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The Life of A Clearcut

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Issue: 35 Section: Arts Geography: Atlantic Topics: habitat, photography, forestry

March 26, 2006

The Life of A Clearcut

John Haney collaborates with his environment

by Max Liboiron

Ice Formation in Skidder Track, November 2005. copyright John Haney
It was "an especially obscene clearcut, one which came right up to the road," remembers John Haney. "I figured that I could either get mad or deal with it somehow - and there was one way I knew [how to deal with it]. So I started making trips out to this clearcut with my camera."

John Haney, a photographer currently living in St. John's, Newfoundland, has been working on a photographic series whose process is as noteworthy as its images. The process of the project has required a give-and-take between the artist and the life and agency of the project's subject: a New Brunswick clearcut.

"I knew that there had been countless pictures made of clearcutting, but I'm pretty sure nobody else has been stupid enough to haul around a 25-pound camera to do it with." Haney's camera is an Eastman Kodak 11" x 14" view camera dating back to around 1928, complete with focusing cloth.

"My first intention was simple: to document the devastation as blatantly as possible. I wanted to show something sublime — in the original sense of the word — displaying something both gorgeous and terrifying."

Haney was inspired by images he'd seen of the devastated landscape around Mount St. Helens in Washington State after it erupted; images in which all the trees were blown down in the same direction. He quickly realized, however, that his approach would have to be different. "First of all, there weren't any trees." The objects signifying the devastation, "which I had imagined might be lying around, were probably two-by-fours being used to build houses in Mississauga. Secondly, I was immediately attracted to something far less obvious. I kept getting drawn to subtle things, to the evidence of life growing back."

Haney decided to go back to the clearcut three months later to continue to document this process. "I wanted to see if there was some sign that beauty and life were returning. I realized that if I didn't find this, the project would be one-dimensional and would fall flat."

There have been thousands of documentary-style photographs depicting clearcuts and the devastation they cause, and this familiar mode of depiction was Haney's original intention. But the landscape began to show him something else.

Birch Suckers, November 2005. copyright John Haney

"Returning to the clearcut in November was interesting. Many of the leaves of the living trees had yellowed and fallen off, the ferns were brown and dying, and there was ice on the water that filled the skidder tracks. I felt that the place had changed — it was coming back slowly. So if there's an underlying motive to the work, it is to show how fortunate this is. Also humbling. It points to the poignant fact that all the environmental/ecological issues that we are concerned about in regards to the earth ultimately point to us.

"The truth of the matter is that we will only kill ourselves off, and take a handful of species with us. In time, this place is going to keep on going — and, in fact, it will come tothrive — without us. As I thought about this I realized that my original intent had actually been turned on its head. That my pictures weren't an epitaph for a forest, but rather for humans – for us."

It wasn't that Haney's images had become less political – Jacqueline Rose, a feminist film critic, states that all images are political. These images of a clearcut landscape go beyond the already familiar political images of outrage that have no relation to its opposite: the equally ubiquitous and romanticized painterly landscapes of rebirth and salvation. Haney's interaction with this place and an audience's interaction with the images push careful observation into a more nuanced political-geographical-cultural-natural space. This space has an integrity — not borrowed from moralizing "nature," but from a narrative of observation. This space is more complex but also more simple in its decay, growth, re-growth, shift and pull. The space is hybridized by the passage of machines, not destroyed by them or triumphant over them. The space is a collaboration of events that have taken place within it, including Haney's photographing of it. This multiple collaboration is the subject of Haney's work.

Ice Formation in Skidder Track, November 2005. copyright John Haney

"I made a photograph of a skidder track [a skidder is huge, log-hauling machine], whose tires had made a pair of deep trenches in the ground. It was one of the first pictures I made that looks, in some way, like a completely natural landscape. There's even a slight degree of abstraction in the way the ground is divided by a wedge of sky reflected in the water of the trench. " The image achieves a sense of dichotomy that Haney was aiming for. " It looks like a natural landscape, and it doesn't seem to bear any traces of humanity, except for the fact that, in actuality, the whole landscape is a human landscape; it was made that way by machines, and is now left to its own devices. There is no obvious evidence that one is looking at a ruined landscape, except that the entire subject of the picture is a product of that ruining."

Haney hopes these photos will provide a space for studied inspection of a place that usually doesn't get a second look. " I don't necessarily expect people looking at the pictures to go through the same stages of thought that I did, which is to say, to begin with anger, then come to wonder, then arrive at epiphany. However, I do hope that viewers will be able to get a sense of the slow and considered approach of photographing the clearcut with a view camera, and that they will afford the pictures the same consideration, paying attention to the small and interesting details in a huge, chaotic mess of a landscape. I think that there is a quality about the pictures that speaks of process — both the processes of method and thought, and the slow process of renewal."

The first public showing of the work, currently with the working title Clearcut, will be at the Emerson Gallery in Berlin from July 12 to 22, 2006. Images are currently available at www.johnhaney.ca/clearcut.

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