For photographer Ellie Davies, the forest is her studio. Her images are an immersive mix of realism and heightened fantasy. In a mossy clearing, for example, galaxies have been interposed with the landscape like clouds of will-o’-the-wisps, while elsewhere, stars resembling flaxen particles drift down in a column, illuminated by the sunlight. Her landscapes are not only places of mysticism and beauty, but of darkness, as well. Fog and clouds drift amongst the trees like ghostly breaths expelled from the twisted, bronchiole-like branches. In one particularly haunting photo from Between the Trees Triptych (2014), skeletal trees flank a spectral cluster of mist.
Whether glowing bright or cast in shadow, all of Davies’ images reveal a reverence for the forest, as well as her intimate understanding of the way such landscapes have manifested themselves in our cultural imaginations. As she writes in her Artist’s Statement:
“UK forests have been shaped by human processes over thousands of years. […] As such, the forest represents the confluence of nature and culture, of natural landscape and human activity. Forests are potent symbols in folklore, fairy tale and myth, places of enchantment and magic as well as of danger and mystery. In recent cultural history they have come to be associated with psychological states relating to the unconscious.”
And it is true; all of these cultural legends, practices, and traditions have made the forest — indeed, “nature,” as a concept — a construction, a story we tell ourselves to try and understand our individual connection with it. We imagine the woods as a symbolic place of “elsewhere” and “otherness,” and this cognitive distancing allows us to romanticize it, fear it, and/or exploit it.
Davies wants to confront us with these fictions “by making a variety of temporary and non-invasive interventions in the forest, which place the viewer in the gap between reality and fantasy” (Source). She creates her scenes in what she calls “small acts of engagement [that] respond to the landscape” — she builds things, creates pools of light, incorporates craft materials such as paint and wool. As I read it, the images have several effects. They resonate with our fantasies about the forest, but at the same time, we recognize their construction, which helps us to perceive that our cultural relationships to the forests of the real world are also constructed. In unveiling such narratives, Davies’ work encourages a more ethical connection to the woods: we recognize “reality” as a series of stories that have been told to us, we sense that we are not truly separate from what we call “nature,” and we accept that we can never fully understand it — an acknowledgment that fosters both respect and peaceful coexistence.