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Photo by Eirik Johnson

This Photographer Searches for the Messages Strangers Carve in Trees

Jon Feinstein

Photographer Eirik Johnson captures raw memory carved into tree trunks.

Photo by Eirik Johnson

Eirik Johnson’s Pine series could be the perfect photographic score for the Smiths discography. His large-scale pictures of tree trunk carvings display words like “Timothy X,” “ Alex is NUTS,” “Goodbye Etc,” and “We Were Here.” Lit by sparklers and other unconventional lighting sources, the photographs preserve the timeless urge to make one’s mark. They combine elements of teen angst, love, loss, and uncertainty as monuments to fragile existence.

Minor Matters will publish a book of the images this fall. Keeping with the photographs’ deep connection to music, it will be accompanied by a 12” record that includes songs by Tenderfoot, Sassyblack, Whiting Tennis, and others. For Johnson, music stands in as a harmony for the work, helping to shape and contextualize it with sonic reflection.

VICE recently spoke with the Seattle-based photographer to learn more about the fragile magic behind his images.

We Were Here

VICE: How did this project start, and what was the first tree you photographed?
Eirik Johnson: I was on a hike with my son through a wooded urban ravine on a late afternoon winters ago. The day’s light was fading quickly so I had a flashlight out to lead our way down the steep trail. When we came to a switchback in the trail, my light fell on a carving in an Alder tree lining the path. It read “I Love Lianne” and in the dramatic yellow beam of my light, appeared like some aquatic ruin I had come upon while scuba diving. I felt an emotional tug to know who Lianne was and who had loved her so much they’d felt compelled to carve these words.

"Magical" is such an overused word in photo headlines, but these photographs really are magical – in the carvings themselves, and in your use of fire as a light source.
I’ve found most of these carvings in parks along urban river banks, or other places I could imagine a teenager disappearing to at dusk to leave a proclamation of love, alienation, or something in between. Illuminating the carvings during that twilight hour by way of sparklers, fire, prismatic light, or moonlight is a way of connecting to the sentiments they hold. I imagine the carvings alluding to a graffiti-strewn dance hall or the pigment drawings on a prehistoric cave wall.

Alex Is Nuts

Why is this important to these pictures?
My initial experience coming upon that first carving by flashlight at dusk felt magical and I think it was how that singular blue/green beam of light removed the context of the forest while also striking a deep emotional chord with me. I eventually started using a variety of light sources including gel filters, sparklers, fire, prismatic light, and moonlight. The exposures can range from 30 seconds to 40 minutes and the whole process is like a performance. It allows me more creativity in my response to what I find. In one image someone had carved “ALEX IS NUTS” into a tree that had earlier been burned perhaps by lightning. I used fire to illuminate the carving and the charred surface of the wood, which seemed like a fitting response to the dark emphatic phrase.

You're including a 12” record with this. How'd that come about?
There’s a deep connection to music that runs throughout all this work. Some carvings commemorate favorite musicians like The Smiths or read “I Miss Kurt” or celebrate lyrics like “The Wild Wolves Around You” from Bon Iver. Other images, “SAVE” or “We Were Here”, allude to potential songs or lyrics. While I was working on this project, I kept returning to memories of favorite mixtapes from my youth and the emotional connections they still hold. It was in this spirit that I asked seven different musicians to compose original songs inspired by specific photographs or from the project’s atmosphere. It seemed fitting that we press a vinyl record, given that the songs are carved into its surface.

The Smiths

The original title was We Were Here — but is now Pine What sparked the change?
The earlier title came from one of the carvings. Pine came from conversations with the editor/publisher at Minor Matters Books, Michelle Dunn Marsh. We wanted to move away from using one of the carvings as a title and to find a word that alluded to the sentiments of the work while still maintaining an enigmatic reading. Pine obviously is connected to the idea of the trees themselves, but it also is an efficient fashion, conjures up the longing and nostalgia that lies at the heart of the work.

This has been years in the making. Have your ideas changed since the first photo you made?
The ideas haven’t changed really. If anything, the contributions of the various musicians and my own recording for the album have reinforced the initial romantic notions that inspired me. I came upon the first carving to photograph when I was still carrying my first son in a backpack. Now he’s nine and he’s running around discovering carvings for me on his own.

Tell me something unexpected, crazy, hypnotic or delirious about the project and its process over the years.
Go wandering around the woods at night illuminating tree carvings, and you’re bound to have a few such experiences. All I will say is that coyotes turn out to be big fans of red sparklers.

I miss Kurt
Goodbye Etc.
Green Valentine
Her
It's Only Me
Save
Star
Te Amo
Timothy