In the summer of 2004, the New York photographer 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, which will be published by Nazraeli Press on October 14, 2011. Redwood Saw is an ambitious attempt to poetically 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.”
“For me,” Rothman says, “the subject of Redwood Saw transcended the specifics of the town of Crescent City. I saw it as a local story, fascinating in all its specificity, but also as a global story. That is one of the essential tasks of photography: to recognize those salient facts which can become a vehicle for metaphor.” Rothman’s exploration of the themes of longing and unhappiness, reflected in the faces and bodies of the townspeople, suggest our underlying and universal human predicament. “I wanted to tell a large story about the moment we are in, here in America,” Rothman says, “paying attention to all that I could take in. But it was equally important that the story be subjectively accurate. For me the relationship between subjectivity and testimony is the key to this work.” Rothman’s sympathetic exploration of Eros, striving, and human failure permeates these portraits, which are by and large studies of people who are fighting hard battles — people who, not unlike the forest itself, have little control over the larger (and largely unseen) forces that dictate their lives.
The book contains a wide-ranging interview (illustrated with fifteen photographs), entitled The Franz Kafka of Wilderness Photographers, with Alex Stein, the poet and author of Dark Optimism and Weird Emptiness. Rothman discusses his early childhood, his lifelong obsession with picture-making, his thoughts about the portraits and nudes he photographed for the book, and the significance of the human compulsion to make images. He also talks about the critically acclaimed urban work he made earlier, in New York City and the surrounding suburbs, the genesis of Redwood Saw, the importance of the relationship between space, imagination, and the infinite, and the challenges and surprises he encountered as his five-year project unfolded.
Exhibitions of Rothman’s work in Redwood Saw will open at the Robert Morat Galerie in Hamburg, and at Galerie f5,6, in Munich, in the fall of 2011.
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. His recent exhibitions include: “Black and White: Contemporary Positions in Black & White Photography,” Robert Morat Galerie, Hamburg; “We Want Miles,” Cité de la Musique, Paris; “NY Perspectives: Amsterdam Discovered by New York Photographers,” FOAM and the Amsterdam City Archives, Amsterdam; and “Landscaped: New York, New Jersey, Los Angeles,” Paul Rogers/9W, New York. In 2008, he was awarded a U.S. Department of State cultural-envoy grant to work and teach in the Yucatán, where an exhibition of his photographs was mounted at the Museo MACAY, in Mérida.