Just over a month ago, when I was back in Harrisonburg for Thanksgiving break, I brought a mountain bike out to the forest where I used to photograph so often as a younger man. I now had a mechanical advantage over land that I had only ever walked before. I brought cameras too, but I was specifically interested in solving a mystery that had been nagging at me for a few years. When I first started shooting there, it was a relatively undeveloped access road that stopped at a reservoir and kept going, deep into the woods. Perhaps it was a fire road, perhaps a throughway to private land. That road was old.
The road to the reservoir originally went over a stream with only a downed tree to cross the rapids by foot; I remember precariously balancing across this with some of my first cameras. One time, seeing a particularly beautiful sunset gathering, I hopped in my car (I must’ve been about sixteen at the time) and beelined for this reservoir to shoot it as a foreground for this sunset. I remember the sun going down, and having no light with me, needing to grit my teeth and walk back under the rapidly darkening twilight. Even across that roughly hewn bridge, on the cusp of nighttime.
Here is the aforementioned tree bridge. It’s gone now, it was cut up by big machines. That image, by the way, was on one of the first rolls of medium format film I ever shot. It was taken on an Argus Argoflex E, which I think was my high school’s property, although I later bought my own. The image above was shot on film (that I may or may not still have somewhere), made into a darkroom print (about five years ago now) which I do still have. I rephotographed it with my iPhone about five minutes ago and it was uploaded to the cloud (automatically). The iPhone photo then came up on my desktop, where I screenshotted (rephotographed) that because you can’t drag and drop right from iPhoto to WordPress. I then took the screenshot and put it direclty inline into wordpress, where you see it now. This is a level of nested representation and re-representation that, although it certainly happened when I was in highschool, is effortless and transparent now. I think is quite an amazing thing to consider in the overall history of photographic images (which, itself, is a very short history).
The bridge was cut up and removed, and a more substantial double tree bridge was made a bit further up the stream, with slats across the two tree trunks so that walking across it is almost effortless.
I had to go pretty far back, but as it turns out I also have a photo of this bridge. This one was taken with 35mm color film, with my father’s old Olympus OM-10. He donated the camera to my high school before he knew his son would be so interested in photography. In my analog photography class, I ended up using this camera for a little bit, bringing it home, and dad said that he was 100% certain this was the camera he donated to the school. I finagled the camera out of the school’s possession by speaking with my art teacher, who knew at this point I was going to school for art and photography, telling her of the sentimental attachment I had with this camera. I also agreed to give the school a different 35mm SLR I had gotten along the way.
I took this image around the time that I graduated high school. I don’t know where the original digital scan of this is, maybe buried somewhere on my portable hard drive, maybe on my old computer. Nevertheless, I posted this and other photos from that roll on June 16, 2013, which was 1302 days ago as of this writing. The post is right here. As an aside, it’s interesting to think my brother is about as old now as I am in this picture:
I took a bike to these particular woods to solve a mystery: after high school, I think I first noticed it the summer of 2014, another road started to be cut into the forest right before you got to the reservoir. I have oodles of pictures of this, but some of the first are from the summer after my freshman year of high school, when I went to these woods, briefly, to test out a new camera I had just gotten, a Mamiya C220.
I was fascinated by the clear cutting, and also the seemingly arbitrary direction it was heading. I didn’t know of anything back down that way, I thought it was nothing but empty forest. So I walked along it now and then, but it always seemed to dead end in a clearing and nothing more. There were machines (which I never photographed, of course that would be too on the nose) and it looked like they were still working on clearing it out and moving forward. I made a mental note to keep coming back.
I came back that winter, after my first semester in the photography department. I resolved specifically to walk down this road, and got further, but it still just ended in a clearing, a bit further than where I was before. I made some more photos of trees, and a particularly nice one of a stream that has gotten some mileage as another one of those “nice” photos of mine. Pretty and all that and not so moody at all.
I never really got anywhere with that. I walked back, it was maybe a mile or so, and left. Another dead end. So, when I came back there last Thanksgiving, about two years after the above pictures, and with a bike to cover more ground, I figured I would definitely get to the bottom of this.
I biked along this road. It was more worn now, and the edges were starting to grow back up. All the machinery was gone, and with it some of the most obvious signs of machine intervention on the landscape. The wood chips, the tire torn grounds, the visibly and recently marred trees. I biked along, slowly and with some bumpiness, remarking on the irony of the fact that I was bringing two machines (my bike and my camera) in order to process this landscape in another way, aesthetically.
It’s an implicit irony in photography, but I enjoyed it
I get to the end of the line, following the road back to… the road I drove in on. It looped around, back across the same stream, and ended up at a parking space and gate on the main road that I had driven past to get to the trailhead in the first place. What a bore!
There were some forking paths, but those petered out too. They got more and more impassable by bike, and if they were still working on those, I couldn’t tell for absence of machinery. I was discouraged, but perhaps they will keep digging more into the forest to that secret government installation that there’s no evidence for. The one my adolescent mind still thinks is there. Or a precious metals mine, or perhaps an abandoned missile silo.
I might be writing slightly hyperbolically on those last points, but I wanted to emphasize the connection I’ve felt to this area of George Washington National Forest. I think it’s important to pick at the photos of this place a bit, because it has been one spot that I’ve been coming back to consistently, almost out of reflex, for five years.
I have been attracted for so much of my practice to a road into the forest with no signs and seemingly no circumstance for being there other than the fact it’s there. The forest has always symbolized mystery and permanence, and somewhat of an inscrutable relationship between man and creation, between man and God. The forest (and to a greater degree, the ground it springs forth from) is, for the most part, that permanent thing that we weave these stories and interactions through and around. These are roads you do not pass fellow travellers on. Google Maps will tell you they just end. The satellites only see trees.
The forest at night, especially, has been something that has stared at me and dazed me with its unsearchability. Yet it stands, as consistent and sure of itself as it is in the daytime, without any need to be looked at. Its ways and its structure is not contingent on our ability to form a social framework and narrative for its existence. We cannot postulate trees already standing into more or less order. They fall, unlooked at, and make a sound- the sound is not brought into existence only for listening human ears.
I got to the end of one of these roads and frowned, because in one sense I felt like I reached the end of that mystery, and yet of course it wasn’t the end. I still wasn’t really sure why that road was there, or under whose authority it was carved out. It was on national forest land; I shrugged and turned around. It was also amazing to me how reaching the end of something doesn’t quite feel like the end, and I wanted to keep searching out more details.
Believe it or not, this started out as another attempt to write about my Thesis I final, as did the last piece I wrote. The 50% Underground post started as an attempt to write about the overall Force Majeure body of work piece by piece, and this post started as an attempt to start at the conceptual headwaters that led into that body of work. Perhaps I’ll land exactly in the right place the next time I sit down to write about the work, because I do have things worth talking about with it, even still.
This relates in three ways to my thesis final, and these are jumping off points for my own reference as well as things to think on as you read the next piece.
- Images serve as evidence and entryway into the past, but as unreliable narrators that may equally serve our (the viewer or the photographer) own predilections and preconceptions on a topic as it does shed light on what actually happened.
- Mystery is for me that insatiable looking against the walls which form the extent of my understanding of the world and the events that happen therein. To reach the end of a mystery may only be to reach a place of comfort with the extent to which we understand what goes on around us.
- Evidence can only go so far as it inspires belief- that is, two people presented with equal evidence my form wildly different conclusions. Faith, to me, is the trust in our conceptualizations of a framework (which is the roughest sketch of something, not even a picture) for what lies beyond the walls of our understanding.
These are the three points I think I needed to arrive at in order to move forward with writing on my Thesis I final. More to come!