Since 2008, I’ve been creating a photographic archive depicting America’s rich trove of wild edible flora. The project has taken me to fifteen different states so far, and I’ve amassed a collection of over one hundred and forty specimens. The work sprung from disillusionment with the position of landscape photography in relation to pressing threats like climate change, extinction, pollution, and the loss of commons. Too often, the genre traffics in the aesthetics of nature instead of the inner workings of ecology. To address climate change and environmental degradation, I felt a radically different artistic strategy was necessary. The resulting series seemed a promising vein of work that satisfied the new critical criteria I set for landscape-based artwork – a socially engaged approach that was accessible without sacrificing theoretical depth and that possessed the potential to effect change.
By employing a system that makes it easy to identify both the plant and its edible parts, the images function as reliable guides for foraging. This concrete, functional aspect of the project directs viewers to free food that can be used for sustenance, or as raw material for creative economies. The seemingly objective style of the images references early contact prints from the dawn of photography (Henry Fox Talbot, Anna Atkins) when photography’s verisimilitude proved a promising form of scientific illustration for taxonomical undertakings.
The scientific yields to something potentially spiritual as the viewer begins to experience our symbiotic evolution with the plant kingdom. I’ve been informed and inspired by Buddhist and Native American teachings about ecology, inter-connectivity, and consciousness. I found the Buddhist teaching on dependent origination particularly profound and elegant: “If this exists, that exists; if this ceases to exist, that also ceases to exist.” I often find myself marveling at the intricate web of overlapping systems and sheer length of time – incomprehensible fathoms of time – it took to develop this symbiosis.
To achieve this layered aesthetic the plant photographs are meticulously constructed. I photograph multiple specimens of the same plant and combine the best elements from each to create an archetypal rendering of the species. By judiciously rearranging, scaling, and warping, I can vivify the plant and turn the ground into space. This subtle reference to shamanic scrying and other mystical forms of seeing nudges the work towards the numinous. I hope viewers carry this experience out into the landscape, into their communities, and see the plants that surround them in a fresh, wonder-filled way.
The work offers a dose of something palliative for the ills of alienation – a sense of connection to a certain place, a certain ecosystem, a type of belonging. I hope the photographic survey can serve as a historical archive of botanical life during eras of extreme change, and provide viewers an opportunity to feel the type of bond with their landscapes that will encourage health, engender wonder, help identify free food, and most importantly, inspire greater concern for environmental issues. -Jimmy Fike