RICHARD ROTHMAN | Redwood Saw
In the summer of 2004, Richard Rothman traveled west with a 4×5 camera to explore the remaining fragments of ancient old-growth forests in Northern California. He pitched a tent amid the mammoth stands of redwoods and began making formal, intricate portraits of the forest, which he describes as ‘the most visually stimulating environment I had ever been in.’ Unexpectedly, he also began developing an interest in the neighboring town of Crescent City, an economically depressed logging and fishing community. Rothman was affected by the town s architecture, its emotional tenor, its political and religious culture, and the sometimes unconscious relationship that the townspeople had with the corralled forest to the east and the Pacific Ocean, which represents the end of the Western frontier. The contrast between the radical, spectacularly ornate environment of the forest and the trashed, disposable landscape of the town that abutted it became the subject of a more complex project which would take some surprising twists and turns. The body of work, made over a five-year period, is gathered together in the artist s monumental first book, Redwood Saw. This stunning monograph is an ambitious attempt to represent the culture, people, and landscape of Crescent City, and, by extension, the current American moment. Crescent City – a place that at one time must have seemed to possess an almost limitless abundance of natural resources – is revealed here as a compelling and dramatic model of a former boom town that staked its future on what can only be described as an ‘unsustainable cultural and economic reality.’ Beautifully printed in duotone on matt art paper, this first printing of Redwood Saw is limited to 1,500 casebound copies. Richard Rothman’s work is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the International Center of Photography, New York; the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris; the Brooklyn Museum; and the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, Tucson.
In « Redwood Saw, » one of the best five books of photography published in 2012, large format black and white photographer Richard Rothman reveals the baroque intricacy of nature’s design within the Jedediah Smith Redwood Forest just outside Crescent City, California, along the Pacific coast, a few miles below the Oregon border. And what at first appears as a beautiful disorder, on closer inspection, is revealed as nature’s complex order honed over millennia, a teeming chaos of living things thriving in unison and growing out in all directions in a profusion of undergrowth until you feel yourself completely immersed in coastal redwoods, California bay, big leaf maple, red alder,ferns, spruce, and hemlock. The layers and underlayers of leaf-shape and branch-form are mirrored in his complex compositions.
Rothman’s photographs come from a deep-seated impulse, located somewhere within his unconscious, that drives him artistically. He mentions that he likes to let his unconscious impulses merge with his instinctive curiosity so that he is guided along to places and then pictures. It is only after successful pictures have been made that he begins to discern and impose a structure on a larger body of work. In « Redwood Saw », he did just that — first photographing the forest, then the town, then the people in the town, and then finally the ocean.
And by his juxtaposing the redwoods against the images of the people and the places of Crescent City, Rothman has created a visual narrative and commentary on the results of the pirating of the natural world, its exploitation for profit and short-term gain through careless mining and fishing and lumbering. What remains in the aftermath of these extraction industries is what you find in Rothman’s disturbing views of dilapidated dwellings and forlorn businesses that look like they were the casualties of inner-city blight. The people in Rothman’s photographs reveal how fragile they are, how vulnerable, and how their tenuous existence is divorced from nature yet necessarily a part of it, as they stand like trees themselves, outside fast food restaurants, car lots, hardware stores, and other places where they work in Crescent City. In a strange and paradoxical way, they mirror the vulnerability and the prey-like quality of the redwood forest itself, where the life of each tree hangs precariously in the balance.
After looking at Rothman’s photographs of a clear-cut, a stumped-out forest holocaust of half-burned timber, I am aware that these images are not without their own devastating beauty. It is like looking at the tangled and twisted metal of a car wreck. Rothman has stated he never avoids the obligation of trying to make a formally resolved picture, no matter how ugly or horrifying the subject may be. And he goes into the razed forest to show in grainless, view-camera clarity and detail, every surface texture and geometric pattern, of tree limb and tree trunk, the full body count piled in matchstick disarray. His images make the viewer realize how very much alive these charred woods once were — how full of every shade of green — now that they lie scorched and burned and stripped naked. So that when we get to the town, we can see the connection to the place that owes its living to the industry that wrought this death and destruction.