Book Review Sylvania By Anna Beeke Reviewed by George Slade In general, I have a sense that photography of nature, including broad landscapes and more intimate views like these, involves a degree of pretense. That is, the photographer is working entirely at his or her will, unbound by physical constraints other than cliffs, impenetrable underbrush, or giant trees.
Reviewed by George Slade
Photographs by Anna Beeke
Daylight Books, USA, 2015. In English. 128 pp., 7x10".
In general, I have a sense that photography of nature, including broad landscapes and more intimate views like these, involves a degree of pretense. That is, the photographer is working entirely at his or her will, unbound by physical constraints other than cliffs, impenetrable underbrush, or giant trees. The perspective they choose from the infinite number available to them is at once subjective and objective, specific and ambiguous. Scale — the distance from lens to recorded surface and the relationships it establishes — plays a nuanced role.
The challenge, it seems to me, is realizing order within nature’s verdant mess. And the photographer must make the entire case using the particular tools of the medium.
Another aspect of this challenge is that the artist must work extra-hard to define subject (see Stuart Rome, Lee Friedlander, Janelle Lynch, Sally Gall, and certain others for clearly realized visions). The use of selective focus in the midst of sylvan overload offers one toehold for viewing comprehension. The frame, how and where one draws limits around the scene, is an elemental aspect of definition. The book sequence, and the implied narrative it creates, offers a third point of stability.
What emerges in Anna Beeke’s photographs and the book they inhabit is a minimally tamed version of nature, an environment that is almost wild except for the little incursions indicated by human-made elements that stand out in these tableaux. In ironic twists on them, tamed environments are made wild by invasions of natural graphics.
Beeke herself, and her actions, represent an incursion, comparable to those of any interloper and with nearly as much impact as the two men dismantling and hauling away a giant stump. The latter, of course, enact their transformative efforts on one very specific item at a time, and their focus is pared down to the extreme. Theirs is the vertical axis. Beeke spreads her attentions laterally, at eye level, through the forest. Unlike the felled and cut-apart trees, nothing dies in Beeke’s images.
Still, we are left to sort through the will she has imposed. Beeke makes the primal, remote forms these woods once defined seem very close, very tenuous, and highly endangered.
Beeke’s enculturation of the forest is accompanied by compelling short texts by Brian Doyle, the editor of Portland magazine at the University of Portland (Oregon). His concise prose poems seeded throughout Sylvania demonstrate a personal awareness of forests and call attention to the ways photographs fail to decipher — are incapable of deciphering — the mysteries of the woods. A predominance of Beeke’s images feature scenes found in the Pacific Northwest. Doyle’s comments capture arboreal environments on both a personal and a Platonic level; they seem, in the culmination of this book, to play a critical role — they reintroduce an element of depth, and they add an expansiveness of place and time.—GEORGE SLADE
GEORGE SLADE, a longtime contributor to photo-eye, is a photography writer, curator, historian and consultant. He can be found online at http://rephotographica-slade.blogspot.com/
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