Heartbreaker

Heartbreaker

“What I love about this picture of Clover with the bloody nose is that she seems so vulnerable, yet at the same time she has that incredibly strong look in her eyes,” says photographer and Photography department Critic Jesse Burke MFA 05 PH, addressing the sizable crowd gathered to see his new exhibition. “I asked him for a tissue,” Clover deadpans in response, “but he came back with his camera instead.”

Burke’s nine-year-old muse has once again stolen the show. Wearing a dress printed with bird illustrations and what appears to be a Boy Scout’s bushman hat, she’s helping her father with the opening talk for Wild & Precious, a solo exhibition on view at the RISD Museum’s Tsiaras Photography Gallery through September 25.

As Museum Director John Smith explains in introducing the duo, the show is on display thanks to local patron of the arts Joseph A. Chazan, who donated the 15 inkjet prints included to the museum’s permanent collection. Last fall he also helped support the publication of a beautiful monograph by the same name, which includes more photographs from the series.

Burke’s project began in 2010, when he realized for the first time that blending his personal and professional lives wasn’t a bad thing—that the images he was creating of his daughter exploring the natural world were some of his best. “And the pictures in which Clover did what she wanted [instead of being art-directed] were the strongest,” he points out.

Clover appears in each of the photographs, staring out at a roiling ocean, perched atop a massive downed tree, snuggling a live baby raccoon in a sea of tall green grass. Burke admits that most of the creatures she communes with in his photographs are dead, explaining that his “goal as a parent is to teach her how to connect with the natural world—but live animals normally don’t stick around and allow humans to study them.”

Each of the images gets its name from a song written or covered by Johnny Cash, a Burke family hero whose music accompanied them on all of their road trips. “It’s crazy how well the song titles align with the images,” Burke notes.

The 134 photos in the Wild & Precious monograph (Daylight Books) are arranged chronologically and bookended by shots of Clover sleeping so that “the arc of the book is a dream,” Burke explains. His magnificent still-lifes invite viewers into that dream, drawing us near to peer at a small stone in Clover’s hand and then zooming out so far that we can barely recognize her tiny red hat among a huge pile of driftwood on the beach.

The photographs seem to speak directly to each viewer—reflecting the intense but fleeting experience of parenting and life in general – and have been making an impact across the country. Lenscratch said that the book “elevates Burke’s five-year personal narrative of fatherhood to a poetic collection of small stories that reveal the complexity and fragility of childhood and the importance of a relationship with nature.”

A solo show of the work premiered at ClampArt in NYC last fall, and the series has been featured on websites fromSierra Magazine to The New York Times to National Geographic. Images are currently included in a show at the San Diego Art Institute, with upcoming exhibitions at the Print Center in Philadelphia and the McIninch Art Gallery at Southern New Hampshire University in Hookset, NH.

“Each day is a new adventure that we enter as if upon a stage,” Burke writes in a letter to Clover included in the book. “Every day you are bigger and braver. I know I can’t ask you to stay small, to stay innocent. Nature will run its course. You will change and grow. You’ll shed the velvet cloak of childhood like flowers in their final bloom before the cold of winter arrives. The metamorphosis is beautiful to watch, but heartbreaking.”

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