The Image: Carl Gunhouse, "Chicken, Milburn, NJ 0203"
I started photographing in the woods in suburban areas during grad school at Yale, shortly after being held up at gunpoint in the entryway to my apartment building. Having grown up in suburban New Jersey and having spent the preceding five years living next to a housing project in Manhattan, I never thought of New Haven as being particularly threatening. It reminded me of the suburbia where I grew up. Having never had a gun put to my head before, I found the experience jarring to say the least and immediately became a lot more afraid of my surroundings. I started taking the school's free shuttle bus home at night and generally found the unpopulated streets and lack of streetlights disconcerting, especially the long stretches of wooded areas behind 7-11's and next to football fields. The more afraid I was, the more it occurred to me that these little patches of land had the capacity for narrative and could communicate more than a transcendence or pillaging of nature.
The picture is taken in walking distance of a train station in Milburn, NJ, an affluent town next to the town where I grew up. After grad school, I started photographing around my childhood home and found the woods had much the same potential for thrills that they did when I was a child: there was always the hope of finding a dead body or pornography.
Months before the picture was taken, I found a candle, a child's comb and mirror in a wall off of an old train crossing. I thought it looked like a shrine, made a picture and at some point assumed my imagination was getting the better of me and forgot about it. The presumptive shrine was there for the next couple of months, and I got to the point where I didn't think much about it, until one cold winter morning I came across the decapitated chicken with the blood frozen around its gaping neck. It was unnerving, not gun-to-your-head unnerving, but still, from under the dark cloth, I found myself extra aware of ambient noises and expected at any moment to be attacked by the druids from Duck Tail and/or worse. But once I took the picture, I felt exhilarated. At the time, it was confirmation of everything I was hoping for in these little patches of suburban landscapes.
In the spring about a twenty-minute walk away, I found a second shrine and headless chicken. Which was great for Tom, my best friend growing up, who swears that one night Satanists with glowing eyes chased him and his older brother out of the woods near their home. I assume the memory was the result of an early exposure to Mötley Crüe, an active imagination and teens smoking, but Tom found comfort and conformation in my finding shrines with headless chickens in the woods so close to where we grew up. Three years later, the police found four garbage bags blocks away from the shrine scene with the dismembered remains of a 35-year-old Coney Island resident named Viktor Alekseyeva. A year later, on The Sopranos series finale, A.J. Soprano watched his S.U.V. explode directly above where this picture was taken.
- Carl Gunhouse
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