18 June 2019

Living, Being, and Dying with the Pine Trees

18 June 2019 - Written by Colin Pantall

Paul Thulin’s latest photobook Pine Tree Ballads blends family history, folklore, and the living forest into his story of what it means to live on the land, to be of the land, and to die on the land.

© Paul Thulin, from the book Pine Tree Ballads

In the early 1900s, Paul Thulin’s grandfather settled on a remote piece of land called Gray’s Point in Maine, United States. He chose it for its quietness, its solitude, for its forested interior and long summer nights. He chose it because it reminded him of Sweden, the land where he had been born and raised. One hundred years later, every summer Paul Thulin still visits the land where his father lived, accompanying his family and children to roam through the woods and wade through the waters that surround the old family home.

Pine Tree Ballads is the story of that past and that present. It’s the story of the land and the people who didn’t just live on it, but lived in it, and it’s about how that immersion of family and place can be documented through visual narrative that feeds off folklore, cinema, text and the essential lay of the land. It’s a free-flowing experimental kind of book, the multiple threads of the narrative complicated by the fact that the images include both photographs from the old family album as well as contemporary images.

© Paul Thulin, from the book Pine Tree Ballads

It starts as it means to go on with the image on the front endpaper showing a dark pine forest, the pages flecked with gold, the left edge ending in a sunburst of a light leak. The next image appears through a cut-out in the page and shows Thulin’s daughter sleeping. So we know we’re in a magical land, one where time loops in on itself, where past and present overlap, where we are part of the waters, the land, the forest.

The book is divided into 6 chapters, with each image being given a title that references family history, art and cinema, and each chapter beginning with snippets of text. The first chapter begins: “Some journeys are best taken with your eyes closed. For what is visible in the shadows of the moon will leave one stone cold facing the light of the sun.”

And so we move into the story, the archival and the contemporary images blurring into one under a sea of light leaks, spots and scratches, the flaws uniting the images across land and time. Light matters here and so does darkness. It’s written into the images and it hides and reveals as we work through the book.

© Paul Thulin, from the book Pine Tree Ballads

Images show the sun low in the sky hinting at long summer nights, the images soft and gentle on the page giving us pause and respite. But then there are slow synch flash images, causing us to slip across time, the visual flickers of light and dark disrupting the book’s space-time continuum and taking us into an altogether greater place.

There are sunrises and there are woods which have a presence that enfolds and envelopes and overwhelms us. This world is a thing in and of itself and we are only one small part of it. There are other presences there and we see them in a hand clutching a bunch of carrots, the carrots tendrilled claws reaching out of a stripe of shade. Or we see it in a pair of boots (“Dad’s paratroopers boots”) lying abandoned in the forest. There is malevolence and loss in Pine Tree Ballads.

Pictures of the family, both from the past and present (though there is no past and present in Pine Tree Ballads) bring us out of the forest. The home is a respite and there are interior notes like the wallpaper or the woman bathing her feet that have a note of comfort. Move outside and the portraits show daughters, partners, mothers wrapped in blankets, shawls and cloaks, a protection against the less benign forces let loose in these parts.

© Paul Thulin, from the book Pine Tree Ballads

“They loved each other Elemental from swollen belly to sunken earth. Widows Daughters, and ghosts sit patiently,” begins Chapter 3 and so it shows in images that emerge from the earth and feel of the earth. Images of tree roots and undergrowth, of growth and decay run throughout the book, there are intimations of mortality, of confinement and release. This is a land where (as in the great Swedish film, Borders) the landscape lives.

And within that land live the members of Thulin’s family and we see them emerging like the missing link from a gently rippled pond, the missing link, or standing white-irised behind pine branches, staring out from a wall tree bark, or lying there eyes closed beneath a blanket of smothering moss, looking all the world like a forest version of the suffocated baby from Bhopal.

And just when you thought it was all bleakness and depth the final pictures come around and we’re in the land of rebirth where the waters give, where the land provides, where the sky provides warmth, and life turns full circle and the process begins again. And so we find peace once more.


Pine Tree Ballads by Paul Thulin

Hardcover // 198 pages, 100 plates // 24.8 x 24.8 cm // from US$50



Paul Thulin is a fine art and documentary photographer currently based in Virginia, United States working as the Graduate Director of the Department of Photography and Film at Virginia Commonwealth University. His photographs have been exhibited nationally and internationally at United Photo Industries, Chicago Art Fair, Toronto Art Fair, Grand Prix Fotofestival Lodz, Athens Photo Festival, Mt. Rokko Photography Festival, Verzasca Foto Festival, and Noordelicht Photo Festival. Follow him on PHmuseum and Instagram.

Colin Pantall is a photographer, writer and lecturer based in Bath, England. His latest book, All Quiet on the Home Front, focuses on family, fatherhood and the landscape. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Written by

Colin Pantall

Reading time

6 minutes

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