Our friends over at Baltimore Photo Space decided to have a little chat with Virginia Wilcox about her new (and first) book Arboreal. Here is what they talked about.
Baltimore Photo Space: The photos in 'Arboreal' were made in parks throughout the Los Angeles area. What is it about these parks that initially piqued your interest?
Virginia Wilcox: I started making these pictures when I was brand new to Los Angeles. I grew up in Seattle, where you can see water and mountains in every direction. In comparison, LA felt overwhelmingly concrete. I think this attracted me to these giant and otherworldly parks where I felt like I could escape into nature. But upon entering, I realized these places were not like the manicured parks I knew from back home. They were once planned and designed, but at some point forgotten and left to grow wild. The human marks on these landscapes were largely made by those inhabiting the parks rather than the people hired to maintain them. There was something in this tension between the built environment, nature, and human inscription that kept me coming back with my view camera.
BPS: That personal connection to a more natural environment definitely comes through in the images. We see very few human forms throughout the work, and they are generally shown at a distance almost as another piece of the larger landscape. Those images, to me, feel like a direct representation of the way we humans interact with and interpret these semi-constructed natural environments. Was that your intention?
VW: Yes, very much so. While humans are integral to this body of work, I was most interested in their exploration of this space and the mark they left on it. When making this work, I obsessed over the idea of what might have happened in a certain scene; how a patch of scorched earth had caught fire, why a black velour hoodie was left hanging from a tree. My journey through this space often felt like following a trail of breadcrumbs.
BPS: When we do see people in a more formal portrait setting, you have a way of finding these intimate, quiet, seemingly "in-between" moments. I'm thinking specifically of the person seated in a clearing, relaxed with their eyes closed. Care to share an interesting story from an encounter, whether it's someone seen in the book or not?
VW: I’m glad you mentioned that. While there are only two formal portraits in the book, both subjects play a central role as guides on this journey. I met Jesse Jesus (pictured below) early on in the project, and our collaboration shaped much of the work to come. Jesse led me on shortcuts over drain pipes and showed me where a man had crashed his motorcycle on the 110 freeway, flying thirty feet in the air and landing in the Arroyo Seco below. I had always sensed a melancholy to this place, and his stories helped me fit the pieces together. Jesse is a religious man and felt that God was imbued in every tree. His spiritual connection to the landscape added new layers of meaning for me.