Steve Engelmann: Ancient Wood
Hermann Hesse wrote one of the most beautiful odes to trees nearly one hundred years ago. The poetic transformations of nature by Steve Engelmann in his series Ancient Wood remind me of a passage from that ode.
“A tree says: A kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought, I am life from eternal life. The attempt and the risk that the eternal mother took with me is unique, unique the form and veins of my skin, unique the smallest play of leaves in my branches and the smallest scar on my bark. I was made to form and reveal the eternal in my smallest special detail.”
By intertwining details from some of the oldest living trees on the planet, Bristlecone Pines, with evocative human forms, Steve has given us his own visual ode to trees and which “form and reveal the eternal.” Steve is a Los Angeles area native and to those who have not spent much time in L.A. it is not all about cars and stars. “As a kid, I spent many hours hiking and exploring the Santa Monica Mountains. Fresh air, clean water, natural sounds – being in nature feels like coming home. I don’t shoot too many images that would be classified as landscape. Being in that physical environment, however, is an endless source of inspiration.” For his Ancient Wood series, Steve finds his home in the dark room where he creates his gorgeous silver gelatin prints. Why still the darkroom, Steve? “I feel that the silver gelatin print has a quality that digital has not been able to replicate. I shoot both digital and film, but I have a preference for film. Partly since I learned photography through film. The ‘magic’ in the darkroom is part of the hook that got me into the art form.” Inspiration from nature plus darkroom magic has been a time honored combination for many photographic artists and Steve’s work exemplifies that tradition.
Steve was born in Santa Monica, California. He was always drawn to creative endeavors, but it was a camera at age 14 that changed everything. Steve received a BS in Marine Biology from UCLA. He has taught environmental science for over 20 years, while at the same time refining his photographic vision. He has become increasingly involved in the Los Angeles fine art community beginning with a solo exhibit at the Santa Monica College gallery in 2012, as well as, a number of group shows across the country. Steve frequently employs the traditional wet darkroom in addition to alternative processes. His current work explores the dysfunctional and conflicted relationship between humans and nature.
Somewhere buried deep within our DNA linger the remnants of our pre-human biological ancestors. My series, Ancient Wood, began with a walk through the Methuselah Grove in the White Mountains of eastern California where the world’s oldest living trees anchor themselves to the gravelly dolomite. The twisted heartwood of the trees evokes the molecular structure of the double-helix while at the same time taking the feminine form.
Not unlike our DNA code, the alternating light and dark lines of tree rings resemble the digital secret of product bar codes. The tree rings of Bristlecone Pines have been used to reconstruct accurate histories of our past climate dating back over 10,000 years. In the constructed environment of our modern lives, many of us have forgotten, or denied, that we are part of the natural world. This perceptual disconnect between humans and Nature underlies a range of pressing issues from the spiritual, psychological, societal, economic and clearly environmental. The Ancient Wood series illustrates the link between the unspoken organic code and the modern being.
The gelatin silver prints for the series were created in a traditional wet darkroom aligning the negative of a human body with the detail of a Bristlecone Pine. Each image has a compliment with either a positive or negative background underscoring the dichotomy of the two worlds, and the modern digital era in which we live. The models were posed to emphasize the similarity of line, shape and form.
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