The Tree Planters and Enchanted Forests

British Columbia Canada 2016-2019


Professional tree planting is back-breaking piecework—a combination of high intensity sport and industrial labour that requires both technical finesse and remarkable physical and mental endurance. Using techniques more often associated with high-performance athletes, it is not uncommon for an experienced planter to plant 1,000 to 4,000 trees or more in single day, leaping up and down through uneven and overgrown terrain strewn with debris (wood and slash left behind after logging), while carrying 30-kilogram bags of seedlings and armed only with a shovel, burning up to 7,000 calories in the process. The swarms of biting insects are legendary. They live in remote bush camps, off the grid, in forest regions hundreds of kilometres from towns or cities. Due to the brutal physical demands of the work, most are “Millennials” under 30-years-old. It’s also seasonal work and attracts many students from the cities in the south (90% of Canadians live in cities on the southern border). Professional tree planting was established in Canada in the 1970s in response to increasing government quotas for planting, partly due to indigenous influence on environmental policy.

Leistner, working off the grid for months and months outdoors, in untamed and physically gruelling and frenetic circumstances, always facing an incredibly diverse set of challenges and obstacles, rigorously pushes the medium of photography, never relenting until she has achieved “the perfect shot,” and ultimately celebrating the possibilities of photography. Every portrait is an action shot, taken in real time. Leistner works in tandem with her athletic lighting assistant as both run, backwards, in anticipation of the movements of these fast-paced, erratic subjects. When every element comes together, this remarkable process results in classical lighting and exact compositions unprecedented in this type of context. With their magical, painting-like sense of artifice, Leistner’s photographs at times remind the viewer of masters like Eugène Delacroix and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, and other times Caravaggio.

First exhibited at the Stephen Bulger Gallery in October 2017, The Tree Planters photographs have been extensively recognized in the Canadian and international press, including National Geographic, Geo France, The Globe and Mail, Blouin ArtInfo, Lenscratch, and Le Quotidien de l’Art. They are in private and public collections, including The Royal Ontario Museum and the Toronto Dominion Bank.

In forestry, a clear-cut means an area where trees have been industrially cut down systematically—that’s where the tree planters’ place of work is.  Leistner’s new series, Enchanted Forests, consisting of 16 works, complements The Tree Planters by looking beyond the edges of the clear-cuts, inside the tree line where un-felled trees remain. The Enchanted Forests’ fairy tale-like representations of forest scenes, like The Tree Planters, are rendered large-scale and in impeccable detail. Through preternatural imagery, they iterate the figure-ground relationship of tree planting and reforestation to deforestation, to new growth forests as well as forests ravaged by fire or insect infestation—perspectives of the forest never seen in this light until now.

The images are dark and light, hopeful and hopeless, and realistic yet surreal, telling multiple stories through the language of photography. As in The Tree Planters, this series is painterly; some works are reminiscent of John Everett Millais’ Ophelia or Monet’s Waterlilies. Leistner uses the specific technique of “day for night” for some of the photographs, reducing the ambient light so that artificial light can take over; for others, she takes the extreme step of entering the deep forest at night, working by headlamp and blasting music out of speakers to ward off wild animals. Through Leistner’s lens, the light makes the forest shine in an artificial, dramatic fashion. “You would never see the forest this way with your naked eye,” says Leistner of the Enchanted Forests, “but you would paint it this way.” These visions of the forest are devoid of any imagery of humankind, yet signs of humanity are never completely out of the picture, leaving much up to the imagination.

Leistner is currently working on an experimental feature documentary film about planting trees and making art, Forest for the Trees, closely entwined with the photographic works from The Tree Planters, due for release Spring, 2020. She is also working on a book of the photographs with a Foreword by Canadian filmmaker Don McKellar, to be published by leading photography book publisher Dewi Lewis (Fall, 2020).

Leistner has a tattoo on her forearm with a forest on one side and clear-cut on the other. The tattoo is an extension of her life and artistic practice, which are one and the same—an acknowledgment of the decimation of the forests and of the devastation of war she has witnessed, and a vivid symbol of Leistner’s commitment to engaged art and action.

Sonia Smee, Ingrid Watt and Rita Leistner — Tree planting near Thunder Bay, Ontario, 1987

Photo by Catherine Lash