Rita Leistner—The Tree Planters—Portraits 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, armed only with a shovel, burning up to 7,000 calories in the process. The swarms of biting insects are legendary. Tree planters 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 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.

To produce this work, Leistner worked off the grid for months outdoors, in untamed and physically gruelling and frenetic circumstances, always facing a diverse set of challenges and obstacles, rigorously pushing her medium, and ultimately celebrating the possibilities of photography. Every portrait is an action shot, taken in real time. Leistner works in tandem with an athletic lighting assistant as both run backwards, in anticipation of the movements of their fast-paced, erratic subjects. When every element comes together, this remarkable process results in classically lit and precise compositions, unprecedented in this context. With their magical suggestion of artifice, Leistner’s photographs may remind the viewer of such master painters as Eugène Delacroix and Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.

First exhibited at the Stephen Bulger Gallery in October 2017, “The Tree Planters—Portraits” have been extensively recognized in the Canadian and international press, including National Geographic, Geo France, The Globe and MailBlouin ArtInfoLenscratch, and Le Quotidien de l’Art. They are held in private, public and corporate collections, including The Royal Ontario Museum and the Toronto Dominion Bank.

In forestry, a clear-cut means an area where trees have been industrially and systematically cut down. This is the tree planters’ place of work.  Leistner’s related series, “The Tree Planters—Enchanted Forests,” consists of 16 works, and complements the “Portraits” by looking beyond the edges of the clear-cuts, inside the tree line where un-felled trees remain.

These representations of forest scenes, like ­the “Portraits,” are rendered in large scale and impeccable detail. They point to the figure-ground relationship of tree planting and its role in reforestation to deforestation, offering 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. Like the “Portraits,” the “Enchanted Forests” are painterly; some works are reminiscent of John Everett Millais’ Ophelia or Monet’s Waterlilies. Leistner uses the 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, “but you would paint it this way.” These visions of the forest are devoid of any imagery of humans, yet signs of humanity are never completely out of the picture, leaving much up to the imagination.

“The Tree Planters” consists of a major exhibition, an experimental documentary feature film, Forest for the Trees (Spring 2020) and a 220-page book with a Foreword by Canadian filmmaker Don McKellar (Dewi Lewis Publishing, UK, Fall 2020).



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

Photo by Catherine Lash