It's always deep in the heart of the forest where the evil lurks. Hansel and Gretel come across the evil witch and her gingerbread house, Little Red Ridding Hood meets the wolf, and countless other fell and dangerous creatures are known to lurk there. Our relationship to trees and forests has a history of being adversarial; in order to establish outposts of civilization homesteaders would clear away trees to grow the meagre crops that keep them alive.
As hard as it for us to imagine most of the world's temperate climate land masses, North America, Europe and parts of Asia, were at one time covered with mixed growth forests. Evergreens and deciduous stood cheek to jowl and were home to wildlife that has long since vanished. While North America, Canada in particular, is still home to swaths of pristine forest land, Europe's great stands have been greatly reduced. Where once wolves and woodland bison roamed, small pockets of trees remain that are but ghosts of their past glory.
The majority of us will now probably go our entire lives without setting foot in anything resembling a forest, or at best visit one of the domesticated versions where neat roadways and paths lead you through ordered rows of new growth and the occasional old veteran bearing the scars of the axe that failed to fell them, Yet for those of us willing to make the effort to strike off on our own and enter into the forest world, the experience can be close to mystical. The noise of civilization has ebbed into silence and we stand there alone with only floating pieces of light and dust, occasional bird song, and small animal life for company.
The first book of Viggo Mortensen's poems and photographs that I acquired, Coincidence of Memory, had on its cover an image of trees rendered in slightly out of focus shades of grey. Since then I have had the good fortune to be able to view the majority of his books and in each of them there has been at least one image that has paid homage to the splendour and mystery of trees. So it wasn't much of a surprise that Skovbo, (a Danish word that roughly translates into English as "home in the forest") his latest book of photographs and poems published by Perceval Press, gathers together images of trees that he has photographed from around the world. Meant to be a companion for an upcoming exhibit of Mr. Mortensen's photography at the Reykjavik Museum of Photography Skovbo works just as well as a stand alone collection of work replete with the mystery and beauty of trees.
Last year Mr. Mortensen released a CD of improvised piano tunes entitled Time Waits For Everyone featuring pieces that were named for locales throughout Eastern Europe and Russia. In Skovbo we are taken back over that same geographic territory.This time though we are seeing through the lens of his camera, and occasionally his words on paper, as he drives through the country side and occasionally ventures into cities. With the exception of one or two shots trees play a role in the composition of these photographs. From a solitary tree standing sentinel on the edge of a farmer's field caught by Mr. Mortensen's camera through the car window to panoramic views of forests, I've never seen trees captured on film in the way they are in Skovbo.
No matter what his subject matter, what first catches your eye about these works is the role that light plays in the composition and Mr. Mortensen's ability for capturing and utilizing ambient light. Shooting up through a hole in the canopy of a stand of trees at night brings the star filled sky crashing down on our heads, as the camera lens pulls and is pulled by the one source of illumination available to it. The light years that separate us from the stars has been eliminated as the night sky plugs the hole in the top of the forest; if our bed were the forest floor the sky would be our ceiling lying just beyond the reach of our fingertips.
In another composition he shoots across sun's glare refracting the light in such a way that a stand of trees awaiting illumination are washed with a prism's red flecks and bedecked with transitory fire flowers. While this photograph gives some indication that sunlight might not be the gentlest of light sources by showing us the harshness that lies at its heart in terms of colour and intensity, it barely prepares us for the merciless quality that appears in the picture of a dead fawn in a farmer's field. Off in the distance, at the edge of the frame, we see a line of trees that could indicate the beginnings of a forest that might have been the animal's home and shelter.
What compelled it to leave the cool dark place under the boughs of the trees to venture out here into the open where it met its end? The harshness of the light beating relentlessly down on the small corpse gives notice that there is no sentimentality in nature. While Mr. Mortensen's camera is able to capture the beauty of the cool dark places under the trees in such a way as to make you want to seat yourself beneath them and breath in the peacefulness, he does not shy away from the truth that sudden death is just as much part of this world's reality.
Still there is no escaping the majesty and beauty of the forest or the strength and mystery of the solitary tree as image after image of them are presented for our contemplation. Even a tree laid out to rest with its roots ripped from the earth and splayed like a multi-fingered hand adds to the impression of dignity that has been created. In spite of being fallen, its strength and power remain undiminished in the eye of Mr. Mortensen's camera.
On some occasions the camera looks at the forest from a distance, on others its looking out from amidst the trees at the world beyond, and others we are brought to rest inside the forest with the trees. The photographs in Skovbo show us that no matter where we sit there is still enough power remaining in the scattered woods of the world to stir our souls and fire our imaginations. Peering into one grey and misty vista of trees I can't help but look for shapes flitting back and forth; the ghosts of the wolves or wood bison that once roamed the woods of Europe, or the spirits of the people that used to live in them in North America. Viggo Mortensen's Skovbo brings the forest alive in a way that I've never seen photographs do before. You might never look at a tree in the same way again.
Copies of Skovbo can be purchased directly from Perceval Press, as can other works by Viggo Mortensen and other fine artists and writers.
(Originally posted May 2008)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.