Tanya Marcuse – Fruitless | Fallen | Woven

My parents divorced in 1976, during my first weeks of kindergarten. My memories of that time are fuzzy, but I do remember a t-shirt my mom wore as an expression of her new identity after her life with my dad. It was a yellow cotton shirt with a red stencil of an apple with one bite taken out, alongside the words Eve was framed. Clearly, at 6 I didn’t understand the bold iconoclasm of it, but I did notice she got lots of comments the time she donned it for a trip to the neighborhood greenhouse. Today I understand it as a brash feminism I admire, and I interpret it as really asking an essential question, would the story of Eden be the same if Eve wrote it instead of Adam or the Father?

In looking through the 2019 publication by photographer Tanya Marcuse, I find myself asking the same question. Fruitless/Fallen/Woven, published by David Chickey and Radius Books, is a as expressive as it is masterful. The photographs are built on a unique knowledge of art history, a deep love of the landscape, and an insatiable curiosity. Fruitless/Fallen/Woven is equal parts retrospective – giving us an incredible witness to the photographer’s vision maturing over the course of 15 years – and artist’s book – a boxed set of three large books and a pamphlet.  Together, they expand how we understand the book as an object and vehicle for photography, offering a compelling narrative about the state of humanity, boldly probing challenging ideas about fertility, grace, beauty, and mortality. It delves deeply into human existence, even though all of the images are constructed only using vegetation and animal parts. This book doesn’t answer my central question, what if Eve got to tell the story about our fall from grace?, but it does pose the question with much greater complexity and urgency than that visit to the village greenhouse with my mom.

The three books that compose Fruitless/Fallen/Woven all function as discreet books, each representing a unique body of work. Taken collectively, however, the reader can watch one body of work grow into another, and thus witness how an artist’s ideas evolve. The photographs in Fruitless are pictures of apple trees made near Marcuse’s home in the Hudson Valley region of New York and photographed over several years and across the seasons. These pictures are all made with a 4×5 camera and are photographed in black and white, originally as small platinum/palladium prints, but also as large format digital prints. While in many ways they are the most conventional pictures in this set of books, they are also the backbone of them all, the source for the other bodies of work represented. Photographed with a clear, centrally framed subject matter, the pictures are made with an exactitude reminiscent of the Bechers. The photographer allows the gnarled and expressive forms of these trees – many of them must be decades old – to speak for themselves, their twisted shapes depicting a life of relentless growth despite the remarkable hardships wrought by their brutal environment of Upstate New York. Marcuse started the photographs out of fear that the trees would be removed, as the landscape of the region continues to give way to more and more development. Many of the trees are photographed multiple times and during different times of the year, providing a glimpse into the lifecycle and growth of them individually, and a lovely mirror for our own lives. Marcuse even likens these pictures to portraits, a rendering of the unique character of each of the trees: “I am riveted by the stunning transformations these trees undergo through the seasons, and the portrait-like individuality of each tree.”

As we progress through this first book, page after page revealing more of these simple, well-executed and beautiful photographs of apple trees, it concludes with photographs of fruit lying on the ground, apples fallen from the branches. Photographer Robert Adams has talked about something he called “gift pictures,” the photographs we make that help us discover new ideas and launch new bodies of work. These photographs of the rotting fruit in the grasses around the orchard were clearly something like this for Marcuse, as these last pictures in Fruitless lead us seamlessly into the second of the three books, Fallen.

All made in color, it might be easiest to describe the photographs in Fallen as artfully created compost piles. To make the photographs, Marcuse collected the rotting apples she found in the orchards– often freezing them at home to keep their state of decomposition intact – and used them to create botanical collages or assemblages, scenes in which she layered different organic materials to photograph, beautifully rendered to emphasize a bold and earthy colors with complex and interesting textures and patterns. The pictures are composed to fully visualize the material significance of the objects – as living and dying forms – while also creating images of much deeper metaphorical and symbolic substance. Mixed among the apples and leaves we can find pieces of eggshells, split pomegranates, rose petals, snakeskins, insect wings, and seedpods – each of these objects clearly selected for its symbolic value in western philosophical traditions and mythologies. The use of these materials is mythic in intent, prompting difficult questions about fertility and mortality, issues at the heart of our existence and the story of our fall from grace. Take the pomegranates, for instance (Fallen No. 182, 2011), which appear equally damaged and sexual; split open and scattered among drying leaves, rotting apples, and dark red grapes, the pomegranates seem almost bloody, their bold red juices oozing around the seeds. The collage built around the fragments of eggshells (Fallen No. 496, 2013) offers something similar. The shells are mixed among brown leaves and green grasses, with insect wings scattered among them. On the left side of the frame is the slithering form of a snake, almost imperceptible and yet also the backbone of the photograph, the serpent that led to our ruin fluidly moving through the broken eggs.

Like the first book in this series, Fallen ends with a transition, a few pictures that prepare the reader for the next body of work. This book ends with several photographs of uprooted trees, downed by storms, with their gnarled roots fully exposed, twisting around in a serpentine embrace. Compositionally, these pictures appear similar to the collages, however, these pictures bring an entirely new sense of scale to her subject matter. The assemblages Marcuse photographed in Fallen are small, the photographs depicting tight views of the plant materials she set up for the pictures. The roots change the scale, offering a larger view of the landscape Marcuse investigates to construct her photographs. This change in scale perfectly leads the way to the third book, Woven, which contains the most complex and innovative pictures in this publication.

The pictures in Woven could easily be mistaken for tapestries – hence the title – and clearly reflect a deep investigation of Medieval art history. The strategy for making the pictures in Woven is not too different than the pictures that comprise Fallen, but here, it’s taken to an entirely new level. The pictures are large format – each measuring approximately 5 x 10 feet each (or 3 x 1.5 meters) – tableaux built from collaged plant and animal materials. The repetition of forms and the patterns Marcuse creates using different biological forms, makes the pictures in Woven much more abstract than the previous books in this set. The repeating patterns, beautifully articulating both shape and color, are precisely what makes these images feel something like tapestries. More than just referencing the appearance of the photographs, the title of the series also reflects their composition. The images are meticulously patched together, utilizing high-end digital technology to create an entirely new understanding of landscape and biology. It is also easy to think of the patterns she creates as functioning metaphorically, that her compositional strategies suggest patterns of time, and  that her investigation of Biblical mythology is about history repeating itself, time and again stuck in the same cycle of birth, decay, and rebirth. The mechanics of the pictures are fascinating too. For her studio, Marcuse uses a large white canvas tent set up on her property, where she hauls animal carcasses and plant matter used to build her tableaux, and then photographs them under a mix of studio and natural light. The result is a new photographic invention in which the photographer perfectly balances a pursuit of metaphor and mythology with an innovative approach to landscape photography.

The Medieval influences in Fruitless/Fallen/Woven have their roots in Marcuse’s 2005 release with Nazraeli Press, Undergarments and Armor. Like this Radius publication, Undergarments and Armour is a boxed tryptic. The pictures made in important Medievalist museum collections, document women’s undergarments and male battle armor. The undergarments – elaborate corsets and hoops – constitute one of the three books, the warrior’s chest plates and codpieces another. The third book contains an essay by Valerie Steele, a cultural historian whose work focuses on the relationships between clothing and sexuality. Together the books provide a remarkably insightful and somewhat comical study on gender constructions and normativity, and ultimately reveal the idea that a woman’s corset isn’t too different from a breastplate worn by broadsword-wielding knight. The combination of the two books also reflects a sort of eros/thanatos meditation, revealing both types of wear as equal parts sexual adornment and defensive shield. The comparisons between Undergarments and Armor and Fruitless/Fallen/Woven are equally clear and tenuous. The structure and presentation of the two publications are identical; both challenge cultural preconceptions about representation, gender and myth; and I am convinced that the Medieval history I see reflected in Woven began with Undergarments and Armor.

While the content of this publication is impressive, I’m less convinced about the design. Radius Books is clearly an innovative publisher, with so many of their publications focusing on visionary women in photography (think of their recent publications by Meghann Riepenhoff, Barbara Bosworth, Rania Matar, Jungjin Lee, and Alison Rossiter). Too often, however, the lavish designs of these books interfere with the photographs, with too many design strategies implemented in one publication. Throughout all three of the books in Fruitless/Fallen/Woven large spreads are interspersed among the photographs that offer closeup details of the individual photographs. In Woven, this strategy helps the viewer to engage with the images; the large, complex pictures are so busy and intricately designed, it is hard to fully take in the detail. This strategy, however, does not translate as well into each of the books. In Fruitless, the spreads feel excessively sharpened and don’t necessarily help the viewer to better understand the photographs (the trees exist in the landscape, unlike the assemblages produced for the other books). The tipped-in prints mounted on the pages of Woven – a strategy often used in Radius Books – initially feels clever and fun to engage, but ultimately doesn’t do anything for the work. Printing these images on full-page spreads or using gatefolds would make larger prints possible – and as mentioned scale is an essential part of these pictures– but also would feel less fragile (I’m curious to see how this book ages, and at what point these tipped-in prints will start to fall off the pages). There is no denying that Radius is pushing the envelope and challenging our preconceptions of books, but at times, these design conceits feel unnecessary. Radius has some big and beautiful tools in their kit, but not all of them need to be used in each of their publications.

Tanya Marcuse’s investigation of photography is worth connecting with on many levels.  Her daily Instagram feed (@tanyamarcuse) provides an interesting window onto her work as an artist. With it she provides an inspiring approach to landscape as biography, daily contributing pictures documenting the Hudson Valley region of New York and beyond, all interlaced with her life as a mother, wife, teacher, and artist. With so much buzz and scholarship around photographic book arts, it’s important to acknowledge the range and depth of Marcuse’s contributions as a bookmaker, both large and small. She’s made books with publishers as diverse and interesting as Falline, Roman Nvmerals, Nazraeli, and Radius, she’s created zines, monographs, handmade limited editions, and a newspaper devoted to Instagram photographers. She’s worked with writers as interesting and influential as Valerie Steele and Francine Prose (who wrote a short essay for Fruitless/Fallen/Woven).  For lovers of photographic history, Marcuse’s work has as much in common with Karl Blossfeldt as it does Frederick Sommer or Gregory Crewdson. For those interested in books as art objects, Fruitless/Fallen/Woven feels like a masterpiece. And for those interested in my primary question about Eve’s experience in the Garden of Eden, you will mostly be scratching your head left with more questions, but also with a clearer understanding as to how essential it is that we ask questions of this history.

Tanya Marcuse
Radius Books, 2019

All Rights Reserved: Text © Brian Arnold; Images © Tanya Marcuse