Johnny Panessa’s River Forge

Upper Forge River © Johnny Panessa

I chatted with photographer, Johnny Panessa, in the week leading up to his first ever solo show at Picture Farm, Along the Forge, which opens tomorrow 4/4. Panessa spent nearly 3 years documenting the highly polluted Forge River and despite the looming environmental damage in the area, or maybe becuase of it, his landscapes are imbued with a haunting beauty, while the honest portraits tell the story of the people who interact with the water on a daily basis.

Johnny, who comes from skateboarding background, is a laid back guy and it’s obvious from his portraits. The people looking into the camera just trust him, it’s as simple as that, like they would any local.  And Johnny is somewhat of a local himself. He grew up just down the street from the river in the town of Mastic, and it was an emblamatic part of his childhood. “The river was the place where we’d go crabbing, waterskiing, and fishing–anything kids do in water,” he reminisced. “It was completely polluted, but at that point, we never thought of it.”

Rashid. Forge River Marina. ©Johnny Panessa

Now Johnny lives in Bushwick and works professionally as a toy designer, but in 2005 he and his friends bought a beach house for the weekend in the same town where he grew up. It was cheaper and less polished than the Hamptons and was an ideal surfing spot, a secret escape from the city.

During those weekend days, he’s wake up early, make coffee, and walk around the river, “just to get my head clear.” That’s when he started talking to the people who were using the dock and noticed that they were fishing and eating their catch, completely oblivious to what was going on environmentally.

“People would be chatting, like, ‘oh weird, the fish aren’t biting today,’ and I would say ‘No, the fish are all dead!'”.

The contrast in the images is stark. The photo below for instance, looks like it was taken at an idyllic forest stream straight out of Bambi, but when you look more closely at the water, the pollutants are right there, floating ominously on the surface in oily amber spots, like a disease.

Ely Creek. © Johnny Panessa
Pollutants in Ely Creek. © Johnny Panessa

The mouth of the Forge River was home to one of the largest duck farms in the country, Johnny explained, which released about 195 pounds of nitrogen per day from it’s “leeching pond,” a fancier name for a giant duck toilet. The pond was supposed to be cleaned as per national standards, but it was later discovered that the colossal amount of waste from the ducks was seeping into the ground water and the rest of the river. On top of that, in the 60s and 70s, Mastic witnessed a huge housing boom (when Johnny’s parents moved there), but the city had no real sewer system to support it. So the human waste eventually seeped into the river as well, creating more nitrogen overload and a bottom layer of toxic muck.

Duck hunting shelter in the north section of Forge River. © Johnny Panessa

“Mastic is generally a lower income, blue collar neighborhood, so it seemed to me that the government never cared much,” he mused. “Now they care more, but the damage has been done.”

When nitrogen leaks, it creates an new kind of algae that makes the river hypoxic, meaning there is not enough oxygen for wildlife to survive. The result is a “fishkill,” which would explain why the fisherman weren’t getting many bites. Instead locals catch shellfish, despite signs that warn against eating anything in the river.

“They know that the water is polluted, but no one knows the extent of it,” Johnny said. “When you read the reports, you realize how bad it is.”

It was during those morning coffee walks that Johnny started talking to the folks out on the river and photographing them.  Prior to that he would always go canoeing and shoot the river scenes, just for fun, but once he started documenting the people and hearing their stories, he realized there was something there. “It just kind of fell into place over time,” he said.

Dustin. Forge River. Marina dock. © Johnny Panessa

His favorite image is a portrait of Dustin, who had just moved to Long Island from Florida. Johnny explained, “This was  his first real Winter in New York and he was so excited to see his first snow. He and his girlfriend were fishing when I found him. We started talking and that’s when I took the photo. What I like is his gaze, the way his whole head is kind of haloed in the darkness of the hood. That is exactly what I was trying to get out of the portrait.”

"When we were young the whole bay and river were open to clamming." © Johnny Panessa

“Carl and his friend used to be clammers on the river,” Johnny said about the above image. “So what happened there really affected their livelihood. Now there are only tiny clamming zones that are open at specific times of day.”

Howard and Lora. Poospatuck Indian Reservation, home of the Unkechaug Nation. © Johnny Panessa

It’s clear from the series that Johnny invested time and care into exploring the diverse social groups along the water’ edge. Howard, pictured above, lives in an Indian Reservation on one of the river’s tributaries. “He prays right on the river,” Johnny said. “His tribe used to live on the river, using these huge fishing nets, but now that resource is gone.”

Stick dock and Phragmite on Wills Creek. © Johnny Panessa

Perhaps the curators of the show describe the river most eloquently in the show description:

The Forge River isn’t the most dramatic ecological disaster you’ll hear about. It wouldn’t be splashed along the headlines like an oil spill or fracking contamination or the run-off from a strip mine. The Forge River is a far more staid affair, spanning generations of mundanity. Ducks shitting downstream. Cesspools seeping slowly into the bogs. It’s a bit like the raw beauty of Long Island itself, going unnoticed, unremarked upon, unknown. Johnny Panessa is a prodigal son of the Mastics, returning some eight years ago to his childhood home.

See Johnny Panessa’s images tomorrow night at Picture Farm Gallery. The opening is from 6-10pm and limited edition zines will be for sale.

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