High above the bricks of Virginia clay stand wild beasts: cougars, penguins, jellyfish, and chimpanzees stare larger-than-life from amongst the oak trees. What was once a simple restaurant patio becomes a captivating wildlife smorgasbord, taking you on a journey to some of the most alluring places on planet Earth. Juxtaposed against the urban surroundings of downtown Charlottesville, these giant images embody the raw beauty of the natural world, assembled en masse for the ever-popular TREES Exhibit, part of the annual LOOK3: Festival of the Photograph. But this isn’t just a collection of pretty pictures. The encounter carries a dire message of preservation, calling out to you from an ecosystem under fire.
It all began with acclaimed wildlife photographer, Frans Lanting. The Dutch-born conservationist originally sought to study environmental planning, but once he began photographing the natural world, he never looked back. For over three decades, Lanting has documented wildlife from the Amazon to Antarctica. His work is frequently commissioned by National Geographic where he has served as Photographer-in-Residence. Despite his success, Lanting hasn’t forgotten his conservationist roots. While scientists use data and statistics to communicate ecological issues, Lanting taps the power of photography to convey understanding, passion, and respect for our living planet.
And if photography is communication, then TREES is a statement. For several weeks in June, seven city blocks will be adorned with massive photos hanging high above Charlottesville’s pedestrian mall. “We like to say that it turns the Downtown Mall into one big vibrant photograph – from above, down below, eye level, the whole area,” said Executive Director Mary Virginia Swanson. She continued, “It’s hard to explain to people that haven’t been here how interesting it is and how truly engaging it is,” adding, “We get fantastic feedback from people from all over the world who encounter it and they’ve never seen anything like it.”
The public placement of these photos adds a healthy dose of theatrics to the exhibition, a feat that takes some doing. A crew assembles at 6 a.m., climbing ladders and criss-crossing suspension cables to hang the huge sheets of vinyl. “We worked for years to get a system that we and the City of Charlottesville feel completely confident about. No matter the windstorm, the armatures that are put in place will remain intact,” explained Swanson, adding “We work with materials that are complicated. They’ve got to sustain their durability, not just against the sun, but also be able to stay safely in the trees.”
With high-profile installations like this, LOOK3 takes on extra logistical risk for maximum viewer impact. The first of its kind in Charlottesville, TREES brings photography out of the gallery and into the public arena. “We have complicated exhibits every year because we want to show the work that the artists most want in the scale that they want,” said Swanson. This isn’t the only large-scale installation this year. Nick Brandt’s exhibition, Inherit The Dust, will feature oversized panoramas in black and white on display at the McGuffey Art Center. Swanson laughs, “Nick Brandt’s pieces are between eight- to twelve-feet long. TREES will be simple compared to that.” Festivals like LOOK3 are some of the only opportunities to experience photography on such a grand scale, providing an experience that just can’t be rivaled on a mobile phone or in a magazine.
Over the course of a week, LOOK3 invites attendees to not only critically examine the issues raised in the exhibits, but also reexamine their own relationship to photography as an artform. Even beginners can get in on the act, as this year the festival is hosting its first-ever Family Photo Day. This Sunday workshop prompts people to, as Swanson put it, “stop and remember the power of the family photograph.” The workshop will also teach the basic skills of transferring images from camera to computer to printer. The goal of the session is that each participating family can walk away with a new group portrait, an artifact representing their shared experience. In the age of digital photography, Swanson still emphasizes the role of physical prints in casual photography, saying, “I think it is important to print, to have an object that outlives that conversation, that lives longer and can be shared in a tangible way.”
That sentiment is what has motivated the LOOK3 organizers for almost 20 years. At its most basic, photography is about visual communication from one being to the next. “I think all of us are touched by the power of photography,” Swanson said, “whether you’re older and grew up reading monthly magazines and the Sunday paper, or today where we get thousands of images every day online.” There’s something about the immediacy of photography that few other mediums share, particularly in documentary photography. In spite of all the creative choices that each photographer makes use of, there’s a fundamental authenticity that’s inescapable, causing the viewer to live out the scene as presented. Swanson summarized, “I think the power of images to create change is really the bottom line.” Whether you’re trying to save the planet or simply save a memory, LOOK3 offers a chance to experience that change for yourself.
LOOK3: Festival of the Photograph takes place in Charlottesville from June 13-19. Artist talks will be held at The Paramount Theater: Frans Lanting on Wednesday, June 15 and Nick Brandt on Thursday, June 16 (both events start at 7:30 PM). Family Photo Day will be held at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center on Sunday, June 19 from 11 AM - 2 PM. For a full schedule of events, visit look3.org.