As a first step towards considering what we can do through our collaboration, Aaron and I have been discussing in greater detail our areas of knowledge and research, our interests, and the questions we still have about that research. I tend to first be interested in the historical contexts for whatever subject I’m researching, so I put together and shared with Aaron a slideshow of images to articulate what I think of when I think of images of trees and the natural world in various contexts. The photographs started with images similar to this one below by Darius Kinsey titled Falling Redwood, Humboldt County, California, 1906, and ending with contemporary images by Trevor Paglen and Taryn Simon. In turn, Aaron sent me a copy of Hemlock: A Forest Giant on the Edge which answered many of my questions about the Harvard Forest, which we are planning to photograph in some way.
Through this exchange of information, we have been able to narrow down our set of questions about trees and photography. One large question among many we are considering is: How do you photograph a forest? There are numerous histories of documentation, archives, and scientific endeavors to understand forests, including Harvard Forest’s own archive of images. One aim of documentation has been to understand a system in its entirety. The issue that immediately crops up when trying to understand a dynamic system like a forest through still photographic images is the inherent contradiction between the multiple time-based interactions in the forest and the singular point of view of a photograph. Other artists working in the past, and even currently, have created ways around this problem by looking only at specific components of a tree, or to make a narrative series of images that attempts to convey a story that is adjacent to the documentation of the forest itself.
Another way to frame the question How do you photograph a forest? is: What does a forest look like? This is helpful because it takes the problem of the tool (the camera) out of the process for a moment. When I stand in a forest, and in this case, it is a forest near my home, Goll Woods, I am not just focused on individual trees, but also on the distances between large and small trees, the canopy height and density, the animals on the forest floor and birds in the trees, and the motion of these objects through time. After noticing that being in the woods for me is about seeing the system, I can now bring back the camera.
In a first attempt at essentially sketching out a way to use a camera in the woods, I made the photograph below, which is a composite image in multiple ways. First, it uses a technique called focus-stacking to layer multiple images from the same point of view on top of each other to create an image with maximum focus from the lens to the background. Second, I combined those focus-stacked images into a panorama to give a perspective of the forest, based not on single-point optics, but more on what it looks like to walk through the woods.
This experiment is sure to be just the first sketch of many in an attempt to resolve some of these fascinating questions that Aaron and I have started to consider together, I hope that the images will become further complicated as we investigate more the way that humans interact with and look at the world’s forests.
These last two weeks our conversations have included discussions of intention and communication in art, science, and sci-art. As a practicing scientist and collaborator with artists and designers, and artful creator, I continue to struggle to identify and define the various roles that sci-art (and more specifically in much of my own work, ecological art [eco-art]) can take on.
Some additional ideas percolated up last week when I watched the “Beijing” episode of the 10th season of Art21’s Art in the Twenty-First Century documentary video series. The segment featuring Xu Bing was especially clear in identifying the deliberate intentionality in his work. Notable examples for me include his Background Story series (ongoing since 2004), which I saw when it was at MassMoCA in 2012 and wrote about in an article I published a couple of years later, and his Square Word Calligraphy series (ongoing since 1994). Xu Bing’s work, like that of the photographer Richard Misrach (featured in the “Borderlands” episode of Art in the Twenty-First Century), stood out for the intentionality of their creators. In contrast to most eco-art that I have viewed or created, Xu, Misrach, and Guan Xiao (also featured in the “Beijing” episode) appeared to me to be much less interested in communicating a specific message than in provocatively providing a space for viewers and audiences to rethink their own underlying assumptions and reimagine new possibilities for different worlds.
I’m an artist, designer, researcher, woodworker, gardener, and professor. I received my BFA in photography from Bowling Green State University and my MFA from San Francisco Art Institute. I teach photography, digital media, art history, drawing, tools, and Biodesign at the University of Toledo.
My recent personal work is photographic, and is made with an array of imaging technology: high-resolution digital cameras in studios, drones, Micro CT scanners, and computer display capture to create the final images. Each piece is conceived individually, based on research into the scientific, cultural, and photographic importance of each object or place. The resulting prints range from overwhelmingly large to quite small in scale, intuitively referencing historical photographic conventions (landscape, the sublime, and historical scientific imagery). I also make all the frames for the photographs, because, in addition to controlling the quality of presentation, the usage of the frame reinforces the image’s presence, history, and separation from the lived world. Each piece is framed according to its shape - for instance, the round images are displayed in circular frames.
When conceiving my work, I consider questions such as - How does an image arise in the world? What are the necessary conditions and materials needed to make discoveries through images and exploration?
To put it another way, I’m interested in creating images that engage the viewer in the conceit and deceit of the image’s actual construction, while utilizing well-known methods of seductive image creation. As a whole, the work questions the efficacy of being in a place to factually photograph and understand it, and what the exploration of a place, or outer space, means to the contemporary world of photography. Our seen version of the world has been simultaneously explored and photographed while we walk through it, and the photographs I make reach into the previously unseen.
In addition to questioning the action of making factual photographic images, the images scrutinize the materials necessary to perform this work. What materials are extracted from the Earth to create these photographs, and what are the costs to us and the planet? Is the image that results worth the material extraction involved if the facts as presented by the photograph are suspect? As images are increasingly taken as “pure” fact in our culture, I aim to understand and continue to inspect these mechanisms which create persistent cultural narratives.
As a woodworker and image-maker, I am lately increasingly interested in the complexities of the materials of the wooden frames that I make for my photographs. Looking beyond just a named location of the source lumber, what are the criteria that go into harvesting the trees, and has information about the fitness of a tree for its final use been lost through mechanized harvesting? Also, what relationship does the use of a tree for an image have to the health of the forest? Attempting to understand the photographic process as a biological and mechanical process is something I am excited to start to explore in this residency.
It’s very exciting to be part of the 2020 Bridge Residency cohort! I see it as a great opportunity to work with Eric (and perhaps others in this cohort) to explore new ideas, pick up on some simmering ideas in new contexts, and walk a different path from my “normal” work as a scientist and academic administrator.
Scientists and artists alike are explorers of the unknown worlds beyond our current understanding. We may use different approaches and languages to communicate our discoveries, but we share the common goal of illuminating what has not been seen before. In our case, Eric and I have already met three times (via Zoom, of course), and have found common ground in photography and woodworking, complexity and dynamic systems, forests and oceans, and in how to deal with the cognitive dissonance and disconnection between a static photographic image (or more generally, an artefact) and the complex dynamics that characterize the world we live in.
What do I bring to this collaboration? I am an academic ecologist and statistician by profession but find additional creative expression in cooking, photography, sculpture, creative and non-technical writing, and woodworking (examples of all but the cooking are here). For almost 40 years, I have done research on how ecosystems are organized and structured; how plants, animals (including humans), fungi, and microbes interact with one another and their external “environment”; what happens to ecosystems disintegrate when they are “disturbed” by often unexpected “natural” or anthropogenic events; and how they reorganize and restructure themselves following these disturbances. I am particularly interested in how systems behave as they pass through “tipping points”. I have studied these processes and dynamics with simulation models and in the field in person and with many colleagues on every continent. My favorite places to be in are forests - especially the old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest, swamps, marshes, and bogs, and my favorite organisms are (in alphabetical order) ants, eastern hemlock trees, mangroves, melastomes, and carnivorous pitcher plants.
A sixteen-week residency will pass very quickly—we’re already two weeks into it—and we’re already thinking about tangible projects. These include  photodocumenting the dynamics of a managed forest stand at the Harvard Forest in the context of stasis and dynamics, growth, logging, (re)use and (re)generation while attempting to capture the rapidly disappearing intuitive human feel for the trees themselves and  a proposal for a session or installation at the 2021 Borrowed Time summit.
Meanwhile, I find time to kayak and bike while working through my obsession with snags.