Gretchen LeMaistre

Datz Interview, July 2016
Live Burls –Collaboration- Kirk Crippens and Gretchen LeMaistre:
What is the nature of your collaboration – how do you work together and how is this different from the solo work you pursue?
When we collaborate it is 50/50 throughout every aspect of the photographic process. We are both creating every photograph, comparing and contrasting ideas as we frame and make other decisions, and we are both in the darkroom when we print the 8x10 negatives. This obviously makes it a completely different process from our solo work, where we are making most of the decisions alone. Working together brings endless benefit along with its share of challenges. The benefits include the mix of different perspectives and strengths, the added stamina a second person can bring, and sharing the costs of analog photography, which is quite expensive. The challenges come from making decisions around coordinating schedules. We are usually on the same page creatively.
Talk a little about your backgrounds. You both independently have successful careers in photography. What drew you to it? What is your larger purpose?
Kirk: Photography must be in my DNA. I can’t remember a time I wasn’t interested in making photographs. My father and grandfather both loved photography as well, so it wasn’t a question of being drawn to photography, it was the practical matter of when could I get my hands on a camera and some film. The first thing I saved up for after starting my first job was a camera. I’m grateful my high school had a vibrant photography program with a large darkroom. I joined as soon as I was eligible. After actively photographing for 30 years, my sense of purpose is fulfilled by immersing myself into projects and wrestling with social tensions with a camera.
Gretchen: Photography was always an important part of my world, but for a long time I did not recognize it as something I wanted to pursue. I grew up looking closely at photographs. I cherished The Family of Man and memorized many of the photos in Looking at Photographs by John Szarkowski. I learned to identify photographers by their styles. In high school, a school administrator placed me in an internship at Lunn Gallery in Washington, D.C. Harry Lunn is now widely recognized as the founding father of the art photography market. He was one of the first to show Ansel Adams, and in the eighties he championed Mapplethorpe and Eggleston. At the gallery, I spent a lot of time with the photographs of Stieglitz, Hines, Atget, Strand and others, but I did not realize the importance of the foundation that was being laid.
I became a photographer many years later, after a decade of working with children in art centers and public schools. I collaborated on public art projects, and exhibited work in shows here and there. Eventually I got into commercial photography in order to acquire skills and means to lead my own creative projects. My larger purpose is to be fully engaged with my creative practice of making pictures and writing.
How did you find out about the live burls?
(Gretchen: I’ll speak for us). Kirk had recently visited the redwoods, and shortly thereafter saw an article online about redwood poaching. The article featured a photo of a redwood tree cut so dramatically that the ranger standing in front of it was dwarfed. He was emotionally struck by it, and asked me if I wanted to develop a project based on the poaching trend. From there we began planning how we would work and find the trees. Our research brought us to a press release with National Park Ranger Jeff Denny’s contact information. Kirk reached out to Denny. From then on several rangers collaborated with us to provide access to all the affected trees. Initially we discussed expanding the project to include other modalities like video and drawing. We were curious about some of the local gift industries in the surrounding areas-but we decided the logistics of photographing the trees were challenging enough.

As we progressed, I started to think about the act of photographing the trees and the poaching phenomenon in the larger context of American history. I noticed some interesting parallels between the dawning of photography as a medium and the plight of the redwoods themselves. They seemed to be intertwined. On the one hand, in the late 19th century there was the work of Carleton Watkins who documented the dramatic deforestation of the logging industry and also glorified the majesty of the redwood forests. On the other hand, there were numerous photographs of loggers showcasing their prowess next to felled giant redwoods.

In both kinds of photographs, the trees were American trophies, yet the purposes of the photos seemed to contradict one another. The Carleton Watkins redwoods at the edge of the Western coast seemed to represent treasures of American manifest destiny, and yet photography also celebrated these same trophies as conquered plunder. All of these photographs were influential in decisions to preserve land for the National Park system. We began to recognize the connection between photography and the redwoods was charged with historical significance and contradiction, and the act of our photographing poached trees became for us, an extension of this relationship.
While old Masters like Ansel Adams or Carleton Watkins had no choice but to see in black & white, this way of working today is a deliberate choice. Can you speak a little about your choice of materials?  
We made the choice deliberately, as a reference to those Masters whose achievements are as humbling as the redwood giants themselves, especially imagining them carting portable darkrooms through the forests. We had discussed doing an 8x10 project for years, and this seemed to be the right subject for it. The slow, and in this case the weight and cumbersomeness of the process, affected the project in every way imaginable. The lack of cell signal and the time involved in set up meant that we were compelled to focus our senses entirely on the trees and the environment, heightening our awareness of them. Both the time and expense meant that there was more pressure on each photo. We thought through every frame carefully. And the unwieldiness meant that while we strived to position ourselves for optimal moments of light, there were a couple of occasions when we were not quick enough to capture those fleeting moments.
Were there any obstacles or hurdles in making the work?
We had to apply for a permit and coordinate with the rangers to find the poaching sites. If they had not volunteered to show us the sites we would have incurred hourly fees that would have made the project impossible. We also needed an 8x10 camera. RayKo Photo Center in San Francisco supported the project by loaning us an 8x10 camera and film holders, then later helped us with a large format enlarger. The biggest challenge was the subject itself. Making an interesting photograph of the bottom of a tree, in a dark old-growth forest, is quite difficult. Often there was little light and we had to do exposures as long as eight minutes. Also, the ground in old growth forests is very spongey. We fell many times while we were making our way on paths that had no trails. Luckily, though we got right back up!

I thought that burls were formed when a tree undergoes some kind of stress, to protect itself from a disease for example. How are the California Redwoods different?
There are two kinds of redwood burls, basal burls that grow spontaneously at the roots of the trees, and burls that grow in the middle of the trunks. The burls that grow at the tree base are instrumental in tree reproduction-they contain DNA for the trees to clone themselves. This is unique among redwoods. Only one percent of redwood seedlings actually develops into trees, so the basal burls are necessary for propagation. The redwood burls that grow higher up on the trunk are responses to stress-they are like poultices for trees that have been threatened by disease. One of the trees that we photographed had been chopped down entirely so that the poachers could access the five-hundred-pound burl that had grown high on the trunk.
Image 01 is particularly striking. Can you speak a little bit more about this one tree/image?
While working, we happened to develop names for trees-mainly as a means to discuss them. We referred to that image as Monolith because the tree seems so monolithic, or maybe just monumental. It is striking as a symbol of the disfigurement that comes from exploitation. The tree is on the border of a California State Park and property owned by a logging company. The company had harvested it for lumber many years ago, and the tree was recovering very nicely, but when thieves targeted trees in the adjacent State Park, they discovered Monolith and seized the opportunity to grab more burl. They made massive cuts to the base of the tree, which close-up resembles quarry mining. The impact is truly disturbing, considering the tree is alive.
In the 1990s, Julia “Butterfly” spent 738 days in the branches of an ancient California Redwood, “Luna.” Her act stopped this enormous tree and the first-growth forest surrounding it from being desecrated by loggers. “Live Burls” has a strong social conscience, as many of your other projects. Where do you see your social role and what does it entail, if anything, as an artist?
 As artists, we respond instinctively to unsettling trends or phenomena in our society.  These trends manifest visually in our environment as curious incongruities or novelties of some kind. We happen upon them and then explore them with our cameras because they have their own aesthetic attraction for us. Often we follow them having no idea of their cultural significance. The significance might emerge later- after dedicated exploration and time. Other times, a particular social issue can drive us to find those visual magnets.

We are happiest pursuing something that is both formally captivating and culturally significant- but we don’t always orchestrate this. We feel that a picture is worthwhile when it can exist independently as a formal success, while also being an expression of social relevance. When the formal properties align with cultural significance, they reinforce one another and the picture speaks for itself- without dogma or conceptual excess. The power of a photo seems to be lost when formal strength and cultural significance are pursued as means to themselves.

With Live Burls for example, the initial press image of the tree had already communicated the social environmental issue. So from the beginning, both the visual incongruity of the scarred national treasure and the social topic were lined up. We visited the injured trees and discovered the physical traces inadvertently left by the poachers. These remains had their own formal character apart from the social and environmental complexity that brought them about, but possibly resonant in some way. In the photograph of the felled tree, we were drawn to the birdlike shape that remained from the chain saw cuts. These sort of associations are interesting to us, but in general, we just tried to capture the expressive potential of the poached tree. Sometimes this meant isolating a portrait of the tree and sometimes it meant looking at the poached areas of the trees in the context of the larger forest.  

What was your most interesting shoot?
We visited the forest many times over 2013-2016, as often as we could. It is a six-hour drive from our homes, so we planned long weekend trips that would begin and end with long drives, and in between we would visit each of the trees and try to discover the best time of day to photograph it. We photographed each tree several times at different times of the year to discover what worked best.
One of our most interesting shoots happened early on at a place called Skunk Cabbage. We discovered a grove of redwoods of a proportion we had never seen, not in our visits to Muir Woods or to any other place. This was an old growth forest so epic in the size of the trees and in the way that they stood in relation to one another. Right in the center of it was an enormous tree that had been gutted by both lightning and poaching. It is impossible to describe the feeling of being in the midst of that grove.
Did you meet any characters during this project – any noteworthy stories to relate?
During our first trip, before we were familiar with the area, we booked a cheap motel in Eureka, California. While we were out meeting with the park rangers, the motel’s parking lot filled up with Harley-Davidson Motorcycles. Early the next morning, the group of retirees revved their Harley engines in unison and left them growling just outside our ground-floor room. We were  awakened by the noise and fumes. Like most of the difficulties we faced during the project, we made jokes about it later as we passed the motel to go to the quiet, cozy motel we discovered further down the road.
We also encountered a wood carver while wandering behind a burl gift shop in the area. We saw him from the back while he was chain-sawing a slab of wood. Chainsaw sculptures are sold in the local stores. The man couldn’t hear us over the noise and he didn’t notice us watching him. His back was to us and he was shirtless. We were riveted by the rhythm of his work and the muscular effort of his sun-ripened skin. For a while we attempted to find ways to incorporate the vision of him chain-sawing into the larger body of work.
Have any of the felons have been caught? What is the penalty for cutting off a protected burl?
Yes, some of the thieves were caught. Unfortunately, the penalty is not that onerous. There is hope that as awareness is raised around this issue the penalties will become more stringent. Here is same press about some of the thieves: "Orick resident Danny E. Garcia was sentenced Wednesday to 700 hours of community service and ordered to pay just over $11,000 in restitution for hacking redwood burls off trees in the Redwood National and State Parks last year. Garcia also received a suspended sentence of one year in jail, four years probation — with a credit of 170 days served — and he must not own or possess a firearm for yelling at customers and telling them he was going to kill them at an Orick cafe in January 2012. Humboldt County Superior Court Judge Joyce Hinrichs said the intent of the sentence was to change Garcia's history of getting by after making offenses ... " Larry Morrow, a second suspect in the case, pleaded guilty to felony vandalism at a May 27 hearing and received a suspended sentence with three years probation with conditions of obeying all the laws and paying $1,600 in victim restitution, according to court documents. Morrow remains in custody at the Humboldt County jail and is scheduled be released on July 11, according to the jail. Both Morrow and Garcia are required to stay out of Redwood National and State Parks, according to court documents ... "
Do you have a future project you’d like to work on together?
Live Burls is the second project we have completed together, the first is called Ingleside, a portrait project made in Palm Springs, California. We often work together, in one way or another, even if we aren’t specifically collaborating. We help one another edit, with post-production, and with focusing our ideas as we pursue our projects. When we reflect on Live Burls we feel a sense of completion. We are grateful to the many people that support our work and allowed us to create this project, especially RayKo Photo Center and the rangers and staff of the Redwood National and State Parks.