Jerry Burchfield – Understory

Understory_Cover R11

Photographs copyright of Jerry Burchfield 2009 courtesy of Laguna Wilderness Press

Jerry Burchfield’s recent (2009) photobook Understory: Florida Lumen Prints, is his sequal to his 2004 photobook Primal Images, both of which utilize his camera-less photographic process to create his unique Lumen prints. The subject of this book has shifted from the plants and flora of the South American Amazon to a little closer to home at Florida. Burchfield was commissioned to create a mural size Lumen print (10 x 30’) of the pine flatwoods ecosystem (first image, below).

As a result of his commission, Burchfield had the opportunity to investigate the vegitation and plants in the vacinity where the mural was going to be created. His investigative studies for the mural project provided the Lumen prints necessary to create this book. Burchfield provides the background for both creating the Pine Flatwoods Mural and the supporting specimen studies during the preparation of the mural.

As I had mentioned in my review of Burchfield’s Primal Images, his photographic process dates back to the earliest of the photographic process. This is a camera-less process by William Henry Fox Talbot, a salt print contact printing process invented in 1841. Like Talbot’s process of over a hundred and fifty years ago, there is still an element of unpredictability, serendipity and chance in obtaining the final results.

By this time, Burchfield has achieved a certain control over his Lumen printing process, but he is still at the mercy of the environmental elements. He can determine to a certain degree the composition of the specimens on the paper, but will they stay there if a chance strong wind occurs, even when secured under a glass sheet? How transparent is his specimen, and will he obtain a dense shadow or a whisper of the specimens internal structure? When the specimens for the big mural are laid out, will it be a sunny day, partly cloudy or as it can happen in Florida, a chance of mid-day showers? How high will the heat and humidity rise and how will all of that affect the light sensitive paper chosen for the mural?

In preparation for the mural, Burchfield varied the size of his “test” prints as a result of the wide range in the size of his specimens. With access to a land-based studio area, his average print size increased from 8 x 10” to 16 x 20”. For this project, Burchfield had a consistent access to larger light sensitive paper to produce an intact print versus the need of multi-papers for his largest specimens.

Although Burchfield’s large mural is a negative contact print, it reads similar to an infrared photograph. Landscape compositions created with infrared film is reactive to growing items that reflect UV light, which gives them their trademark whitish tonalities. Due to the nature of the contact printing process, where the specimen contacts the light-sensitive paper the ensuing line and shape has a sharp delineation. As the specimen recedes away from the light-sensitive material, the resulting shapes have softer edges and less delineation. The combination of sharp-edge/soft-edge effects result in an image that appears that it could have been created on a foggy day. Especially if the photograph was created with the lens wide open and a shallow depth of field, some parts sharply defined, and others not, as the scene appears to recede into the background mist, haze, or fog.

The pace of the objects within the mural is irregular and appears as a natural landscape. The recreation of nature is similar to what you would expect when viewing a natural museum’s diorama. Burchfield has repeated some shapes, with intermittent tall columns that represent dense trees, light and translucent leaves through the center and occasionally at the top of the mural, and on the base, intermittent shapes and masses of grasses, fern fans and low vegetation.

Like his earlier Amazon project, the range of colors, tonal patterns, shapes and mass that have been captured in his prints is still magical. These photographs can also represent the transitory nature of our environment. In Burchfield’s mural, I see that large, solid trees do cast a strong shadow, but these same trees hold delicate leaves that are semi-transparent and fragile. We may think that the trees can last forever, but the tree’s very existence is highly dependent upon their vulnerable leaves. I think that Burchfield’s message is that our ecosystem, no matter how robust and invincible that it may seem, is at great risk to changes in the balance of nature.

The Forward was written by Kevin Miller, the introductory essay by Burchfield and Afterword written by Don Spence. 


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By Douglas Stockdale

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