Anna Beeke is a documentary and fine arts photographer. She holds a Master of Fine Arts from the School of Visual Arts, a certificate in photojournalism and documentary photography from the International Center of Photography, and a BA from Oberlin College. Her project Sylvania was a finalist in the 2014 Daylight Photo Awards, and will be published as a book in fall of 2015 by Daylight Books. Most recently, she was included in PDN’s 30 2015, and was one of four finalists for the Wallis Annenberg Prize. Other awards and accolades include: 2012 WIP/LTI Lightside Materials Grant, the 2013 Magenta Flash Forward Competition, the 2013 Syngenta Photography Award’s Judge’s Choice, the 2010 too much chocolate + Kodak Film Grant 2010, and inclusion in reGeneration2, a book and travelling exhibition by the Musee de L’Elysee (2010-2014). Her work has been exhibited internationally.
Hi Anna! How many years have you been working in this industry?
Hi! I’ve sort of always taken pictures – my dad built a darkroom in the house I grew up in, I was a photo editor for my high school yearbook, etc. – but my first real job in the industry was a brief stint as a part-time photographer for a Queens newspaper in 2008. That same year I enrolled in the International Center of Photography’s photojournalism and documentary photography program, and became more serious about pursuing photography as a career.
Looking at your work we noticed “Sylvania”, a beautiful project about the importance of forests. How did you first become interested in the subject?
In myth, forests are often seen as the ultimate life source, and the origins of Sylvania are actually very tied to my personal genesis. I didn’t start out with the idea to photograph forests; the project started out in a very serendipitous and rather funny way. After learning that I had been conceived on San Juan Island in Washington State, I decided to take my first trip to the Pacific Northwest. There was a compulsion to go to the place where I began life and the conviction that if I did I would surely find something there. I tried photographing all sorts of things at first, but invariably I found myself in the woods, with an 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. 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.
In a place so big like the forest how hard was for you to find a subject to portray? Which are the elements you focused on?
Sometimes it was very hard. Sometimes the forest can be ugly and tedious, and sometimes it is so pretty that photos turn out looking like schmaltzy postcards. Sometimes it was days before I encountered something truly interesting or poignant. But the forest is a place made of many trees, and each tree has many branches, and each branch many leaves – not to mention buds and cones and the nests of animals and the refuse of mankind. That is to say that the forest is so complex that one can always find something new in it by looking with intention and curiosity. I was specifically focused on real, sublime moments in the contemporary forest that remind us why generations have thought it a place of magic. I was also interested in people and their reasons for going into the woods, though the majority of the photos don’t have people in them, echoing the fact that the woods are typically a rather lonely place. But often there is some trace of people’s presence – something left behind that interrupts the illusion of primal beauty in the forest, that reminds us how we use the forest, or abuse it, or simply stirs the imagination. I was looking for those things, too.
“I tried photographing all sorts of things at first, but invariably I found myself in the woods…”
Explain to us the historical importance of the forest..
I have piles of books on the subject; it’s a really huge topic and I’m no historian, but I’ll try to answer in the broadest sense. Across cultures and centuries, the forest has occupied a unique place in our collective imagination and myths, our histories and sciences. There’s hardly a culture or religion that hasn’t imbued the forest – or at least the tree – with importance and symbolism. To be more specific, let’s talk about contemporary America, the setting of Sylvania. This was always a land of forests: nearly half the contiguous United States was once covered with woodlands of unparalleled size and variety, and not so very long ago. American land was originally coveted by foreign settlers in large part because of this abundant natural resource, even though it also represented fear and danger or even evil for many of them. The idea was to conquer the forest, to clear it away and harness its materials for more useful purposes. Think of everything the forest give us: shelter, food, fuel, medicinal ingredients, construction materials for homes and boats and railroads, even the air we breathe. For better or worse, the country in time grew rich by razing the forests, profiting from its resources, and building agrarian enterprises and then cities on the deforested land. The natural beauty of American became a symbol of its greatness and a touchstone of the national identity, but so did the American ability to tame that nature in the name of progress: subduing the chaotic wilderness and replacing it with civilization. America as we know it today is literally a nation built from trees, and fortunately it seems we are reverting back to a more reverent relationship with them.
Do you want to make people aware of nature with this project? What do you hope to spark in the viewer?
More than half the world’s population lives in cities, so I definitely think it is important to remain of aware of nature, yes. The relationship between man/nature or civilization/wilderness constitutes an ancient dialogue, and clearly it is a particularly important topic right now what with so many environmental threats looming large: climate change, pollution, mass extinction, deforestation, desertification, the repercussions of oil and gas extraction, and so on. Though the preservation of our environment is a personal concern, Sylvania is not intended as a zealously environmentalist project. Instead, I strive to make my plea for the consideration of our forests through images that touch the imagination of the viewer and seek to invoke appreciation of the magic and necessity of our woodlands.
What is your relationship with nature?
I live in Brooklyn and was born in Washington, DC, and though I’ve lived my life in big cities and suburbs, the forest was always very much a part of my life. I was an equestrian and from an early age I would go on long trail rides alone with my horse through the woods of Rock Creek Park, which taught me the meaning of freedom. I also spent many childhood summers at sleep away camp – living in cabins in the woods and learning outdoor survival skills and hiking and canoeing and all sorts of things that are not part of everyday city life. I still find that I need to get out of the city and be in nature often to maintain sanity, and Sylvania gave me more reasons than ever to do that. It was very therapeutic.
Was there an artist or a photographer that inspired you for this work?
The sylvan landscape has been the subject of art for as long as humans have had the capacity to create these things, and that collective genre rather than one particular artist has been my inspiration. More than photography, I have looked to literature and painting. Landscape painters have favored the forest as a setting both picturesque and dangerous for centuries, and I’ve taken cues from works as varied as the pastorals of Claude Lorraine and the whimsical, impressionistic jungles of Henri Rousseau. Furthermore, my adult imagination is still haunted by the illustrations from the childhood fairytales and myth. 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. In fact, the trope of a quest in the woods was very much a part of my working method.
We talked about “Sylvania”, but we want to know more about your work in general; amongst your project, is there one that you are particularly attached to? Tell us something about it…
I think I connect the most with Sylvania because it is the most personal, but I’m very attached to all my projects – more for the memories of experiences I had and things I learned while shooting them rather than for the images themselves. My first long-term documentary project, Amsterdam, NY, was about a small city in upstate New York. It is a special project to me because I grew into a serious photographer while working on it. I was also still learning, however, and today I have my regrets; despite all the time I spent there over the course of several years, I feel like I never really completed the project, or did justice to the place. But I am greatly indebted to Amsterdam in that it taught me proclivity towards trying to photograph the feeling of place, and everything since has somehow been related to that.
Next step? What are you working now?
Regarding Sylvania, I am currently in the process of making it into a book in conjunction with Daylight Books, which will be published in fall 2015. Very excited about that! In terms of new projects, last year I left the woods for the ocean and started a project about cruise ships, which I hope to get back to working on soon.