How long does it take to see something?
Janelle Lynch’s new monograph, Another Way of Looking at Love, begins with the image of a wooded landscape, a scrim of slender branches separating the viewer from a clearing and a tree-line in the distance, the green of the leaves as bright and fresh as new peas. In the upper left of the frame, a branch loaded with deep pink leaves arcs into view, forming the upper border of a triangular window of emptiness through which we can see the continuing forest. It is titled, For You, and it seems as if the artist is simultaneously presenting us with a gift and inviting us into the world contained within. And as we turn the pages, we are presented with more wooded landscapes; image after image, variations on a theme. They are not broad, sweeping vistas, but vignettes of small, discrete details taken from a very short distance.
The book is a collection of 25 color photographs, arranged in an accordion-fold layout, each full-color plate filling a whole page. At 9 x 12 inches, the volume is small enough to hold easily yet substantially thick; the heft of the paper and the double-thickness of the folded pages feel as weighty as expensive card stock. The content is arranged primarily with an image at right paired with a blank page and image title at left, with an occasional pairing of images or blank spread punctuating the rhythm of the layout. The accordion-fold format facilitates moving through the book either forwards and backwards, and if one were so inclined, to extend the pages out into one long ribbon. I am tempted to prop it on a chair-rail or pin it to a wall—to wrap a room with it, and it reminds me of Dayanita Singh’s beautiful book-objects, which are at once book and curated exhibition.
Janelle Lynch made these photographs over a period of three years, working on her property in the Catskills in New York State. This is Lynch’s third monograph with Radius Books, and the continued relationship between artist and publisher shows up in the design—it is elegant, simple, and restrained. There is a quiet confidence here; no need for embellishment or a kinetic layout. Like the 8 x 10 view camera Lynch uses in her work, this is a classic presentation, precise and deliberate.
Early in the book we encounter a blank spread with a single line of text; a quote from Rebecca Solnit, “How long does it take to see something?” The statement serves as a de facto introduction—a simple question to guide us as we move forward. What does it take to really see something—to understand something on a more profound level? To move past the information gleaned at first glance, to be so familiar with a thing (or place) that we can see it without looking? The book shows us a journey, or rather, it is a record of multiple journeys; a walk in the woods, repeated over and over. We witness the landscape in all stages of its life cycle, from summer to winter and back again. There is no horizon in these images. They are filled up with nature—trees, branches, leaves, vines, ground, and sunlight. There are fallen leaves and naked twigs, bright plump berries and tiny newborn leaves budding on a twisting vine. There is the golden afternoon sun shining a spotlight on a heart-shaped wreath of ivy and the cool blue light of winter falling on a scene of grey, gold, and muted green. I’m reminded with a shock how much color exists in the woods. The exception is a handful of images of black branches sticking out of blankets of snow, spare and gestural like a calligrapher’s brush strokes.
As I look at these images, I can see the artist visiting this place as part of a daily ritual. I imagine her roaming through long, lazy afternoons and still, cold mornings. We see things differently when on foot—we notice things we might otherwise disregard. These photographs also remind me of the films of the artist Peter Hutton, which are silent meditations on place, engrossing and seductive. Hutton has described the experience of his films as “a little like daydreaming,” and I see that quality in Lynch’s work. On a solitary walk unburdened by time constraints, our minds can meander along with our bodies; we are free to follow the path or push though the brush and step away from it, but also to find a quiet space to rest a while. This wandering is meditative, restorative. In her book, Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit writes, “To make walking into an investigation, a ritual, a meditation, is a special subset of walking, physiologically like and philosophically unlike the way the mail carrier brings the mail and the office worker reaches the train. Which is to say that the subject of walking is, in some sense, about how we invest universal acts with particular meanings.” Lynch writes that this work is informed by recent immersive studies in “drawing and painting from perception, primarily by charcoal mark-making—a new aspect of her practice that has allowed for a deeper inquiry into the nature of seeing, such as: formal abstraction, color relativity, and the notion of relationality.” Like walking, the act of drawing makes us consider how we see, allowing us to see deeper.
The photograph performs an act of visual trickery; the flattening of three-dimensional space into a two-dimensional plane. Far-apart elements are compressed and piled atop of one other, forming patterns and shapes that are corralled in the photographic plane. The implied shape, or “enclosure” formed by the branches in the first image is repeated again and again in Lynch’s photographs. The found patterns emerging from the elements of the landscape are the visual thread tying the images in this book together. From a certain vantage point, branches in a stand of dead trees frame an almost perfect square. From another, two branches reach skyward in parallel like flagpoles on a porch, their lines combining with two verticals to sketch a tilted opening in the foreground. But shift the view slightly, and these tiny miracles of perception vanish. In her photographs, Lynch finds and reveals these miracles.
The essay for the book was contributed by Darius Himes, a co-founder of Radius Books, and is included as a separately bound pamphlet. He writes wonderfully about the relationship between what the photographs are of, and what they are about, and notes, “So what lies beneath the surface of these photographs? Lynch herself. That mystery is the mystery of the artists’ own inner landscape.” And while the series’ title, Another Way of Looking at Love, comes from a quote by the writer Alain de Botton, who has written extensively on the subject, I feel like the love Lynch is presenting us in this book is akin to devotion. The devotion of a scholar, a supplicant, or an artist, sharing their deepest act of contemplation; their sublime moment. So much of our day to day lives are filled with completing tasks we feel are necessary; with actively doing things. But when I look at Lynch’s photographs I’m reminded what it feels like to daydream, to spend time looking at things and thinking about nothing in particular. To sit in a space and just be still, looking at our surroundings and waiting for their mysteries to reveal themselves. The beauty of this book is in the revisiting. With every visit, we re-experience the sublime space of Lynch’s magical wood, and each time may discover a new detail, a new mystery. But back to this word love. I think Himes says it better in his essay, “As viewers, it is our task to open ourselves up to the possibilities of the artists’s vision, to the possibilities of love. For Lynch, this love is revelatory. The world around her is filed with signs and symbols of this love, there for us to witness, to reflect upon, to admire, and ultimately, to breathe in and become one with.”
To purchase a copy of this book, visit Radius Books.
A solo show, Janelle Lynch: Another Way of Looking at Love, will be on view at the Hudson River Museum, Yonkers, NY from September 13, 2019 - February 16, 2020
Please read on for a conversation with the artist about her practice and the making of this book.
Another Way of Looking At Love is your third monograph with Radius Books. Can you talk about your relationship with them, how it came about, and how it has evolved over the years and through your projects?
I first connected to Radius in 2008 through Santa Fe Center for Photography, now Center. I was nominated for the Santa Fe Prize for Photography and was asked to submit images to the juror, Charlotte Cotton. I submitted a book maquette of my work from Mexico, Charlotte selected it as a finalist for the prize, and I was invited to participate in Review Santa Fe. I met Darius Himes there—one of the founders of Radius Books—and he was excited about the work. Darius shared the maquette with the Radius team and they decided to publish it, Los Jardines de México, in 2011. It includes four related series from the years 2002 and 2007—two that I made when I was living in Mexico City between 2002 and 2005; and two that I made during return visits to the city and to Chiapas between 2006 and 2007.
My relationship with Radius has evolved fluidly throughout the years as we have as individuals and as they have as a publishing entity. David Chickey is now at the helm as publisher and creative director. Darius moved on some years ago and is now International Head of Photographs at Christie’s, but is still an active, generous board member—and also the author of the essay in Another Way of Looking at Love.
Radius is my publisher and my family. They—David, Montana Currie and Megan Mulry—understand and fully support me as an artist. They are loyal, generous, and truly caring—not just about my work, books, and career, but about me as a human being. The Radius Family, as it’s often referred, is made up of spirited artists, writers, trustees, and myriad friends and supporters. We gather every year, either at Paris Photo or AIPAD, and every other year in Santa Fe for the Radius Artists Weekend, a celebratory family reunion.
I feel like I always say this about Radius publications, but the design is just fantastic. The enormous accordion layout and the physicality of it … and of course the printing is wonderful. I know David Chickey is a dream to work with, but could you tell us more about the design process for this book, and how collaborative it was?
I always say that about Radius publications, too! The design is fantastic. David and Montana Currie, a Radius designer, are a dream to work with—extraordinary people and designers with a commitment to creating books that are beautiful objects of cultural and artistic value using fine materials and excellent printers. (We printed all three of my monographs at EBS in Verona, Italy.) And they—including Megan Mulry, who oversees communications and development—care about the process being fun, too, so it always is!
I proposed an accordion fold design to David. It relates to the content of the work, which, distilled, is about connection—the interconnectedness of all life forms. The accordion also references the bellows on my 8x10 view camera, and, it’s the first instrument I “played” as a child. My grandfather, an amateur photographer with whom I lived, gave me an accordion when I was three or four. But, more importantly, he exposed me to photography at a very early age, which is likely the foundation of my practice today. David liked the accordion fold concept and from there made suggestions such as image size—8x10 inches, the same size as my negatives—typography, and the beautiful cover with embossed text. We sequenced the work together.
I was doing an intensive Drawing Marathon in June when David was going on press, so since I trust him implicitly to respond to color, I didn’t make the trip this time, but sent match prints as a guide that I made with Gerard Franciosa at My Own Color Lab in New York—my printer for many years. Actually, I didn’t really go on press the prior two times to check color. I went to eat pasta and gelato with David and the other artists who were on press with him.
I love your recurring, long-term investigation of landscape, in this and your other bodies of work, and I particularly enjoyed reading about your experience developing the project Presence during your period as Artist-in-Residence at the Burchfield Penney Art Center. How did that experience influence this most recent body of work?
Thank you! Another Way of Looking at Love is, both formally and conceptually, a direct outgrowth of Presence, which I made in 2013. It was the first body of work in which I explored themes related to presence—after many years of exploring absence, loss, and the life cycle though the landscape. By then, Burchfield had been an important influence for many years and I began my residency by studying his paintings and journals writings related to solitude. I read Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a meditation on her discoveries during a year of observing nature in the Blue Ridge Mountains. She, like Burchfield, was inspired by Henry David Thoreau’s nature writings and transcendental philosophy, which posits that the natural world is formed and informed by spirits and that its elements are symbols of a greater spirituality.
I became interested in the possibility of making spiritual connections through photographing the landscape—to Burchfield and others, living and deceased, those with whom I have or have had a personal relationship, and those whom I know only through their work and writings, like Dillard, Thoreau, and Wendell Berry, the environmentalist and poet. What emerged was a series of portraits of trees and still lives that depict coupled saplings and intertwined vines with geometric motifs.
In 2014, Nancy Weekly, Burchfield Scholar, curated a show of the work at the Burchfield Penney Art Center—a beautiful museum designed by Gwathmey Siegel—in the Burchfield Rotunda, a space that until my show had been exclusively dedicated to Burchfield’s work.
Though I didn’t start making Another Way of Looking at Love until Spring 2015, I was still very moved by my experience in Buffalo and connection to colleagues there—Nancy, Tony Bannon, the director—and many supporters at The Center and beyond. I was photographing on my property in the Catskills and the first images I made were reminiscent of Burchfield’s Conventions for Abstract Thoughts, drawings from 1917 that are depictions of states of mind and feeling. But the early images were also influenced by the first Drawing Marathon I did with Graham Nickson in January 2015 at the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting, & Sculpture. (Marathons are two-week intensive, all-day programs that run for two weeks and were “originally designed to address the importance of drawing as the basis of understanding one’s experience in the world.”) It was my first experience with perceptual drawing and it was a revolution. I discovered brand new ways of seeing, thinking about visual perception, and about how to represent the three-dimensional world on a two-dimensional surface, being fully responsible for creating a coherent image with relational marks (and a lot of erasures!). It was a radical experience that will have lasting implications for my practice (and life).
In the book I included a quote by Graham Nickson that I heard during my first Marathon, “Drawing is…one of the most direct routes to the examination of perception.” It became one of the principle guides as I photographed—which, etymologically is drawing with light—the notion that a heightened awareness of visual perception and perceptual faculties could lead to creating coherent form in space.
The following year, while still photographing, I did a plein-air painting Marathon with Graham and the artist Fran O'Neill, which was my first experience working with oil paint. That unleashed my love for color—color!—one of the most extraordinary things in this world. (I have since done eight Marathons, including painting, sculpture, and one based on Albers’ Interaction of Color, and two full-time semesters at the School! In June I will start another round.)
So as I was photographing, I was very influenced—formally and conceptually—by Burchfield’s work, my experience making Presence, and my studies at the Studio School (as well as what I was reading, which I describe below). Relational mark-making magically cohered with the themes in Presence and my emerging interest in Relational Cultural Theory, which emphasizes the importance of loving human connections and their impact on our lives, culture, and planet. My palette changed, as did the quality of light. For the first time in my 20-year practice, I was using bold vibrant colors and bright sunlight!
With all of these recent developments in your practice and so much new work, what prompted the making of this book at this time?
I wanted to make a book now because I was eager to share the images perhaps primarily as an antidote to the times in which we are living, best articulated by Charlotte Cotton’s response to the work—that it is “full of delicate hope.” But I think I also sensed impending changes in my life and in my practice. Toward the end of the project I started photographing people for the first time—family in the broadest sense of the word, those with whom I have an important connection. I am now living full-time in New York, where I am continuing the portraiture project as well as working on two others, including a collaboration—my first—with another artist.
Your literary references and influences are myriad, and I appreciate the pride of place they take in your publications - just in this book, the poems of Mary Oliver, the Alain de Botton source for title, and that excellent Rebecca Solnit quote in the beginning. Have there been any constant literary companions for you over the years? Is there anything you’re especially inspired by right now?
I love this question. Thank you for acknowledging the importance of these literary references to my work—and life. Without them, I wouldn’t—couldn’t—make the work that I do. Reading is an essential part of my practice and, again, life. (I can’t separate the two.) I read what informs, nourishes, and stimulates me and what inspires new ways of thinking, seeing, sensing—existing, actually. Another Way of Looking at Love is infused with, as you mentioned, Mary Oliver, Alain de Botton, and Rebecca Solnit’s writings, and also Jon Kabat-Zinn’s and Krista Tippett's, as well as Amy Banks’ research on Relational Cultural Theory.
Some of the most satisfying moments during the nearly three years I was making the work were spent reading. I photographed exclusively on my property in the Catskills—a late 18th century renovated hay barn on three acres, with woods, a stream, and an array of wild life. In warm weather I had a ritual of taking my morning coffee and stack of books from the barn, with my two Golden Retrievers, Gracie and Dollie, at my side, to my reading chair (with ottoman and side table—that’s how serious I am about reading!) at the back of the property situated between a large white pine and the entrance to the woods. Gracie would settle under the tree, Dollie would find some trouble or a cave, and I would read, cognizant of the potential impact what I was reading might have on my experience photographing that day—on my ability to enter a heightened perceptual state and, as I photographed that day, to discover metaphor in the landscape.
The most constant literary companion—or I should say the writing that has stayed with me and influenced my practice for nearly 10 years now—is an essay by Wendell Berry, The Unforeseen Wilderness. In it he writes about the photographer as one who is not bound by intentions and preconceptions, but who goes into a place, with humility and a commitment to observation, in search of the unexpected. He refers to the camera as an “opportunity of vision,” and the experience of photographing or the creative process itself as one of drawing deeper into the presence and mystery of what surrounds us—"the grace of knowing that our consciousness and light are always arriving in the world together."
I’m living in New York full-time now—the barn was sold in December and both Gracie and Dollie have transitioned to the heavens. On the table and floor next to my reading chair—a lavender Womb Chair—are Anne Carson’s translations of Sappho’s poem fragments; Oliver Sacks’ The River of Consciousness; Into the Magic Shop, a memoir by James Doty, a neurosurgeon; and The Soul of Rumi, a collection of ecstatic poems that I started reading because Darius quoted Rumi in his essay for Another Way of Looking at Love and because Rumi was one of Mary Oliver’s greatest inspirations. I am thinking a lot about love these days—more than ever—and neuroplasticity, synchronicity, and the universe.
All images © 2019 Janelle Lynch
Lauren Greenwald lives and works in southern California. She teaches photography at MiraCosta College in Oceanside, CA.