Renowned landscape photographer and University of Arizona professor Frank Gohlke will photograph the world's last wild apple forests in Kazakhstan, a once-in-a-lifetime project made possible by a Fulbright Scholar grant.
Gohlke, the recipient of two Guggenheim Foundation Fellowships, will add images from his exploration of the wild apple forests around the city of Almaty to an acclaimed and widely exhibited body of work that includes projects photographing grain elevators in the American heartland, the aftermath of the Mount St. Helens eruption and post-tornado landscapes.
"While the environmental politics of the project are important to me, I'm most interested in making beautiful pictures of these trees, both individually and in their masses," says Gohlke, a professor in the UA School of Art who will use his sabbatical time for the project, leaving in September to stay for about nine months.
"The idea of seeing a whole forest of wild apple trees was irresistible. It's been on my mind for a very long time," he says. "I need to be there for the fall for the apples and the spring if I'm going to see the forests blooming, which will be a pretty spectacular sight."
Gohlke traces his fascination with apples and Almaty in particular back more than 25 years, to one of his photography mentors who was an apple enthusiast, trying to graft different species together on his land in upstate New York. After that, he began reading about apples and learned of the Kazakhstan forests, but didn't expect to ever be able to visit.
"I thought, my goodness, whole forests of apple trees and each one is different from the next. It just sounded like the Garden of Eden in a way. Kazakhstan at the time was still part of the Soviet Union," he says. "When Kazakhstan became independent, I got even more determined to see it for myself: so when I got a sabbatical and had the opportunity to apply for the Fulbright, that grant was tailor made for what I wanted to do."
The apple forests are stressed and facing a number of potential threats, from development to climate change, and while part of Gohlke's project is intended to document the condition of the forests, it's not a news-oriented project.
"Just the notion of being in a place that is the origin of something very familiar and ubiquitous in the world now is pretty exciting," he says. "The area of forest is vastly reduced and I do feel there's an urgency about making these photographs. As far as I know, nobody has ever looked at the forests from inside and outside in a really sustained way. There's a documentary impulse at work, but I don't really consider my work to be documentary in the strict sense."
Gohlke has plans to create an exhibition and book of his apple forest photographs, but is also interested in a multidisciplinary presentation, perhaps a joint lecture with Irina Panyushkina, a scientist in the UA's Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research who studies the trees from a scientific standpoint.
The apple forest photographs are similar to Gohlke's previous work portraying landscapes that contain both order and chaos.
"I am interested in the way in which order and chaos intersect, which is where we live. Mount St. Helens was like that. Within its chaotic details, the overall pattern was very orderly. I was excited about being able to see that order laid out on such a vast scale," he says.
"That's not going to be as big a factor in this project, but the sense in which I'm really trying to grasp a large sweep of territory and somehow suggest the experience of being there, that's something that's been pretty consistent in my work. I really love trees and the fact that they're apple trees is just gravy – or pie."