Rita Leistner: The Tree Planters
I have always said that my experience in the strenuous, remote job of tree planting in Canada prepared me for the role of documenting communities in extreme conditions. After so many years shooting conflict and war, I wanted to create photographs that were not about death, despair, hatred, loss or violence. – Rita Leistner
Canadian artist Rita Leistner recently opened the exhibition, The Tree Planters, at the Stephen Bulger Gallery in Toronto. The opening was a huge success with lines down the street, perhaps because her photographs feel like heroic paintings- brightly lit twisted bodies in battle with the elements as the subjects struggle to return the ravaged landscapes back into forested vistas. The Tree Planters exhibition includes 19 large-scale color photographs inspired by classical paintings and dioramas from the Museum of Natural History in New York. Rita uses high-resolution digital cameras and a battery-powered electronic flash under extreme conditions to render the sheer physicality of tree planting and present tree planters heroically in a live-action context. The Tree Planters provides a critical look into the human ability to co-operate with nature, with in-depth look at the culture of reforestation in Canada.
“I felt great urgency to begin this project as I knew being in my 50’s, I would not have many years left where I could physically keep up with the athleticism required for tree planting. It’s a back-breaking dance of bodies, shovels and dirt, and I hope the messages of living in the moment and the power of perseverance are understood through my photos. I have great hope for the future and believe this series will promote the care for the world that all our futures depend on – one tree at a time,” states Leistner.
The exhibition also includes a short video projection produced by Rita that demonstrates how these artworks were made, featuring unique behind-the-scenes footage of tree planters at work and the photographer accompanied by her assistant in the Canadian wilderness. The Tree Planters exhibition will run through November 18th, 2017 .
Rita Leistner studied photography at the International Center of Photography in New York and has a Master of Arts degree in comparative literature in French and English from the University of Toronto (1990), where from 2010-2016 she taught the history of photojournalism and documentary photography. She is co-author of several books including Unembedded: Four Independent Photojournalists on the War in Iraq, and The Edward Curtis Project: A Modern Picture Story. Her first monograph, Looking for Marshall McLuhan in Afghanistan, an interdisciplinary work about photography, technology and war, was a 2015 finalist for the Marshall McLuhan Award for Outstanding Book in the Field of Media Ecology. The associated photo and text-based exhibition, which has been translated into French and Spanish and exhibited in France, Canada, the United States, and Uruguay, features iPhone photographs remastered by master printer Bob Carnie from digital negatives in palladium with applied tri-colour pigment—a hybrid of digital technology and a nineteenth century printing technique rendering permanent prints with an estimated lifespan of over 700 years.
Her photographs have been exhibited and published internationally at venues ranging from the Musée Albert-Kahn (Paris), Ben Gurion University (Beersheba), North Vancouver Museum, Musée du nouveau monde La Rochelle, the Fotofestiwal Łódź in Poland, to the Centro de Fotografía de Montevideo, Uruquay. In 2018 The University of Mexico at Puebla will host her first retrospective. Leistner’s articles, essays, and reviews have appeared in numerous magazines and books including Julian Stallabrass’s Memories of Fire: Images of War and the War of Images and the forthcoming Routledge Companion to Photography and Visual Culture.
She has won three Canadian National Magazine Awards Gold Medals and was a 2017 finalist for the prestigious Robert Gardner Fellowship in Photography at Harvard. In 2017, the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa acquired fifteen years of Rita Leistner’s work from Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and Afghanistan—among the largest additions to the collection by any photographer and the largest by a female photographer.
Long before she was known for her work as a conflict photographer, Leistner planted over half a million trees between 1983 and 1992. She perceives this series as an homage to all Canadian tree planters: past, present and future. While each photograph features an individual tree planter, the series as a whole is meant to represent universal hope and belief in the future. Leistner has recognized a gap in Canada’s rich tradition of landscape photography and painting where there is very little that depicts or celebrates the role of men and women working the land. Leistner’s The Tree Planters aims to elevate tree planters to the realm of art, epic, and visual history.
The Tree Planters photographs were created in British Columbia in 2016 and 2017 while Leistner was “embedded” with the planting camps of Coast Range Contracting. Modern Canadian tree planting is only in its third generation yet it is considered a rite of passage and an indelible part of Canada’s national identity. Tree planting is not only changing the geographic landscape of Canada but also the cultural mindset of Canada’s youth and through them the wider population, making it an essential contributor to Canada’s role as the world leader in sustainable forest management.
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