43 year-old American photographer Jesse Burke presents Wild & Precious, his latest photobook published this month by Daylight Books – buy it here. The book is a collection of beautiful, sweet photos of Jesse’s oldest daughter, Clover, shot during the many adventurous trips she took with her dad over the last years.
If you’re in New York, catch an exhibition of Jesse’s pictures at ClampArt gallery (open until next 14 November). Below you can watch a short, spell-binding film directed by Jesse that nicely complements the photographs and book of the project:
Hello Jesse, thank you for this interview. What are your main interests as a photographer?
My main interest as a photographer is environmental portraiture. I’m always interested in how the landscape is connected to humans and vice versa: how we control and conserve the land, how we interact with the land. These concepts were very important in my first two big groups of work. Initially, I was interested in how the New England landscape and the masculine identity of its male inhabitants work together and what that looks like.
Please introduce us to your latest photobook Wild & Precious.
I’ve always been a big fan of the outdoors, a nature lover, and in my newest body of work this has inspired a series of pieces where I try to instill the same ideals in my daughter. The goal of my newest project is to connect her to the landscape in a deep and personal way. I want her to feel a strong connection with her surroundings.
The project began by going on road trips with my oldest daughter, Clover, to allow her time for hands-on exposure to the wild. I photographed the entire process of taking these trips— from hiking in the forests and scavenging for shells on the beaches. We also documented all of the animals we came across, the food we ate, even the hotels we slept in. A subtextual message in this project is about the fragility of childhood and all that accompanies being young and vulnerable. Becoming a father for the first time, I was introduced to the concept of this vulnerability. It’s such a beautiful yet heartbreaking thing to experience as an adult. There’s so much love yet fear in a parent/child relationship. These are some of the things that were going on in the back of my mind as I was creating this work.
Can you describe how one of your road trips with your daughter typically looks like? How much do you plan ahead and how much do you leave it to adventure?
Typically we would pick a destination on a map and start driving. There’s a lot of open endedness to the process, which allows for the adventure part to kick in. Flexibility allows us to not be tied down to any specific location or ideas, and it’s a great means of operating; but sometimes it can be frustrating. It’s not the most logistically sound way to go about producing art, let alone anything. I will say it was very fun and we had many amazing adventures out on the road. Sometimes Clover and I would pick a destination and go there based on someone’s suggestion, and sometimes I would let Clover pick a place and we would go there and explore for hours. We usually drive for 4 to 6 hours a day and then try to spend 4 to 6 hours at a location exploring, photographing, and collecting treasures.
When and why did you decide to bring your daughter into the wild? Why do you think it is important for her?
My wife and I have always been very passionate about nature. We’re avid hikers and animal lovers. So it’s only natural that when we had children those morals get introduced into their world right away. We were hiking with the kids when they were infants. The children have always been exposed to the outdoors, however it never seemed to be something that I wanted to document for my artwork. Then one day I decided to take my daughter with me on a road trip and we started photographing. It was the perfect scenario, a launch into my next project. It happened on accident.
I feel like it’s important to train the next generation of humans to respect and care for the Earth. By taking my children out into the wild and letting them be wild creatures for a short period of time it allows them to feel a deep link with their surroundings. It’s amazing to watch the comfort level that my children have even in potentially dangerous and scary locations. They are truly at home in the woods, at home at the shore, and at home in the fields; they get genuinely excited to go to these places and that inspires me to bring them there even more.
You seem to have used the camera like any father would have: to record small, beautiful moments of your adventures with your daughter, but with a better mastery of the medium. Was it liberating to photograph without any particular drive to make fine art, unlike your earlier projects?
When I first started this project I came to a very quick understanding of what was at hand. It was more a matter of realizing what I had been doing rather than realizing what needed to be done: I had already been training this person and instilling in her the concepts that I considered important. In a way it was a conceptual art project already in progress, and I was simply documenting the chapters of the book that was being written. The ideas were solid and already laid down, and we were making the meat of the project as we went along based on those ideas. So to some extent, it worked out just like my previous works.
The Wild & Precious photobook is another special gift you did to your daughter on top of all the time you spent together – what did she say when she saw it? Did she perhaps help you in anyway during production?
Clover has always been very supportive and excited to collaborate with me on this project. She calls it “our thing” and I know she loves having a “thing “. We do talk about it all the time; I’m very open with her about my ideas, as deep as they might be. I feel that she’s now old enough to understand exactly what it is that I was doing, and that she can appreciate it in a way that’s much deeper than I ever gave her credit for.
When the book was finished I shared it with her and she was blown away. She sat down and read it very slowly, twice, and then we went through each picture remembering and chatting about each instance. She’s incredibly proud to have such a beautiful object that is dedicated to her, but also part of her mind. She does feel like a voice in the project, and that’s one of my favorite parts about it. When we made the film I think it was a bit of a leap for her to try and understand what we were doing. But after the film was edited and she saw it, she thought it was incredibly beautiful and she again loved being part of this process. I think she feels like a little bit of a celebrity. Which is cute, but also kind of true. She’s happy to sign books and answer questions, and when we have exhibitions she likes to go up to people and let them know that that’s her in the picture. I couldn’t be more proud of her.
Do you think your daughter learned the things you wanted to teach her? And did you learn anything from her?
This is my favorite question. My daughter has absolutely learned countless things about the natural world, but furthermore, she has learned to feel comfortable when being out in the wild. She is not afraid of very many things when we are out in nature and she feels a deep connection to the earth, the trees, the animals; whatever landscape we might be in she just feels at home. It’s very obvious to watch someone act comfortably in an environment and see how they interact within that space.
In terms of me learning, I couldn’t have possibly learned a better lesson than I did from my daughter on this project. One of the toughest challenges I face, personally, is that of having no patience. Throughout the process of this trip my daughter has taught me to have an incredible amount of patience and trust in her as a creator and autonomous creature. She taught me to let her be herself when I was trying to control her. She taught me that I would be able to create the strongest work when I had the confidence in her, and in myself, to let her go and do her own thing, to stop being in charge and let us have some room in our life for chance and to release the grip of the director. When I did that, the strongest images came to the forefront.
As someone who conceived photographs and then executed them, it was a very tough pill for me to swallow: allowing a collaborator to live in front of the camera in a way that I had no control of was new for me. It sounds so simple, but to me it was very difficult to comprehend – now I look forward to the opportunity to collaborate with people instead of being a director and asking them to act out my vision. I now see photography in a different way. So you can say my five-year-old daughter completely changed my philosophy on photographic medium. That is not an exaggeration.
Choose your #threewordsforphotography.
Love. Nature. Spirit.