Paul Thulin is one of the 50 best emerging photographers for 2015, as voted by international jury for the LensCulture Emerging Talent Awards 2015. He was also one of the eight “jurors’ picks.” Here is his winning entry and artist’s statement. Below, you can also read more about what made his work so special in the eyes of the jury.
Pine Tree Ballads is a poetic vision of land, family, and time. In the early 1900s, my great-grandfather settled on the coast of Maine because it resembled his homeland of Sweden. As result of his attachment to this landscape, my family has returned to Gray’s Point each summer for over a century. This photographic sequence resonates with a subtext of struggle and hope that mirrors my narrative sense of self and experience in these familiar woods of childhood and adulthood.
In this place, stories have arisen from the mouths of both the young and old, becoming the essence of my family’s identity and sense of history. These images construct a unique memoir, weaving the magical aura of an ancient, shared, historical record with the mysterious, imaginative dreams met on dark moonless nights when one does not know if their eyes are open or closed.
LC: Your artist’s statement references the centrality of storytelling to your project. Yet the stories you are drawing from are rooted in oral tradition. Do you think photography is a good storytelling medium? What makes it a powerful way to tell stories (perhaps, in contrast to oral methods)?
PT: Photography is a powerful medium for storytelling primarily because it allows a photographer/author/editor to use complex narrative structures that engage with the formal, material, and symbolic all at the same time. It is amazing to build a narrative that can literally engage the act of looking, touch, representation, and documentation simultaneously.
Photos, regardless of their origin, are both fact and fiction, with stories powerfully built into their essence. Even an accidental overexposure with little to no information is a record of a light striking a photosensitive material as well as an event in some photographer’s life. It is a complex and rewarding medium to work with but it is indeed one that presents several unique problems for an “author.” I cannot easily cover all of the challenges here but will mention one troubling characteristic of the medium that I find particularly interesting:
The inherent silence and stillness of photography as a medium makes it difficult to challenge an audience to contemplate an image beyond a superficial, literal interpretation, or a deeply personal one that dismisses the authoring of the image. The author, maker, or curator is easily distanced from the viewer in such a way that an image, or a sequence of images, loses a performative quality that is immensely important in regards to revealing the intent and tone of a story. For instance, an oral storyteller is able to use deliberate pauses, volume fluctuations, and body language to generate rhythm, suspense, and emphasis within a story.
The literal words that make up the story are only one small aspect of the telling and/or the tradition of passing of it onto future generations. Photography can be structured to do this as well, often in great books and sometimes in well-designed exhibitions, but often readers/audiences are not accustomed to deciphering the subtle compositional, material, and symbolic structure and lexicon. This lapse in “reading” is most likely due to casual viewing habits encouraged by the daily onslaught and spectacle-like nature of mainstream media advertising.
I remember hearing that Thelonius Monk once insisted that the essence and skill of a Jazz musician can be discovered by paying attention to his/her skill in transforming the silence of a composition into music…managing the rhythm of what exists between the literal musical notations. Following this reasoning, the space between images, or “minor” images that play a secondary role, become incredibly important in acting as a trigger for mood, atmosphere, or the passage of time. Often “minor” images are easily dismissed as mundane, poorly constructed, or symbolically confusing additions to a body of work in the same way silence can be dismissed in a musical composition. Readers, collectors, and curators often prefer more easily distinguished, “Decisive Moment”-type images, rather than allowing the story and theme to slowly unfold, through a combination of major, minor, and silent “visual notes.”
Don’t get me wrong, I know there are plenty of astute viewers of photography that understand the complexity of telling a story with imagery, but this silent distance of the author from the viewer is a constant challenge. How can I help the viewer find narration? In the end, I think all I really care about is that someone that has seen the images carries a feeling of their mood and themes around with them. Perhaps, then, at some point in their life when they are walking alone in the woods, they will sense the Pine Tree Ballads. If this happens, then the story was delivered.
LC: Your photographs come with vivid yet enticingly ambiguous titles. Does each one recall a specific familial story? Did you go out with the idea of “staging” specific tales or did you simply want to convey a mood/atmosphere?
PT: I absolutely love titles and feel that they might be one of the most overlooked attributes of photography! All images acquire a title over time—intentionally or not—and this title often reveals quite a bit about the maker or editor. From the abhorrent, yet minimalist chic, “Untitled” designation, the sickeningly, romantic cliche “Love Birds”, to the deeply narcissistic, informal “The One Where I look Fat!,” all titles reveal a level of interpretation, narration, or archival identification. From this perspective, photographs are essentially linked to language, which I find quite compelling as a storyteller who identifies photography as a literary art.
My primary intent with titles is to have them advance narrative by providing a narration-type quality to an image within a sequence. Pine Tree Ballads’ titles are very purposefully part of the sequence, meaning that they are fully realized when situated within a collection of titles. They essentially act as the chorus of a Greek play, providing a symbolic and literal narration to help the audience decipher the themes and mood of the story…words from the creator that provide guidance.
Some of the titles refer to familial stories, others might refer to a dying star in the sky, or a magical tree in a Nintendo game. Basically, they encourage contemplation and discovery by referencing personal memories, fact, and fiction.
Hopefully the reader picks up on this and decides to look at the image in a different light. For fun, if you search for a Pine Tree Ballad’s title on a search engine, you will often find historical events, myths, or headlines that obviously provide an expanded interpretation of the image content, subtext, or specific mood.
When creating images, part of my methodology is to mix the “real” with the imaginative, which is often influenced by an archive of family photo albums, regional folklore, and daily events. If images look too staged within Pine Tree Ballads, they do not work. The key is finding imagery that exists somewhere in-between documentation, spontaneous play, and wonder. Mood and style is everything, otherwise the images might become illustrative which would be the death of them in regards to my literary aspirations.
LC: Your series includes both black and white and color images—yet they are all, very clearly, from the same series. How did you achieve this (admirable) uniformity in style, despite the different aesthetics that you utilized?
PT: Editing, editing, and more editing. Shooting, shooting, and more shooting. Pine Tree Ballads has taken roughly ten years to create, going through many stages and styles. The narrative, themes, material qualities, structural experiments, and ways of working were not something that came naturally. In a lot of ways, this work re-educated me about photography and made me examine the medium in an entirely new way. I abandoned many of the rules and conventions that I had been taught were proper photo techniques.
I see myself as an author now and relate to the idea that visual stories need rhythm, awareness of context, a narrative point of view, and a quality of performance. I have no problem printing an image B/W one day and color the next. It all depends on how it fits into what the reader is experiencing or what the sequence needs for a particular edit in a gallery, magazine, book, etc.
LC: There’s quite a bit of “manipulation” on your photographs but I like to imagine that you achieved these manually, rather than digitally. Is that true? Can you describe your feelings about the “magic” of darkroom manipulation and how it might relate to the magic of the world you portray?
PT: I love the fact that you have to ask me this. I think your question in and of itself answers how these photographs were made for you. To me, it means there is an analog materiality and logic to the sequence that is detectable and perceived as intentional. Were the images manipulated in the camera, darkroom, or computer? I will never tell because I am not sure it matters.
What matters to me is that it seems as if the sequence was created during an era of film. The language of film and chemicals is present and treated as a form of purposeful mark-making. I often feel like a painter rather than a photographer when I consider how I utilize film, exposure, editing, and printing. I find beauty and profundity in the compositional qualities of scratches, dust, and light leaks.
If you are one that loves the darkroom and believe in its magic, then Pine Tree Ballads should resonate with you. The sequence is deeply invested in the material quality of film grain, the aura of a photographic print/negative, and the decisive, but often accidental, moments of exposure. The mysteriousness of the world that is represented is absolutely linked to an overt, distressed, analog material aesthetic. One often emotionally senses each image as a document in time that has been held, destroyed, archived, and looked at over and over again. The analog aesthetic provides a mysterious wisdom to the emotional and material qualities of the imagery—it is the visual equivalent of the mesmerizing, ancient-sounding tone of a talented oral storyteller.
—Paul Thulin, interviewed by Alexander Strecker
Editors’ Note: We first discovered this work after it was submitted to the Visual Storytelling Awards 2014. Although it wasn’t named a winner or finalist, we liked the work so much that we published it on our front page (well before Emerging Talents 2015). We’re so pleased to see that Thulin decided to re-enter his work and then receive even more recognition for this fantastic series. Congratulations again!