Sarah Anne Johnson
The use of constructed tableaux has been a prominent strategy in photography of the past several decades. From Thomas Demand’s life-size paper and cardboard models to Gregory Crewdson’s elaborate, Hollywood-style mise-en-scènes, a number of artists have employed sets and props in ways that call into question the veracity of the photographic medium. In her ambitious Tree Planting series (2002–05), Sarah Anne Johnson—who once worked as an assistant on one of Crewdson’s projects, as well as on set construction for film and theater productions—has adopted and modified this strategy. Rather than blurring the line between reality and fiction in single images, Johnson maintains a separation between the two, mixing them only in her final installation on the exhibition wall.
The 65 photographs in Tree Planting chronicle what has become a rite-of-passage for many Canadians, planting trees in deforested areas of Manitoba. The young adults who participate in these conservation trips are paid per sapling, but what keeps them returning, says the artist, is the rewarding sense of community and connection to the land that the work engenders. Johnson records the ritual with two types of images: photographs of actual people and locals that she took over the course of three summers, and shots of hand-crafted clay dolls and miniature dioramas that she constructed later in her studio. Shuffled together salon-style on the wall, these two sets of images stand in tension, but they also complement one another to present a more complete account of the experience, expressing the mundane, physical realities of the labor—bug bites, bandaged arms, rain-soaked and mud-caked clothes—and, simultaneously, the sublimity of nature and a nostalgic longing for what Johnson calls "the closest thing I’ve found to Utopia."
The images in Tree Planting vary in scale and format and range from portraits to figureless landscapes, giving the overall installation the impression of a private scrapbook. However, Johnson’s intention for the work extends well beyond the merely personal. Her "quietly political agenda" is to persuade others of "the empowering emotion born in good old-fashioned hard work for an important cause."