Artist's Statement

In my senior year of high school, I chose to take a photography class instead of calculus, thinking it would be an enjoyable escape from my least favorite subject — math. A few decades later though, I realize that the two subjects are actually quite similar: my process in taking pictures seems a bit like solving a math problem and writing a poem at the same time.

I came to know the natural world initially through the encouragement of my parents, who both claim nature-friendly family traditions. When my parents, brother, and I moved to the countryside outside Charlottesville, Virginia in the late 1960s, we had no immediate neighbors and walked to our friends' houses through the woods. We rock-hopped creeks, kept half-an-eye out for snakes, carried sticks to (respectfully) relocate spider webs that seemed always to span the trail at face level, and learned many of the native plants and trees. My mother, in particular, ensured that our vacations included natural areas, and we made many visits to the mountains of western North Carolina, home to most of her family. By the time I was in high school, our family moved to a forested mountainside facing the Blue Ridge Mountains where my parents still live today, and where I often visit and make photographs.

Though I've not had formal art training, an art gene appears to run in both my parents' families. A number of my mother's relatives had, and have, an unusual talent for painting and decorative design. My paternal grandfather was gifted at drawing as a child, spent his professional career as a commercial artist in Boston, and in his later years produced nearly 150 fine art watercolor paintings, often of coastal landscapes. My work today is built on the profound appreciation I developed for unmolested nature and an eye that may inherently seek design.

I have come to love simply being out in landscapes that retain their natural integrity in any environment or ecosystem, and the camera enables me to spend time in these places and to share my experience of them. The locations of my photographs range from remote wilderness areas to my urban Atlanta yard, which supports a surprising variety of plants and trees since I stopped mowing it. I seldom plan on taking a particular view of a particular subject in advance, but aim to get out on a day with a little more sun or a little less wind. If I feel a strong aesthetic sense about a place, I can often make a good picture there, though it may be of something entirely unanticipated. I am often most successful when I remain open to seeing something new and unexpected — a monochromatic shot of unusually arranged twigs may be the best picture of the day, though it was found amidst a field of colorful flowers. Sometimes the best way to see is to not try to see.

I enjoy constructing complex layers of design in my photographs and I take a great deal of care in making sure an image "works" in the viewfinder before clicking the shutter. Moving just a fraction of an inch one way or another can totally throw off a composition. I find it fascinating that simply viewing an arrangement of shapes can communicate an understanding or feeling without using language or any other cognitive process. In the same way, certain musical chords or rhythms can directly communicate emotions or an aesthetic. It seems that both visual and aural arts, and perhaps even all arts at some level, can be traced to intuitive expressions of math. I had a period of listening to the rhythms of the Gypsy Kings and I think it helped my eye.

Often it's the interaction of forms rather than a single subject that becomes the purpose of an image. I work with four layers of design: the inherent form of a subject, the design created by the interaction of several subjects, the way focus or framing can emphasize or enhance these, and finally the path one's eye follows through the final image, which adds a three dimensional quality to the two-dimensional graphic. The square camera viewfinder encourages compositions based on circles, which tend to create a feeling of timelessness. Much of culturally Western design draws heavily on lines and rectangles, while natural systems, including ourselves and our universe, are based on circularity and arcing momentums — on types of math as yet unknown to us except through intuition.

And all life forms are created as the math of the universe endures our planet's trials of hot, cold, sun, shade, water, drought, and time to achieve the function of surviving. Every species of tree or plant has a distinctly different look, leaf shape, or angle at which twigs or leaves emerge from branches, and all is choreographed for enduring and prospering. And each life's form is shaped in part by the shapes of all the others. The shape and color of flowers are influenced by the shapes of the insects that pollinate them, and vice versa. Did plants become trees by outracing dinosaur appetites or each other's need for light? Even the unique success of humanity, an anthropologist might say, comes from our hands with those convenient opposable thumbs that spurred on our minds which grew big inventing new things to do with our hands — and it is the trees that gave us our hands. When your hand falls by your side, even at rest your fingers will instinctively defy gravity to grasp an ancient limb.

I am always aiming for the point at which design and meaning intersect seamlessly. Finding the visual rhythms in natural forms is a way of gaining a glimpse of the greater design we can barely perceive — that we don't have words for — that connects us all. I feel that my strength as a photographer is not so much in creating something new, but in noticing how things are.

All the photographs included in my book were taken with a 2 1/4 square format Hasselblad camera using color or black & white negative film. All photographs are full frame "straight shots" from which I make "straight prints" on traditional enlargers. I use no filters, digital processes, or any other special techniques in shooting or in the darkroom. What may appear to be manipulated effects in my images are simply due to unconventional focusing and occasionally to wind or water moving my subjects. Bright colors come from bright sunlight.

I suspect growing up in the Great Eastern Forest (or more accurately, in its fragmented remains) has helped to shape my vision by forcing me to focus more intimately to express the essence of the biologically more complex but geologically less dramatic landscape of the Southeastern US. Unlike in a grand western vista, the view of a waterfall on a mountainside in the East is likely obscured by hundreds of species of trees, shrubs, vines, and other plants that surround both the falls and the photographer. It seems a natural progression to focus closer in on just the trees themselves, or even on particular branches and leaves — there are so many different, interesting shapes! Another incentive for close-in framing comes from avoiding urban power lines (and the pruning malformations near them), which limit the field of view to the extent that one is fairly forced into the abstract in order to visually make sense of the few remaining purely organic areas.

Working in the field, I find the instantaneous quality of the photographic medium seductive. I confess that the impatient part of me loves that just-a-click and the image is created — just-like-that. On the other hand, I will easily spend the better part of an hour making tediously minute adjustments to my camera angle to get just the right composition on a shot, then half-crouch in some uncomfortably contorted form under a particular set of leaves in a high-concentration-split-second-alert mode for another hour waiting for the wind to subside at just the same moment that the sun emerges from clouds after having carried thirty pounds of equipment a few miles up a staircase slope when my hands are freezing and gloves won't work with camera gear and I am losing circulation in at least one foot  — in order to get that click.

— Kathryn Kolb, July, 2008
Kathryn Kolb Photography All images and content ©2013 Kathryn Kolb. All rights reserved.