The Elastic Forest

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live” - Joan Didion

When I sequence carefully chosen photos, I wonder whose story the viewer is seeing.  Can a series of images convey a personal story, and yet invite onlookers to author their own meaning? If these stories entangle and combine, whose story is it?

“The Elastic Forest” doubles down on these ambiguous questions. The only people in the series are my wife and her elderly father, so while the imagery is personal the subjects could be anyone, the settings anywhere, the underlying narrative familiar to many people.

The story is of our journey through a hard winter and the return of spring. The photos were taken on Bowen Island (our home on Canada’s west coast), Vancouver, and at my father-in-law’s home further inland. The series uses a simple central metaphor: loss conveyed by images of felled trees, their dissolution, and finding the means for tending to new growth.

I wonder how my narrative echos through the viewer’s experience of the work. Are my images simply a framework, a focus for projected psyche to flesh out as needed, or does the viewer make something completely new? My hope is that the imagery holds open a space that allows the audience’s created meaning to undergo a kind of alchemy, mixing with the residue of my intended story. The result can be a layered, ambiguous fable that floats in that third space, owned by neither the photographer nor the viewer.

The title, a nod to William Eggleston’s “Democratic Forest”, is a suggestion that the world we photograph is malleable, each of us using it to create meaning moment by moment, as needed…” in order to live.”

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Old-growth stumps, reminders of 120 years of logging, haunt the landscape of Bowen Island, my home on Canada’s west coast. In the margins between developments decaying debris clusters around the remains of 1000 year old trees, as erosion, water, insects, gravity, and animal activity soften them into strange shapes. The accumulation of windfall branches adds to the disarray, even as saplings and decades old trees emerge from the mulch. The resulting landscape is messy: unequal parts battlefield, graveyard and nursery. 

Walking in this landscape feels like trespassing, as though the groves are inhabited by something unseen and perhaps menacing. It’s hard to find your footing. As my work leads into this dark territory it becomes metaphor for a psychological space, an interior yet foreign landscape that reflects our less rational thoughts and fears. Here the pretty and majestic standards of natural beauty we usually encounter yield to something deeper and less comfortable.

The series’ title is a poetic reverie on the effect of losing our heroic specialness.


I wish to acknowledge that the land we call Bowen Island is unseeded territory of the Coast Salish Peoples.

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