A new book uses strange, sometimes mystical imagery to retell a fragmented family memoir.
"Magical," “Narrative" and "Storytelling" are three words photographers and tech brands often overuse to describe work and products that often don't actually imbue any of those characteristics. Sure, humans love to tell stories – we're drawn to them like cave sketches, right? They bring us together and make for a sticky TED Talk intro. But do they actually tug at us with just enough "mystery" to keep us guessing? With Paul Thulin's new book, Pine Tree Ballads, published by Candela Books, the answer, said in both a shout and a whisper, fist wrapped around the heart, is absolutely fucking yes.
Pine Tree Ballads takes us on a wonderfully confusing journey through the reenacted fantasies of Thulin's family history set in a small community in Maine. His great grandfather settled there in the early twentieth century, drawn to its resemblance to his Swedish homeland. Thulin reenacts these stories using a dreamlike sequence of images. Some feel staged, some feel like found family relics, and others rest somewhere in between.
As viewers, we're able to weave in and out of Thullin's consciousness with a dreamlike fluidity. Subtle photos of notes written in cursive text and an unexpected balance of black and white, color, and alternate-processed images help to pace, break up, and chapter-mark nearly 100 images that somehow, despite their volume, feel like an immaculately tight edit. Oh, and the inside front and back covers are peppered with glitter.
I emailed with Thulin to learn more about his journey.
Jon Feinstein in conversation with Paul Thulin
Jon Feinstein: I'm interested in how you weave family history with fiction. It's something I've seen a number of photographers embark on over the past few years (Christian Patterson, Amani Willett, etc) and I'm going to go ahead and softly call it "post-truth personalism".
Do you see this as a kind of photographic "movement" so to speak, and how do you feel about your work being associated with this way of seeing/ storytelling?
Paul Thulin: I agree with you and am fine having my work associated with a new way of seeing/storytelling…..Thinking and classifying within a traditional photography discourse, I detect a rising photographic “movement” with origins in earlier photographic genres and practitioner styles such as directorial photography, appropriation, Frank’s “shooting from the hip,” Clark’s posing of fellow addicts, Meatyard’s family album, and slow exposure early“documentary” photography that obviously arranged subjects while attempting to record “history” (i.e. Mathew Brady civil war archive). Traditional boundaries/genres/categories in fine art photography are undoubtedly beginning to expand and/or deteriorate depending on what discourse, history, and materiality you associate with and define your practice, as well as what photography “market” is providing one an audience.
Feinstein: What do you think is the most noticeable contemporary shift?
Thulin: Digital imaging and new media technology is transforming how we receive and interpret images, how we make them, how we structure subjectivity, and how we tell stories and define “truth”. It is especially changing how we relate to a previous era of analogue representations of truth and storytelling by complicating it and allowing us room to reimagine how to communicate and contextualize subject matter to a contemporary audience.
Regardless, many analog era educated/trained but contemporary photographic practitioners and critics dismiss digital media representation, subjectivity, materiality, transmission, and narrative as trivial, lacking a knowledge of history, and too susceptible to manipulation and distraction to ever be able to seriously interact, transform, challenge earlier genres, categories and authorship arising from the language field (Foucault) of analog photography. This dismissal is to be expected and is natural when considering all of the conflicts and arguments we can find in any history between practitioners/theorists of an old media vs a new one. Reminds me of David Foster Wallace saying that he could not relate to a prestigious professor’s sense of the literary because the older generation had not been raised on television. Television has a particularly unique quality of fractured narrative (consider commercial breaks) and episodic characterization.
David Foster Wallace believed that the traditional structuring of literature could be challenged and evolve because of the influence of television. His professor’s generation found this to be a violation of the purity of the art form so they declared Literature dead. I have always said that as soon as a medium is declared dead by one generation, it has just become a really exciting place to create and resurrect for the next generation.
Feinstein: How do you think this death, resurrection and literary movement ties into photography?
Thulin: I think this resurrection has spawned the new movement you sense and describe as Post Truth Personalism. I have identified an aspect of this movement to be a “docu-literary” mode of photography. This mode highlights the power of ambiguity and emotive resonance in text and imagery. Photography in this mode is often narrative driven, fact and fiction based simultaneously, nonlinear but sequentially ordered, and often has a relationship to a specific historical archive, text, and/or graphic design movement. It works quite well in book form where a reader has time to detect the purposeful structuring of images and text through multiple but organized readings of the images as a collective.
Most writers, especially poets, presume a developed text realizes it's true communicative and symbolic potential through a reader’s experience and contemplation of multiple readings. This writing mindset builds narrative and subjectivity in the relationships between stages/phases of one’s reading experience. This takes ambiguity to a whole new level of complexity and really complicates the notion of a fixed truth firmly grounded in text or image.
Feinstein: Where does Pine Tree Ballads fit into this?
Thulin: In Pine Tree Ballads, the docu-literary mode makes room for me as the author to share my family story as a personal and stylistic interpretation of the facts/truths witnessed in real time moments on the farm as well as facts/truths discovered while engaging and communally sharing a photographic and textual family archive. In essence, every family member will have their own unique version of the family story in the docu-literary mode. Each story would be considered equally “truthful” because of an understanding that each family member has a unique relationship to the shared and acknowledged facts/truths that have been experienced, collected, protected, and shared by the family and community over time.
Feinstein: So many writers/ "creatives" (Stephen King, for example. haha) etc seem to have a soft spot for Maine and New England mythologies... A kind of folklore-y muse. Why do you think that is?
Thulin: The woods and coast of Maine are ruggedly wild but beautiful. This puts people in a state of mind that is filled with wonder and fear daily, a low dose of perpetual sublimeness, a horror and harmony of place. This emotional state intensifies experiences which creates larger than life stories and personalities. Also, New England, in general, has a cultural vibe and sense of place that evokes associations with the early settlement of North America so stories of the land and people still feel quite connected to ancient lore and mythology arising from a wild territory that was challenging to survive and tame. In addition, Maine is not overpopulated nor fully modernized in parts, so one often feels a sense of isolation and/or boredom which naturally inspires imaginative perception.
For instance, Maine is extremely dark at night; so dark in fact that you sometimes begin to question whether or not you exist. Sometimes you cannot even see your hands in front of your face, and you wonder if your eyes are open or closed. This makes the imagination run wild and causes a kind of threatening paranoia coupled with adrenaline-fueled mania that something is going to get you. You are on guard stumbling physically and mentally in this darkness; you are both prey and predator just hoping the cards fall your way until light arrives. The intensity of these extremes is exciting and can transform an otherwise mundane moment into an amazing story.
Feinstein: What inspired you to make a project and book about your family's folklore?
Thulin: I wanted to represent the weight of folklore, artifact, and text from the past on present day experiences shared by a family. Family stories and antique objects influenced this project immensely because their presence makes the farm seem inhabited by ancestral souls. For example, in the farmhouse, there was an old, built-in, white-washed, birch wood ladder that accessed a storage attic above the mud room. It was a rickety old ladder that always made one extremely nervous when climbing it partly because the wood was so soft and spongy but also because it was covered with deteriorating, hand-painted signs and scribbled notes warning of danger and risk.
The signs had a lot of character handwritten by different people over the years on various materials ranging from hand carved wood to duct tape. It was a generational timeline of personalized cautionary script that charged the present moment with history and an intense sense of self-awareness that something must have happened on these stairs in the past. It was like the stairs had a narrator.
Feinstein: Tell me about the first piece of family folklore that you can remember?
Thulin: The first piece of influential family folklore actually concerns this ladder and a man named Captain Hutchins. Captain Hutchins was a retired cook that served on whaling ships and supposedly had a wooden leg from a docking accident. He lived in the farmhouse alone for years before my great grandfather took full ownership of the property. As a kid, my grandfather heard Captain Hutchins tell many a story in which the old sailor always single-handedly saved a whaling expedition from a disastrous ending. When I was little and attempting to climb that old ladder, my grandfather often anecdotally described to me how Captain Hutchins froze to death at the bottom of this ladder one winter when he accidentally fell and broke his leg.
As you can imagine, the thought of the heroic Captain Hutchins freezing to death, with one broken leg and one wooden leg at the bottom of this ladder can be quite a shock to one’s sense of reality. This kind of story can really change your sense of place, your sense of home. At night, as a child and adult sleeping in the attic room, I would often think I could hear a wooden leg dragging on the worn floors of the mudroom below and would interpret howling wind as Captain Hutchins’ wailing last breath. I am never scared, but always feel a connection and maybe a bit of warning that the place we call a summer home has an epic and harsh history. It is important to point out that fear or sense of haunting is not something I generally associate with the landscape or the mood of Pine Tree Ballads but rather a general sense of uncanny wonderment that inspires stories, ballads, and poetry.
The image in the book “Where He Once Stood, He Fell.” 2015 of a wooden leg with rope wrapped around it is directly inspired by this story. It is probably one of the most directed images in the book but it is carefully constructed to not be read as illustrative or a purely fictitious moment. The image is an homage to Captain Hutchins’ death inspired by the oral history of the place and corroborating relics such as the danger signs on the old ladder. The image is in essence a document of the actual act of sharing, generating family folklore.
Feinstein: You mix straight photos, black + white, color, image overlays, and even text throughout the book. What's your editing process/thought process while editing look like?
Thulin: I wanted the structure of the book to have sections or acts that could guide a reader through a semblance of a narrative or at the very least a sense of mood changes as one progressed through the sequence . I also wanted the design to be influenced by the image layout of my grandfather’s Maine family albums. Those albums materially consist of B/W prints spanning several decades to post 70’s color images including all types of photo paper from exotic early Kodak papers to 1-hour lab varieties. The albums are records of family, but are also an archive of the materiality and presentation of vernacular photography from 1911 -1991.
The photos are organized but also layering each other, coming loose over time, getting mixed up and misplaced. There are cryptic notes and poems thrown in the mix. I wanted Pine Tree Ballads to have this sense of order and disorder because I think it is ultimately a structure that seems familiar when looking at family photographs especially in the analog era.
Feinstein: There’s an overall dark, brooding mood recurring throughout this series.
Thulin: A “dark, brooding mood” is the emotional reaction one typically has when facing Time as a subject of contemplation; Awareness of Time naturally leads one to consider their own mortality… reminds me of Roland Barthes’ conceptual journey in “Camera Lucida.” I want readers to have a sense of the fear of being lost and alone in the dark in the woods of Maine. This darkness makes you feel uneasy, but it also makes you feel alive and spiritual.
It is not horror … ominous might be a good word for it. I actually think this ominous feeling is present in all of our lives at varying levels most of the time. It intensifies everything we do and makes us appreciate our ability to survive, find meaning in the world, and create a sense of place and home. “Pine Tree Ballads” is a spiritual journey so it has to face the ominous darkness of nature, fear of the unknown, and the conflicts of your own mind. Maine is a perfect landscape to create this existential tension and apply it to a story.
Feinstein: What processes were you using? How important are the specific processes?
Thulin: Pine Tree Ballads was made with a variety of photo-based processes. I regularly experimented with large, medium, and small format b/w and color film, and digital captures. Over the ten years of making the work, images were captured using a wealth of different cameras ranging from an antique 1920 Kodak Vest Pocket Autographic to a Calumet 4x5 camera, to an expensive, hi-res digital Hasselblad. Each summer, I was having fun trying out all types of cameras, formats, film stocks, and varying quality of lenses. Each process became immensely important because each provided me with unique insights into the nature of photographic representation.
For instance, I remember being enamored with the mysterious and spiritual quality of chance exposures; so the more primitive the controls on a camera, all the better. I enjoyed the lack of control because it let me enjoy the experience of a family moment rather than obsessing if it was the decisive moment or compositionally perfect. I emotionally valued the distortion and softness of an image captured by an older antique camera like a Kodak Vest Pocket Autographic because the poor quality of the lens expanded my thoughts on photo subjectivity, materiality and time. The fact an antique camera like that even works seems like a miracle; it is just such simple technology. When you take a picture, it is such a non-event in all you hear is a soft clicking noise. If you didn't know better, you might think the camera was broken.
Feinstein: Can you get a bit deeper into the metaphor/ heaviness as they tie into your process?
Thulin: An important practitioner moment I remember was when I processed and printed a rather mundane picture of my 3 year old daughter shot on an antique camera. The image looked like it had been taken in 1920 of some girl I did not know. She looked ghostly – ancestral – in the Maine landscape. As a subject she was blanketed in time which was shocking and somewhat creepy. The photo could have easily integrated into one of my grandfather’s earlier family albums without anyone really noticing it was a contemporary image. This discovery planted a seed in my head regarding the potential of using photographic analog material disruptions, such as film light leaks, dust and scratches, lens distortion, chemical stains, loss of color integrity, film grain, mold, and the multitude of ways paper stains, rips, and deteriorates over time to tell a story regarding family that was dependent on the formal beauty and conceptual profundity of the history of analogue photographic materiality. I call it an “aura aesthetic.”
Feinstein: Did this change how you thought about the project as a whole?
Thulin: Adopting the “aura aesthetic” really changed my editing and shooting process. I now look to all of my image archive regardless of its origin or state of preservation to find amazing images that would have otherwise been ignored. To this day, it is difficult for me to remember how images were originally captured and whether or not the flaws of the image are “real” or simulated with software and scans. It does not matter to me as long as the physical prints are firmly entrenched in the material possibilities and limits of analogue photography. I want to create an authentic sense of analog aura which differentiates itself from trendy insta-art nostalgia fueled by Instagram filters and smartphone apps.
I believe the analogue essence and “aura” sensibility of Pine Tree Ballads is directly related to years of looking, sharing, and telling stories about the well-loved, weathered and worn family photo albums in the farmhouse. All analog photography seems to have a predetermined relationship to a physical archive that is susceptible to the aging and deterioration from being collected, conserved, and shared by humans. This unique material existence infuses all analog images with an essential “truth value” as cultural objects in time and space connected to socially and physically based “truth rituals” of conservation and distribution that digital photography/images will never share.
The idea and power of “aura” is obviously something I derived from Walter Benjamin, who states that aura is “…a strange weave of space and time: the unique appearance or semblance of distance, no matter how close it may be.” The physical photographs in our family albums have this sense of aura, of being in the present and past at the same time. The images in Pine Tree Ballads I feel have a similar sense of aura. There is a “strange weave” between material and symbolic existence. Pine Tree Ballads causes one to pause and consider whether you are looking at a chronological archive of documents, a personal history, a reimagining of a family story, or all of these versions simultaneously.
Feinstein: The press release for the book refers to "the artist’s daughter, wife, mother, and grandmother as a single protean character vibrating in time." Whoa. Can you break this down for me?
Thulin: Hahaha! I am not actually sure where or whom that description originated from but I like it. There are images of all four mentioned generations of women plus my great grandmother...so five generations of women. This was possible because I have actually used and altered some of my father and grandfather’s images in the book.
My relationships with the women in my family have had more impact on me than anything else in my life. When I reflect upon them, photograph them, and blend them into a type of unified characterization or energy, it results in content that always surprises me. I have never been able to make or find a singular portrait that fully captures the complexity and power of these women as individuals. By using an aesthetic that made it difficult to determine when an image was made and avoiding sequencing that has any conventional chronological structure, these women can be interpreted as unique individuals in a shared story as well as a single protean character vibrating in time. They all have similar features which helps one potentially think they are all the same person.
As a single protean character vibrating in time, these women become the symbolic “SHE” of the mythological place and narrative in the book. SHE simultaneously represents family, love and loss, death and life, safety and threat, strength and frailty — SHE is eternal — mystical but with a cold hard stare confronting a harsh reality.
SHE portrays a strength and vulnerability that is multidimensional and in tune, at peace, with time rather than panicked facing an existential crisis of the present that stirs an obsessive desire to heroically escape death (arguably the “HE” of the story).
SHE resonates powerfully in a narrative that raises one’s awareness of the pressures of history, mortality, the unknown, and the sublime power of nature. SHE is a character that provides meaning and unites all stories regarding existence. If you have ever seen Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” I think the “SHE” and “HE” I am describing here are similar to the themes of “grace” and “nature” in the film.
Feinstein: What were some of your biggest challenges, revelations, "aha moments" etc in weaving this all together?
Thulin: I hoped for the book to have a magical quality to it that could push back against some of the darker themes. I reached out to graphic designer, Elana Schlenker, because I felt her design aesthetic would challenge my own in a good way. The book design and editing process needed to expand the conceptual and material reading of the work beyond what the images do by themselves. Working with Elana was a fantastic experience and a meaningful collaboration that transformed the sequence to a new place. She pushed the cropping of some of the images, experimented with overlays, and introduced some colored more pulpy paper section breaks. All of these design additions created new and wonderful relationships between certain images, improved the rhythm of the sequence, and gave the book a sense of objecthood that allowed for a haptic experience in addition to a visual experience. I love the idea that the book presents the images in a much different way than you would experience the prints in an exhibition. It is its own experience. Everything in the physical book is setup to advance the complexity of the sequence and support multiple readings for a single reader.
The most challenging aspects of making the book were editing down the amount of images and the addition of writing. Pine tree Ballads started with a sequence of around 200 images that had been seriously worked on for a year or two. It became evident in the design process that the production costs associated with a large book were too expensive and that it really was just too many images to hold one’s attention. It took me another year to take out roughly 80-100 images. There were some images that I felt were so strong that just had to be removed. The nice thing is that I do print them for exhibitions. Anyway, having sat with this final book sequence for over 18 months now, I cannot imagine the book any other way.
The writing was not originally in the book. Once I got the final sequence determined, Gordon Stettinius (Candela Books), who became an invaluable editor of sorts, told me it needed something to help guide readers more directly. At this point, the section breaks were simply hand drawn hash marks on otherwise blank pages. He suggested writing something that would help the reader get an emotional sense of what each sequence section/chapter was exploring thematically. This lead me to write my own poems. I basically wrote each poem by looking at each “chapter” and brainstorming associative words arising from the images themselves. It was not easy and I felt way outside my comfort zone. Luckily, the amazing poet that wrote the Afterword of the book, Dora Malech, guided me through the writing and provided the suggestion that I hand write them in pencil allowing for mistakes to become part of the poems. She told me to research Emily Dickinson's “Fragments” which are in-process poems she often scribbled on the backs of envelopes. So I eventually wrote them in cursive with a pencil on top of film folders and boxes in my grandfather’s archive. I practiced quite a bit to construct the poems in language as well as visual form. The cross outs, lead smears, and misspelled words become as much a part of the meaning of the poems as the actual words. The poems basically took on the same aura aesthetic as the other images in the book. I am actually very proud of them and think they will stand the test of time. I am also excited that there are now these strange poems in my grandfather’s archive that will only become more mysterious and meaningful as time marches on.
JF: What else were you looking at, reading, watching on tv, listening to while making this work?
Thulin: GET READY!
Miguel de Cervantes “Don Quixote”
Herman Melville “Moby Dick”
Washington Irving “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”
Edgar Allen Poe
Robert Frost poem “Directive”
Matt Rasmussen’s poetry book ‘Black Aperture”
“The Tibetan Book of the Dead”
“The Journals Of Lewis And Clark”
Thomas Merto The Bible (Old Testament)
William Blake “The Proverbs of Hell”
The Legend of Zelda video game
Terry Brooks’ fantasy novels
Alec Soth “Broken Manual”
Nirvana’s unplugged, haunting rendition of Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World”
Robert Holdstock’s “Mythago Wood”
Mathew Brady’s deteriorating glass plates
“Grimm’s Fairy Tales”
Nine Inch Nails
David Foster Wallace’s footnotes
Homer (of The Odyssey not Simpson)
White Stripes “Icky Thump”
Iron and Wine
Grace Krilanovich’s novel “The Orange Eats Creeps”
Dario Robleto’s sympathetic magic
Trenton Doyle Hancock
Jane Addiction’s live remake of “Sympathy of the Devil”
Thomas Barrow “Cancellations”
Takashi Homma “First, Jay Comes”
Rinko Kawauchi’s mastery of sequence and blown highlights in “Illuminance”
Masahisa Fukase’s “The Solitude of Ravens”
Bill Morrison’s film “Decasia”
Paul Graham’s “American Night”
Hunter s. Thompson
Guillermo del Toro
Cormac McCarthy’s novels “The Road” and “Blood Meridian”
Sharon Harper’s universe
Seba Kurtis’ material phenomenology
Godspeed You Black Emperor’s emotional degradation and suspense
Chris McCaw’s sun-burned physical prints
Juergen Teller’s technical spontaneity and his book “The Keys to the House”
Robert Frank’s formal unbalance
Chris Verene’s enduring family story
Annie Dillard’s micro details of natural phenomena
Charles Darwin’s repressed sexuality
Joshua Lutz “Hesistating Beauty”
The overlooked but powerful photobook Xavier Zimbardo’s “Monks of Dust”
Thorsten Brinkman’s sculpture
Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life”
and much more