Other Artist's Statements     Fred Camper art     Complete Fred Camper art


A series of woods trips, starting in 1967 with a week alone on Moosehead Lake in Maine, and continuing to 1981, were profoundly transformative. Hiking alone, kayaking alone, canoeing with one or another friend, were exhilarating but also disappointing in Maine, as old logging roads scarred the forest, thickets of wreckage apparently left by careless timber harvesting were almost impenetrable, and long struggles through dense brush to reach isolated small lakes would often be accompanied by the sound track of a motorboat someone had hauled in to a body of water that could have easily been rowed or canoed. And so I began traveling to northern Canada. Five solo hiking trips between 1975 and 1981 remain key experiences today. I saw no one, and, save for a lone cabin and many airplanes, no human signs. Traveling and living, ten days or more at a time, in wilderness, eating food I carried in with me plus occasional berries, swimming in the waters from which I also drank, watching the sun set and the stars appear, provided me with immersions in a realm utterly unlike the one we know, a domain devoid of our rectilinear interventions, an all-enveloping kingdom whose every part is interconnected, every element seemingly alive. Lichen grows next to stretches of bare stone, tiny crevices in rock just starting to collect soil are not far from slightly larger crevices in which the smallest plants grow, all these sights constituting points on a continuum leading to nearby terrain with enough soil for trees yet under which rock can sometimes still be felt. I attained an at once rationally defensible and deeply irrational spiritual insight: that all scales of time up to the geological are inseparable from the present moment, and what we too-narrowly call life must truly include every part of nature; that trees are no higher than mosses, and the most beautiful of mosses is in no way superior to the soil and bark and water and air and sunlight from which it sprang. Distinctions we make, such as between animate and inanimate, based as they are on measuring and evaluating what we think we understand of nature in comparison with the human, are condemnable, self-centered falsehoods. On even a short walk what one sees at any moment connects with what one has seen before and what one will see after, and those connections are mirrored in nature's order. Look back upon the slope you just descended, and the terrain that led you to your current locale is felt as a part of your present moment, just as the slope of the land down toward a river that guides water to it is inseparable from the water in that river. The world before we began filling it with our implements, with our machines that parse and separate and divide and reshape and destroy, is characterized by an immensity of interconnections unimaginable to travelers on well-marked park trails, to motorists taking in windshield views, to the spectators of scenic montages in nature documentaries, to landscape photographers waiting to freeze what they envision as an aesthetically perfect moment. To the wilderness sojourner, every frame that the eye tries to draw around some part of nature is constantly either expanding or dissolving, as one's consciousness is pulled, by the overwhelming truths of the environment, toward larger and larger wholenesses.


Some could not understand why I never wanted to photograph or film on those trips. The photographic image is an inherently geometric construction. Its excerpting rectangle commits an act of violence against the vastness of the world, wrenching a tiny portion of it from its context in a manner akin to that of the logger or miner. Purporting to record reality, it is instead a highly subjective selection; indeed, it seems appropriate to the medium that Matthew Brady is thought to have rearranged corpses to improve the compositions of his famous Civil War photographs. Moreover, the significance of wilderness cannot be found in its physical beauties. Its essence lies in relationships, in the myriad linkages that constitute its whole and overwhelming presence, connections among parts, and also between each present moment, the millions of years of history that resulted in that present, and the future that is continually unfolding with every sprouting of a leaf, every twist of a worm, every stir of the air. Even if I never find a method of utilizing wilderness images in ways that hint at these complexities, I still cannot accept the reductive and sterile picture-window lies of most nature photos. My trips that resulted in no pictures left me with lifelong embeddings in consciousness: of a turning toward relationships rather than objects, of imaginings of the ways art can involve the viewer in active comparative thinking rather than as a recipient of effects, and of ongoing dreams of the wilds that we are now destroying, a nature whose indivisible tapestries will live in my memory forever. I do not devalue the great human achievements in arts and science, and even a modest highway interchange can have its own peculiar beauties. But our unchecked desire for material goods coupled with our assumption that the planet is solely our possession are leading to our annihilation of the only entity on Earth that is truly Other, the oneness of original nature. Our preservation efforts are absurdly oxymoronic precisely because wilderness is only wilderness when left alone, unfenced and undemarcated. We fly endangered species about in airplanes to "save" them, following the misguided view that nature is something that we can improve upon, all the while blind to the wreckage we are creating, not the least by flying around in airplanes. If, as I would guess, future generations come to judge our reshaping of our planet, our conversion of its original orders into metaphoric and literal open pit mines that serve our material desires while creating untold wastelands, to be a crime so monstrous that in one sense it dwarfs all the horrors we have visited upon each other, then should not our culture also play a role in accounting for our actions? The documentary value of artless photographs of polluted acreage cannot fully redeem them from the way that the viewer is placed on the outside, such photographs' blunt facticity configuring that viewer as a passive receptor in a manner all too reminiscent of the relationships between individual and purchased goods that characterize our consumer culture. The image as an extracted entity to be viewed at a glance, rather than an art work to interact with over time, becomes kin to the stream of products with which our manufacturing genius is overrunning the globe.


What if one instead seeks an art based on leading the viewer to question her relationship to all things, by encouraging a variety of interactions that can lead in a variety of different directions? What if one also seeks to make an art that reveals the inner structure of human enterprise by taking its form from those paradigmatically human activities of dividing and subdividing and reducing and replicating and rearranging, by placing image fragments alongside each other in artificial architectures that offer metaphors for real estate development, highway construction, farming and mining and manufacturing, the odd beauty of such patterns demonstrating the manipulative nature of all human fabrications? It is my hope that my own art, largely abjuring those admirable aspirations other artists have expressed, such as the mirroring of the organic orderings of a leaf, instead reveals particular qualities of the human, of our geometries, of our logics. Taking various controlled uses of random numbers as organizing principles, I seek distance from the traditional expressions of our emotions and our affections, including instead the arguably inhuman randomness that determines so much of our world and that inevitably transforms, for example through time's decay, our most ambitious productions. That almost all of my current work is in editions of one in a comment on the art market's valuing of rarity is meant more importantly as an assertion that no one arrangement of images is necessarily any more true than many others, but is mostly an articulation of the fundamental transience of all human effort, each try a tiny and partly chance convergence of factors and events, some of them momentary fancies of our minds at particular instants in time. The viewer might even find a little humor in the almost insane reorderings of my most artificial rearrangements, elements of a street scene placed in bands of similar colors, snippets of power lines rearranged in a circle, fragments of a house under construction reconfigured as rhyming curves, all meant as metaphors for our subdividings and rearrangings of our world. The deepest exploration of artificiality might also lead to its negation, to a less artificial realm, one that cannot be fully visualized but that stands as a kind of opposing ideal, forever lurking in our structures' shadows. If there is any justice within human consciousness, the world we have destroyed should also be reemerging, if only as a ghost, out of all the patterns we have fashioned of it, in all our memories. A true understanding of the nature of our remade world implies the ability to envision its opposite, and perhaps even to look towards a future rebirth of living nature out of the ruined remnants of the terrain we have abrogated to ourselves, a large part of which we must soon, if we are to be saved, withdraw from, to permit all that is not us to begin, over the ensuing millions of years, to breathe again, to generate new glories. It is my dearest wish that the interconnections and arrangements and randomnesses of my work will open viewers to something one can never fully depict: the meaning of the wilderness that long preceded us on Earth, that still survives in remote regions, that can give to each of us a deep inner life, and that, one hopes, will someday be reborn.


Fred Camper
Chicago, Illinois
Setpember 11, 2011.

Other Artist's Statements     Fred Camper art     Complete Fred Camper art