Rita Leistner – Forest For The Trees

Review by Douglas Stockdale •

I am writing and publishing this book review today on Earth Day, which I believe is a fitting subject. Interestingly, this book is not directly about climate change, per se, but speaks indirectly to what is required to support renewable natural resources, such as our forests, in this case, the expansive forests located across Canada. The forward-thinking government of Canada requires commercial loggers to replant any clear-cut forest land and those who do the arduous job of tree planting are the subject of Rita Leistner’s Forest For The Trees.

For Leistner, this multi-year portrait project was made from an insider’s viewpoint, as she was also a Canadian tree planter in the mid-1980’s. This was a project that resulted in both a documentary film as well as the still photographs that encompass this book. 

The portraits of the tree planters are transfixing, resulting from a combination of 100 Megapixel digital capture in conjunction with portable studio lighting. The artificial lighting creates images that we might associate with the staged photographs of Crewdson or Wall, but are really related to the on-camera flash work of WeeGee (Arthur Fellis), Diane Arbus, and more recently Andrew Bush and Brian Finke

The resulting portraits are almost too surreal, the likenesses resembling a weird combination of high fashion and police reportage. It is difficult to not assume that these photographs were not entirely staged. To a very small degree these were in a sense staged, as the tree planters had the full realization that they were being photographed. The combination of the large camera equipment and a lighting crew made this very obvious. Nevertheless, the tree planters had a job to do: they were being paid not by the hour, but by the number of trees they planted. The concern for the tree planters quickly became one of getting the most trees planted while not being so distracted by the photographic team to place themselves in physical danger.

Leistner leads us into the book by trying to provide an external environmental context as to where the tree planters are working. The expansive nature landscapes of the scars left by the mechanized loggers is still difficult to comprehend as to the magnitude of this space. Clear cut forests for as far as the eye can see. The resulting landscape is messy, difficult to hike across, littered with tree debris and thus a dangerous place to work. The disarray of her young subjects, a job for only the very young of heart, document the difficulty of the hard work that transpires.

This is also a life style documentary, not only what occurs in the planting, but the off-time in camp. Work hard, play harder. This appears to be a no-frills job, which is interesting in how the tree-planting work has become a Canadian cult, a rite of passage. I think Mark Twain would approve of how what was the worst job in logging could become a much sought after job.

A final chapter in the book is titled Enchanted Forests that is a series of forest portraits paired with introspective captions. Similar to the portraits of the tree planters, Leistner and her photographic team set up temporary lighting to illuminate what was found. Beautiful, charming, and seductive landscapes.

In conclusion, a couple of days I reviewed Alan Gignoux’s Mountain Tops to Moonscapes, his documentary style narrative about exploiting the natural coalfields in America’s Appalachia. For strip mining coal there is a requirement to replace what was there before the mining occurred, so the coal company’s deviant practice is to first clear-cut the forest before purchasing their permits to cut the top of the mountains off, so all they are ‘required’ to do is reseed with cheap grass the resulting moonscapes. These two book clearly differentiate the government policies of two different, but adjacent, countries regarding the stewardship of earth’s precious natural resources and our collective futures.

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Douglas Stockdale is the Senior Editor (founder) of PhotoBook Journal and a Southern California visual artist, book-nerd and science-geek.

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Forest For The Trees, Rita Leistner

Photographer: Rita Leistner, born Scarborough, Ontario, Canada and resides in Montreal and Toronto, Canada

Publisher: Dewi Lewis Publishing, Stockport, England, copyright 2021

Essay: Interview by Don McKellar

Text: English & French

Clothbound hardback, printed by EBS, Verona, Italy, ISBN: 978-1-911306-75-7

Photobook Design: Rita Leistner & Dewi Lewis

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Articles and photographs published in the PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s). All images, texts, and designs are copyright of the authors and publishers.

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