Allowable Cuts
Lorraine Gilbert
December 4 — Dec 15, 1990

Lorraine Gilbert’s installation at the Or Gallery consists of several large photo murals which comment on the effects of logging on British Columbia’s landscape. As well as depicting economic devastation, Gilbert disrupts notions of the representation of landscape in fine art photography and painting that usually depicts an idealized and often pastoral beauty and untouched plenitude.

Brochure essay by Lary Bremner

Lorraine Gilbert
Allowable Cuts

Reworking what have been the largely male traditions of an intentionally that equates nature with a feminine Sublime and portraiture with “essence” and power, Lorraine Gilbert’s recent project is a newly engaged ecological precision, an extension of her previous involvement in what has come to be known as the New Topographies. Her work is revelatory of the naive and suspect pleasure produced by view-camera over-abundance of detail, here exposed as the trace of destructive power.

An eight-year veteran of the “drudgery and exhilaration” that is the seasonal rigour of tree-planting camps in British Columbia and Quebec, Gilbert uses a large format 4“x5” camera in the field, in this case the crewcut, the planting-site slash. In addition, she has constructed a portable studio for portrait work. As a forestry graduate, Gilbert does not condemn the industry but opposes the short-term economic expediency of current logging practices. Her project title, the rhetorically ironic Allowable Cuts, comes from the same neutralizing corporate newspeak that refers to old-growth tress as “unit stands,” forest decimation as the achievement of theoretically “sustainable yields” and tree plantations as “above ground management.” As environmental biologist
Chris Maser has pointed out (in The Redesigned Forest), species-rich first-growth forests are, under the current exploit-and-repair philosophy, rapidly being
replaced by “time constrained and oversimplified monoculture environments.” Likening old-growth to a living laboratory, and our only blueprint for a true forest, Maser argues that the point of irreversible cumulative damage to the ecosytem cannot be predicted by the statistical models forwarded by the profit-motivated “stewards” of our forest lands. As current bumper-sticker wisdom has it, “A tree farm is not a forest.” Faced with the further evidence of mineral erosion, flooding,, and the destruction of salmon spawning-grounds, Gilbert’s photographs help make visible, in the public domain, abuses that may still be corrected. Her project asks, “What degree of exploitation is ‘allowable,’ and who decides?”

That Gilbert should employ “the principle tool of the idealized North American landscape aesthetic” is not surprising. By way of highly detailed and inappropriately “beautiful” images of devastation she reclaims and re-employs the landscape tradition, evoking, of necessity, everything from the expansionist survey
photography of the late 1800s through to the humanist modernism of Ansel Adams. In this context, Gilbert calls into question both current clearest logging practices and photography’s historical complicity with notions of nature’s endless abundance. Her work is conscious of photography’s tendency to synechdotal framing, and its inherent irony: the virtual replacement by the document/simulacrum for the “real” world it purports to depict.

In the ecological context of the altered landscape Gilbert has subtly inverted a number of the expected photographic conventions. In previous installations of her ongoing project (La Terre Promise, and Le Paysage) the referential dissonance set up in work captioned, for example, Luc in Bella Coola, or Planting Crew Going to Work, Invermere, BC. is effected by the minute scale of the human “subjects” all but lost in a recapping of the mutilated topography. One is reminded of the plethora of turn-of-the-century stereoscopic images of the wilderness, particularly the heroic poses of loggers and survey engineers whose very presence, while intended to show the scale of the towering first-growth
frontier, signified Victorian confidence, domination and control. Here, in the large panorama Carolle, posing & planting (four 30“x40” panels), the barren
clearest slopes seem to extend endlessly beyond the frame, threatening even the foregrounded and evident optimism of the putative subject, the young planter.

Gilbert’s portrait work draws the viewer into an easy identification with “document” but her directorial interventions resist the romanticism of an entirely objective gaze. Here portraiture, itself landscape’s coeval, sociological twin, plays with a range of viewer expectations. The sixteen 11“xl4” portraits, comprising a single piece arranged in a grid, remind us of both the statistical nature of the uniformly imposed plantation plots, and of the faceted “species-rich” diversity that is the human “resource.” The temptation to a facile valorization of the “proletarian” planters that was subverted by the hyperbolic mock heroism of Self Portrait (from La Terre Promise) is here extended in this grouping. A taxonomy of portrait styles and intentions – carte de visite to snapshot aesthetic, work-site specific to backdrop formality – acts to diffuse the historical pretentious of portraiture, and provide what Barthes would call a “suprasgmental” syntax. Indeed, Gilbert’s inclusion of biographical information about the planters (the crew family tree, if you like) reveals their broadly middle-class origins. Gilbert’s own active role as a planter gives portrayals of her cc-workers aspects quite dissimilar to the well-intentioned but ultimately condescending bathos of reportage in, for example, the widely disseminated F.S.A. photographs of Depression-era America.

Cross-fading the hard distinctions between portraiture and landscape forms, the humorous iconography of the introductory piece, Shaping the New Forest (30“x40”, colour), says much about the necessary cc-habitation of the mutually interdependent systems, the human and the ecological. It provides, also, clues to a reading of multiple and overlapping subject in the pivotal diptych Cassettes of Tress/Snags, the unplanted tree-plugs in the lush verdancy of the first panel dichotomous with the planter and seedlings dwarfed by the razed and l’ocllp- expanse in the second.

A short video, a study for a future (Spring/Summer ’9 1) project, accompanies Allowable Cuts. Its brief, straightforward sequences of treeplanters at work are interspliced with tightly framed slow-motion shots. The soundtrack, as listened to through earphones, is comprised of ambient planting noises: buzzing of insects and the breathing of planters; scraping of shovels and the purposeful clomping of boots. The silence of the slow-motion hands and torsos conveys a sense of the meditative rhythm that can be part of even the most back-breaking work. The video’s
inclusion here serves as an antidote to the kind of self-congratulatory television advertising that has been the main public relations strategy of British Columbian
logging companies in recent years.

Gilbert, stressing the documentary nature of Allowable Cuts is quick to emphasize that this work is “not about art,” is less self-reflexive and conceptual
than its showing in a gallery context would indicate. However, that a company like MacMillan Bloedel should attempt to enlist for their publicity Gilbert’s more “heroic” portraits (as they appeared in the Spring ’88 issue of the treeplanters’ magazine Screef), while refusing to accept what they termed the “scare tactics” of the clearest landscapes, is telling. In the contentious insistence on form Gilbert reopens the discourses of documentation and divests them of the unquestioned traditions of unlimited access both photographic and economic.

Lary Bremner, 1990 Lorraine Gilbert is a photographer from Montreal who currently teaches at the University of Ottawa. Previously a graduate in Environmental Biology (McGill), she has also studied forestry at the University of British Columbia. Her
most recent work was shown at McMicheal Museum in Klienburg, Ontario, and published in The Landscape/Le Paysage: 8 Canadian Photographers. She will also be exhibiting with Darius Kinsey and Frank Gohlke in Rochester, N.Y. in March, 1991. Lorraine has been planting trees every summer for the past decade.

Lary Bremner is editor/publisher of Tsunami Editions and is a former treeplanter.

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