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Monday, September 8, 2008

A Conversation with Todd R. Forsgren


Magnolian Warbler© Todd Forsgren

When I first saw an image from Todd Forsgen’s Bird Banding Series via 20x200; it totally stopped me in my tracks because it was so original.
I wanted to know more about that image and the person that took that photograph. Upon visiting Todd’s website I became further intrigued as I found out that he was spending time in Mongolia on a Fulbright.
Todd kindly agreed to an interview from Mongolia(–don’t you love the internet?!), where he is continuing to photograph community gardens. A fascinating project that reminded me also of another artists close to my heart: Fritz Haeg.


Oranoponico Cubana de Bronce, Havana,Cuba© Todd Forsgren

In this interview Todd speaks about his investigative nature and how he became a photographer. I couldn’t help but smile when he recounted deciding to become a photographer somewhere between Katherine and Alice Springs in Australia. Alice Springs being the pseudonym of Helmut Newton’s wife June Browne Newton. I think the Photo-Gods were communicating with Todd ;)

Experimental Forests © Todd Forsgren

NC: Tell us about yourself.

TF: I grew up just west of Cleveland. I spent my youth between twelve years of Catholic school and running around the Ohio forests and coasts like a pagan when I wasn’t in class.

After that it was a liberal arts college education in the Northeast, focusing on using biochemistry to answer ecological questions. And then I discovered photography, since then I’ve been traveling around as much as possible to find pictures.

More from The Bird Banding Project © Todd Forsgren

NC: How did you discover photography?

TF: A lot of my interest in photography and art developed from interactions with the artists around Maine, where I went to college. I suppose at the time I was interested in asking questions that are tough to answer through the scientific method, so I was a bit frustrated with biochemistry and art provided the freedom I was searching for.

Most notable perhaps was Bowdoin’s retired photography professor, John McKee, athough I never had a course with him. I was working at a gourmet food and wine shop in town for the summer and John came in looking for 2cm of salmon-pesto pâté. He was impressed by my knowledge of the metric system and I was impressed by his taste in pâté, so that started a friendship that continues to this day. Though he never really told me to pick up a camera, it was because of John that I bought a Rolleiflex during my senior year.

After I graduated I took an ecology job in the Northern Territory of Australia that didn’t work out. I quit the job and somewhere between Katherine and Alice Springs I decided that I wanted to be a photographer when I grew up.

When I came back to the US I sought a bit more formal education in contemporary art and photography at the School of the MFA in Boston, and that opened a lot of doors for me.


Bird Banding & Mongolian Garden© Todd Forsgren

NC: Where do you find inspiration?

TF: Biology and ecology are still definitely on my mind. That’s probably my primary means of questioning and understanding the world… So that is certainly a source of inspiration.

Aside from that, art history and contemporary art inspire me. I love Japanese woodblock prints as well as Japanese gardens. Ornithological paintings are a huge inspiration for the bird banding projects, but certainly modernists such as Sol Lewitt also played a big roll in that work.

There are a slew of photographers whom I really admire: Joel Sternfeld, Barbara Bosworth, Simone Niewig, Emmet Gowin, Edward Burtynsky, Eirik Johnson, Scott Peterman, Victor Schrager, and Simon Norfolk to name a few contemporary artists.

Two Gradens in Mongolia, One in Cuba© Todd Forsgren

NC: How do your projects come about?

TF: I never know when or how an idea will hit me. Some of the ideas pop into my head at a moments notice during a morning jog while others develop because of the environment I am living in.

Others start with a seed of an idea and through research and luck develop organically into something that dovetails with what I’m looking for, like my work here in Mongolia...


Green Thumb Oasis, New York, New York ; Wilson's Warble © Todd Forsgren

NC: Where does your interest in Mongolia stem from?

TF: I have photographed urban horticulture projects across the United States and in Cuba and was looking for another interesting site to work with that would contrast the systems I’d seen. The more research I did on Mongolia the more compelling it became.

On the surface you have Mongolia’s history. The most famous Mongolian, Chinggis (Genghis) Khan, put together the largest contiguous land empire ever with a complex series of trade networks (i.e. the silk road). Now sandwiched between the big powers of Russia and China, Mongolia is the most sparsely populated country in the world. As I hope to include issues of globalization and isolationism in my work, this all seemed compelling. And then when I learned more about the gardens and culture I was hooked and decided I absolutely had to come here.

Like Cuba, large-scale mechanized farming collapsed in Mongolia when the USSR collapsed. However, the gardening in Mongolia has developed quite differently since then. In Cuba the organoponico gardens are state run with production quotas and the methods used handed down from the central government. In Mongolia the gardens are supported by a variety of governmental organizations, but also by international NGOs, aid organizations, missionary groups, and individuals. So there is really a huge diversity in the goals and approach that each garden is using and this creates a very different aesthetic.

Also contributing to this aesthetic is the landscape and culture. The traditional livelihood is nomadic herding (sheep, goats, yaks, camels and, of course, horses). As I’ve been a bit of a nomad myself over the past five years I was interested in photographing nomad’s garden and the transition from herding to a more sedentary ‘urban’ lifestyle.

As horticultural traditions are limited here, many times it is the first time people have ever grown vegetables. I really liked the idea of photographing a culture with such a broad understanding of the landscape focusing on a little garden plot for the first time.

Since the climate here is so challenging to grow veggies in, everything needs to be carefully and intimately cared for; in May they tuck their seedlings under thick yak felt blankets to protect them from the frost and in August they need to water several times a day to keep plants from drying out. Everything is simplified as much as possible, yet the gardens are so remarkable!

From The Bird Banding Series; FromThe Garden Series (Cuba)© Todd Forsgren

NC: What's next?

TF: That’s a very good question. Graduate school is certainly on the horizon, and I’m really excited to be a part of a community of photographers again. After spending the past ten months on my garden photographs here in Mongolia, I plan to spend a good portion of 2009 working on my bird-banding project.

Still, I don’t think my garden photo project is anywhere near finished. There are several gardening cultures I’m keen to photograph. I’ll be in Japan for two weeks this October looking at the gardening there, which has been an inspiration for my photographs for many years. Then there are European allotments gardens, yams farms in the mountains of Papua New Guinea with novel sustainable techniques, the new silviculture in Niger that has helped reverse the Sahara’s desertification, and poppy fields in Afghanistan.

I guess there are a lot of ideas kicking around in my noodle and now what remains is to find a way and the means to make them reality.

NC: Thank you so much!

To see more of Todd's work visit his website: www.toodforsgren.com (and make sure to explore the blog sectionof the site too).

2 comments:

Rona Chang said...

Thanks for the conversation Todd and Nina. The Bird Banding work is amazing. The gardening series sound interesting and promising. Can't wait to see more.

Who Am Us Anyway? said...

A terrific interview -- and stunning photographs. Thanks a lot, Nina.