The hazy, almost imperceptible, line that separates man from nature is a difficult and well-trod territory for photographers. It is also a fiction. The perceived demarcations have more to do with our own human and cultural distinctions than anything essential. As much as we try and forget, we are still animals. Ron Jude's latest book, Lick Creek Line, uses a fur trapper and a small community in northern Idaho to tease apart these fictional boundaries. His work asks provocative questions about the relationship between photographs, personal experience and knowledge, as well as our persistent desire to understand images in spite of their maddeningly murky nature.
The book begins with directions, surreptitiously tucked under the dust jacket, that lead us through the woods and towards the Lick Creek line. Although they are clear, they are also sufficiently vague that one might get lost, and end by stating, "the trail recedes into the unmarked forest." A foreboding tone that hints at the confusion that lies ahead. Shortly after following a man in the woods, we are immediately engulfed by the river. White water churns and splashes all around us until we emerge on the far shore and are safely back with the trapper. Through this simple sequence, Jude reveals his hand and offers a subtle clue about his intentions. Like the foggy hazy of a Hollywood dream sequence, we are passing through to a world of Jude's creation where things are not as they seem.
The central figure in the book is the fur trapper. Often obscured by branches or pine trees, he is a shadowy character and is never identified. As we follow him checking and maintaining his traps, the book alternates between views of the woods, the trapper, and the life that exists on the periphery of the wilderness. Dotting the landscape are newly paved roads, an encroaching ski resort and modest log cabins and houses. Inside the cabins are rooms decorated with moose heads, antlers, animal figurines and fur blankets. Images of blood and viscera are juxtaposed with cozy interiors, sublime lakes and winter landscapes. In its sequencing and pairing, the book is full of allusions to the lines and boundaries we draw between wilderness and civilization, how we butt up against and intersect with nature, what we try to keep out and what we let in. What seems at first to be a relatively straightforward narrative about a fur trapper and the surrounding landscape becomes something else. Jude subverts the conventions and expectations of his subject, as well as our desire for narrative, to lead us somewhere new. In one spread, a map paired with a chaotic jumble of trees reminds us that even the most carefully drawn lines can't rein in the chaos or keep us from getting lost.
The book is thematically linked to Jude's last two books, Alpine Star and Emmet, which all share an autobiographical thread. The former uses appropriated imagery from his hometown's newspaper to create an odd but affectionate portrait of a small town, while the later uses Jude's earliest photographs to create a loose narrative of adolescence angst, boredom and rebellion. Together the three books not only weave together various strands of Jude's past and roots in Idaho, but also offer an intriguing exploration of how photographs can shape our understanding of a place or the past. The work is also reminiscent of Jude's other book, Other Nature, a series of smart landscapes and interiors, and his series 45th Parallel, which also focuses on Jude's hometown McCall, Idaho. Like Lick Creek Line, both these bodies of work transcend a simple retread of the 'New Topographics' and offer interesting ideas about photographic perception, place and subjectivity.
Accompanying the book is a small newsprint pamphlet with a short story by Nicholas Muellner entitled "No Such Place." Besides the directions underneath the dust jacket, there is no text to the book. While the story doesn't directly relate to the book, it involves a photographer who befriends a building inspector. As he follows her during her rounds, he takes pictures to help her remember various details for her reports. The story ends with a series of descriptions of these photographs that highlights the odd disconnect between the photograph's intended documentary function and their ultimate incomprehensibility – a fitting theme given the work's exploration of photography's relationship to truth and experience.
Photographers are often compared to hunters, but rarely, if ever, to trappers. The metaphor doesn't really fit. However, in this case, it is hard not to mistake the trapper as a stand-in for Jude, which means we just might be the prey. Through Jude's astute edit, sequences and pairing, we are led into the wilderness where our assumptions are upended and we end up stepping in more than a few traps. We slowly realize how our assumptions and expectations ensnare us into a simplistic and naïve view of our relationship with nature as something 'other' and outside, or something that can be easily drawn on a map, documented with a photograph or followed without getting a little lost.
Adam Bell is a photographer and writer based in Brooklyn, NY. He received his MFA from the School of Visual Arts, and his work has been exhibited and published internationally. He is the co-editor and co-author, with Charles H. Traub and Steve Heller, of The Education of a Photographer (Allworth Press, 2006). His writing has appeared in Foam Magazine, Lay Flat and Ahorn Magazine. He is currently on staff and faculty at the School of Visual Arts' MFA Photography, Video and Related Media Department. His website and blog are adambbell.com and adambellphoto.blogspot.com.