By Andy Patton
[Ed. note: This article is part of our series of weekly reflections, called Deep Down Things, published on Wednesdays.]
In their photography series The Architect’s Brother, Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison create works that “tell stories of loss, human struggle, and personal exploration within landscapes scarred by technology and over-use.”
The photographs depict the “Everyman”—always the same plain-looking, solemn character played by Robert ParkeHarrison himself—performing symbolic feats in an attempt to heal the earth. He scatters seeds, records the stories of felled trees or—as pictured here—literally stitches the landscape back together. The Architect’s Brother is alternately heartbreaking and whimsical. Most of all the photographs are simply lovely, but it is a lonely, hard kind of loveliness.
All the images are united by common themes of care for the landscape, yearning for its restoration, and a feeling of moral responsibility for humankind’s effects on the earth.
In the photo “Restoration,” the Everyman drives a rickety contraption across a post-apocalyptic landscape, leaving furrows of plowed soil behind him. Throughout the series one senses a concern about technology and its positive and negative effects on the environment. This image seems to be both realistic and hopeful about the prospects of restoration. Ahead of the plowman is a tangled hill of bracken and debris sketched in vague outline, but behind him are stony furrows of soil, presumably ready for seed. The sky above is dirty and seems to cast a shadow of gloom over the whole enterprise. Yet the work continues—the Everyman is pedaling his little machine nonetheless. The photo seems to call the viewer to a realistic view of the broken state of the world, but this realism leads to action rather than despair.
In “The Exchange,” the Everyman offers his blood to the trees in place of rainfall and fertile soil. To me, this echoes Genesis. In Eden the cultivation of the earth required only human sweat and labor, but today—living east of Eden—the sacred charge to steward creation has a more costly fulfillment.
In “Tree Stories” I’m reminded of J. R. R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings,who was grieved by the over-mechanization he saw in the world and who wrote that concern for the earth into his stories when he put the question “Who will speak for the trees?” into one of his characters’ mouths. Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison have changed the question: Who will listen to the trees?
In this photograph the Everyman sits at a desk surrounded by felled trees; wires stretch from their severed stumps to his ears. The image points to a connection between the environment and ourselves.
In “The Clearing,” the Everyman works with an overgrown rake and moves debris into an giant pile of trash. Again, as in other images, the work before him seems impossible, so large as to make any effort on his part seem trivial, yet he continues working. It is a picture of fealty to the earth and of contrition for humanity’s part in tarnishing it. ”The Clearing” seems to say that what can be set right must be set right.
View the rest of the pictures in The Architect’s Brother and the ParkeHarrisons’ other works here.