Charles Pratt and the Natural World

Late last month I came across a copy of The Sense of Wonder by Rachel Carson, the marine biologist and conservationist whose writing is often credited with advancing the modern environmental movement. What’s refreshing about this edition, however, is that Carson’s words appear alongside a collection of photographs, most notably the work of Charles Pratt, a photographer known for his fascination with the boundaries between the built environment of the city and the natural world.

What concerned Pratt the most was a fear that the small pockets of nature that existed in urban areas “would eventually disappear, resulting in a vast megalopolis joining Washington, New York City, and Boston.” As stated in his biography, “[The] fringe areas, or ‘edges’ were important to him: rivers, parks along the waterfront, highways, embankments, empty lots, airports, rooftops, and the marshes in New Jersey.” Pratt, who often accompanied his photographs with short essays, once wrote: “I find myself drawn to [these] edges with a sense of urgency, knowing that they may be gone tomorrow — not just extended but really, finally gone.” Andy Grundberg, writing for the New York Times in 1982 on the occasion of a posthumous retrospective of the photographer’s work, mindfully encapsulated Pratt’s concerns about the natural world that he loved so dearly:

Before his untimely death in 1976 at age 50, Charles Pratt was a well-known and widely published landscape photographer. His detailed renditions of the natural world were admired for revealing, with economy and delicacy, a phenomenological order of spiritual import. Even when his subject was a mere lump of dirt in a field, he could imbue it with significance. What makes his death seem especially untimely today is that he was, at mid-career, still getting better, still refining his craft and vision in formally innovative ways.

To give a sense of the significance Pratt could capture in a single photograph, I’ve included this shot that he took while in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1963. What’s compelling in this image is that it captures a familiar yet waning summer moment in the city, an open fire hydrant soaking a group of neighborhood kids. Even though it doesn’t represent one of the defined “edges” that Pratt wrote about, it does show the closest a city kid can sometimes get to a body of water when surrounded by asphalt and apartment buildings, bus lines and telephone poles.

(Photograph: Charles Pratt; click to enlarge. Caption: Hoboken, 1963.)