When photographer Cynthia Dickinson applied to the Artist at Pine Needles residency program, she hadn’t been to the site where the cabin stood on the banks of the St. Croix. She was not prepared for what she saw.
“I got out of my truck and saw these tall white pines, I saw the maple trees, and I thought, my whole family history, my spiritual connections, they’re right here. My dad was a forester and I grew up in northern Minnesota in pine forests and spending long days making maple syrup with him. White pines, in particular, connect me to my dad. And we spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ cabin north of Lutsen, which had a mile of lakeshore. So, in a sense, it felt like coming home.”
In her application to be considered for the residency, Dickinson had expressed her interest in exploring the intersection of science, beauty and art. Now that she had arrived—a year delayed because of COVID—she was faced with the challenge of finding that literal and metaphorical place through the camera lens. She had three weeks in which to figure it out. On a tour of the nearby St. Croix Watershed Research Station, which operates the residency program, staff had told her she was welcome to incorporate microscopy images using equipment at the facility if she wished. It was tempting. But somehow, that didn’t seem quite what she seeking.
Back at the cabin, the river flowed by just outside the door. Nights were quiet. Each day, she’d be up before the sun and shoot until 10 a.m. or so, take a break, then start again. “It wasn’t just, I think I’ll take a hike and bring my camera,” she says. “What happened was, I started to really see the environment. Individual leaves that were green when I arrived turned color, died. I saw things in the forest that I had experienced as a kid, but was now old enough to respond to differently, to understand differently. And it was a new place every day because of the light.” She realized that she didn’t need to go farther afield: “I thought, this is where science and beauty and art intersect. Where I’m standing.”
She was aware of many elements coming together to feed the work: her own genealogy rooted in the early timbering industry in the northeastern U.S. and forest conservation in the Midwest (“We had some karma to repair”); the knowledge that the Pine Needles cabin had been built by John Warner Grigg Dunn, himself an avid photographer inspired by nature who stood on the same site capturing images over a century ago; his son James (J.T.) who collected river stories and images as a historian; the science happening at the research station that aims to better understand the world and see the way forward. “The experience was not only art-changing but life-changing—I came out of the residency 180 degrees from where I was when I went in, says Dickinson. “I plugged into the deepest part of myself. It’s probably why the images are so strong.”
She is mindful of the overwhelming volume of photographs that we’re all deluged by on a regular basis, and the fact that nearly everyone holds a camera in their hand in the form of a cell phone. “A camera is just a recording device. But photography is more than that. It’s asking: How can you capture the spirit of something?” Part of it, she says, is selecting the equipment for the moment. There is the skill set of the photographer, which is always evolving. And there is variation in perspective, which has to do with how our eyes and minds communicate, and the different ways that human beings—even individual people—interpret what they see, in particular, color. She cites the work of photographer Catherine Opie, who asserts that it’s always more than what you’re looking at. “What we perceive in our minds when we look at a scene in nature will not be the same as what shows up on a photograph,” says Dickinson. As in writing, she says that editing is an essential element in the art of photography: a process she likens to sculptors working in marble. That process can include working with physical aspects, like color, or light, or—harder to define—elements that together evoke a powerful response. It can also come into play in choosing the size of a print. “If you want someone’s attention, one way is to go really big, the other is to go very small, so small that a person practically has to have their belly to the wall to look at it.” She was grateful to Sony for supporting her artist residency by gifting her a 62-metapixel camera and 2 lenses, one of which was a 24-70 mm macro lens. The equipment has opened up her options as well as her imagination. “I could make an image as big as a billboard and it would still be sharp,” she laughs. She hasn’t. Yet.
Other artist residencies she’s undertaken have been more about community, where you’d have your own work space, but would meet up with other artists either incidentally or as part of the program. Here, she wanted to take advantage of the solitude. “I tend to spend a lot of time alone since I do creative work, but the isolation out at the Pine Needles cabin was really all-encompassing.” While she could have had friends visit, she didn’t want to interrupt the process. “You recognize when the work you’re doing is something different, something new that has the potential to be good. If you break that, if you leave and come back to it, it might still be good but it won’t be what it would have been.”
Following, she shares an extraordinary sampling of new work from her residency experience. We can’t wait for the billboards.
Cynthia Dickinson’s photography can be seen at Praxis Gallery in Minneapolis, at Burnett Fine Art & Advisory in Wayzata, and at the Hopkins Center for the Arts. Looking ahead, a show of her photographs will be featured during the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum’s Annual Flower Show in February. Explore more of her remarkable images on her website.