In Chuck Hemard’s own words, he was chasing something that didn’t exist anymore.
Like the rest of the old south, it had been choked out by hungry weeds, bricked over for expanding metropolises, and felled for a rich man’s profit. The longleaf pine forest was simply something that no longer existed the way it used to. Whatever patches of pine that survived often did so in a way that showed the toll of civilization’s abuse and its neglectful approach to stewardship. Those few acres, seemingly untouched by the hard hand of time, existed as dots on an ever-changing landscape.
Hemard, a photographer and instructor at Auburn University in Alabama, spent the past seven years traveling throughout the southeast, making pilgrimages to these trees in the hopes of capturing their stories. The resulting work, a collection of photos titled “The Pines,” is on display at Sheridan College. Hemard talked about his work at the Whitney Center for the Arts on August 30.
“There’s this sense of personal significance to me,” Hemard said. “I grew up in Hattiesburg, Mississippi… So that’s kind of smack dab in the middle of what we call ‘the pine belt,’ right? They were in my yard. Not the old growth trees, but probably the second growth. My chore was to rake the pine needles.”
Though longleaf pines themselves are abundant throughout the South, the ecosystem defined by this tree is in serious danger of vanishing. “When I’m out with my camera… it’s about 100 to 150 years after the landscape-scale industrial removal of literally tens of millions of acres of this landscape,” Hemard said.
The longleaf pine forest, which once covered anywhere between 60 million and 90 million acres, reached a low point of 3 million acres during the 1990s. Hemard began researching the tree at Auburn’s Center for Longleaf Pine Ecosystems. While poring over the scientific literature dedicated to the subject, he found a survey indicating the locations of several remaining longleaf pine old growth forests.
This discovery led Hemard to outline his seven-year itinerary. After that point, Hemard just needed to identify what he was searching for. “Some of these questions that I’m thinking about are ‘What does it look like today?’ ‘How much do these relics show what it might have looked like prior to settlement?’ ‘How much has it changed?’” Hemard asked himself.
Hemard visited these forests with a large view camera. The camera demanded patience, an investment of $25 per photo, and a willingness to carry large items through the forest. But, the result was a detailed and deliberate photograph documenting every element the trees saw fit to reveal. “The amount of detail and description is kind of uncanny,” Hemard said. “It’s not the way our eye sees naturally. Our eye sees something in the distance, something up close, something halfway, and kind of puts all of that together. Well, this is a way that, in one fell swoop, you get all that information.”
After the talk, Hemard showed me the details given by not just the pines, but the forest itself. The sky. The undergrowth. Hemard looked for scenes that spoke to him from top to bottom. To him, it was a duty.
“I’m responsible for every millimeter of that photograph,” Hemard said. To Hemard, the photographs were more than just a record detailing the landscape’s condition. The project allowed him to reconnect with the land in a physical, mental, and spiritual way. Sometimes, physical reconnection isn’t pleasant.
“There’s this little bug we have in the deep south called a chigger,” Hemard said. “They bite you. They itch like crazy.”
Hemard had a cloth extending from his view camera, over his head, and down his back. After the visit, Hemard found clusters of little red bites scattered across his shoulders. “Apparently, I didn’t learn my lesson, because that happened three times,” Hemard said. But Hemard was also in search of more than just a reconnection. Just as artists and writers did before him, Hemard kept an eye open for the “mythic or sacred.”
“I think of a photograph as kind of being a window,” Hemard said. “Most people see it as fact. I see it as a sort of fiction.” To Hemard, photos are passports to realms of fantasy and imagination. Many serve as metaphors that reveal deeper truths. One phenomenon that particularly fascinated Hemard was the smattering of dead trees populating the landscape. These trees, called snags, remained standing years after death. Despite their upright posture, these snags are stripped bare by gravity’s pull and their color stolen by the unforgiving wind.
“To me, that’s kind of a symbol of the long, drawn-out process of dying,” Hemard said.
In one of the forests, Hemard found two snags side by side, enduring the process together. “They had this long life together, over several generations, and then they stood together in death,” Hemard said. Another phenomenon that caught Hemard’s attention was wildfire.
“I was interested in it visually for its potential for this, kind of, contradiction between our perception of fire as a destructive force versus a regenerative force and the sort of beauty that can come from fire.”
Fire is necessary to maintain healthy longleaf pine forests, but much of the remaining forest areas have been protected from fire. This misguided attempt to ‘preserve’ the forests, actually distorts it. The resulting ecosystem differs greatly from the way the landscape was when it was untouched by human influence.
According to Hemard, the original forests were described by 18th century naturalist William Bartram as, “open and park-like.” The fire-suppressed forests, sites many southerners are familiar with today, are densely wooded and crowded with underbrush. Hemard showed the audience this landscape in a photograph he called “Wilderness.” Hemard explained its a human construct. It doesn’t always represent an ecosystem the way it should be. “Some of these species might be native, some might be invasive,” Hemard said. “But whatever it is choked out whatever should be there.”
Toward the end of his talk, Hemard highlighted the fact that he purposefully steered away from trying to show the quintessential forest or the quintessential tree. “I do want to reference this romanticized beauty of a bygone era, but I also want to be careful to be accurate to today and show the bigger picture of where we’re at,” Hemard said.
The collection includes a little bit of everything: overgrown, fire-suppressed forests; isolated trees ignored by sprawling cities; old growth longleaf forests, nearly unchanged by time. “I hope, in the end, the pictures might add to or broaden the conversation that is already happening in science on environmental history and provide an additional sense of what this landscape was and what it is today,” Hemard said.
Despite the personal nature of the project, Hemard was glad to have it displayed in a region different than his own. “I know this project is based in my region and my personal history, but I’m hopeful that by sharing it here in your neck of the woods—which, to me, is this area that really defines the very notion of landscape in some ways—that it might encourage some of the people that are based here to get out and connect with the land,” Hemard said.
Hemard noted that most landscape photographs come from the West. But, even in Wyoming, people wishing for a connection with the land still need to seek it out. Hemard showed the audience a 1902 photo taken of Elephant Foot, a part of the Bighorn Mountains visible from Beckton Road. He thought someone would recognize it.
“Anyone recognize this place?” Hemard asked the audience. “Has anyone been here?” No one in the audience answered affirmatively. Unlike the old south, whispers of the old west can still be heard. You can hear the voices echo in the canyons and sing in the rivers. If we hope to hear it 100 years from now, we need to find the time today to stop and listen.
By: T.J. Parks for 82801