Jesse Burke divides his time between personal art projects and commissioned work. A New England native, he currently lives in Rhode Island with his wife and their three daughters, Clover Lee, Poppy Dee, & Honey Bee. He received his MFA from Rhode Island School of Design, where he is a faculty member, and earned his BFA from the University or Arizona. Jesse’s work deals with themes related to vulnerability and identity, as well as human’s complicated relationship with nature. Daylight Books published his monograph, Wild & Precious, in October 2015. His work has been exhibited in galleries and museums in the U.S. and abroad including The Haggerty Museum, the Perth Center for Photography, the Tucson Museum of Art, the Print Center in Philadelphia and the Lishui Photo Festival in China and is held in many private and public collections including the Museum of Contemporary Photography Chicago, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the North Carolina Museum of Art, and the Rhode Island School of Design Museum. Jesse was recently named one Time Magazine‘s top 50 US photographers to follow on Instagram.
Wild & Precious
The woods are blanketed in blackness, a subtle reminder of how small and fragile we are. The fire crackles as embers float from the flames and mix with fireflies as they spiral into the sky. I sit here listening to the crickets sing you to sleep and wonder if you’re dreaming of salamanders or sunsets. We’ve been roaming all day and long into the night, out in the feral woods. We collected mica flakes on the summit of Mount Washington and watched the yellow-bellied sapsuckers drill shallow rows of sapwells. You are tired and dirty, yet radiant. My heart swells.
There are so many things I want to teach you. I want you to know which leaves belong to which trees, what the bumps of a toad feel like, the sweet smell and taste of wild honeysuckles. I want you to trust the night air, to not be afraid of spiders, to know things that I don’t, things I was never taught. I want you to feel at home in the wild.
My mind is full of moving images: you running down to the sea as the gulls laugh overhead, you collecting spindly strips of birch bark and downy striped turkey feathers, you and me quietly brushing our teeth alongside one another beneath the hum of the green fluorescent light in our motel bathroom, you ducking in and out of the massive drift logs as sunbeams cut through the dense fog behind you, and you in the backseat with your chin up and eyes tightly closed, singing along to Johnny Cash while the mountain wind rips through your hair.
Each day is a new adventure that we enter as if upon a stage. Every day you are bigger and braver. I know I can’t ask you to stay small, to stay innocent. Nature will run its course. You will change and grow. You’ll shed the velvet cloak of childhood like flowers in their final bloom before the cold of winter arrives. The metamorphosis is beautiful to watch, but heartbreaking. Oh, sweet child, I beg you to be wild, but stay precious.
Sleep well, my love. The fire calls me.
I love you to the moon and back.
Wild & Precious brings together images from a series of road trips traveled with my daughter Clover to explore the natural world. To encourage a connection between my child and nature, I use these adventures to give her an education that I considers essential—one that develops appreciation, respect, conservation, and self-confidence. While on the road, we study and document the routes we drive, the landscapes we discover, and all the creatures we encounter, even the roadside motels where we sleep. Wild & Precious reveals the fragile, complicated relationship that humans share with nature. I want my children to genuinely understand how magical the world we inhabit is and how we, as humans, are an integral part of the system. I want them to feel a deep connection to every aspect of their surroundings.
Hey Jesse, can you describe your earliest perceptions of nature and the environment? How are these ideas explored through your children in your series, “Wild & Precious”?
I have always been intrigued by nature and the landscape. As a young boy I would often wonder away from my house down to the local pond to catch snakes with my friends. These were times away from our parents and the seriousness of life in the neighborhoods we lived in. These were some pretty sketchy neighborhoods so the ability to get away to the woods was really exciting to us. We were free spirits running wild in the woods. This has instilled in me a deep connection and love for nature. Of course, these ideas are paramount in all my photographic series. Particularly Wild & Precious where work is all about allowing my children to feel a similar connection.
Your previous series, “Intertidal,” was a visual exploration of masculinity and its relationship to the natural world. Can you briefly describe this body of work, and how it relates to “Wild and Precious”?
Intertidal was an autobiographical exploration into the idea of who I am as a man and my relation to the men in my family, and our bigger relationships to the landscape that we lived in. Growing up in New England we’ve always been connected to the landscape in someway whether it be as kids playing in the woods or adults fishing or hunting. Our environments have always played a huge part in shaping who we are. Wild & Precious rides on the heels of Intertidal in some ways. In Intertidal my role was as the son and my father and family members create the next ring of the hierarchy above me, instilling inspiration and knowledge down the ladder. In Wild & Precious my role is as father and I am now and instilling ideas and sending things down the ladder to my children. All of the works I’m my projects deal with themes related to vulnerability and identity, as well as human’s complicated relationship with nature.
Considering these two projects how are themes surrounding gender and identity addressed within your photography practice?
“Intertidal” really was a critical look at masculine identity in general but it did span the spectrum from embrace to criticism. In some images I am celebrating being hyper masculine and other images I am bashing on that notion and embracing being vulnerable or emasculated and someway, which is also a huge part of male identity. I think this is just the reality of how we as men exist, it’s a sliding scale from black to white and often times we find ourselves living in the grey areas. In terms of gender I think that the work is less specifically about that idea and more serves as an entry point for one to understand how gender could be seen in our lives, as men, sons, fathers, and brothers.
What do you think were your daughters’ ideas of nature before pursuing this project? What are you hoping they will take away from these experiences they shared with you?
From the beginning I don’t think my children had the chance to form their own independent ideas about nature. We sort of force fed them nature since they were born, they grew up with a very sensitive and connected way of thinking about the landscape. When I mean to say is that their perception of the environment and nature was more or less their parents opinions on the subject. They grew up connected to trees, flowers, beach, animals and all the things that they found out in the wild on our adventures together. I think this is just the default position for children growing up from birth and being very connected to the natural world. It wasn’t something that I consciously decided to document in the beginning but it was certainly something that I decided was an important aspect of our lives and would become a very important aspect of their’s. I wanted them to feel an intimate connection to the natural world so we placed them into the locations where that experience would blossom. Then I sat back and started to document these processes and experiences. My hope is that my children will grow up to be sensitive environmental stewards. That they will love and respect the creatures of the earth, the trees, and all matter of life. I think this is already very visible in the way that they interact when they’re out in nature or more or less anywhere. They’re very sensitive to animal life and how the cycles of nature work such as the wind, the clouds, the rain, things like this.
“Wild and Precious” is clearly a collaborative effort with you and your family. What kind of insight did they bring into the creation of these photographs?
The collaborative nature of this project is something that I was blind to in the beginning. In all my previous work I was shooting subjects, mostly adults, and I would direct them and they would do more or less what I would say. I acted as a director. In this project my daughter being a five-year-old child had her own agenda and I quickly learned that this was going to be a collaboration and that I would have to bend the ways of working to accommodate this new part of the process. It was very frustrating the beginning, I was to not be able to get what I thought I needed. I also learned that what I thought I wanted in the end was not the strongest work and that the images were Clover gave back and worked with me became the better images. The images where Clover is being herself, being a child, being free, and not being just the subject. It seems so obvious to think of it now but hindsight is 20/20, of course. This method of working has shifted my complete concept of how photography should be approached. I’m a much more collaborative artist in general now and I thank my daughter for teaching me this. 🙂
How do you feel that the monograph and the film engage “Wild and Precious” in different ways?
I feel that the monograph is an idealized state of the project where one can share the work with us in the proper way. What I mean by this is that it’s delivered to you in a specific way and you are forced by our edit to look at the pictures in a certain order and this is the order that we want you to see them in there are multiple arcs or bookends in the book. For example the first picture and the last images are of Clover sleeping which allows the viewer to think that it’s possible that the entire book is a dream. Everything happens between the first and last picture, also it may be simply happening in our minds and not in reality. This adds a wonderful fantastical slant and possibility to the work. Just inside those pictures are pictures of Clover at the beginning of the project and then at the end of the project (the book is mostly chronological) and then there are letters from myself to Clover and then from Clover to myself. These all act as multiple bookends, which frame it for the viewer. The film engages you in a way that is different because it adds audio, it adds my voice, it adds motion, things that I think are missing from the photographs. Important parts of the story. It allows the viewer to get emotionally connected to the work in a much more rich and sensory way. At least that is my hope.
Do you have a new body of work on the horizon? Can you share with us what you are working on currently?
Right now we are working on creating photographs together as a family with all three children. We are also collecting objects we find out in the wild where we take the photographs. We are going to bring those objects back to the studio early then treat the photographs with the objects. The goal is to imbue some physicality of the space into the photos. For example we collected wildflowers on this farm we were visiting and we’re going to use pieces of the flowers and place them on the photographs so that the images become unique objects and all of our hands are at play in the making of the final piece, which ends up being a one-of-a-kind object. We have also collect blackberries form a scene that we will paint with on the images We are using glitter, paint, and all sorts of childlike items to make this new work. It’s going to be really fun and playful. I am very excited about this but we’re not sure where it will end up. Stay tuned. 🙂
To view more of Jesse’s work, please visit his website.