Anna Beeke, the young and very talented photographer from the US, ist trying to go back to her roots by going into the American Forest to complete her personal evolution. We asked her questions about her fairy-like series Sylvania, a journey into the rural landscape steeped literature and American folklore.
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Your series Sylvania is a journey the rough the American forest. How did you end up in the forest in the first place?
One of my favorite stories about this project is how it started, which is not at all what you would imagine. I was born in raised in Washington, DC, but I had recently discovered from my parents that I had actually been conceived in Washington State – on San Juan Island in the Puget Sound to be exact. I felt compelled to go to this place where I started life, convinced that I would find something there, though I wasn’t sure what, so I took my first trip to the Pacific Northwest. What I eventually found was the forest, which is such a dominant aspect of the landscape out there. I’ve always loved the forest, but after having lived in a big city for so many years I was overcome with intense sense of contentment and enchantment that harkened back to a more childish or primitive capacity to indulge the imagination. I began photographing in the forest to try to capture the essence of this experience, and the project evolved from there. I went back to the Pacific Northwest several times, but also began photographing in other American forests and thinking more universally about the varied and branching experience of humanity in relation to the forest—its place in our imaginations and our myths, our histories and sciences.
The idea of the forest in our collective mind is a very specific one and it’s very cultural. We know the woods to be a place of chaos, disorder, dark powers… How did the idea grow up with you? How did you figure out your aim and focus in this sense as a photographer throughout time?
Yes – across cultures and centuries, the forest has occupied a unique place in our collective imagination; There’s hardly a culture or religion that hasn’t imbued the forest – or at least the tree – with importance and symbolism. When I was young I thought of the forest as more of an enchanted place, and as I grew up I grasped its darker nature. As such, I see it as a place of contradictions: dark and light, good and evil, chaos and peace, transcendence and danger. I have always been drawn to making images that contain contradictions, images that ask questions rather than try to answer them, and the forest has been a wonderful subject in this regard.
How did it feel when you were actually, physically in the woods? How difficult and challenging was it?
A lot of people have asked me if I feel afraid being in the woods by myself, but most of the time I do not. Usually the forest energizes me and makes me more attentive to the details around me, all my senses became a little stronger, a little more animalistic. Physically traveling through the woods was not the difficult part for me, it was finding the photographs. Sometimes the forest can be ugly and tedious, and sometimes it can be so beautiful that the images start becoming sentimental. Also, it can be very dark, and shooting film without a tripod becomes very difficult. The biggest challenge I think is that there is a strong historical tradition of the forest in art, and though all that imagery has of course been very inspirational, it has also been something to work against. It’s challenging to try to present an old subject in a fresh way.
Your depiction is very poetic, very much fairy-like. Being an English major, how much does your art owe to literature, myths and American folklore?
This project owes so much to writing – without literature, myth, folklore, fairy tale, there would be no Sylvania. There are countless stories that involve humankind venturing beyond the structured limits of civilization into the chaotic labyrinth of the woods, and these were always at the back of my mind while shooting. My adult imagination is still haunted by the fairytales of childhood, as well. In fact, these became very important to my working method.
Much like the structure of many of these fairy tales, I went into the forest on a quest in search of adventure and the unknown. Instead of coming back to society after having slain a dragon or rescued a princess, I came back with the images for this project.
Do you associate certain photos with certain scenes from literature. One of them looked like the forest I imagined Young Goodman Brown held his meetings for example. I wonder if this kind of association happens to you? Or do you purposefully depict your photographs in certain ways so that we make these fictional associations?
I was definitely influenced by literature, and had many remembered stories constantly running through my head as I was searching for images. I associate The Woodcutters with Paul Bunyan or any of the other legends about American backwoodsmen. The image Windfall looks to me a little like it was taken out of a European fairytale. But I don’t think I purposefully depicted anything to reference a particular story, I was more influenced by the sum total of all these stories.
Your photographs have a serene side. Was it also soothing or transcendent for you? In what ways have you evolved with the project?
Shooting Sylvania was absolutely soothing, I would even say therapeutic. My life was (and still is) so urban and hectic – living in Brooklyn, going to grad school, working in a restaurant, always on crowded subway cars, concrete everywhere. I was very stressed out about what I would shoot for my thesis, I tried a lot of things that didn’t work, and when I got to the forest all that stress just disappeared, and I wanted to hold onto that feeling. Of all the projects I have tried to plan out in advance, the best ones are always the ones that I sort of stumble into. I learned that I work best when projects find me, and when I feel that I want the experience of being in that place or situation for myself, rather just simply thinking something will tell an interesting story.
Are you satisfied with the end product? Did it come out the way you imagined?
I’m not sure I imagined the product coming out any specific way. It was so much about the journey through the woods and what is found there, so by nature it was pretty impossible to imagine the outcome. I could plan only as far as what woods to go to into. But I’m definitely satisfied with the end product, and it was a wonderful experience to work on!
Although the forest series has documentary features, it’s not your primary concern there. Your pre-Sylvania work is more photojournalistic. Was Sylvania a personal project for you and are you going to be back in your planned photojournalism career? Do you think this series have changed your photographic technique forever?
Sylvania was a very personal project and it definitely taught me to open up and work in a different way. I started working on it while pursuing my MFA, whereas previously I had studied photojournalism. In the fine art setting, I was encouraged to be less concerned with the “truth” and began to work from more emotional impulses. It was very freeing to work in a more personal way and not be as concerned with the ethics and supposed objectivity of journalistic photography. There are no hard facts I want people to get out of Sylvania. I just want it to make people dream. I think documentary work in the broadest sense will always be my primary concern, but I have definitely learned that I am most comfortable on the edge of it, straddling that line between fact and fiction, making images that ask questions rather than answer them.
Snoqualmie seems to be one of the early discovery locations for you as a photographer. The city is well known as the location for many of the exterior shots of Twin Peaks series. Are you a fan of the series?
Yes! Huge Fan! Actually, I went to Snoqualmie and North Bend before ever going to the Olympic Peninsula, where most of the Sylvania work was eventually made. I admit I even ate a piece of cherry pie at Twede’s cafe. I had just re-watched the series a few months prior to starting this project, and perhaps under its influence I was more drawn to the surreal.
What are you working on recently? What should we expect to see from you in the near future?
Recently I have been working on something totally different. I left the forest for the sea, and have started a project on cruise ship culture! It’s a little more lighthearted, and definitely still a work in progress.