colby caldwell

Anna Helgeson on Picturing Purity

colby caldwell
Anna Helgeson on Picturing Purity

Interview by Lisa Sousa


Anna Helgeson is an artist, writer, and curator living in Asheville, North Carolina. She is Exhibitions Director at Revolve and an editor of Holler. She curated Picturing Purity, a photography/new media exhibition designed to help us rethink misogynistic purity myths within the culture of environmentalism, as part of the photo+sphere conference held November 7-11, 2018 in Asheville.


Can you explain the concept of the Picturing Purity exhibition and the call you put out for artists?


The idea for this exhibition was born from a desire to shift the look and feel of environmentalist conversations. In general, they look very white and male…. and too often are steeped in tropes of loss and longing. There’s this savior complex, right? This idea that what’s important about nature is that it’s beautiful to look at and we are sad to lose beautiful hiking destinations. Simultaneously, I was thinking about the consistent, ever-present universal voice, which centers the white, male, hetero “normal” point of view. I started rereading ecofeminist texts and thinking about how important subjectivity is and how we frame images and conversations matter.  


These ideas all crystalized for me around concepts of purity – this imaginary idea that idealizes and “others” both women (as virgins to protect) and natural environments (virgin forests, pristine waterways).


So I put out a national call for photographers and new media artists to address the complexity of what it means to be a human on this planet using the idea of purity myths as a framework to either unpack or reject.


Were there any submissions that were a surprise or that maybe took the concept in an unexpected direction?


Yes, I would say that all seven artists that are in the exhibition submitted surprising points of view to me, which is probably why I chose them. For example, Paul Stand, who has the series of photographs of walled gardens. The gardens reference walled gardens in Renaissance paintings, which were intended to represent the Virgin Mary. It really struck me that this is one of those foundational myths that is teeming under so much of contemporary life that we rarely acknowledge. Very few people would say, “Oh yes, I rule my life according to the Virgin Mary,” but in the way we think about and talk about virginity, especially women’s virginity, it is clear that we still think about it as sacred and something that is either taken from you or you give up.


Susan Alta Martin’s work was surprising in a different way – through its apparent transparency, its lack of symbolism, the way she reveals power lines and “eye sores” within pristine landscapes to allow us to see how our human needs (the need for power) are part of the landscape. I really like this idea that even these terrible, ugly things can also be beautiful. This perspective is also evident in Sarah Knobel’s work with the frozen garbage––these beautiful bright colors, these gorgeous sculptural objects that she photographs––knowing that they’re ocean trash, frozen.


I was struck by the varied subjects and subjectivity in the work presented. Can you talk about how the juxtaposition of these works added to the conversation within Picturing Purity?


I definitely wanted various points of view, and points of view that were a little bit different than what I had seen before. When we were installing the show and people would walk by the gallery and poke their heads in and a few said, “Oh I thought this was a photo+sphere show” and I was like “Oh it is” and they would look surprised and say “But it’s not about environmentalism...” And I love that. That’s exactly what I wanted. I didn’t want it to be an easy read.


I was interested at getting at some of the various conversations that come out of being in relationship with the world around us. I think for too long there’s been this supposed universal voice that is intended to speak for everyone and I want us to wrestle and reckon with multiple viewpoints while being grounded in the idea of not being separate from nature.


How did growing up in a rural environment affect your concept of nature?


I thought about my childhood a lot, actually, when putting this show together – for a couple of reasons. Not only did I grow up in rural northern Wisconsin, spending more time outside than inside, just running around, but also my parents are both huge environmentalists. Part of the way they expressed that was by starting Winding Road Farm Commune where I grew up. It was founded to be an organic produce farm.


My dad is also an environmental engineer, and so he spent his working life ensuring that there would be solar and wind energy both for the state of Minnesota and the state of Wisconsin. Ensuring that at least 1% – which is such a terrifyingly low number – that at least 1% of energy would come from alternative sources. And so I spent a lot of my childhood watching incredibly boring slideshows about windmill farms and solar panels.


I also remember going to environmental conferences that were either incredibly boring or terrifying as hell. I remember one in particular that I attended when I was pretty young, maybe 9 or 10, and learning about the Lily Pond affect – that is that the earth is a pond – with limited land mass, and every generation the population doubles (like lilies do) so very quickly you have a pond covered with lilies, making it harder and harder to survive on the same finite resources. This made the problem of population explosion very vivid and terrifying to me at the time.



What would you say to a white cisgendered male who may read the description of Picturing Purity and feel implicated by it?


I would say two things. I would say first that we’re all implicated in this mass cultural system that existed before we were born and will exist after we go. And second, I would say it is important to recognize your role in the system. Pretending systems of oppression don’t exist or choosing to ignore them does not make them go away. Recognize your agency and use it.


You included two texts with the exhibition. How did these books influence the concept behind Picturing Purity?


One book is Feminism and the Mastery of Nature by Val Plumwood. This book is great, and quite academic, it goes deep into foundational structures of language and what that reveals about our understanding of the world. Illuminating the biases built into a language and worldview that privilege a few and “other” many. It helped me think through how the same logic that justifies strip mines and toxic waste also justifies sexual abuse and dehumanizing women. It is a logic dependent on the belief that power and agency rightly belong to a few, and all others either lack agency or don’t matter.


The other text is Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer. She addresses similar topics but in a more poetic and personal way. Her perspective is really interesting because she is both a scientist and Potawatomi, so she has deep knowledge of indigenous understandings of the natural world and a western scientific understanding of the same natural world. In her writing she’s very clear about the intimacy we have, the reciprocity of living in the world. She really helped me to shift my thinking from this idea that humans have ruined everything, to thinking about how plants need us as much as we need them.


My next question builds on your answer… one theme I noticed of photo+sphere seemed to be challenging the notion of humans being separate from nature – rather than as part of nature. And to support and heal the environment we need to develop a more symbiotic relationship to the planet other than the exploitative one that is dominant. How do you think the work in Picturing Purity addressed this notion?


I think recognizing that symbiotic relationship is a good first step. One of the artists in the exhibition that most powerfully does this is Madison Emond. She would drag these giant photosensitive pieces of paper into the Saw Kill River at night. In her statement she articulates that she wanted the Earth to speak for itself – letting the images arise from what the river created. She’s also done quite a bit of research about an emerging movement that’s gaining ground around the world to grant personhood status to things like rivers and mountains. I also appreciate her relationship with the river – it was a river she knew very well and has spent a lot of time swimming in and hiking around and to me that relationship is also very important. It’s something that Robin Wall Kimmerer talks about a lot as well. Once you think about the natural world as having agency and voice and being able to communicate with you it’s amazing what you can learn.


Why is talking about reimaging our relationship with nature important and changing these whole perceptions around it is so important right now in this moment?


Well, I believe in science. So I think it’s pretty clear that a lot of future outcomes – if we just proceed with business as usual – are going to be pretty devastating for most people on the planet and for the planet itself.


As a photographer yourself, do you view the medium as more or less suited to reimagining our relationship to nature than other mediums?


I think it has a particular relationship with truth telling and documentation. It has an important role in informing us about our world that is different than other mediums. From the beginning photography was as much a tool of science as art. So I think in that way there’s a particular place for photography in the conversation.


Recently I watched a documentary about the great environmental writer and activist Rachel Carson who wrote the paradigm-shifting book Silent Spring and discovered that it’s very likely that she was gay. It made me reflect on the many trailblazers throughout history who were likely LGBTQ, many of them closeted because of the times they were living in. I began to wonder if queer people have a unique POV to challenge the accepted and often harmful paradigms of our society. What do you think of this premise?


At the risk of making universal statements... I do think that anybody who is cast outside of a “normal” system tends to question the legitimacy of that system. And once you start questioning one societal norm it just makes sense that you would examine all other norms as well.


In Mel Chin’s keynote as part of photo+sphere, he said (I’m paraphrasing here) that an artist doesn’t necessarily need to answer questions with their art, but rather pose them. What is the biggest question you took away from Picturing Purity and photo+sphere as a whole?


I have so many questions. One of the biggest sort of a-ha moments for me was considering the effectiveness of a groundswell as opposed to a top-down change. It’s easy to get frustrated when thinking about the impact the current powers that be are having on our world and how most have no motivation to change. However, when I start thinking about people – artists in particular because of our ability to communicate and connect, who do have motivation to change – I am re-energized. So I guess the questions are related to how are we going to do that – what exciting possibilities lie ahead.