The Paradoxical Beauty of Onondaga Lake

UPDATE: Check out Willson’s blog at

This photo, by Willson Cummer, is of Ninemile Creek in Solvay as it runs under State Fair Boulevard and 690. Cummer, from a canoe, is looking downstream as the creek flows north before entering Onondaga Lake.
Willson Cummer / Onondaga Lake #43, inkjet print, 2010

Some artists help us expand our sense of the possible by deconstructing or altering reality. Others, like Willson Cummer, do something perhaps even more amazing: They show us the reality right in front of us that we’ve somehow failed to see.

Cummer focuses his camera on the places where the man made meets the natural, like the roofs of parking garages and the forgotten places under overpasses, which CNYSpeaks has written about before. He has a knack for at once showing us the enduring beauty of nature and the destructive force of human development. He juxtaposes the beautiful and the ugly, creating images that deepen our understanding of beauty itself.

Cummer’s new subject is Onondaga Lake and its tributaries. His exploration of this body of water at the heart of our region comes at the perfect time. Central New Yorkers have slowly begun to cast aside the view of the lake as a burden, an embarrassment, a literal and figural drain. We’re starting to see it for what it is: a tremendous natural resource that needs to be fully restored, protected, and developed — all at once. It’s a paradox, for sure. Cummer’s work helps us to understand this mind-bending reality.

As good as the images look on Cummer’s Web site, they look even better printed. His photographs are currently hanging with other artists who have a similar bent to their work in an exhibition at the Gandee Gallery in Fabius called “A Sense of Place — The Real Central New York Landscape.” The show closes November 21st.

Here’s Cummer’s artist statement for the project:

Onondaga Lake, which borders the city of Syracuse, NY, is a Superfund cleanup site and a holy lake for the Onondaga Indian Nation. I have explored this paradox, photographing the lake and its tributaries from a canoe and on shore.

I find the lake gorgeous at times and repulsive at others. Raw sewage flows into the lake during heavy rains, as the municipal wastewater treatment plant is overwhelmed. Algae grows in the phosphorus-rich waters, giving off a stink in the summer.

Mercury and other heavy metals lie on the bottom of the lake — remnants of chemical industry in years past. Swimming has been banned since 1940.

Still, bald eagles have taken up residence on the lake, and great blue herons are numerous. The lake is an extreme example of much of our natural world: polluted yet still achingly beautiful.

I hope that my images will cause viewers to contemplate our relationship to the natural world and consider our impact. I also hope to inspire people to explore this lake, which remains captivating despite its long history of abuse.”

[Note that this post also appears on]

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