Landscape, Nature, and Memory
Canada’s landscapes are as varied as the photographers that they attract. Some artists capture pristine expanses of Earth, while others see the landscape for its rugged details. Then there are those who photograph the landscape as a holding place of history and memory - capturing the interaction between the land and human emotion. Christine Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Siegfried are two such artists. Both of these Ontario-based photographers create images that centre upon the relationship between the land and memory, while beautifully employing historical processes to capture the interaction of our species with nature.
We wanted to connect with both of these artists, and felt that their work shared some common threads. We took a closer look at what went on behind their individual aesthetics in order to explore a collaboration that may not exist in a physical realm, but could be created digitally.
Above: Christine Fitzgerald, "Burial Ground, Canoe Lake"
Below: Elizabeth Siegfried, "Off Season"
What does “landscape photography” mean to you?
That’s a tough question. I remember visiting, a few years ago with my older brother, a favourite swimming hole under a small bridge that stretched over a sleepy rock-laden river where my family would go during the summer. We would play, splash in the water and howl with laughter. To reach this special place, our father would drive along a rolling, dipping dirt road that darted around dark shady woods and past farm fields. My brother and I both had wonderful memories of playing there as kids. When we got there, we discovered that the river had essentially dried up. The small bridge was now surrounded by derelict houses and rusting cars, with graffiti covering the bridge’s foundation. We felt a profound sadness to see our beloved swimming hole transformed beyond recognition, the fond memories dissipated by an ugly present-day reality. We wondered if what we remembered had ever actually existed. Our sense of place and identity had been eroded, the landscape having become a jarring reminder that we too had changed over time. I think that for me, landscape photography provides a connection between our past and who we are today.
For me, landscape photography is not simply the shooting of traditional photographs of beautiful scenes of nature. It is a personal reflection of my feelings, mood and psyche. It is self-portraiture. The landscape images that I capture are most often taken in places where I am deeply rooted and connected. They can be statements on my relationship to the land or the fragility of the environment itself but always there is some significant bond between the land that I photograph and myself.
You create images using both digital and historical processes. What factors lead you to photograph one landscape differently from the next?
My vision for an image usually determines what camera, lenses and processes I will use to capture it. Also, time typically plays an important role in much of my work and influences the process that I will use. For example, I spent two years shooting a series of photographs in Algonquin Park, using the 19th century wet plate collodion process, large format cameras, vintage lenses and a portable dark room. At first, I experimented a lot with digital and large format film. But it wasn’t until I moved to the wet plate collodion process that I finally felt that my images expressed what I was seeing, where the past and the present co-exist.
I spent thirty years working in platinum and I still believe there is nothing more beautiful than a platinum print. (Wet plate is close!) Working with a historical process, I was able to capture the subtlety and layered beauty of the landscape. There is also a certain melancholy that can be captured with historical processes that is not always possible with digital. That said, in my work with both historical and digital processes, I find that my personal vision and sense of melancholy subconsciously attract images where there is a strong presence of the Japanese aesthetic concept called mono no aware. In the simplest of terms, this aesthetic is defined as “beauty tinged with sadness”. It is prevalent in my work, and although the platinum print is able to beautifully enhance this concept, sometimes certain landscape images need to be expressed in colour. In my case that means digital. My colour palette is routinely de-saturated, looking more like a historical process, yet that slight use of colour every so often adds a magical spark or mood to the image that makes it more successful.
Above: Christine Fitzgerald, "Fallen Canoe, Found Lake"
Below: Elizabeth Siegfried, "Cradle"
Your work often illustrates a human interaction with the natural landscape. Why?
Today, it’s pretty hard to find a landscape that has not been touched by humans. Just think of the impact of climate change, for example. Its adverse effects are everywhere. Signs of human activity can be found in every seemingly pristine landscape. At the same time, humanity has become increasingly removed from the natural world. More people are living in urban centers today than at any other time in our history. Yet we are intricately connected to the natural environment through our actions.
In my work, I try to express how nature shapes who we are and how we impact our natural environment. I believe that landscapes reflect who we are. I am particularly interested in how human artifacts and other objects in a landscape can trigger memories and show the passage of time and the transience of life.
I often use human interaction (either myself or someone else) with the natural landscape to tell a narrative. My work is about family, the passage of time, and our relationship to the natural world around us. In my book, LifeLines, self-portraits were incorporated into nature to reflect those similarities that we as humans share with everything in nature - including life cycles and lifelines. The human interaction with the natural landscape underscores the idea that nature is extremely fragile and needs to be treated with reverence and respect. We are all connected.
What is it about Ontario landscapes, nature, and the outdoors that inspires you creatively?
I have a long-standing love affair with nature and much of my work reflects this.
My fascination began when I was a child growing up in a small rural town in the Eastern Townships of Québec, and has never abated. I recall exploring the woodlands on the other side of the road in front of our house. Even as a young girl, I was aware that woodlands had their own plants, animals and ecosystem. Today, every time I explore the outdoors, I am reminded of how astonishing nature really is and that we are such a small part of a complex and interconnected world.
It’s no surprise to me that I draw much of my inspiration from nature. Through my work, I also want to engage others and create an opportunity for them to experience the mystery, the beauty and the sense of wonder that nature has to offer. At the same time, I am deeply distressed by how humanity is impacting our planet. In a way, I think that’s why I use historical photographic processes in much of my work. They enable me to better reflect the imperfections of humans and the impermanence of life.
I am inspired by the Ontario landscape, nature and the outdoors because my heart is there. There is some land just outside of Algonquin Park where my great-grandparents built a camp at the turn of the 20th century - it is where I spent my summers as a child, and where I live now. It was there I learned to love and appreciate and respect the wilderness. There is a profound and spiritual connection to Nature there – it is a place where you can’t help but be a part of the natural world. It makes its way into the cabins, and you must move through it to get from place to place. My Ontario landscapes are my self-portraits.
Above: Christine Fitzgerald, "The Turtle Club"
Below: Elizabeth Siegfried, "The Big House Porch"
Christine, if you were to pair one of your images with one of Elizabeth’s in an exhibition context, which would you select and why?
I chose my image titled “The Turtle Club” from my Algonquin Park: Natural Histories series and Elizabeth’s image titled “The Big House Porch” from her series A Sense of Place.
The J.R. Booth family built a private lodge called “The Turtle Club” deep in Algonquin Park. Eventually, it became a private fishing club with different owners over the years. It then fell into disrepair and was dismantled. Five fireplaces from the original lodge still stand today. For me, these fireplaces are poignant gravestones that mark the passage of time and evoke all kinds of nostalgic memories.
Elizabeth’s intimate image, “The Big House Porch”, was captured at a family camp in Northern Ontario built over a hundred years ago. The empty old rocking chair on the porch triggered similar feelings of nostalgia for bygone times, transporting me back, in my memory and imagination, to a vanishing past. As with “The Turtle Club”, “The Big House Porch” is a reminder that our sense of self and place are not what they once were and underscores the passage of time in a contemporary reality.
Elizabeth, if you were to pair one of your images with one of Christine’s in an exhibition context, which would you select and why?
That’s a difficult question because I see such a strong similar sensibility in our work, not only in landscape, but also in Christine’s Threatened images with her use of specimens from the natural world such as bones, shells and insects. Both Christine’s “Burial Ground, Canoe Lake”, and “Remains, Highland Inn” could be paired with my “Copland Steps”. Although Christine’s images are wet plate and mine is a Holga image, there are similar sensibilities in all three. All depict a reverence for a place, a quiet meditation. Each place has been neglected to a certain degree and there is the sense of time passed. The concept of mono no aware is in all three images – beauty tinged with sadness.
Above: Elizabeth Siegfried, "Copland Steps"
Below: Christine Fitzgerald, "Remains, Highland Inn"
To view more work by Christine Fitzgerald, visit christinefitzgeraldphotography.com
To view more work by Elizabeth Siegfried, visit elizabethsiegfried.com