Jesse Burke and adventures with Clover

News February 3, 2012 8:46 am
Can you tell me how you got the idea for the project?

 

I have always shot pictures of my daughter clover, even as a baby, but they felt very separate form my art projects. They were just something a photographer dad does. Camera, cute kid, etc. Once Clover got big enough to be self sufficient and travel well we would often take road trips as a family. We would go to Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. We’re pretty big nature nerds so we were always going somewhere outdoorsy. Eventually I grouped the Clover images together that I had collected to see what I had and it started to make sense on its own. Also, my commercial agent at the time really liked what I was producing and thought we should go after the kids market. So I started to focus on the project more and more, but it was just pics of the same person doing different things, pretty simple. Sometimes cute, sometime a bit deeper but not a real project per se. Fast forward a few years to this past October. Clover had a school vacation so I decided it would be cool to go out on a road trip, just the two of us for the whole week. No plans, no expectations. Just head up through Maine to Canada. What I found on the road would change my life and our relationship forever. It was a really sweet and pure bonding experience. We would drive, talk, explore, collect treasures and shoot photos. We spent a lot of time talking about nature, life/death, being outdoors and getting in touch with the earth. I want to unplug her from the matrix of school, the city, tv and ipads and show her the natural world in all its raw glory. The images illustrate our adventures and are comprised of what we encounter on the road, our hotels, and our experiences out in nature. There is a sense of calmness but also a something there that almost feels lonely and sad in some of the shots. Like she is out there on her own in this big wild place. I will say this, I have learned more about her and myself than I ever could have imagined. It’s fun. Below is my first blog post and a photograph of her in our hotel.

 

“Daddy, is this gross little thing our hotel?” Trip 1, Day 1. Rumford, RI. to Brunswick, ME. Today was the first day of a road trip up north to Maine and Canada for 5 days to shoot and explore. Just the two of us. No plans, no destinations, just shooting and exploring. I’m hopeful we’ll encounter some epic sights and adventures. She’s a good little travel buddy, pretty mellow when it’s just the two of us. After a quick stop in Freeport to hit up LL Bean and the Patagonia outlet we settled into our gross little hotel. “Yeah baby, that’s our hotel. There’s probably going to be spiders in your bed.”

Jesse Burke

 

How much collaboration is there between you and Clover in the images?

100%. This is my favorite part of the project. Maybe these blog posts and images can sum this up better than me rambling.

Five year-old’s squirm in their own skin. They need to move. They are intelligent and aware but distracted, at least mine is. Her heartbeat is run by kinetic energy. It’s not too big of a deal until I need her to stand still, look here, don’t smile, turn to the right… I’m generally a control freak when it comes to photography. On this trip I found myself having less control of the shoots the more we did. I think she was getting sick of it. Honestly, at times, I was a bit too.

 

We walked for a long time along Herring Cove Beach on Campobello Island in New Brunswick, Canada. It was desolate, subdued, gray and foggy, and all rocks. The waves were rough so when they crashed and receded you could hear the sounds of the rocks rolling along each other, in and out of the sea. A constant tapping that undulates in volume as the waves push them in and out. The beach was littered with commercial fishing debris. Lots and lots of rope. Rope that was once brilliant in color, bleached by the sun and salt. Clover had a field day collecting and playing with the different ropes. It was beautiful to watch, like a ribbon dance. We stopped to shoot some pictures along the way. I wanted her to look out to the ocean, without the rope. But she kept playing with it. So asked again, and again. “Please drop the rope.” I was getting pissed. But then as looked through the camera at Clover tangled up in her rope I had an epiphany. That was the picture. Her being tangled was what I actually needed, what I really wanted. She was perfectly wrapped up. I couldn’t have thought of that, and it’s exactly what that image required. It was a collaboration. She was making the photograph with me as an equal partner. In that moment realized I needed to let go, to embrace the craziness. This was one of many instance to come over the course of the next few days where I became aware of our partnership in action.

Jesse Burke

The next time that feeling arose was the next day when we stopped of to get some lunch in Hartland. There was a big pond that emptied into a stream by the roadside with a little dam and waterfall. I wanted to shoot some tighter shots of Clover against the cloudy sky and water. It looked so bleak and fake, like a 2D paper backdrop. She was hungry and over it before we even began. It was the last day of the trip, she was ready to go home. She was sick of being my muse. I tried and tried to get her to “stand still and make a normal face” in front of that pond. Instead I got twirling, craning her neck to try to see the waterfall and faces. Lots of faces, just not the one I wanted. I just decided to shoot them all. This was her way of fighting against me. In the end she did what I asked and in the end those picture were the weakest. The ones where she did what she wanted were the best. She pretended to be mad and stare me down. Click, click. It’s a collaboration, always was. I just need to remember that.

Jesse Burke

 

My studio smells like dead fish.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea of working more collaboratively with Clover on this project. For now that’s where the strength seems to be, where my focus has gone. I’ve been itching to make some new pieces with this in mind. I knew that I wanted the creative balance to be more even, 50/50, if that was possible. But that is a tall order when you conspirator is 5. But I had an idea.

We’re collectors. We collect various treasures we find out on our journeys. Sand, shells, feathers, rocks, driftwood, pinecones, dead bugs. It’s a nice way to bring a little outside to the inside. The stuff is all over our house, it’s great. It’s simple and earthy. My idea was to have both of us to go out and collect treasures, then bring them back to the studio and utilize them in some way. This particular day we gathered a bunch of beach goods – crab legs, lobster claws, skate egg cases, shells – and headed home, stink in tow. Back at the studio I taped a piece of light gray paper to the floor and set up the lights and camera. I drew a box for Clover to work within and handed her the treasures one at a time from our smelly Dunkin Donuts bag. I told her to lay them out in the box and make a design or sculpture. I told her to create something out of our treasures, and that when she was done I would photograph it. As I handed each piece to her we would chat about which side of a claw was better, which color we liked. Sometimes we were in agreement, she always had the final say. She talked about why she put each piece the way she did. She explained that all the claws had to face to the left. It was important. It was a bit of organized chaos. The process was organic and made sense. Collecting treasures is something we already do outside of the studio, so it made sense for me to bring that inside, to capitalize on our established routine. This was a way for us to document the performative aspect of our collecting process as well as the sculptural aspect of her layout. It was part performance, part sculpture, and part photograph, 100% collaboration. It’s important for me to give her control, to see her hand in it. More than just an expression or stance, it is the physical manifestation of her thoughts and ideas. I could see that she was taking it serious and her brain hard at work. She loved it, I loved it. It was fun.

Jesse Burke

 

I love that you update your blog regularly with this project. Has sharing the work early on been helpful in sticking with the series?

I think the success to any blog is consistency. But being consistent is incredibly hard when you don’t actually have any real content to add on a regular basis. So… I set the task of being that guy, the consistent blogger, which is hard for me, but in the end would only help with making the project grow. It would make me a more consistent creator. I found myself quickly being equally interested in the writing and the telling the stories, which totally surprised me. But they were real, sweet, honest, and funny. At least I thought so. And that really made my interest grow 10 fold, I had motivation and drive to get out there on the road and create. And it was coming from a place of pure love and devotion, to my daughter, to myself and to my craft. It is an awesome feeling to have my whole world come together like that. For the first time all the Clover works made sense, like they found their home. It took me 5 years and a school vacation to get there, but whatever, this is a marathon, not a sprint. I feel that this work is the truest version of myself as an artist that I can ever ask to know. It combines my family, my photography, and my love of the natural world. It’s truly harmonious for me, it’s not work.

Sharing the work early on has been a great experience. We often get caught up with not releasing things until they are complete and packaged. It’s a safe place to operate from and I have always subscribed to that way of thinking. But this project seemed different to me, I was so excited about it that I literally couldn’t keep it under wraps. So I showed it to a few people and the response I got was overwhelming and the conversations that took place are helping to drive the work and making it richer. This whole adventure continues to be a real learning experience for me and has allowed me to open myself up to so many new sources of inspiration. I’m excited about what’s to come. We are planning a trip out to the Pacific Northwest to shoot and explore in March. We have a studio full of nature treasures we’ve collected and are starting to use. Fox tails, shells, leaves, jars of melted snow, glitter… (she’s 5 after all.)

 

“Daddy, is that where they make clouds?”

This trip is the prefect opportunity for me to show Clover a slice of the world. To mold her into the creature that I see fit. I feel like a sculptor. We look at and study nature. Study the land, study the sky. I want her to know what leaves belong to what trees, what scat is from what animal, what the flight of a woodpecker looks like, not to be afraid of spiders. I want her to know things that I don’t know, things I was never taught. I go out of my way to emphasize the importance of all things, of all life. It’s my self-assigned duty as a parent. I got an very sweet email from my mother in-law commending me on taking such a long trip with a five year old by myself. She said she didn’t think her husband would have been willing in his day. She didn’t mean it in a disparaging way, just factual. I was surprised to read that, but I get it. Five year olds are a lot of work, a lot… and I bet a lot of dudes out there probably still couldn’t deal. But I couldn’t help thinking about why one wouldn’t want to take a trip with their young child. This is what makes me tick, what makes her tick. She is a sponge. I want to surround her with nature. To plop her down in different environments and see, smell, and touch all that’s there. That’s what this Clover photo project is about to me. It’s a dance we do together out in the natural world. It’s me teaching her and myself what is really out there, and me reliving my youth in a way. But it’s not just teaching, it’s about experiencing it. It’s pure and feral. I feel that every “next” trip is the best opportunity to let her experience the world. I’m not even back from this one and I’m already planning the next.

“No baby, that’s not where they make clouds. That’s pretty much the opposite of clouds.”

Jesse Burke

 

Trip 2, Day 1. Rumford, RI. to Fairlee, VT.

I’ve been itching to get back out on the road since we arrived home from the last road trip in October. With Christmas break at hand we decided to head back out and make some new work. This time I decided to take a more wooded route, up to the Canadian border through VT. No set plans, just exploring nature and seeing what was thrown our way. The first day we made it to the Lake Morey Resort in Fairlee, VT.

Things were different on this trip right out of the gate. For one my road mate was being a serious whiner. “I miss Mommy.” Really, we’ve been gone 18 hours and you’re ready to pack it in. Just think of all the fun we’re going to have and all the amazing stuff we’ll see. “I miss Poppy.” OK, that’s how it’s going to be… Another thing I overlooked was the fact that it’s dark at 4:00. This seriously diminished the ability to shoot and stop a lot and drive a lot in the sunlit hours. I’d need to rethink my plan of attack. We’d need to be up early and in bed early. Not likely.

It’s great to be out here, just the two of us. We can focus a little better, talk longer, it’s just more concentration all around. We talk as we drive. I try to be honest about as much as I can with her in regards to life and death. The circle of life. She gets it more than I think she does. 5 year olds are much smarter than I thought. Clover has this new fascination with death. She wants to know what it’s like after you die. She said “Daddy, I want to know what it’s like to be in your body. To see through your eyes.” Pretty deep for 5. We talk about our neighbor Marie who was 97 and died at home. Clover saw the fire trucks come to get her. Marie gave her a stuffed animal cat, Fudgie. She is always talking about how special Fudgie is. This is her way of remembering Marie, she loved her. We talk about how animals kill each other to eat and survive. Which animals kill what. We talk about being safe and getting hurt. She’s pretty brave, she’ll touch and hold almost any animal, dead or alive. But she’s a total wuss when it comes to her teeth falling out and bloody noses. She got a bloody nose in the shower at the hotel tonight.

“Daddy! My mouth is bleeding, my tooth, my tooth!”

No honey it’s just a bloody nose. Stay right there, I need to grab my camera.

Jesse Burke

 

Jesse Burke

Jesse Burke

Jesse Burke

Jesse Burke

Jesse Burke

See more of Jesse’s work, here. Check out his amazing blog, here.

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