“Many nature photographs are like fashion photos. This is not to dismiss them; they record and admit pleasure. Mountaintops, waterfalls, meadows, lakes, beech trees in autumn, are asked to stand there, wearing themselves and giving the camera a moody look. And why not? They are reminders of the pleasure of at last arriving after hours in airports. Nature as hostess.
In Jitka’s pictures there is no welcome. They have been taken from the inside. The deep inside of a forest, perceived like the inside of a glove by a hand within it.
She speaks of the between-forest. This is because, in the same valley as her village, there are two forests which join. Yet the preposition between belongs to forests in general. It’s what they are about. A forest is what exists between trees, between its dense undergrowth and its clearings, between all its life cycles and their different time-scales, ranging from solar energy to insects that live for a day. A forest is also a meeting place between those who enter it and something unnameable and attendant, waiting behind a tree or in the undergrowth. Something intangible and within touching distance. Neither silent nor audible. It is not only visitors who feel this attendant something; hunters and foresters who can read unwritten signs are even more keenly aware of it.“
The Wood for The Trees
Richard Higginbottom’s photographs, in Vivarium and elsewhere, manage to operate in a sophisticated way on a number of levels without forgetting first to succeed as pictures. Perhaps an unremarkable compliment, and certainly one in keeping with many of his deliberately unremarkable compositions – compositions that tend toward the vernacular more than they do the transcendent. I think that they succeed in this way because they are at their best in service to each other, and to an idea that is always larger than their best expression. Vivarium is unfortunately a name that narrows the scope of those persuasive and hypnotic ideas that animate his pictures in this project, but the pictures in and of themselves – both singularly and in unison -are powerfully evocative of a mood that is both tangible and elusive. They work together to evoke that thrill of fear we feel at a distant skidding tire on a gravelly patch of road turning an invisible corner, to describe the way in which the footsteps of a stranger up ahead at times seem to fold the world in around us like a hunt, changing the tenor of the wind brushing through the trees; they articulate the tension we feel at moments when an experience of anonymity, rather than seeming bleak, draws us into some reverie about the myriad lives we may never know that – for an instant – fascinate, in the form of a discarded boot or an abandoned sweater.
It is ever more troublesome to note, but they are also documentary photographs – photographs that test the precepts of the term, but that do so in a traditional form: with pictures taken unbidden from the world around. They make an object of their arbitrariness without losing the capacity to generate some visceral force, and because of that they show how we see, and how that doubles always backward upon the ways in which we feel. In a sense they problematise and at the same time celebrate the troublesome skirmish between evidence and sight, but do so by playing in an arena that has so long been symbolic of the unknown: the forest.
“Landscape is less inclusive, more detached, not so directly part of our organic being. Landscape is defined by our vision and interpreted by our minds. It is a panorama which continuously changes as we move along any route. Strictly speaking, we are never in it, it lies before our eyes and it becomes real only as we become conscious of it.“
— Donald W. Meinig, introduction to The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscape: Geographical Essays
If any things are foundational to the desire to make pictures, among them must be a need to organise the world, and an equal need to marvel at the sight of something that exceeds definition. It’s there in our earliest tales about knowledge, and self-knowledge, that someone out wandering in the world – lost, perhaps even without their knowledge – can be struck by vision, blinded by it, and that the sight which follows their vision out there, lost in the wilderness, will rearrange the world for them permanently. The forest has always been a powerful metonym for our innermost fears because it represents the impending impenetrability of darkness, of an indecipherable and unintelligible world connected in ways we cannot untangle. In this way the image of the forest makes a virtue of Light, and a parable of our need for a pathway through the unknown. That is why it will forever be such an apt locale for an exploration of photography that is always in some other more fundamental way an interrogation of ourselves.
The figures in these photographs, not merely those of people but also of all the various elements that bear the traces of man’s interactions with the world — the battered winding wooden pathway, the Phillips head screwdriver, the broken glass, the wellington boot or the iron bucket — inevitably entice the mind toward a story that might explain them together to us as outsiders. Because we cannot conclusively do that, which is to say because we cannot restrict these figures to one version of events, they become troubling and we find ourselves in some certain way lost. But in looking at them longer, more attentively, with a lesser edge of desperation or frustration, they can also lead us back toward some sense of this world and our relationship to it – they can name the fear that follows uncertainty, paint in vivid colour the intimation of terror that borrows from our isolation, and in this way perform the function that all fairy tales have done for children since we first began to recite them: to give some form to the darkness, so that we can – in speaking its name – tame it, and reach out toward each other again.