Between Art and Science: Talking with Todd Forsgren

by Gabriela Bulisova and Joe Lucchesi

In keeping with Atlantika’s ‘open circle’ concept, we’ll be posting dialogs with artists, scholars, curators and other creative professionals whose work captures us and connects to ideas the collective cares about. First up is DC-based photographer Todd Forsgren, whose book Ornithological Photographs (Daylight Books, 2015) has received widespread critical and popular attention since its publication. As Todd describes himself, “I use photography to examine themes of ecology, environmentalism, and perceptions of landscape while striving to strike a balance between art history and natural history. To do so, I employ a range of photographic approaches, from documentary strategies to experimental techniques.”

Joe: To start off, we’d like to hear about your primary ideas for Ornithological Photographs  - what are those?

Todd: I’m most interested in how this work fits in with a trajectory from Romanticism to Modernism, that’s really critical in all my work. It’s something that John [Tyson] discusses in his essay for the book. How we can follow that line today, and there are a few different ways I think about that in the Ornithological Photographs. One of those in these photographs being the idea of photography as analytic versus photography as expressive, and the way the nets can become representative of the analytic side and the birds formally relate to the expressive side (although there’s some blurring between the two). Also this idea between abstract work and representational work that’s really crucial in what I’m doing. So if we try to map analytic and expressive modes onto representative and abstract strategies, perhaps abstraction is this very analytic way that this data scientists are gathering is giving us an idea of what’s happening to these species. The work is completely about abstraction and is totally concrete at the same time, which was critical to me.

This incident of the scientific research (my longstanding interest in the birds aside) created this opportunity to have this sort of ‘onion peel’ of ways to approach those ideas. So the first response of the viewer is sometimes this sort of distraught empathy for the creatures, and the way it’s been digested in other press has been ‘oh just kidding, the birds are really ok’ is just too clean a dissection of that. Feel empathy, but they’re ‘really’ ok. The responses I like the most are ones [like John’s] that continue that intertwining of this is being a good thing and being a tragic thing at the same time. The relationship between the individual bird we see in front of us compared to what the data show us about species and populations of birds.

Black-headed Nightingale-thrush ( Catharus mexicanus )

Black-headed Nightingale-thrush (Catharus mexicanus)

Joe: One of the things I was connecting to when looking at these photographs was my pre-teen dream of being an ornithologist. But one of my problems was that I had no scientific distance from the birds. So I get that sense of empathy that you’re talking about and that others have cited, but for me it’s more than that. There’s a certain humanity that we easily project onto those animals in that moment. Which is how I knew I was never going to be a scientist, because I cared too much about these other little entities in the world. Does that make sense?

Todd: It does. Many ornithologists I know are folks who love these little creatures very much. Yet picking those things apart and compartmentalizing them as they do, is maybe not quite possible for me either. So that’s what led me down the road of the arts, because I couldn’t quite get that abstraction in thinking about these creatures as just data, and I don’t think that most scientists do. But they’ve been able to compartmentalize in ways that you and I haven’t been able to, Joe!

Gabriela: In The World is Round statement, you describe a significant event; meeting a person called Jeff made you change your identity from scientist to artist. Looking at your projects, I don’t necessarily see a clear distinction between the two fields. Instead, art and science seem to live in close coexistence, depending on and inspiring each other.

Todd: Scientific thought is still super-important to how I approach the world, but I don’t consider myself a scientist because I’m not using the scientific method. So science is very crucial to the way I think - it’s the closest thing to religion for me - it’s just that the methodology I use is that of an artist rather than a scientist.

Gabriela: Your use of the word ‘methodology,’ and the scientific ‘cleanness’ of the representation of ornithological images, makes me think of the Dusseldorf school of photography and specifically of the work of the Bechers. But in your other projects, your approach is more organic and experimental, you use a variety of media, representational and design strategies. Can you talk about those choices?

Todd: That’s a very good question! I think that coming right out of science and into photography I was very enamored of the Bechers, and really their project is the same as John James Audubon’s, in a certain way. He wanted to paint all of the birds. He allowed himself a little more room for interpretation of each species than the really rigorous nature of the Bechers. But I think that approach of taking the same photograph over and over again of these birds resonates well with a scientific approach. And it’s something I also do in a way in my series of industrial Edens, the community gardens work. I’m looking through the landscape, and the images are very formally different, but almost always have horizons near the top and gardens in the foreground, not quite as direct as in the birds, with the same bird in the center of each composition. But I think that both of those projects started over ten years ago, and since then I’ve become a little more comfortable with my mad scientist side. What I’m working on in the studio these days, well it’s just like brewing whole different pots of art history and thoughts about landscape and see what bubbles up, without the rigor of science, or pseudo-science. A very different approach compared to when I started the birds.

Early Morning with Fog Droplets Condensing on my iPhone , lightbox, 2014

Early Morning with Fog Droplets Condensing on my iPhone, lightbox, 2014

Joe: So what else is in that mad art history brew? You know I have to ask!

Todd: It’s like a really playful romp through mostly the history of photography, though there are certainly some earlier references as well. Roger Fenton’s “Shadow of the Valley of Death” is something I think about a lot, as well as “Moment of Death” by Capa. In fact I’m hoping to produce a photobook this fall that looks at one of the students of the Bechers, Thomas Struth’s series “New Pictures of Paradise”. They’re these very big, German, sharp pictures of jungles and forests, and I got the book and I ripped out each page, and I photographed it with a pinhole camera. I took this idea of Eden and paradise that he’d made so clear and precise and I tried to romanticize it again. That flip from analytic to romantic again. Like the birds colliding into nets, The World is Round is really about weird collisions of different ideas. I’ve rephotographed Earth Rise [from Apollo 11] in various media and in different ways. Or used a microwave to melt CDs and created a contact print of that explosion.

Joe: One association I had not thought of before in the art historical brew was how much these remind me of daguerreotype portraits. I was thinking about the way the birds appear in some very traditional portrait poses, with a certain rigor. But I think more precisely it’s daguerreotypes, because of the lack of affect in those animals in the captured moment. It made me think a lot about how that visual language of early photography is one that lacks an emotional connection, or is one that we supply in a particular way, sitting alongside the very formal compositions. So I had a good time going through the book again, kind of imagining them as 19th c portraits.

Todd: Yes, there’s definitely a coldness to a daguerreotype aesthetic and to my bird aesthetic as well, despite daguerreotype-mania taking hold in Paris in the early 1840s and the excitement around it, just like my youthful excitement in birds.

Joe: I wouldn’t call it coldness, I’d call it a stillness that was completely technical in the 19th c., but that I read here as scientific and, as you’re saying, abstract and formalized. But I like that overlay of someone who has been stilled for the camera in that moment.

Gabriela: Another phrase I keep thinking about as I look at your images is ‘nature and nurture.’ This is a concept that you’ve been exploring a lot. Can you elaborate on your interpretation and understanding of nurture as it relates to nature?

Todd: Yeah. Some folks hit me on this idea of nurture in relation to the birds because the work seems brutal (but I would argue that we need this knowledge to nurture bird populations). But beyond that point, I’m interested in again thinking of how to walk a historic trajectory, this time from nature or nurture to nature and nurture…  It’s tough but interesting to me to take that discourse from the sciences and see how I can map it onto the arts (I think Dennis Dutton did an amazing job of it in The Art Instinct). Each time I think about this relationship between our culture and our DNA, it morphs a bit. I guess you might call my quest for beauty the “nature” in my work. I’m earnestly interested in beauty and the sublime, but I also use it as a hook to attract my viewer to look. The beauty they see is never easy to digest (as opposed to the term “nature porn” that some use when referring to wildlife and landscape photography that doesn’t have an overt critical position). I almost always include visual clues and context that complicate the viewer’s relationship to this beauty, and make them think about the environment side of things: what’s going on.  

Gabriela: To follow up, can you talk about your explorations of post-industrial Edens within the concept of nature/nurture?

Todd: I guess there’s also formally wrapped up in the post-industrial Edens and the birds this combination of the grids and these organic branching patterns, and how those two interplay in a myriad ways - as the birds literally crash into these nets and mess up the nets as much as the nets mess up the birds. Or the way that a tree might grow through a fence and create a strange pattern or break through the fence. So how these two systems of interpretation might function together, that are both so critical in terms of how we interpret the world today. Formally, certainly, the grid is the rational (nurture), the branching pattern is organic (nature).

Joe: That metaphor of paradise and Eden you’ve mentioned several times: what is that threading through your projects? How do you think of that?

Todd: It’s one of those penumbral things that if you look at it too directly it will disappear, this idea of wilderness. What pissed me off about the Thomas Struth work is that he was so analytic in his approach to this idea of the prehistoric unknown idea of paradise. It’s impenetrable in the way that his photographs are indeed impenetrable, it’s one of those things the closer you look at it, the farther and quicker it runs away. That’s probably why I’m so compelled to look at it, due to  the chase that ensues.

Gabriela: In your projects you also address human impact on wilderness, such as the effect of climate change and global warming.

Todd: Today there is no wilderness, everything is being affected, known, measured. So it only exists in our imagination, and probably on some other planets far beyond human reach! But that unknown, we can’t know it. So I’m trying to focus on weird little edges where we might bump up against it and see it obliquely.

Joe: Do you think we need that space right now? Whether we can see it or not, why do we need that idea of untouched space?

Todd: There’s a part of me that envies the John James Audubon kind of romantic, woodsman explorer tramping off into the unknown. And yes, there’s this idea of exploration and innovation that certainly drives me as an artist and I think drives humanity more generally. So things like the moonshot captured folks’ imagination. I think that aspiration is really critical and crucial, and sometimes today it can become romanticized and backward-looking, which isn’t necessarily a problem, but which could start to be a problem. I definitely find myself actively trying to balance that romanticism and and that forward-looking idea of innovation, and how to walk that tightrope. There’s all these little dichotomies that I try to sneak in back and forth - this spiderweb of modernist specialization going in all these different directions, and I like trying to connect those different directions in weird little tightropes.

Gabriela: Can you tell us about your choice of different media and processes in your projects? I’m looking again at the Ornithological Photographs, and I’m thinking what would video look like? What would an image immediately before and immediately after the capture look like? How did you decide to choose this specific format?

Todd: It was kind of stupid for me to shoot in large format just because it’s such a pain in the butt with that equipment! And it certainly did make each photograph very precious, since I only shot 2-4 photos of each bird. I think if it were moving, that struggle would become almost too apparent for me, in this visceral, painful way. The stillness negates part of that. But the clarity of it, the fact that I can blow up a print of a bird to make the bird pretty much the size of you or I, creates a different kind of sense of empathy that was important to me. That’s also why I chose a large format as well with the gardens, to take this (in many ways) very banal landscape and present it in a very precious way, to still the constant change that takes place in the garden. In terms of medium these days I’ve just embraced more of the tinkering side, where I am really playing with the history of the medium as well as the future of the medium with the “World is Round” series.  Rather than large format, it can be anything from a camera phone and video (though video that is still about stillness) to early non-silver processes.

Higashishirakawa, Japan , August 2017.

Higashishirakawa, Japan, August 2017.

Joe: For us, the connections between a lot of your work and the Atlantika ethos of art and social engagement, and an emphasis on some environmental and social issues, are strong. But I would be curious what you think is “Atlantika-ish” to you in your own work??

Todd: I certainly think that the gardens are very Atlantika-ish, where I’m celebrating these super-local plots of land, this idea of self-sufficiency -  a lot of ideas that are also being played upon by the nationalists and strongmen who are unfortunately coming to power. But also how do i take these tiny patchworks of gardens together to create a coherent global view? How do we look from a squash in the foreground of a picture to the big landscape in the background? That project seems to reference man more directly than the birds do. Certainly with the Ornithological Photographs, there is this idea of both us and the birds being caught in the mesh of climate change that’s brewing, that certainly can’t be ignored if you look at the photos long enough. I’ve also got a couple of new projects, one looking at meat and the other looking at coral reefs, that I think are my more direct follow-up projects to the birds. They consider these ideas of the abstraction of the animal and this liminal state that they almost seem to exist in, between human and non-human. The project about meat looks very much at the way food is consumed in America and beyond these days, and coral reefs are a space that are being devastatingly and rapidly impacted by climate change, arguably more than any other. So those are in the pipeline, for our next conversation!!

To view and learn more about Todd’s work, please visit his website: http://www.toddforsgren.com/