Ailing Forest

After looking at the galleries on this site, a dear friend wrote the following to me: "One thing I wanted you to explain more about is why you call the forest 'ailing.' Because to me, except for the obvious dead bird, it seems incredibly alive in its haunting beauty. I want to know more about why these evergreens are in 'demise.'"

The funny thing is, when I first created the site I debated about whether to include some of the myriad images I have made of the signs and symptoms of the "ailing" trees in this little valley, both those in the park outside my door (mostly bay laurels) and those on the hillsides surrounding my community (various species of oak combined with bay laurels), but I couldn't decide where to put them if I did. Would they belong under "galleries", a word which signifies to me something of an artistic intention? Or should I create a separate section called "projects" to house images of my six year obsession with documenting the slow demise of these trees? This naturally led to an internal debate about the goal of this site. Is it a place to simply display some of the work I find most meritorious of the label "art" or is it also a place for raising awareness about my shared little corner of this big, round planet, i.e. can my galleries also include "documents"? And why do these two goals -- art and documentary -- seem somewhat in opposition?

That they might or might not be in opposition is a long debate in the history of photography. I'm not going to go into all of the details here, as the post would be long indeed. I will, however, share a salient quote from the late Allen Sekula, photographer and art theorist, who points out how this tension plays out in every single photograph:

Every photograph tends, at any given moment of reading in any given context, towards one of two poles of meaning, the opposition of which is: photographer as seer vs. photographer as witness; photography as expression vs. photography as reportage; the onus of imagination (and inner truth) vs. theories of empirical truth; affective vs. informative value; metaphoric vs. metonymic significations (Sekula, "On the invention of photographic meaning").

Since I'm not going to resolve this inherent tension any time soon, I'll just go ahead and create a new gallery called Ailing Forest. I'll leave it to you, gentle reader, to decide if one gallery contains "art" and another "documents" or whether, indeed, each are reflective of both. I do notice, though, that I tend to fall in line with Ansel Adams, thinking of photography as art in those instances when I try to convey my emotion and wish to convince others of the subject's beauty. (Beauty doesn't have to be beautiful . . . How is that for a paradox?) But Adams' thinking is old fashioned now. Richard Misrach represents the thinking of many photographers today. Adams, Misrach says, was busy "deflecting us from reality with the commitment to beauty" (qtd. in Chianese). By this account "reality" is not beautiful and beauty is therefore merely a human construct. I'm not sure I agree with that assessment, but I do notice how I put more time into the post-processing of a photograph I think of as art than I do one I think think of as a document.