The creation of the Morven Museum’s exhibition “The Pine Barrens: A Legacy of Preservation/Photographs by Richard Speedy,” opening, Thursday, January 24, seems natural in every sense of the word.
“Our museum mission statement focuses on the cultural life of New Jersey and the house,” says Beth Allen, curator of the museum housed in Declaration of Independence signer Richard Stockton’s colonial era home that also served as the home for several New Jersey governors “When I met Richard Speedy and saw his photographs it struck a chord, and we thought we could tell the story of Governor Brendan Byrne who lived in the house and initiated the Pinelands Commission.”
In 1979 Byrne issued an executive order to protect what is recognized as one of the vital ecological resources in the country.
Says Allen, a California native who grew up in Colts Neck, “A lot of people picture the Pinelands as sand and trees on the way to the beach,” and hopes that this exhibition will strengthen the awareness of the region.
The New Jersey Pinelands is an ecological area that occupies 1.1 million acres (22 percent of New Jersey) and encompasses portions of seven New Jersey counties and 56 municipalities.
In addition to being the largest expanse of open space between Boston and Richmond, its aquifers account for 17 trillion gallons of pure water. That is an estimated half of nation’s annual water consumption.
Called the Pine Barrens, the Pinelands, or just the Pines, the region takes its name from its base of sandy soil and its expansive pine forests, including large areas populated by dwarf pines –– trees that grow no taller than four feet.
The United States Congress and the State of New Jersey developed legislation to protect the region from development and deforestation through the establishment of the Pinelands National Reserve in 1978 and the State of New Jersey’s Pinelands Protection Act in 1979.
Governor Byrne says of the state’s 1979 legislation, “I always said that one of the things I am proud of is that I don’t think that there is any other piece of legislation, during my time as governor, which is unique in the sense that it would not have been passed if I didn’t take an interest in it. The Pinelands was on nobody’s particular political agenda. It was on no political party’s agenda.”
Curator Allen and Hopewell resident Jane Rosenblatt — who as an intern at the Center for the American Governor at the Eagleton Institute is assisting Allen with documenting legislation — hope that their exhibition will help visitors recognize Byrne’s accomplishment and bring past and current issues related to the Pinelands to the public’s attention. “We want to tell the story of Governor Byrne and what he did. We also want to talk about the ongoing work that needs to be done. There are new threats to the ecosystem.”
While the curator notes that her knowledge of the Pinelands is limited to having read John McPhee’s celebrated 1986 book and occasional travels to other destinations, it is a different story for the photographer, Richard Speedy.
“My first introduction to the Pines goes back to the mid 1970s, after I came back to the Princeton area from California where I studied at the Brooks Institute for Photography,” says Speedy.
The person who introduced him to the landscape that would serve as a source of inspiration was Princeton-based photographer Tom Maloney, known for starting U.S. Camera Publishing in New York and releasing the first book of famed American photographer Edward Weston.
“One day Maloney asked if I ever went to the Pine Barrens, and then said get in the car we’re going. We drove around the pinelands for two days. It blew my mind. I never knew it existed. And then I read McPhee’s beautiful book, got a grant from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, and I started hiking around the Pine Barrens,” he says.
Speedy’s interest also came naturally.
Speedy’s father worked for the Boy Scouts of America and brought the family from Whites Plains, NY, to work at scout headquarters located then outside New Brunswick, “The outdoors was instilled in me from the moment I was born,” he says.
Another thing instilled in him was art. “My mother was an artist in part. She went to art school. Her father died early. So she had to drop out of art school and help with a netting shop in Minneapolis.” That is where Speedy’s parents lived, met, and married. They eventually moved to Princeton, and the photographer graduated from Princeton High School in 1964.
Speedy’s artistic impulse came in the form of a camera. “I can tell you that in a lot of photographs of me when I was little I am always with a camera around my neck and in my hand. I was always interested in photography. When I was little I would love to create what I would call little Hollywood sets from my imagination, landscapes of the moon or Indian villages. And then take photos of them with inexpensive camera and take photos of these little worlds. Then have to wait two weeks.”
Then came “Blow Up,” Michelangelo Antonio’s provocative and sexy film of a young male photographer in “mod” London. “I was probably about 20 when I saw that movie. I was already into taking photographs. But I decided to take some courses in New York. It became something that I wanted to do. Seeing the film convinced me.”
But more than film’s hipness and female models, there was something deeper that enchanted him, “The idea that the camera was a magic box and the darkroom was a magic space where you could make images” had an impact, he says.
Speedy notes that the work of other photographers “got his wheels spinning,” especially Weston, whose clarity and stark compositions made him one of the masters of modern photography. “I found his work inspiring and amazing. It made me pursue photography and take it seriously.”
Other inspirations were Irving Penn and Richard Avedon, who provided glossy yet engaging photographs for advertisements in major magazines. “I always had an interest in doing advertising work. Penn and Avedon made great impact in the commercial world by doing artistic imagery. I wanted to see my work in magazines and ad campaigns where people would see it.”
Speedy says that he started out on his own and worked without a studio. “Every dime I made went to buy better equipment. I was doing work for the magazines Audubon and New Jersey, shooting for the university and companies. I was also playing a lot of music in rock and roll bands, which enabled me to make some money while I was in the process of starting a photography business.”
In the early 1980s Speedy partnered with fellow photographer Toby Richards to start a commercial photography studio and created ad campaigns and catalogs for companies across the country. After a few decades of success, the two began to work on their own projects. For Speedy it was an eventual return to the Pinelands and his beginnings. “I got away from it for 25 years. Then I was living in Mexico and came back and decided that the Pine Barrens project needed to be done,” he says.
“What appeals to me about the Pine Barrens is the palette. It has a beautiful palette of color that most people don’t think about. It also has a lot of texture. There’s color, light, and texture, and a huge amount of water. We call it the barrens but it has an amazing amount of water. It makes it interesting to photograph, and it’s also a resource of great importance,” says Speedy.
The photographer appreciates that the Pinelands offers opportunity for solitude and discovery, even within the midst of the state’s large population “What I love is that you can really get lost and there are so many intertwined sandy roads there are surprises around the bend of every road. It’s wonder.”
Another thing of wonder is the light available. “I use the compass and figure out what kind of light would be best to photograph in. The early morning light is really a supreme time for me in the Pine Barrens,” he says.
Speedy enjoys talking about light and how it produces a work of art, rather than a picture. “It’s not unlike a medium of art. It’s that mixture of content and composition, inspired by great light. To me the magic is to define an image that is compelling in composition and understands light. I always like the idea that photography is painting with light. The challenge to any landscape photographer is getting the light right. It just doesn’t happen. It involves scouting and note taking. Sometimes you have to plan to get the right circumstances. “
In addition to light, the water in the Pinelands is important to his photos. “Cedar water gives a photographer a lot to work with. It’s a significant part to the photography that I’ve done down there,” he says of the region’s water colored by a combination of soil elements and plant life.
Yet photographing water can be a challenge in more ways than one. As Speedy recounts, “I was canoeing and had gone down very early in the morning for a two-day canoe ride. It was early fall and chilly. I got up to a point at the Batsto River, stood up, and lost my concentration and balance. The canoe fell over.”
Needing to save his camera and lenses, Speedy says that he dove to the bottom, retrieved them, and rushed off to a bridge that he had just passed below. “In 15 minutes an old pick truck and an old man picked me and took me to the car. I went to Princeton and put it in the oven and dried it off. Then I drove it New York City to a camera shop getting my cameras dried out.”
The photographer then marveled that only a few hours passed when he was alone in a canoe in the midst of a forest with no one around to being at the heart of one of the world’s most densely populated cities. The thought echoes what McPhee wrote years before, “The Pine Barrens are so close to New York that on a very clear night a bright light in the pines would be visible from the Empire State Building.” For his Pinelands images, Speedy is particular about his equipment. “I’m a professional photographer so I have to stay on top of the best equipment. Right now I’m shooting with Canon’s 5D Mark 2. It’s great equipment, very strong and built to last and good in challenging situation.”
Though he’s taken numerous photographs, he says that certain ones speak louder than others, in particular, a favorite panoramic image shot early in the morning in the fall with fog and mist rising. It has, he says the desired combination of light, content, and composition.
Of his approach to taking photographs in the Pine Barren, Speedy says, “It’s a respect for beautiful places and a respect for places that have great value in the real world, and the emotional and spiritual worlds. These places are extremely important.”
He also sees his work as a way of bringing that respect to others, “If you don’t go to the Pine Barrens, by just knowing they are there, lets you go there in your imagination. I’m trying to remind people of the value of these beautiful places. Take care of them and they’ll take care of you emotionally and physically.
On a personal level, Speedy says that his Pinelands travels “get me to places that I love to be. It allows me to . It gives me to reason to live. It’s something that I have to do. I react to what I see. It’s something that I have to do.”
That is natural to understand.
The Pine Barrens: A Legacy of Preservation/Photographs by Richard Speedy, Morven Museum and Garden, 55 Stockton Street, Princeton. opening reception, Thursday, January 24, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., continues to April 14, Wednesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays, noon to 4 p.m. $5-$6. www.morven.org or 609-924-8144.
Panel discussion, McCosh 50, Princeton University. Sunday, March 3. The panel comprises principals involved in the 1979 executive order and others, including Governor Byrne and Michele Byer of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation. Moderated by Michael Aron.