” newspaper it is possible to create a readymade (6 feet by 20 feet) exhibition or configure a display according to your wall dimensions by separating sections of the five stories.
We didn’t have a name for the photographic project until after my visit to New Jersey in the summer of 2014. It was upon editing photographs from the visual material produced that we came across an image I had made from the Sunset Beach at Cape May (where the remains of the World War I era concrete ship Atlantus remain and are a tourist attraction).
Essentially we were looking for a name that would act as emblem of Jersey’s maritime history that include the voyage across the Atlantic in 1665 to annex Sir George Carteret’s claim to the land on the Eastern Seaboard that he name New Jersey after his island home. As Gareth Syvret writes, “Setting Atlantis/Atlantus against each other creates a play on words. The dominant motif in this body of work is the Atlantic Ocean, the vast turbulent body of water connecting the is (island) and us (United States).”
We shipped 1000 copies across to New Jersey and the distribution was coordinated between New Jersey States Archive and funded by New Jersey Council of the Arts. Every New Jersey State library distribution point, 432 in total, have received two copies each of the newspaper.
The concept of producing a newspaper, which in popular culture is a mass produced print object consumed daily by a broad demographic was a conscious decision to reach out to different audiences beyond discerning art/photography readers. Apart from distribution to 432 libraries statewide in New Jersey, “Atlantus” as both newspaper and/or pop-up exhibition has appeared in a variety of different places and contexts from a local parish fete, mobile street gallery, outdoor night projection, hoarding on a building site, schools, New Jersey State Building to Unseen Photo, Paris Photo, various photo book festivals/ fairs/ galleries in the UK and Europe.
From early childhood memories — my dad worked all his life as a bank manager and my mum is a hairdresser — I remember dreaming about America as this great utopia and had premonitions of one day going there. What influenced these thoughts at that young age in the 1970s is difficult to comprehend, but there is no doubt that popular culture; music, film, art and television had something to do with it (a majority of Danish TV channels are broadcasting American and British television programs.)
In some ways popular culture also influenced the way I imagined New Jersey before my trip in 2014. Hooked on the mob television series, The Sopranos, this dramatization of Italian-American culture provided me with some insights to both the urban topography and social landscapes of New Jersey neighborhoods (I visited a few iconic places featured in the popular TV show on HBO – although they do not feature in “Atlantus”). As it happens, most people I met in New Jersey didn’t share my fascination with Tony Soprano and his Italian family, but it did inform both my research and the way I ‘looked at’ and photographed certain New Jerseyans and their homes situated along the Jersey Shore.
America also has another personal interest as my older sister migrated to New York just after 9/11 and has made a new life for herself there. Both my sister and me left our country of birth, Denmark relatively young at different points in our lives (she was 17 and I was 22).
Growing up in middle-class home in a small town on the outskirts of Denmark’s second largest city, Aarhus, I knew from an early age that this place was not where I belonged, and in some ways ever since I left my hometown and family in 1993 I have been searching for a new home away from home. Photography became a way of escaping from my past, travelling the road, meeting new people and in the process re-inviting myself and adopting a new persona.
Arriving in the island of Jersey in 2004 was part of that personal journey and this project offered me an opportunity to explore through photography what in the last 12 years had become a place where I had settled with a house, family and a job.
Meeting Syvret, photo-archivist and program leader of Archisle: The Jersey Contemporary Photography Program — the organization that produced “Atlantus” — in 2013 provided me with opportunities to collaborate with the him using the photographic archive as starting points for major research and lens-based projects exploring the islands unique identity, rich history and cultural heritage.
From our research and planning in the island of Jersey it was with excitement that I entered New Jersey to rediscover, or rather re-imagine narratives about two places that share the same name on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
In anticipation of arriving I had to some extent pre-visualized the way I wanted the images to look and feel. I wanted the project to be expansive, showing the identity, geography and history of both places through a combination of portraits, interiors, and landscapes.
My personal interest in post-war American photography, in particular the movement known as new topographics that emerged in the 1970s, did inform the aesthetic sensibility of my images by finding beauty and visual interest in the ordinary and the everyday. Within my work I wanted to reflect upon this cultural heritage but avoid the cliches. The challenge was not to photograph the obvious but still look for something that would represent the uniqueness of a landscape and the people who inhabit it.
In the exhibit and project section, “The Transoceanic Journey,” Gareth summons up this best as, “The New Jersey phase of ‘Atlantus’ embraces the idea of an American Road trip as a mode of practice along with all of its touristic fallibilities. Bound up in this idea are Martin Toft’s childhood dream of America, insular trans-Atlantic imaginings and awakenings of American landscape photographers from Walker Evans to Alec Soth via Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Stephen Shore and in particular George Tice, New Jersey’s seminal topographic photographer.”
The contrast between a small island community 9 miles by 5 miles with a population of 100,000 plus and the scale and ambition of America’s eastern seaboard — in particularly, the chemical coastline from Newark to Perth Amboy surprised me.
This project then became about the geographical and binary opposition that these two entities represent, both literally and metaphorically: old versus new, east versus west, small versus large, local versus global, rural versus urban, tradition versus innovation, isolation versus population. The old economy of either/or easily gets mixed up and this project is partly investigating both the slippage and common ground between these dichotomies.
A number of communities did resonate with me more than other, places such as Ashbury Park, former seaside resort, Barnegat Light, Long Beach Island (a small fishing community with links to earlier immigrants from Scandinavian, including Denmark), and Paterson (photographic work by New Jersey photographer George Tice). But, the area that left me the strongest impression was not the Jersey Shore and its sandy beaches, but South Jersey where I spend a number of days around Millville and Bridgeton area. Locals called it the ‘Mississippi of the North’ and there was something about this area that attracted me. It seems this part of New Jersey has been forgotten or overlooked compared to North Jersey and its close proximity to New York, heavy industry, trade and commerce. I would like in the future to return to some of these places where I felt a connection and do more work.
We had a route already mapped out before arrival to New Jersey. For example, certain places along the road had been earmarked due to particular significance as part of our research into the wider narrative, for example places such as Elizabeth (the first settlement), county of Carteret (named after Sir George Carteret), Asbury Park (images in the Photo-Archive) and Hunterdon County (Spann family and Precious Galinthia). Other areas along the route were discovered by chance and where I felt a certain connection or where I felt that there was work to be done. In some places, I would stay for a few days, spending more time getting to know the area and its people living here.
Early in our research we found the personal diary of Helen Le Masurier’s 1964 visit to New Jersey with her husband, Sir Robert Le Masurier, Bailiff of Jersey, as members of the tercentenary delegation that provided us with perhaps the most tangible story: Precious Galinthia, a Jersey heifer presented as a gift from the island of Jersey. On my road trip in New Jersey I also used her diary as a journey planner and retraced several places that she and her husband had visited.
The funding for “Atlantus” came about us as a result of lobbying the Treasury Minister of Jersey who at the time was keen to build new relations with the State of New Jersey in 2014, celebrating the 350th anniversary. Prior to a meeting at the Treasury we had learned that the two states were planning to have pop-up stalls promoting local produce in towns and communities across New Jersey and to fit in with this concept we proposed to produce a newspaper that also could function as a pop-up exhibition to be distributed alongside. In terms of cultural diplomacy “Atlantus” has delivered our commitment to the Government of Jersey.
Since “Atlantus” was published in the summer of 2015 it has gained international critical acclaim and been widely exhibited in Jersey, the UK and Europe, including our distribution of 1000 copies in New Jersey in partnership with cultural agencies stateside. At the renowned festival Les Rencontres De La Photographie in Arles, Atlantus was shortlisted for the prestigious Prix du Livre PhotoBook Award. (And) Atlantus is being presented at SCAN Tarragona Photobook festival in Spain.
Atlantus, New Jersey Department of State Building, 225 West State Street, Trenton, open Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
The project also has an online presence at www.archisle.org.je/category/projects/atlantus-blog and www.facebook.com/atlantusproject.