Where are you from and where do you currently live?
I was born in Washington, DC, and raised both there and in the adjacent suburbs of Maryland. I have lived in Brooklyn, NY since 2007.
The men in the The Woodcutters seem unaware of your presence. Where and how did you come across them in the forest?
It was the penultimate day of my first trip to Washington state and I was headed out of the woods, but just outside the Quinalt Rainforest I drove past these two doing just what you see in the photograph – it was like a scene and I had to pull over and approach them. I approached them and we chatted for awhile, so they were definitely aware of me. They told me that the huge tree they were cutting up fell naturally and if this happens within a certain amount of yards from the road, even on a national park’s land, it is legal to harvest it for personal use. They weren’t loggers by trade, but in that region it isn’t uncommon to know how to handle a chainsaw. One of them told me that he had grown up admiring the photographs of the early loggers of the region – the ones who felled giant trees with handsaws. They went back to their work eventually, and let me document it. It was this encounter that really made it clear to me that I was going to spend a great deal of time making photographs in the forest.
Where is the title Sylvania from?
Sylvania literally translates as “forest land” in Latin – not that I know Latin. There are more than a handful of actual Sylvanias in the world, and of course places that incorporate the word, like Pennsylvania and Transylvania. Just as the Springfield of The Simpsons is supposed to be a composite of all the actual Springfields, and thus Anytown, USA, my Sylvania is a composite of Anyforest, USA. Ironically, many people today remember Sylvania as an electronics product company, and a Google image search for “sylvania” yields mostly images of light bulbs and computerssymbols of the urbanization and civilization that stand in direct opposition to the primitive, chaotic wilderness of the forest. And yet somehow that seems fitting, for my Sylvania - like nearly all forests in the contemporary world – exists just beyond some ever-encroaching society, and from time to time we catch a glimpse of civilization on the other side of the arboreal fringe.
You majored in English at Oberlin College before pursuing your MFA in Photography at SVA. Do you consider your exploration of the forest in the series Sylvania as a story of sorts?
Oh, absolutely! There are stories on many levels. To me, some of the images could be short stories in and of themselves, while collectively they form a different narrative. Within this narrative, some images have less information and are more akin to punctuation – a comma, perhaps, a deep breath of fresh forest air. Across cultures and centuries, the forest has occupied a unique place in our collective imagination and there are countless histories and myths that involve humankind venturing beyond the structured limits of civilization into the chaotic labyrinth of the woods. In fact I think that many of my ideas and memories of the forest come from literature rather than actual experience.
Across cultures and centuries, the forest has occupied a unique place in our collective imagination and there are countless histories and myths that involve humankind venturing beyond the structured limits of civilization into the chaotic labyrinth of the woods.
Do you look to any other mediums for inspiration?
Yes, perhaps more than I look to other photographs for inspiration…My adult imagination is still haunted by the illustrations from the books of myth and fairytale that were my earliest encounters with literature. And painting, certainly, is no stranger to my subject. Landscape painters have favored the forest as a setting, both picturesque and dangerous, for centuries, and I’ve taken cues from works as varied as the pastorals of Claude Lorraine and the more sublime works of Caspar David Friedrich, the whimsical, impressionistic judges of Henri Rousseau, and the dark, expressionist woods of Anselm Keifer.