Seven amazing portraits of tree planters working in B.C.’s remote backcountry
Toronto’s Rita Leistner has decades of experience as a war zone photographer, but she battled a different sort of rough terrain for her new portrait series, The Tree Planters. At first glance, her images look like the posed dioramas you might find in the ROM, but the shots are so full of detail that you can almost smell the sweat and bug spray. The large-scale photos will be on display at Stephen Bulger Gallery until November 18, alongside drone video footage that shows exactly how Leistner wields a $30,000 camera through thick brush and up steep mountains.
Leistner worked as a planter herself between 1983 and 1992, and decided to return to the bush, camera in hand, to document the young people invested in Canada’s reforestation—a job that seems simple, but takes grit and grace. Using skills from her time in Iraq and Afghanistan, she captured people hard at work in British Columbia’s backcountry for weeks at a time in 2016 and 2017. Leistner took thousands of snaps to get even a single image she deemed gallery-worthy. “You’re running around for weeks, high on adrenaline, and everything is going wrong,” she says. “Then, magically it all comes together and and you get the shot. I always jump up and down and swear, like, ‘We fucking nailed it!’”
We asked Leistner to give us behind-the-scenes details on some of the portraits in the show.
“It took two hours to reach the area where Gilbert was planting. I knew I could get a great shot, but there was a cloud ruining the photo. It took three hours for the cloud to move. You’re so far out in the bush that you can’t go home and come back later—you wait it out and keep your energy up so that you’re ready when the weather cooperates.”
“When tree planters see this photo of Jen, it’s like they’re seeing a pro athlete. She has such great form. She’s such a technical planter. For example, if you look at her hand, you can see that it’s blurry and just her fingers are touching the shovel handle. She has such a light touch on the shovel, which is what you want: you can’t slam too hard or you’ll hurt your elbow.”
“Cynthia and Jen are sisters. I love that there are so many super powerful women in this series. When I first started planting, it was just me and six guys. These women kick ass and work side by side with men. I think in some places in the world this would be very radical.”
“Of all the photos in the exhibition, this was the easiest to get. Tree planting is brutally hard work—you can be alone for 10 hours straight until someone picks you up and takes you back to camp. Seeing the planters’ strength gives me so much joy. Tav always has a great attitude. In this photo you can see how ripped she is. They’re all ripped because their world is so insane.”
“I needed one more photo for the exhibition, so I went to B.C. for a single shot. There were wildfires, so I drove from camp to camp for five days looking for planters to shoot. Finally, I found a crew near Vernon and followed Russell. He was working in really difficult land, and during the shoot I wiped out in a puddle. I was waist-deep in sludge, holding a $30,000 camera over my head like Arnold Schwarzenegger at the end of Terminator, and my assistant had to pull me out. I wasn’t leaving until I got the shot.”
Andrew Dallas Blackstone
“Dallas is completely naked in this photo. In a crew, there’s the occasional person who plants nude—it feels nice, and it breaks up the monotony. We used to plant topless, back in my day. Dallas is also an art student, and he liked the idea of being in a photograph that shows the classical imagery of a body at work. This was the last shot of the day before it started to pour rain.”