VCU professor transcends time and family in “Pine Tree Ballads” photobook

Graduate director and assistant professor Paul Thulin released “Pine Tree Ballads” at Candela Books and Gallery in a reception on March 1. The photobook is a poetic memoir about family, childhood and place. Photo courtesy of Terry Brown

Iman Mekonen, Contributing Writer

A wide-eyed young girl sits upright in front of a faded blue wall with her hands resting on the arms of a chair. Her wide, impressionable eyes cast an alluring stare while light leaks into the scratches at the bottom of the image.

The girl in the photograph, titled “At the Right Hand of God in the Bedroom,” is named Scout. She’s Paul Thulin’s daughter and one of four women in his family included in his first photography book and newest exhibition, “Pine Tree Ballads.”

Thulin is an assistant professor and VCU’s graduate director of photography and film. An exhibition — which featured pages of Thulin’s book as well as some of his other photography — went on display March 1 at Candela Books and Gallery.

“The book is separated into six chapters,” said Ashby Nickerson, associate director at Candela Books. “They resemble a natural pause in the photographs and add a personal touch to it.”

Alongside the photography, Thulin included handwritten notes to guide readers through the photo story.

Named after a book found in his family’s house in Maine, “Pine Tree Ballads” is a poetic memoir about family, childhood and a sense of place in nature.

The collection of photos are set in the aforementioned house, where family and nature serve as Thulin’s main sources of inspiration.

Five generations of Thulin’s family have visited and shared memories in that house — his great-grandfather settled there in the 1900s.  Thulin spent almost every summer on the land since he was a child.

“At some point, I was documenting my family and it wasn’t artwork,” Thulin said. “After getting a lot of images at a particular point, I started to see some connections and interesting things happening that made the work not so much just about family, but it also made it start to seep into a narrative.”

Thulin’s photography book spans 10 years and includes photographs taken by his father and grandfather.

The collection tells a story while playing on the concept of time. Thulin uses film photography, adding texture through scratches, light leaks and dust, making it hard to tell when each photo was taken.

“I like the idea that it’s a narrative and a poetic memoir,” Thulin said. “And that there’s a mythical, folklore story here.”

Thulin’s idea for the book was sparked by the mix of factual and fictional stories his great-grandfather used to tell him about characters living in their house in Maine.

“There was a guy that used to live in an old farmhouse that we were living in that had one wooden leg, who fell in the winter, broke the other leg and died at the bottom of the stairs,” he said. “So those stairs and the house have a story that’s tied to a character.”

Paul Thulin’s daughter Scout is pictured in “At the Right Hand of God in the Bedroom,” an image included in his new exhibition. Photo courtesy of Ashby Nickerson

“And then at night, when you go to sleep, you hear weird noises and you’re like, ‘It’s the man with the wooden leg!’ That’s where the idea of stories came from,” Thulin said. “It was a re-imaginative and playful interpretation.”

One photograph, titled “Golden Hour,” depicts a tree standing out in a forest. A rainbow stems out from behind the tree, adding Thulin’s “magical” element as it travels out of the frame.

At the top right corner of the photo appears what resembles a patch of mold and some grain. Thulin said this touch symbolizes age — defects on images make the viewer value it as part of history.

“If you look at a gallery and they don’t have anything like that, then they’re protected and seen as an object that has never lived,” Thulin said. “I didn’t want this like a story. I wanted them as something that had been lived, scarred and breathed, and that has time on it.”

When Thulin created the project, he photographed his daughter Scout frequently from ages 4 to 14. In the current exhibition, there are only photographs of her when she was 9 years old.

While documenting Scout’s childhood, he noticed similarities between her experiences and his own.

“It was like seeing her childhood through my eyes,” Thulin said.

Also featured in his exhibition is a picture of his grandmother, above an image of his daughter — both in black and white.

“My mom, daughter, wife and grandmother essentially became a character,” Thulin said. “I have relationships to them. But when you look at the book, they became one person traveling in time.”

Thulin said he included the three other women to help define Scout’s entrance into womanhood.

“She was starting to hit the development phase as far as maturity and much more about thinking about the idea of becoming a woman,” Thulin said. “At that point, my wife — as far as a character — encompassed that moment so she was entering another character’s realm.”

The book encourages readers to feel the pages — certain photos of trees are accompanied by rough, colored paper on the next page. Thulin said he did so to connect the vision of texture with the actual feeling of it, appealing to multiple senses.

“Everything about the book belongs there because it added to a sense of place,” Thulin said. “I wanted to make something that could sit on the shelves with it, and the images in the stories felt that way too.”

Thulin said the name of the book perfectly fits the atmosphere he felt in Maine.

The book also includes an afterword by poet Dora Malech. She adds her own interpretation of the book while connecting two traditional forms of storytelling photography and poetry.

“What I like is this idea of equating it to writing,” Thulin said. “Being able to write something that compresses fact and fiction at the same time, it’s just it’s very tied into folktales. It feels like a folktale.”

“Pine Tree Ballads” is on display at Candela Books and Gallery until April 20. It can also be viewed online at candelabooks.com.

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