"All moments in time are decisive moments," says Paul Thulin, whose forthcoming book Pine Tree Ballads draws on family history and photography to create an evocative sense of past and present
In the early 1900s, Paul Thulin’s great-grandfather settled on the coast of Maine, reminded of his homeland of Sweden. Thulin’s family has returned to Gray’s Point each summer ever since, and Thulin has been working on a project there, called Pine Tree Ballads, for over a decade. Initially inspired by his grandfather’s photographs, he hopes it has “a subtext of struggle and hope that mirrors my narrative sense of self and heritage”.
BJP: How did you first get into photography?
PT: My journey into photography started as a way to rebel against my growing contempt and frustration with the limits of language to effectively communicate. In 1996, I returned from a stressful year of studying Philosophy in a Master’s program at Syracuse University and I remember wanting to escape into the mountains to possibly join a Zen monastery. I wanted to meditate and remain silent in an effort to really just experience the world.
This desire led me to discover the writings and images of photographers Minor White, Frederick Sommer, and Emmet Gowin, as their mystical and spiritual use of photography intrigued me. Before I knew it, I borrowed a 35mm camera to try to make meaningful images of my own and I was hooked.
BJP: What do you love about photography? What’s the biggest lesson it’s taught you?
PT: All moments in time are decisive moments. Photography has never failed to challenge me to discover the miraculous hidden within the ordinary.
BJP: What was the origin of Pine Tree Ballads – how did the concept come to you?
PT: Originally, I was casually documenting my family with all kinds of cameras, film, etc. during the summer months on the old orchard farm. I was following the footsteps of my grandfather who took lots of snapshots of the family for his homemade photo albums that spanned over 65 years of history with the land; I was completely obsessed with looking at these images.
At some point, I came to the realisation that images of family are deeply profound, and could be the source material for an interesting multi-year project. I began to reconsider my images and treat them as a unique family story intended to be ‘authored’ for the looking/reading of future generations.
BJP: You describe the project as a ‘photographic memoir’, what does this personal process mean to you?
PT: Pine Tree Ballads is my folktale, my emotional, spiritual, rational, and experimental ‘documentation’ of family, place, and time; it is my version of the truth. My real time experiences and memories of family, farm life, and landscape are an amalgamation of the photographic representations in my grandfather’s photo archive, my personal production of Pine Tree Ballads, and an unmediated engagement of everyday events. I cannot imagine my family or the landscape outside the realm of images unveiling a never-ending story. The past and the present are intertwined as I work on the project.
BJP: There’s a strong sense of the material process in the images, which are full of light leaks and scratches. What motivated these choices?
PT: The first edit of Pine Tree Ballads happened about six years ago and looked nothing like it does today. Most of the images were straight documentary inspired by photographers exploring family, such as Jessica Todd Harper, Doug Dubois, and Sally Mann. I was looking to document everyday relations within a glow of cinematic and/or painterly light; a common aesthetic of modern day romanticism we all know too well.
At some point, I realised that in addition to these images I had all these amazing, formally complex, bad exposures and scans in a variety of different formats, captured both digitally and on film, that just did not fit stylistically. The images looked unique so I was curious if I could make something out of them that celebrated their flaws as an attempt to redefine so-called straight photography. It is quite liberating to allow the medium to simultaneously adopt the high fidelity depiction supported in traditional straight photography, while also aesthetically and formally appreciating evidence of photographic processes and the material deterioration of an archive.
BJP: Memory and history are major themes in this project, with your family’s early 20th century move to Maine. How do you go about portraying an era you have a connection to, but no direct experience of?
PT: Folklore is in essence a tradition of history shared amongst a region, tribe, or in my case, a family. The history and identity of our family thrives on stories of the past, an awareness of sharing knowledge, and the privilege of participating and contributing to a mythology interweaving past and present.
I see the orchard farm, the shore, the pine trees, the granite, the muck, the gusting winds as natural elements and the symbolic essence of my family narrative. To make, I had to know the story of a photographic moment in context of a particular shared history of looking, rather than attempting an unbiased, neutral examination of a document depicting a subject in a moment in time.
BJP: This is a project about family, but it isn’t your traditional album of snapshots and portraits. Why did you avoid those types of image?
PT: Pine Tree Ballads can be aesthetically identified through its purposeful and often ambiguous depiction of photo-based materiality, which serves to provide a highly-edited family archive with structural and literary complexity. I feel I am as much an author and artist as I am the family documentarian. This series is a narrative-driven, photographic and textually-inspired artwork that serves as a “docu-literary” interpretation of my family’s identity in relation to a specific landscape, a collection of photo albums and oral histories, physical landmarks, and cultural influences. My goal is to reference the traditional family album without being constrained by its methodological and subject-based limitations.
www.paulthulin.com Pine Tree Ballads by Paul Thulin can now be pre-ordered from Candela Books https://store.candelabooks.com The series is also going on show from 28 February – 20 April at Candela Gallery, 214 West Broad Street, Richmond, VA 23220, USA https://candelabooks.com/gallery/