Richard Rothman, Redwood Saw, Nazraeli, 2011


Stanley: The photographs in "Redwood Saw" outline a tight correlation between the history of the old-growth forest, now more a museum space than a vast, untended patch of wilderness, and the circumstances and history of the town that borders it. Obviously the history of one is bound up with and reciprocally determined in many ways by the history of the other. One of the things that most strongly affected me upon repeated viewings of the photographs was the extent to which the physiognomy of the town and the townsfolk seemed to parallel and echo each other, so could you perhaps talk about how you set about choosing subjects for the portraiture after you'd been shooting in the forest, and the way that one set of pictures informed the others?

Richard Rothman: Redwood forests have existed in Northern California for at least 20 million years and are thought to be related to a species of tree that existed over 160 million years ago. In 1850, before the first Europeans worked their way up the Klamath River looking for gold, there were approximately 2,000,000 acres of old-growth redwoods strung along the coast of Northern California. The town of Crescent City was at one point covered entirely by redwood forest that grew down almost to the coast. In other words, the town is what the forest has become, and it is a fact that gripped my imagination when I first encountered it. So 96 percent of the old-growth redwood forests that until relatively recently existed on the Pacific Coast have been logged in less than 200 years. A remarkable and tragic fact.


Richard Rothman, from Redwood Saw. Courtesy of artist.


The geography is such that you can take it all in visually from various perspectives within the landscape, meaning you can see the forest from the town, and town from the forest. It's such an extraordinary contrast to be in a preserved bit of ancient, primeval forest, with its long reach of time, and then next in a tiny town that bears so many traces of its own brief history. Human artifacts found in the area date back at least 3,000 years and attest to another grim aspect of the town's history. The Indian population that inhabited the area had been there for thousands of years until they were displaced and decimated by the arrival of the first Europeans who came there looking for gold, and who then turned to timber when the gold was mined out.

After I photographed the forest on my first trip, I decided to photograph the town, beginning with its architecture. I'd photographed the built environment for many years, so I had an awareness of how to convey a sense of place in architectural terms. Signifiers of class, culture, and politics are readily apparent in the architecture of any town, especially in one that is as small as Crescent City. That was part of the attraction. I felt I could encompass and condense my vision of the town in pictures more accurately and concisely than I might have been able to in a much larger town.


Richard Rothman, from Redwood Saw. Courtesy of artist.


When I decided to extend my project to portraiture, I wasn't really thinking so much about the similarities of physiognomy between the people and the town. I was very aware of the relationship between the economically depressed lives of so many of its citizens and the over-all architectural manifestation of the town. The texture of the place somehow connected emotionally with the mise en scène of some of Raymond Carver's great stories, though not in any direct way, I suppose. The power of a great writer. In any case, it's a place where many people have spent a lot of hard time, where the relatively carefree period of youth confronts the hardships of unplanned for and unmanageable futures prematurely.

What did occur to me on a somewhat more abstract level was a connection between the economic and emotional vulnerability of the people I was meeting and photographing, and a sense of the equivalent vulnerability of the remaining 4 percent of old-growth trees in the forest that exist, however precariously, on the goodwill of a shaky political system whose conservation laws are always at risk of being overturned. You have a business community that knows how to turn natural resources into profits, and knows how to use politics to advance its goals. And you also have a low-skilled electorate who live with "structural unemployment" even at the best of times.

Another connection that I was picking up on between the trees and some of the people I photographed was a certain combination of strength and passivity. Trees aren't designed to get up and run away when trouble comes. They're designed to stand there and endure, and I felt that that was akin to what some of the people I'd photographed - who had very limited economic options - were experiencing psychologically. It reminded me of something my publisher once said: "Don't just do something, stand there."

Maybe the most important aspect of the relationship between the forest and the town and the townspeople is time. I wanted to try to make a book that was about the present, the past, and the deep past. It is a book that is meant to reflect on the current American moment, but also a book that is meant to reflect on evolutionary time and its connection to the present.


© Richard Rothman, from Redwood Saw. Courtesy of artist.


© Richard Rothman, from Redwood Saw. Courtesy of artist.


Stanley: This seems a good juncture to ask you about the relation (and sometimes the necessary tension) between initial intentions, actual conditions, and the process of discovery. You said that you had wanted to make work about the present, the past, and the deep past, and also that you had set out to make work in the redwood forest that would enable you to get away from the urban landscape photography you had been making. Yet ironically this work shows you photographing in a particularly eloquent relation with that urban milieu - a relation that is strengthened by the other elements you bring to it in the seascapes, the forest landscapes, and the portraits. I understand the chronology of how the work unfolded, but do you think that it might have been the geography itself that led you to make such an ambitious and comprehensive body of photographs? Do you think you were driven by the accretion of history in the trees, the mills, the clapboard houses, and the sea?

RR: I actually went out to shoot the redwoods with very limited intentions, which is to say, I need to feel a deep sense of curiosity about a subject, a desire to know more about it, but not necessarily to know too much about it from the outset. I want to engage with subjects that I want to look at and experience, while leaving room for unconscious exploration, the development of unexpected themes, and any number of digressions that might strengthen the work and nurture my engagement. It seems there's always something I want to look at more than anything else, and if I follow that, as I did while I worked on Redwood Saw, it can point me in the direction of a self-generating, multi-layered project that can unfold organically in rich and exciting ways.

As you say, I knew I wanted to make a change from the previous urban landscape work I'd been doing, and I was keen for a new kind of challenge. I'd been curious about forests for a variety of reasons: their importance as linchpins of biodiversity, the role that their destruction has played in species extinction, and the magnificent way that vast, lush, unpeopled stretches of wilderness can remind us that life extends beyond the world of human development and time, and that that is, in fact, the point from whence human life evolved.

I'd also been spending some time camping out in forests after many years of intense, unbroken urban experience. At a certain point I suddenly developed a longing to spend some time in the "green confusion" of forests by myself. I had visited the Muir Woods and was stunned by the beauty and the scale of the place. That was tugging at me too - just the sheer drama and unlikelihood of all of it. I was intrigued by it and wanted to spend more time in that kind of environment and, importantly, I felt that those old-growth forest spaces offered me a whole new set of formal possibilities that I could explore photographically, spaces of vast scale and intricacy that would allow me to make the most complex compositions I could imagine. But the idea of photographing natural, magnificent landscapes seemed like a real problem to me at the time, which is why it took me so long to take it on as a subject. I'd never done it before, even though my photography had been focused on nature in one way or another for many years. I certainly didn't want to be anywhere near the Ansel Adams orbit, let alone that of all his acolytes. To do it in a way that was meaningful without it being corny, predictable, or merely pretty seemed like a challenge.

So those were some of the prior intentions, and yes, as always, the actual conditions, the geography, and the history of the place itself changed everything once I got out there, and led to the unexpected unfolding of a much richer narrative than anything I could have anticipated or planned. The history of the forest is literally written into the town, not only in that it is what the forest has become, but physically, in its architecture. A man I became friends with, who moved there to retire because he fell in love with those forests, lived in a house on the edge of town next to the park. When he decided to build a deck that looked out onto redwoods, he was told by the insurance company that in that area it had to be constructed of redwood beams because of their fire resistant properties. The irony wasn't lost on him.


© Richard Rothman, from Redwood Saw. Courtesy of artist.


Stanley: I think that irony is an interesting question to stumble upon. There's obviously a cruel irony in the relationship between the condition of the town of Crescent City and the neighbouring forest, and that irony extends to a wider question about stewardship not just of the redwood forest, or American natural resources, but the wider economy and citizenship too. I've always felt that you can see the inverse reflection of McCarthyism in those four Paul Strand books "Time in New England" (1950), "Le France de Profil" (1952), "Tir A'Mhurain" (1954) and "Un Paese" (1955). The photographs are emblematic of a journey made in the opposite direction to a political tide that was rising to engulf a broad swathe of the American nation. In a sense Strand takes succour in small-town life, as a refuge from the realities of the America he had lived in, taught in, and photographed for so long.

I wonder to what extent you think that the circumstance of the redwoods, and of Crescent City, mirrors or is symptomatic of a political reality in America at this present moment, and in what sense you understand your work as contending with, or critiquing that reality in photographic terms?

RR: I've had the sense for some time now that the America I grew up in no longer exists. The questions for me are: What has it become and who have I become as a consequence? This can be difficult to discern when you're in the midst of something as huge, variable, and complex as "America," and something as elusive and shifting as one's own consciousness. The work that I do is, in part, an attempt to answer those questions and to bring to consciousness aspects of feeling and perception that lie inarticulately below the surface of experience. That's why it's important to me that the process is improvisational - so that the felicity that can accompany looking, reacting, feeling, and thinking can hopefully cascade into awareness, and pictures of lasting value. As I've said before, I want the work to be simultaneously a record of awe and of protest.

Of course, the America I experienced in Crescent City is nothing like the Idea of America that saturates the media and mainstream political discourse. It is a far more impoverished, dysfunctional place that is characterized more by the hopelessness and the powerlessness of contemporary experience than the hysterical triumphalism of national fantasy and self-identity that is increasingly difficult to escape. It seems as if the country that I knew - as imperfect as it was - has been radically co-opted in a relatively brief period of time. The evidence of the disregard for the lives of ordinary citizens, the health of the planet and the creatures we share it with is overwhelming, numbing, and staggering in its implications. That is something you can experience clearly in the small town of Crescent City, and the remainder of the former grandeur of the redwood forest that lies next to it. The population sign when I arrived read 6,000, approximately half of whom, I subsequently learned, were housed in Pelican Bay prison, the largest US supermax facility, which lies just outside the town. The prison has a vast number of ballpark-like sodium vapor lights that stay on all night long, casting a sickly amber glow into the night sky which blocks out the view of the more than 300 billion stars that make up just our own Milky Way Galaxy.

© Richard Rothman, from Redwood Saw. Courtesy of artist.

Stanley: In his epilogue to Sze Tsung Leong's "History Images", Stephen Shore writes that “a camera can only deal with the visible. A photographer trying to communicate his or her perception of the currents below the surface of things has to find instances where these currents are visibly manifest.” 

It seems to me that one of the most fervently protected symbols of American identity, or the mythology of American exceptionalism, is the small town, and that that symbol is imbued with virtue when it is used to talk about resilience, community, and self-reliance. To my mind all of those characteristics are made visible in "Redwood Saw", but in a context that calls into question the reasons for the precariousness of the life led by the people in that small town. What I see in "Redwood Saw" is the exhaustion of the promise that was foundational to the history of small frontier towns, and I wonder whether you believe that photography is capable of inverting mythologies, of introducing complexity and plurality into topics that are treated reductively and simplistically? 

RR: Yes, I agree that small towns are important symbols of American identity and promise, and you are right to pick up on a certain "exhaustion" of that promise in Redwood Saw. At the same time, there still are small towns that have their own unique realities, and that is part of what we are losing with the homogenization that comes with corporate and global culture. That played a part in my decision to photograph Crescent City. Stephen Shore's point is accurate. Robert Adams once said that what photographers are often doing is trying to find a good example of something they already know.

That is one of the essential tasks of photography: to recognize those salient facts which can become a vehicle for metaphor. To recognize that congruence of specificity and transcendence. You want that to happen simultaneously. Crescent City has this extraordinary geography, pinned as it is between the redwood forest and an amazingly beautiful portion of the Pacific Coast - it's an alluringly dramatic place to encounter - and a very interesting history. At the same time, the town’s a story of boom-and-bust economies based on extraction industries that have dried up, and that story is a global one. Hopefully, the facts are engaging and the meaning transcends the particulars of the place. I do believe that photography has the capacity to communicate ideas and concerns about the world, and in that sense it can become part of a dialogue that moves the ball forward.


© Richard Rothman, from Redwood Saw. Courtesy of artist.


Stanley: Could you talk a little about the formal choices you made in this work, and how they relate to or contrast with earlier formal strategies you've used in your work. I'm thinking here in terms of your desire to reconcile greater degrees of complexity in your composition, something that the landscape format lends itself to perfectly in its feeling of expansiveness and comprehensiveness. I'm thinking about the almost ethereal feeling of the high tones as the work develops as that contrasts with the fuller, deeper contrast in the early parts of the work. I'm also curious about the extent to which the steadfast landscape format informed the kind of gradual, cumulative sequence of the book in an almost cinematic way…

RR: Over time, the formal preoccupations that are part of the work have tended toward greater complexity. Most photographers start out by working with relatively simple spaces to control composition, and I did too. That can become less interesting after a while, and in landscape photography it can be inappropriate. It’s more challenging to work with spaces that resolve active foregrounds, middle grounds, and backgrounds. In the case of Redwood Saw this meant a desire on my part to work with deep space and scale, backlight, and deep shadows combined with extremely bright highlights. As I’ve said before, composition is an entirely intuitive process. Part of what drew me into the forest initially was a desire to make compositions that were full of the kind of tension that bordered on the edge of chaos, but yet were still resolved at a very high level of order. I knew I would find all that in the forest, and I knew that it would be right because it was a metaphor for the complexity and density of the forest itself. Light, of course, is as important as composition. When I first started taking pictures outdoors I worked in a lot of overcast light because it was easier to control. Now I love being able to work with all kinds of light. Light is what describes form and is the basis of life itself. That forest, with its huge canopy where the sun comes down in thin, long, fast moving shafts, had an enormous range of light. I decided that I was going to hold on to all the detail in the shadows, and bring the highlights up to threshold values in order to try to convey the huge gamut of light that I was experiencing and could still describe within the latitude of a single exposure and a print.

When the work is a story with different chapters, the formal elements have to be subsumed by the emotional and narrative concerns, and there’s no reason the different parts need have the same formal components. Crescent City, which lies right on the coastline, has a very moody microclimate. It’s often foggy and overcast in the morning, but when the sun comes out at midday and ricochets off the ocean and the clouds, it’s blindingly revealing. Each light has its own emotional resonance and I tried to work with all of it.

The consistent landscape orientation is another one of those formal preoccupations which are more or less unconscious. For many years I shot only vertical frames and I couldn’t even tell you why. At one point I reasoned that it might have been a reaction to television. Now it’s been many years that I’ve shot only horizontal frames. It might have made sense to shoot the world’s tallest trees vertically, but the compulsion was and is still there for some reason, and that’s fine with me. I do think in book form now, and I find the consistency helps with the flow.


© Richard Rothman, from Redwood Saw. Courtesy of artist.


Stanley: To the extent that you can say so, how has the experience of working in and around Crescent City, and putting together "Redwood Saw" impacted areas that you would like to explore in the future? Do you understand this work as part of a natural evolution from your previous work now that it's complete, and do you have a sense of how it might inform your new work in a sort of genealogical or thematic way?

RR: I'm always trying to build on what I've done and I think, to that end, it's important that you ask the right questions, the ones that aren't easily exhausted, the ones that are your own. You have to bring your own unanswered questions to the work. So, the project I'm working on now, which was begun before Redwood Saw, will have many of the same themes, but there will be additional layers, and a very different structure. The attempt behind Redwood Saw, and the work that I'm doing at the moment, is to find a way to tell the biggest story I can tell. That's my ambition right now. To take what I've learned as a photographer and a human being, and see how much of that I can put in to pictures. It's a great challenge.




Interview by Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa