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The Fruitful Wound – Photographs of Harlem’s Gardens and Open Space

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Casa Frela Gallery presents The Fruitful Wound, photographs by Dennis Santella. The exhibition runs from July 18th through August 22nd, 2009 in Manhattan, New York.

The Fruitful Wound

For a full year, Dennis Santella has been searching out and photographing gardens and green places across Harlem using a special panoramic camera manufactured by Siciliano Camera Works of Brooklyn. His large richly detailed gelatin silver prints draw on the improvised beauty of Harlem’s open spaces — from cultivated areas such as community gardens, to empty lots, and neglected border areas where plants struggle to survive.

Dennis had lived in and around Harlem for eight years, when his girlfriend Barbara, now wife, moved to 117th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard. Next to her building was an empty lot, home to some stray cats, flourishing weeds and a spindly tree.

Every few months men would cut the lock from the lot’s gate, level everything but the tree – grown too large for their trimmers – and put up a new lock. Watching this cycle of growth and destruction from the apartment window, Dennis and Barbara, thought of sneaking in and planting vegetables and flowers. They soon learned about the community gardens of the area, and found that the same impulse to make use of neglected land had launched many of the gardens.

The community gardening movement took root in the late 1970s when The City made the decision to abandon large amounts of land that it could not afford to maintain. Faced with these neglected plots – often sites of drug use, dumping, or worse – locals took over the areas and cultivated them. Where urban blight might have flourished, gardens were planted. Shaped by the resources and histories of the participants, each garden manifests a complex set of physical, psychological, and social conflicts and compromises.

Today, these gardens are a rare refuge from the city’s asphalt and stone. But with development money pouring into Harlem, and Columbia University’s ongoing Manhattanville project, these sites are disappearing. While some gardens have been taken over by the city or purchased and protected by non-profit organizations, empty lots are now carefully fenced off, and many gardens and lots have seen buildings grow over them in less than a season.

Dennis Santella has a rich background of study in both the sciences and fine arts. While also photographing he has earned a BA in Neuroscience and Behavior, an MPH in Environmental Health Science and an MFA in Visual Arts from Columbia University. His black and white photographs are informed by this diverse intellectual background. Born in Manhattan, he was raised just across the Hudson River in Teaneck, New Jersey. He has worked professionally in the sciences, conducting research, and in the arts, working for a private photography collection and teaching photography.

See the Casa Frela Gallery Website here.

More from Dennis Santella here.