PRINT January 1999



A decidedly politicized awareness has always inflected Zoe Leonard’s fugitive, eclectic, outwardly quite urbane vision: Though hard to nail down, she can always be counted on to make a statement. How surprised (maybe shocked) I was, then, to encounter her two most recent photographic series—images of trees and dead animals—a stark contrast to her earlier work like the low-angle runway shots of models, or the “Watermelon Woman” archive compiled with Cheryl Dunye. These new photos seemed to all but embrace the conservative mythology of American life: burly patriots hacking out a destiny, subduing and surviving. Had the reliably engagé Leonard, in her trips to the Alaskan frontier, gone native? During our conversation, she read a paragraph from Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea about a fisherman’s laconic bond with a fish. Listening to my tape recorder whir in the silence as she considered a reply, I braced myself for a militia pitch.
A silly expectation, because Leonard has grafted the aesthetic concerns developed north of the Lower 48 onto the incisive blend of public and private explorations typical of her artmaking. The artist—whose celebrity since Documents IX in 1992 has been matched by her devotion to grassroots activism—is all about edge: the verge of gender bewilderment; the blissed-out canon of beauty harshly rebuked; the crude unveiled. Her fascination with subsistence thus strikes me as wholly in character, an extension of her obsessions woven into a back-to-the-land ethos. These pictures—outdoor abbatoirs, streetscape flora that combat the urban fabric—signal an effort to inhabit an economy that most of us only glimpse. Leonard remains one of our bravest artists: a moving target who has learned to shoot back.
Matthew DeBord


I see this tree from my back window. I’ve had the same apartment for eighteen years, and I’ve watched this tree grow up and around the fence. I’m amazed at how, over time, it has absorbed the fence into its body.

In 1994, I started spending time in Alaska. The first time, I stayed six months. I returned in 1995 and lived up there alone for a year and a half in Eagle, a small village on the Yukon River. I got interested in the idea of subsistence—of living more directly from my own labor. I heated with wood, hauled my own water, and gathered and grew some of my food. Gradually, my experiences there seeped into my work.

At first, I had no intention of taking any pictures while in Alaska, but eventually I began dealing with the new imagery that surrounded me. The pictures that resulted were different from anything I had dealt with before, such as the wax anatomical models or the fashion-show pictures. But I realized that my perspective had accompanied me. I had shifted from examining historical images of women to looking at the land around me, but I retained my concern with analyzing and understanding our culture, our society.

Contrary to my expectations, Alaska both expanded and clarified my politics. I began to grasp the connections between social issues in New York and land-use issues in Alaska. For instance, the economic link between the Alaska oil pipeline and the urban consumer. It became possible at a private level for me to think differently about what l consume.

I was afraid at first that I would have a hard time making art in Alaska. What I found was the opposite. I was surrounded by the complexity of nature, and I began thinking about our “progress” as a people, about the choices we have made. I thought a lot about hunting, about our predatory nature. No one wants to admit they’re a predator, but it’s impossible to find someone who doesn’t sanction killing on some level—for food, or for political or moral reasons. Somehow we no longer really view ourselves as part of the food chain. What we eat is prepackaged and delivered to us. Our shit disappears when we flush the toilet.

While in Eagle. I got a rifle and began to hunt a little—small game, birds, and ducks. I also helped friends deal with their moose and bear. After a while, I began the series of “hunting” pictures.

What I’ve always liked about photography is that it’s such a direct way of showing what’s on my mind. I see something. I show it to you. When I returned to New York, the tree outside my window attracted my attention in a whole new way. Once I had photographed it, I began to notice similar trees throughout the city. I was going running every day and noticed trees that had grown through fences and gates, pushing the metal aside, or others that had warped and bent to the pressure of the steel. In some, the barrier had been almost swallowed by wood and bark. I was amazed by the way these trees grew in spite of their enclosures—bursting out of them or absorbing them. The pictures in the tree series synthesize my thoughts about struggle. People can’t help but anthropomorphize. I immediately identify with the tree. At first, these pictures may seem like melancholy images of confinement. But perhaps they’re also images of endurance. And symbiosis.

I’ve been trying to take the simplest possible pictures of the trees—a single centered subject, no shadows, no movement, a benign camera angle—so that their narratives can emerge gradually. The challenge is to include what’s necessary and to exclude the extraneous. The task of distilling is extraordinarily difficult. I have a whole new respect for photographers like Paul Strand or Walker Evans, photographers who present a simple picture that’s also strong and dynamic.

In sorting out this new imagery, I’ve been trying to achieve a simple kind of language, like Hemingway’s language. I guess the pictures I’m working on now—the hunting pictures and the tree pictures—are very basic. They are still-lifes in the classic sense. I bought a new camera, an old Leica that I don’t feel comfortable working with yet. I’ve used the same Nikon FM body for almost twenty years, and I realized that I’d gotten into certain habits as a photographer. As a consequence I had stopped questioning my own process. In learning how to use my new camera, I’ve had to think slowly. I’ve had to pay careful attention to what I’m doing and rethink each step of taking a picture.