An Interview With: Karen McKnight

Who are you and where did you study?

I am Karen McKnight and I studied at the Ulster University in Northern Ireland.

What is your artist statement for 'Airig Fedo'?

It was strangely like war. They attacked the forest as if it were an enemy to be pushed back from the beachheads, driven into the hills, broken into patches and wiped out.

-         Murray Morgan, 1955

           The world’s forests are diminishing at an accelerating rate. In anger at this destruction I set out to photograph the last of these ancient sentinels that have survived through the centuries. The silent veterans of the conflicts that have burned across Northern Ireland, they now stand separate and alone, the oldest and most notable of their kind. Like age-old beings of another world, their roots go deep into the mythology of the land.

What has the project developed from?

The project developed from the idea of deforestation. I wantedto achieve a project that talked about this important issue so in the beginning I started photographing in our artificially planted forests, which are now the most common type, but this wasn't working so I changed direction and began looking into the ancient side of our forests and the oldest, rarest trees within them. Discovering what little remained. 

What was the process of taking these images?

In the beginning I was working with a digital camera but then moved to black and white medium format film because I felt that it better fitted this project. It is a process that takes time, like the growing of a tree.

Usually I walk around the tree for a while, seeing it, being with it and getting a feel for it and it's life until I find a view that I feel best represents the tree. The space and composition change in each picture based on this perception. I feel the black and white imagery worked best to showcase the power and presence of the ancient trees. 

You seem to use the extremes of the dynamic range of your camera, what was the reason for this?

I always knew I wanted to have strong contrast between the lights and darks in my work as this is something I strive for in all my photography. Mitch Epstein's work, 'New York Arbor' was a strong influence here and really made me appreciate how effective a pale, washed out sky could naturally highlight the shape of the tree in the frame. The early spring in which I was photographing the work helped me achieve the colourless skies for the background bringing out  the rather dark skeletal branches. I made certain the trees were always correctly exposed because they were the focus. This also ensured all the intricacies of the bark were apparent giving the image life and meaning.      

What would you like the viewer to gain from your work?

I wanted the viewers to gain a new understanding and appreciation for these ancient beings. To see them as the living souls they are, the ancient watchers who have lived throughout our history. I've often felt we dont notice trees. We dismiss them out of hand, as just trees. I wanted to challenge that view. 

These quiet sentinels are precious relics of our history and should be protected at all costs, they are the only remaining surviving specimens of once vibrant and numerous wooded areas, they have a majesty and mystery all of their own and trees are essential to our survival as a race. I would like people to wake up and spread the message that these precious ancient beings and the woodlands that remain have to be protected not only in Northern Ireland but across the world.   

What have you learnt through thisproject?

This project has taken me to various locations throughout Northern Ireland expanding my knowledge of the environs in which I live. I have been astounded, amazed and greatly humbled by these giants of nature and have gained great insight into their history and in so doing gained a better understanding and respect for my own history. I have a new appreciation for trees and all the years they have seen and will see long after we forget.

What are your plans for the future? 

I am actually leaving the country in October to travel for a while and broaden my horizons, although I will continue to make work. I have plans to continue Airig Fedo once I return as I don't feel it is fully completed yet.  


All images copyright of Karen McKnight


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