Phillipa Klaiber is a long-form documentary photographer. The central themes of her practice are the anthropology of landscape, memory, and the materiality and topography of land.
Perhaps you can speak first about your early life to set the scene. Where did you grow up and how did that environment shape you?
I grew up on the edge of the Forest of Dean, a rural area of south west England, in a tiny village that seemed miles from anywhere. My dad was a farmer, and so were my friend’s dad’s. So, animals, mud and endless fields were a big feature of my childhood. As well as a particular awareness of seasonal changes that comes with rural life. I had a lot of freedom and space to explore, so as a kid it was bliss. But, as a teenager, I resented the isolation and couldn’t wait to leave. I don’t think I fully appreciated the environment and the landscape of that area until much later. When I was studying, trying to discover who I was as a photographer and the work I really wanted to make, I started returning to the Forest of Dean to explore the area in an entirely new way.
What were the key elements to your photographic education? I don’t just mean photographers—I’m thinking of key life experiences or other forms of art.
In 2014 I finished a BA(Hons) in Fine art photography, and after a 4 year break from accademia, I did an MA in Photography at UWE in Bristol. This course was an important milestone for my work. My style really developed, and so did my passion for research, which has become essential in my practice. For me, some of the key elements of a fulfilling education in photography are the other photographers, artists and writers I have met. Whether they are established artists and tutors, or were fellow students, they have all informed my work in some way.
I am often inspired by the cinematography in World Cinema. A few films that were part of my visual research for Vorest include Andrei Tarkovsky’s films, Andrei Rublev (1966) and Stalker (1979). As well as a lot of Robert Bresson’s, particularly A man Escaped (1956). What they have in common is a very particular treatment of the landscape, and of isolated details. In Andrei Rublev, there are rarely any glimpses of sky, we are rooted in a landscape with a medieval intimacy. It is wet, cold and filthy. In Stalker, the landscape is mysterious, poetic and apocalyptic. In an area called The Zone, it is lush and fertile. Many traces of man have been erased, leaving only a few remains of buildings and vehicles. In A Man Escaped, it is the close-ups of the prisoner’s hands and details and textures of his cell and the materials he uses to escape that really stand out to me.
Can you tell us more about the Voresters and the starting point of your project?
The project began with my fascination in the role of forests in myth and folklore. And with the unique cultural heritage of this place. Forests have long been entwined with myth and folklore. They have enticed and inspired us since ancient times, creating stories that have been shared across cultures and centuries in oral and written language.
The Forest of Dean is an ancient place. It is a landscape of ancient woodlands, plantations, farmland, heathland, quarries and mines. Locally it is known as the Vorest, and it’s inhabitants, Voresters.
There is a rich culture and history of land use. The ancient boundary, known as the Hundred of St. Briavels, is observed in local law and defines whether someone is considered a true Forester or not. In 1838, an act was passed granting those born within the Hundred the rite to open their own mine of coal or iron ore and be deemed a Free Miner, as long as they are over 21 and have trained for over a year and a day. A handful of small coal mines are still worked by hand, and long abandoned ones have been reopened.
In the early months of research, I used maps and geological data to find the areas that still bore evidence of quarries or mines. I was interested in the places that showed the traces of past human activity and had long been reclaimed by nature. I also sought out sites of historical significance, with their picturesque names. Titles which often alluded to the subject of the folktales that surround them, and sustained their mysterious allure. Photographing these places corrupted the aura that their names and associated tales created. They were disappointing and banal. It was on the solitary journeys to these sites, and in the other places I sought for their topography, that I found that aura of spirituality or myth.
In the Vorest series we see an intriguing combination of color and black & white archival images. Can you tell us a bit more about the selection of archival images? What draws you to explore history through the photographic medium?
Half way into the project, I looked through the archives of the local museum. Initially it was part of my research. But I discovered photographs that really resonated with me. It is an archive of professional and hobbyist photographers, spanning from 1908 to around the 1960s. Some will have been donated by the photographer’s family, others acquired from organisations like the Forestry school that no longer exists.
Every time I visited the archive, I collected copies of the photographs that I was most drawn to. I explored the collection as if I were photographing, choosing photographs that I imagined I might have taken myself. Over the following months, I allowed myself to be influenced by the archive photographs every time I returned to the Forest to photograph.
“Some important elements of that, which I touch on in Vorest, are the concepts of land ownership, the freedom to roam and future proofing local ecology. “
In the later stages of editing, I brought them together to create narrative strands between the archive photographs and my own. Forming a visual conversation of sorts between the narratives of the past and the environment in the present.
Your visual story could potentially bring up uncomfortable thoughts about the modern society structure. Is that intentional?
It is not the main intention of the work, but it is certainly an interpretation that I welcome. I am keen for this work to contribute to those important dialogues on ecology, climate change and modern social structure. Some important elements of that, which I touch on in Vorest, are the concepts of land ownership, the freedom to roam and future proofing local ecology. From what I have seen, in the Forest of Dean, these elements seem to be tied to the cultural history that is so important to Voresters. A lot of the forests are publicly owned and managed, so there is a vast access to land and freedom to roam. There are also several publicly funded initiatives to improve the ecology of this landscape, with a plan that looks 100 years into the future. Preserving these environmental and social elements is essential in preserving the cultural history and the ecology of this community’s home and environment.
What is the proper way of presenting these pieces in natural size? Are they framed prints? Do you intend to publish a photobook?
I intend to exhibit Vorest as an outdoor installation in one of the woodlands in the Forest of Dean. The aim of this installation is to inspire and encourage people to engage with their local environment in new ways. It will raise awareness of the Forest of Dean’s natural and cultural heritage and encourage conversations on safeguarding the future of this unique forest. People will be able to engage with the work by walking, searching and discovering; an experience similar to the way I photograph. I am also working towards publishing Vorest as a photobook.
Why did you choose to also use panoramic photographs?
Photographing in a panoramic format allows me to create photographs that really immerse the viewer in the scene. Many of the panoramas in Vorest are woodlands or landscapes with confusing perspectives, where there is no specific subject of focus and the foreground, middle ground and background are not clearly defined. I often find that this wider view can be a great way to capture those details of light and movement that dance on the periphery of my vision when I am wandering in landscapes like these.
What are your next steps?
I am working on a collaboration with a friend and visual artist I really admire. I am also working on a new long-term project that is in the very early stages of research and experiments. As with all of my projects, it begins with a curiosity and a period of intense research to discover connections and work out the full scope of the idea. I am currently delving into the similarities between the communication systems of trees and our human social constructs. As well as the potential role of fungi in the future of ecology, medicine, infrastructure and technology.
More on her website
Note for black & white images: Archive photographs from the Dean Heritage Centre collection