Jesse Burke in By the Book: New Photography Publications

The Print Center

Through April 23

By Sara Gormley

Jesse Burke, Wild & Precious installation view,  By the Book: New Photography Publications, The Print Center, 2016.
Jesse Burke, Wild & Precious installation view,
 By the Book: New Photography Publications, The Print Center, 2016.


By the Book: New Photography Publications at The Print Center features recently published books and related photographic prints by Keliy Anderson-Staley, Jesse Burke, Stephanie Burese, David Hartt, Justine Kurland, Andrea Modica, Nadia Sablin and Will Steacy. This exhibition surveys the photographers’ varied interests through emblematic compositions of their works as well as the relationship between photographic prints as art objects and replicated images on the page.


Jesse Burke’s print sequence Wild & Precious in particular stands out, encompassing the spirit of childhood exploration and innocence. A collection of three vibrantly hued archival pigment prints from his book, the sequence vividly represents a series of road trips traveled over five years by Burke and his young daughter, Clover, to scout the natural world. Snapshots of ablaze tangerine, opalescent green, and pure carmine highlight the lucid sensory stimulation that Clover experiences as she is immersed in nature.


The centerpiece, I See Darkness details Clover, clad in a “cusco orange” Patagonia weather-proof jacket, holding a deep green, linearly compound leaf over her eyes. In this medium landscape shot, she is oriented facing the viewer and appears in the center bottom of the print. Surrounding her is a vastly obsidian, matte black that gives the piece an ominous distinction. The entire photograph is framed with the same aforementioned orange that prevents one’s gaze from looming into the abyss behind her. This seemingly endless darkness, juxtaposed with vibrant pigmentation, suggests a dream-like state in which one’s mind is vividly alert amidst the night. It speaks to the boundless, vibrant, and inexhaustible imagination of a child’s mind that can go awry.


This theme reappears in Bird with a Broken Wing, the landscape piece left of I See Darkness. We see Clover amongst a forest of deep and varying shades of green, reflecting motion amid the leaves. She stands in front of the base of a tree that goes off the page. Light shines on her 4-foot-something body, revealing a soft, baby pink cast on her right arm. Despite her broken arm, she stands proudly, her face to the sunlight. Her stance exposes the inflated confidence in immortality that comes with youth, even in light of vulnerability. The endless backdrop of wilderness reinforces the immeasurable lengths that a child’s vision can reach, despite physical hindrance, and marries nature with the unfeigned, raw curiosity of childhood.


This rawness speaks through Flesh and Blood, a landscape piece to the right of the other two works. Peering through the print, Clover looks blankly past the viewer with lagoon green eyes. Her hair and skin wet, she is shown naked and from the shoulders up, in front of a white backdrop. Blood trickles around her lips and nose, blurring its source. The view is focused in on her face, as the surrounding image is slightly out of focus. This intimate close-up calls upon the tender character of nonage. Though feeble in constitution, childhood is brave in mentality. Clover’s emotionless expression shows her indifference to the blood flirting with her nose and mouth. This blood, it seems, is no different from the droplets of water peppering the rest of her shown body, a fact that reinforces our sense of her fundamental ignorance of her own vulnerability. With tenderness and naiveté, comes gallantry and boldness.


These images, brought together in Jesse Burke’s monograph, are bookended by poetic letters Jesse and Clover wrote to one another. As much as the print exhibit is about imagination, vulnerability, curiosity, and innocence, the collection ties these themes to display a modern-day love story between parent and child, natural world and society. Wild & Precious reveals the fragile, complicated relationship that humans share with nature and serves as a call to arms to encourage appreciation, respect, conservation, and self-confidence.


Sara Gormley is an undergraduate student at Penn studying psychology and gender, sexuality, and women’s studies.