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“…desire and seduction with the impossibility of connection:” An Interview with Photographer Rita Leistner

“…desire and seduction with the impossibility of connection:” An Interview with Photographer Rita Leistner

Sabeena Khosla
Rita Leistner and Don McKellar abandoned train track
Rita Leister and Don McKellar Stephen Bulger Gallery
Left: Rita Leistner and Don McKellar. “She Watches Her Double Walk Into The Lake, Pandemic Year One,” 2020-2021 from the series Infinite Distance. Right: Rita Leistner. “Laurence Morin,” 2017 from the series The Tree Planters. All photographs courtesy of the artist and Stephen Bulger Gallery. 

Back in April I attended the Plural Art Fair in Montreal and was able to spend a significant amount of time with the photography of Rita Leistner. Leistner is based in Canada and is well-known for her series The Tree Planters (2016-17), which was one of two bodies of work on view at Stephen Bulger Gallery’s booth. The photographs are large, heroic live-action shots of tree planters in the camps of Coast Range Contracting. Twenty-five years ago, Leistner herself planted over 500,000 trees and The Tree Planters allowed her to re-immerse herself in this world and document the grueling, stunning, and sustaining work of these individuals. The series was expanded into a documentary film and an extensive publication.

Also on view at the fair was the artist’s series titled Infinite Distance. The photographs in The Tree Planters are a unique photographic take on grand portraiture, but her approach in Infinite Distance was much more intimate, peculiar, and abstracted. They are also all black and white, a stark change from The Tree Planters. The photographs in Infinite Distance were taken in Toronto during the first-year of the pandemic, with her friend and actor Don McKellar. An accomplished actor, McKellar starred in Sensitive Skin with Kim Cattrall and his most recent credit is writer and co-showrunner of HBO’s highly anticipated mini-series The Sympathizer, starring Robert Downey Jr. and Scotty Ly. During the early days of the pandemic, his acting work was suspended. During the first year of the pandemic, the pair embarked on photography excursions at night seeing their city and its nature with new eyes, both of them experimenting behind and in front of the lens—capturing images that transcend time.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Leistner, mainly about Infinite Distance, and why it was such a personal and artistic transformation.

Infinite Distnce photograph fire
Rita Leistner and Don McKellar. “He Stokes The Fire Showering Her With Sparks, Pandemic Year One,” 2020-2021.
Toronto photograph Don McKellar
Rita Leistner and Don McKellar. “He And She Run Up The Hill, Pandemic Year One,” 2020-2021.

The photographs in this series are blurred, overlaid with flora, fire, and the elements rising up around the subjects, meaning you and Don. They are painterly and there is also something a little supernatural about them.


Was it intentional or how may it have come about?

Well, Don [McKellar] is an actor and I am a documentary photographer and filmmaker, so we have very different backgrounds. He has only ever worked in fiction, and I have only ever worked in documentary, so there started to be this overlap of our practices. We were neighbors and in this artist bubble but we still set out rules early on, conceptual and constructed rules. We determined that we would always be six feet apart when we took photographs, we wore masks, and since cameras are devices that rely on distance there were layers of why it made sense to shoot in this way. So, we would head out with a location in mind and all we knew is that we were prepared, open-minded, and open-hearted. We also carefully picked iconic Toronto locations that overlapped with nature in some way, which contributed to that overflowing nature you noticed. It was something that was happening in all cities around the world—nature encroaching on the urban—so we were looking for locations that could become part of that story.

The works feel like a composite experience of experimentation, anxiety, and fantasy—especially in regards to the way you manipulate light.

I am a highly technical photographer as I started out in the film industry as a lighting technician and I use flash in all of my work. I am very interested in that added element of how artificial light can affect what you are seeing, so I knew that was going to be a part of how we could work here. We were using these in-camera techniques that are reminiscent of 19th century phantom or magic photography—the tradition of using a long exposure with a flash and then you move the camera and flash again, which sometimes makes it look as if there is a floating head. We were exploring these techniques to the maximum to accentuate the sense of mythology and magic of what was going on and the unreality of everything. I decided that if I was going to be an artist living in the time of a pandemic, I am going to eat, live, and breathe pandemic. So I read everything I could about pandemics throughout history and the way people behaved. They were very fruitful times for art, which I had not thought about. And because we wanted to be a part of that, we were very serious about it and all of that reading and thinking increased the way in which the work was referring back to all these visual and historical vocabularies.

Rita Leistner and Don McKellar
Rita Leistner and Don McKellar. “He Lies In A Pile Of Golden Apples, Pandemic Year One,” 2020-2021.

You were only going out after dark, correct?

Actually, we always went out at night and originally that was because it was early in the pandemic and we were afraid to go out during the day because no one knew where the virus was floating. We did not want to approach or get near people, or get in trouble for being near people. Night just seemed like a safer time to go out, and Don and I just continued because it was a way to escape the fear of being around others. And then, there was this added, sort-of-apocalyptic magic of the city at night. It really felt more transformed into this odd, post-apocalyptic, familiar, unfamiliar place to both of us, who are both from Toronto. We were exploring areas we knew, that we had known our whole lives, that suddenly seemed different and unfamiliar.

And, we would not go with a script in mind, but it was theatrical in the sense of the tradition of theater where you create scenes out of found objects. At one point, we came across a pile of rotten apples, and I thought “this is so clearly Adam and Eve” and it made sense with the two of us, as if we were the last two people on Earth, or the first two people on Earth in the new apocalypse. So, we started playing around with these apples and then of course the mythology just emerges out of that without it having been something that was planned ahead of time.

Toronto Rita Leistner and Don McKellar
Top: Rita Leistner and Don McKellar. “He Pulls a Ribbon Of Light (Under A Full Moon), Pandemic Year One,” 2020-2021. Bottom: Rita Leistner and Don McKellar. “After Sebastianus Patron Saint Of Plagues, Pandemic Year One,” 2020-2021.

Various mythologies and art historical references play an important role in your titles, for example one mentions Caspar David Friedrich, and I can see that imposing, enveloping version of nature he is known for in your photographs, even though at scale they are small and intimate. Do you ever take a wide shot and crop in or are the views as you took them? For example, the photograph with the apples you mention that also closely shows a hand resting against them on the ground.

We had a lot of fun with the titles. And I do not generally crop, it is very rare. There were ants crawling in the apples and I wanted to accentuate that, hinting towards death a little, and that was one of the first nights where we started getting morbid. As the pandemic went on we got more so, and even pseudo-violent—not actually violent, but implications of violence and morbidity—which I think was just a fact of living in that time. When we started, we had no idea how long it was going to last, and when we went out we decided to just see how it goes. It was not like a film you could script, but it also was not strictly documentary either. One of the winter scenes in the series, with our tents, is shot in the same spot where we did summer scenes, with the same fire. So, there is this feeling that we had been there the whole time, through all these scenes, still social distancing with our tents not together, and us always confronting each other—this sort of desire and seduction with the impossibility of connection.

Left: Rita Leistner and Don McKellar. “Waiting for the Storm to Pass (Winter),” 2020-2021. Right: Rita Leistner and Don McKellar. “She Takes His Picture By The Fire, Pandemic Year One,” 2020-2021.

Absolutely. It is this play between comfort, discomfort, performance, and the inability to get too close even though you are clearly sharing something very intimate together. It is interesting that you mention the memento mori of the apple photograph with the hand, because in my mind I juxtaposed it with the photo of Don laying on abandoned tracks with plants almost enshrouding him and his hand is incredibly prominent in the photo as well.

Rita Leistner and Don McKellar abandoned train track
Rita Leistner and Don McKellar. “She Finds Him Lying On The Abandoned Tracks, Pandemic Year One,” 2020-2021.

I did a whole series of hands in my Tree Planters project, but in this case we could not touch hands. There is the last photo in the series where we are reaching across these blossom trees and we do not quite touch but we are reaching. The idea is that we are at the very end, reaching across this distance between us, and it’s frozen in a photograph. There is and was something quite emotionally devastating about that whole project in the way that the pandemic was.

Rita Leistner and Don McKellar. “They Reach Across An Infinite Distance, Pandemic Year One,” 2020-2021.
Rita Leistner and Don McKellar. “They Reach Across An Infinite Distance, Pandemic Year One,” 2020-2021.

There is a particular light coming through the hands in that last photograph as well, and it is very elegiac. Since you mention The Tree Planters, it is fascinating that while these two bodies of work look completely different, and your approach was very different, both are totally unstaged. That is especially incredible with The Tree Planters because they look like contemporary, photographic versions of heroic portraiture, and as if they were posing. On the contrary, they were actually doing those movements in real time and you were photographing them as they did.

I was running backwards with an assistant.

And that must have been quite physically difficult on you as well.

It was physically unbelievable. I cried everyday. It was four years of shooting and then another year and a half of editing the film and the book.

Left: Rita Leistner. “Franco Benti,” 2016. Right: Rita Leistner. “Jennifer Veitch,” 2017. Both from The Tree Planters series.
Left: Rita Leistner. “Franco Benti,” 2016. Right: Rita Leistner. “Jennifer Veitch,” 2017. Both from The Tree Planters series.

Did any of that inform the way you approached Infinite Distance? You were not doing professional portrait photography during that time, so I was curious how you perhaps saw or see these two bodies of work eventually communicating with one another.

Both, because they were not staged, involved a commitment of time to allow reality to happen. For Infinite Distances, Don and I went out a lot, sometimes in the rain or snow, which is difficult if you’re tired as well. We just wanted to see what happened, which for Don was a little harder because he was used to having a script and he could not believe it when it started coming together. And with The Tree Planters, knowing you have to go out every single day and shoot and there were many days I didn’t get anything, because it was challenging to get what I wanted specifically, but I had faith it would happen without a script, similar to Infinite Distance.

And both were, like all of my work, about human connection, fear of isolation, about longing, desire, pretty universal topics. The Tree Planters project, up until that point in my career, was the most biographical of any work I had done. I was not the subject, but this was a community I used to be a part of, and they were very much avatars of my younger self. I had started, for the first time in my practice, to implicate myself in the work, and then the pandemic forced it on me and suddenly I was doing self-portraiture.

For me, there needs to be a dynamic, whether I am the only one with the camera, or in Infinite Distance, giving Don the camera, which was an attempt at equivalency. The “I’m looking at you, you’re looking at me’” always happens when one person has a camera but when both people have cameras, what does that do to the relationship between them? When I am taking a photograph, I think of the camera as an extension of myself, but does everyone feel that way with a camera in their hands? Did Don feel that way? Probably not, we are different people. I did a lot of the post-production work and I could impose in my mind what I think his character is experiencing, but then really I am fictionalizing because I do not know, and he sort of kept that very close to himself.

Rita Leistner and Don McKellar. “Illicit Encounter (POV She), Pandemic Year One,” 2020-2021.
Rita Leistner and Don McKellar. “Illicit Encounter (POV She), Pandemic Year One,” 2020-2021.

It is this dichotomy of projection vs. hiding. And, what you are putting out there vs. what you are assuming not only of your subject but also your creative partner and friend. That must be such a complicated interplay.

Yes, and also, what was the overlap between what was going on between those characters in the photos and what was going on between us in our real life? Because I am not an actor, it is much harder for me to separate, so on a personal level it was more complicated because those things were the same for me. For Don, it was a performance, a way to have a more fun experience, but it was an artistically and emotionally transformative process for me.

While Infinite Distance was created at this specific point in time when the world was incredibly, unbelievably stressed out, viewers have to be told the photos were taken during and as a response to that intense cultural, global moment to know they were. They are rooted in that time, but outside of the titles there are few direct, specific references to the pandemic. There is something harrowing that can be contextualized as pandemic-born, but they are also youthful, regenerative, and open-ended. I think that is what I was getting to about the abstract layering and the painterly nature. It is not so obviously about the pandemic even if the project is powerfully tied to that first year of it.

Exactly. It is a metaphor, an allegory, and I hope the best of my work is. We could have come up with something theatrical like that at any time—two characters wear masks and they will keep a distance while doing everything together, and thereby tell levels of stories about relationships and connection, or the impossibility of connection by setting these physical, staged parameters.

However, the world gave us a situation in which we could specifically do this and it was also dictated by law. It was wild. And art is so often about coincidences. Don and I both being in Toronto, being neighbors, being friends, experiencing the pandemic, all those things have to be in place for something like this to happen. But, also, us having the impetus and desire to go and do it.

For more information about Rita Leistner, visit her website or Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto.

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