The engagement between Nature and human expression stretches back millenia. From Timpuseng cave to Walden, the relationship between the two has borne substantial fruit. The Living Forest (Timber Press), a collaboration between Joan Maloof and Robert Llewellyn belongs to this rich tradition and represents a valuable contribution to it. It’s pages teem with life. Appalachian Mountain salamanders. Black and orange millipedes. Dogwood bulbs and poisonous mushrooms. Moreover, the book serves as a reminder of the natural world’s sublimity during an age of iPhone screens, Big Data, and cold machine learning.
SCIENTIFIC INQUIRER:The Living Forest seems to bring aspects of your past projects together, namely large scale photography of trees with the detail heavy close-ups of your seed and flower work. How did you get involved with the project and was there any hesitation collaborating?
ROBERT LLEWELLYN: Writer Joan Maloof and I both had books published by Timber Press. Timber wanted to publish a forest book, so we created this collaboration. There was no hesitation on my part. Joan is a scientist and a biology professor. What an opportunity it was for me. I want to learn everything I can about this planet we live on. I like mysteries. We by far don’t know it all. As a photographer I am drawn to finding and seeing new things.
SCINQ: What was it like shooting in the forest being completely surrounded by nature? How did you decide what to shoot.
RL: I think this is a little tricky–Nature. Humans are mammals and are one of the inhabitants of this planet, and they are very active changing the landscape, air, etc. Humans build things like cities and buses. I think of a city the same way I would think of a hornet’s nest, or birds that instinctively build nest. So I see everything as nature. Humans are just another creature mingling among the others, doing what humans do.
Humans do interface with the forest and wildlife. Sometimes it is a barely visible library of what came before. The exception would be old growth forest. Mostly I went into the forest with no list. I think humans can change from looking to seeing. When I do that things call out to me. “over here, do me” It is always something “new” for me. The test is “would it hurt if you left and did not make a photograph”?
Sometime I was directed a bit by Joan. She would say go into the forest and “turn over a fallen decaying log”. I asked “what will I see.” She said “I am not going to tell you”. Mystery. Adventure. She once did give a list of specific things to find in the forest–a treasure hunt. I live in the middle of 87 million acres of forest. With help from some assistants, I did find them all.
SCINQ: Your photos of trees and the details of their barks are striking. You’ve spent a lot of time in the past shooting trees. How did you try to keep things fresh this time around?
RL: There is always more to see and learn about trees. Well, there is always more to see and learn about everything. Photography has infinite possibilities. I call it the “elseness” exercise. What else is it? What else is it? What else is it? There is no end. I think being a photographer is a wonderful way to visit earth–a great adventure. There is always something new to see and photograph.
SCINQ: Patterns and shapes are very pronounced in your work. Is this a by product of your subject matter of do you do it by design?
RL: I do not think there are rules for photography. The images, however, can have similar effects on the human viewer. Humans are attracted to patterns and rhythms. They create vibrations that are viewed as very active. Humans are also drawn to light things, (like moths?) Being a photographer is quite simple. You start with a frame. You then must decide what to put in the frame and what to leave out. You also must decide where to put things in the frame. Often shapes at the edge create tension. Shapes in the middle are calmer.
SCINQ: You shot animals this time around. What was that like for you?
RL: Awsome. I was a bit of back in the first grade, which I think is always a good thing. Generally forest animals do not hold still for photographs. Generally they do not like humans and will run away or bite you and run away. (with the exception of the tick). Finding animals is not very difficult in the forest. Once I choose to photograph animals, they are suddenly everywhere–hiding in plain sight. Some are larger than me and some are microscopic. (remember looking under the fallen log). My work with small seeds for my Seeing Seeds book gave me the skills to get extremely close. I do greatly admire photographers who have devoted their life to making amazing wildlife images. They can put on camoflage and sit and wait for days, often using extremely long and expensive telephoto lenses. Sometime nothing appears. I did photograph some animals in captivity (without harming them). I wanted a woods mouse ear close up. I guess I could have crawled on my belly at night. Or covered my nose with almond butter. However… Some wildlife photographs are done with camera traps. There are some great images. I, however, do not want my camera to make photographs without me being there.
SCINQ: You work both in the studio and out. In this case, you were about as far from the controlled confines of your studio as can be. How does your process and approach to shooting differ in each instance?
RL: Many things I did bring into the studio to isolate them and get closer. The forest is a challenge because when you look through the frame there are an enormous number of things to put in or take out.
Going into the forest, with a camera, is a different mindset. First, don’t complain–about anything. There is no good light or bad light–just light. Find a way. There are no bad subjects. I can make a photograph of anything. There is no good weather or bad weather-just weather, all the time. (It can produce strong sensations with less than ideal clothing choices.)
So, with all that, find a way to make it all work. The photographs I bring home I often could not have imagined.
SCINQ: It seems shooting under an uneven canopy of branches and leaves would make light very uneven. Was this an issue?
RL: No, I have made many photographs with “uneven” light. It is just light. The trees let a bit of sun through for its lower leaves and plants on the forest floor. That is a “how the forest works” photograph.
SCINQ: What was the most challenging aspect of the project? Most fulfilling?
RL: The most challenging thing for me was to get a grasp of this other civilization living with us, the humans. With this forest book and my other plant books, I discovered every life form has a plan–all plants and animals. Their mission is to reproduce their species. There is interdependance in the forest. For example the blackberry lily has brilliant orange flowers to attract bees and get pollinated. Then it drops the petals and forms a black seedpod containing its offspring. The pods looks like blackberries. Bears like blackberries. The plan. Interdependance.
SCINQ: Joan Maloof’s words and your images complement each other without being completely literal. Did she write her part prior to your shooting ro vice versa?
RL: This project evolved over two years. We did start with outlines, that often changed. The mission was to start above the canopy (birds) and move down until we were way underground. (roots, water) I would send her photographs and she would send me words. At the end we edited the book and chose photographs that resonated with the words.
SCINQ: What equipment did you use during the course of the project?
RL: Most photographs were made on a tripod with a Canon 5DsR that has a 50mb sensor. I used a Canon 5D Mark IV for moving wildlife because it could track focus even through dense tree branches. I really don’t know how it does that. I have been a photographer for 5 decades, so all the different lenses are an extension of my eye. Its like a tennis racket is an extension of your arm. For the forest project I used a dozen lenses with focal lengths ranging from 14mm to 2000mm. Different lenses changes relationships of things in the frame. Infinite choices. Its like 3D chess.
SCINQ: Can you name a few of your artistic influences?
RL: When I created the earlier books on trees, flowers, and seeds I was inspired by the work of Karl Blossfeldt with plant forms in 1929. Forms that for the most part were hiding in plain sight. Exquisite. For the forest project I went to painters of landscapes. I looked at William Turner, James Whistler, and most of all Anselm Kiefer.
SCINQ: Finally, your first major work was a book about Washington D.C. Is there any change of your focusing your lens on the urban landscape again?
RL: I have started a new project that is not a book. I call it the Orb Project, since we live on one floating in vast space spinning 17,000 miles per hour (for 4.5 billion years). I have collected orbs for many years as well as machine parts, bones and ancient artifacts. (I think “collecting” anything changes your view of the planet. You see the things you choose to collect everywhere). I am making complex layered photographs of the things I found on Earth as evidence of the rise of all plants and animals. I do many images about the evolution of humans and the civilizations that arose and collapsed. So I am back somewhat to looking at urban landscapes as evidence of our very complex current human civilization.
IMAGE CREDITS: Robert Llewelyn