Light in the Dark: Photographer Jane Fulton Alt

Wisdom comes in many guises. Often it’s subtle; an energy or a feeling, a kind of underlying depth of thought hard to articulate or pin down. It comes from, I think, a willingness to pay attention. To look deeply, and to not shy away from the shadows and what they might hold. USA based photographer Jane Fulton Alt‘s work grows from this place. Her insight bubbles just beneath the surface of her striking, atmospheric images.

I am, of course, curious to learn more of Jane and her art practice.

Hi Jane. Please tell us about yourself, and your life with plants. I grew up in a suburb of Chicago, in the middle of the USA. I am a clinical social worker and worked part time as I raised my three children. When my youngest child began grammar school, I started taking art classes at a local art centre. I was captivated by photography because I had an amazing teacher, Richard Olderman, who used the medium to explore the big questions of life. He was always seeking and brought his students along with him. The natural world has always been important to me, having vacationed every summer in the north woods of Wisconsin. My husband’s passion for gardening certainly had an influence on me which then became magnified during multiple artist residencies at the Ragdale Foundation which was located on a magnificent midwest prairie.

Can you also please tell us about your art practice? Most of my work is fueled by whatever is most pressing in my life. I have always used the camera to more fully understand the human condition. I try to take one good photograph per day as a practice, and this has served as a wonderful visual diary (shared via Instagram). I am always looking for the photograph not yet taken, the one which will encompass the “all of it.”

The Burn No. 26, by Jane Fulton Alt

What does a typical day in the life of Jane Fulton Alt look like? I wake up early and exercise (usually a walk), post on Instagram and then delve into my photography (which may include preparing for an exhibition, editing, shooting, or responding to correspondence). I am always thinking about the light and how it travels across my field of vision during the day.

Jane Fulton Alt

You are both a clinical social worker and a photographer – how do each of these pursuits/jobs inform the other? The two professions are very closely linked. For years I tried to keep them separate. It wasn’t until I responded to the crisis in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina that I realized my greatest strength was in combining the two. I quickly realized that the human condition and the non-material world was what interested me most. My years in clinical practice, raising my family, extensive travel and the question of how we ALL enter and exit this world (regardless of race, religion or class) have influenced my photographic life.

There’s a sense of eloquence and soulfulness captured in your images and accompanying text on Instagram that really resonates with me. It makes me wonder whether writing is also part of your creative practice as well as image making? Like most photographers, writing does not come easily for me. When I worked on my book, The Burn, I asked a few people to write essays, hoping they would write about what was deep in my heart. What I learned was that no one could do it and I needed to do a “deep dive” to articulate what the work meant to me. This was an excruciating but important lesson and put me on the path of writing. I have learned that it is an important muscle that needs to be continually developed and strengthened.

The Burn No. 53. By Jane Fulton Alt

“Is it possible to make a living by simply watching light? Monet did. Vermeer did. I believe Vincent did too. They painted light in order to witness the dance between revelation and concealment, exposure and darkness. Perhaps this is what I desire most, to sit and watch the shifting shadows… these acts of attention are not merely the pastimes of artists, but daily work, work that matters to the whole community.”
– Terry Tempest Williams, Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert.

You used this quote to accompany an Instagram image recently and I wonder if you might explain why it resonates with you? I do believe that anything can be interesting to photograph, as long as the light is there. I love the fact that the light is always changing, challenging us to pay attention and bask in its glory. Every day, every moment offers itself up to us, and paying attention is life’s greatest gift.

I subsequently learned that when a tree loses a limb, it stimulates root growth. It was with comfort and hope that I realized that I too would recover, with time, and with my scars.

Jane Fulton Alt

Drawing on from this question, it seems to me our culture has an allergy to darkness, a kind of addiction to the sugary rush of ‘Light! Bright! Happy!’ Your work doesn’t shy away from the shadows in any sense, in fact, it goes there, fully. I wonder if you might explain this a little more. Why darkness for you? Why, as a culture, do you think it has become feared? Darkness has many different connotations. You need the dark to capture the beauty of the light. It holds mystery which is a great metaphor for the ineffable. It also serves as an illustration for the “dark” side of humankind, evil. I have utilized the “darkness” both ways. After the 2016 US presidential election I intentionally used it to discuss the “dark” side of our humanity. I went on an artist residency in Norway shortly after the election and realized that accentuating the darkness was the only way I could express my distress. Unfortunately, these challenging times have continued in ways I could have never imagined. It is human nature to want to be in the light: to see and to know.

Sea of Life. By Jane Fulton Alt

In an interview published on your website you refer to a quote by Andrey Tarkovsky, from his book Sculpting in Time: “The goal for all art…is to explain to the artist himself and to those around him what man lives for, what is the meaning of his existence…Art is a means of assimilating the world, an instrument for knowing it in the course of man’s journey toward what is called absolute truth.” What have you learned about yourself throughout your career as an artist? My art practice has been quite a journey…or should I say my life. The practice of art has given me fuller expression to all of life challenges, be it love, loss, and ultimately, the greatest mystery, death. The camera has given me a tool to explore what it means to be alive. I have learned about the importance of our shared humanity and the need for more beauty, love, kindness and compassion.

I have hopes that art, our connection to each other and nature will create a better world. There is a lot of work to be done.

I see on your Instagram feed that you’ve transformed ‘shelter in place’ to ‘artist in residence’! How has this very strange and challenging and earth-shaking time impacted your creative process? What a great question. I am not sure I have an answer for that yet. I am still in it and my circumstances are challenging and unexpected. I am surrounded by my grandchildren, embedded with family, far from my studio. There is minimal quiet time so I try to go on solo walks when I can. I have found my “wild’ place not far from the house and am finding myself continuing to focus on the primordial muck of life. I started photographing swamps last year and the landscape has afforded me the opportunity to continue. I am in the process of trying to formulate my thoughts on this as the entire world seems in an upheaval (or possibly self-correcting).

The Burn No. 98. By Jane Fulton Alt
The Burn No. 62. By Jane Fulton Alt

Your series, The Burn, documents controlled burns in Illinois prairies, woodlands and wetlands. Can you please speak about what fire came to represent for you as you pursued this series? These images of regenerative destruction have a personal significance: I photographed my first burn within the space of a few days when my first grandchild was born and my sister began a course of chemotherapy. As I looked through the viewfinder during the controlled burns, I couldn’t help but see the parallels between the burn in the prairie and the burn in my sister’s body, as both cleared the way for new healthy growth. It was only by spending so much time observing the controlled burns that a universal truth became clear to me: the moment when life and death are not contradictory but are a single process to be embraced as a whole.

And on the subject of The Burn, or any series of your work for that matter, how do you know when you are finished? Is it pure exhaustion?! Or is there some kind of internal revelation that hints at closure? Or…? The subject matter ceases to have to a pull on me. I remember going out to photograph the controlled burns, thinking it might be my last time, and then I came home with an exquisite photograph of falling ash. Of course I returned and tried to make that photograph again and could not. Slowly the subject matter loses its pressing interest. That said, I am coming to realize that I am like a tree with many branches, the stories or subject matter are all related, variations on a theme, so to speak.

I have a sense you’re a gardener. Yes? If so, what’s happening in your garden at the moment? Oh my. That is complicated. Actually, my husband was the gardener and in the last three years he pulled up most of our lawn and planted native species. Doug Tallamy’s book, Bringing Nature Home, was very influential. My husband died last September and I had planned on photographing his garden this spring…but find myself sheltered in another state. I have been watching my daughter as she has turned her lawn into a native habitat and it has been thrilling. Every photograph I take now is in some way connected to the loss. I am trying to find my way through this transformative time and nature has been very healing.

Does your garden play a role in your creative process, if so, what/how?The garden, its life cycles, and the changing light are my muses. It is a gift that keeps on giving in such unexpected ways. Shortly after my husband died last September, I was on my morning walk along Lake Michigan and noticed a tree with the healing scars from a limb that was removed. I suddenly became very identified with this tree. When you have lived with a loved one by your side for 43 years and suddenly they are not there anymore, it is like having a limb removed. I subsequently learned that when a tree loses a limb, it stimulates root growth. It was with comfort and hope that I realized that I too would recover, with time, and with my scars.

By Jane Fulton Alt

Finally, if you were a plant, what would you be? On my goodness! What a fun question! I love flowers from the jasmine family, lilacs, lily of the valley, ranunculus and of course the queen of them all: peonies. That said, I also have a growing respect and love for fallen trees and how they provide shelter for so many….I am just beginning to formulate an idea that when we think living material is finished, it is quite the opposite. It is just getting ready to support the continuation of life.

After the Storm. By Jane Fulton Alt