Tate Shaw – The Ground

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The Ground by Tate Shaw is both a stunning photo book and personal essay, spanning a tumultuous two years spent in the unlikely paired landscapes of Iceland and rural Pennsylvania. In the process of chasing a self-imposed obsession with creating a book, Shaw unearths some truly illuminating and multifaceted metaphors of energy and ground, revealing how this obsession changed his entire attitude towards thought, photography, and creative intention.

The essay and photographs are seamlessly interwoven, mirroring each other in a narrative of a fight for energy, both physically and creatively. With his images of geothermal plants, an underground coal fire that has burned for fifty years, and bright pits of hazardous run-off from hydrofracking, Shaw tells the story of the violent relationship humans have with the ground in attempts to harness its energy. The images are inkjet printed on rich, heavy printmaking paper, and selectively washed out with water to smear and obscure them. They progress in intensity, starting with softer, solid ground which steadily gets rougher, plants and soil turning into sparse rocks, choppy water, and eventually becoming manmade plants and pipes, scanning the landscape of mining, drilling, and fracking sites.

Interspersed with these images is Shaw’s own personal reflection on his mindset while photographing. He realizes that an obsession with creation can completely overpower the very essence of art until it becomes polluted – and this act of forced thought is strikingly similar to harmfully penetrating the ground for energy.

We’re needy, we’re starved for inspiration, for fuel. So we probe, we demand, we try to harness it, lock it down, tame it, to find meaning where it may not exist. What results is a fervent, sometimes beautiful, yet completely unsustainable and catastrophic outpouring of consequences. To Shaw, the ground became the mind, and the energy selfishly stripped from it became a forced creation. Shaw used to think that “books used to be open ground, a field to move through every single day, a space to dissolve oneself completely”. But once it became an obsession, he realized it could become a cloud, obscuring him from even himself – realizing that he ignored whole parts of his life if it was not in a book he read, or in a book he was planning to create.

When the act of wanting to create, to represent life, becomes an obsession – the purpose of it cannot be seen clearly. It becomes jaded, like the pools of hazardous hydrofracking run-off sitting in its rubber lined pit. Though it is of the earth, it was stripped so forcefully that if it returned to where it came from, it would poison us. Initially, Shaw was under the impression that our thoughts were whole because we used them to solve problems, but in reality, these thoughts are only solutions to the very problems created by thoughts that existed before them.

Finishing with an exquisite final scene of Shaw and his wife wrapped together in a natural hot spring in Iceland, he has his epiphany. His notepad and his camera far from him, it’s then he realizes that energy is monolithic, and our thoughts, our creations, and the very ground beneath our feet are victim to its forces roiling beneath the surface.

As Shaw and his wife drift from heat pocket to heat pocket overlooking all the other bathers, he finds that sometimes, in order to see a moment purely, it just needs to exist undocumented. The secret to creation is to sometimes just let moments pass organically instead of by force – to allow the thoughts and energy to simply flow and connect, like drifting from pocket to pocket of natural heat.


Tate Shaw is the Director of Visual Studies Workshop (VSW), Rochester, NY, a nonprofit organization supporting artists’ books, photography, and the media arts. He is also an Assistant Professor at The College at Brockport, SUNY where he directs the Master of Fine Arts program in Visual Studies at VSW. Shaw makes artists’ books, writes essays, organizes symposia on books, and is co-publisher of the small imprint Preacher’s Biscuit Books. To view more of Tate Shaw’s work visit his website.

Review by Taylor Kigar

Title : “The Ground”, 2013
Size : 12 x 8 in
Page Count : 124 Pages
Publisher : Preacher’s Biscuit Books
Edition : 500 copies, signed

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