Lives in San Francisco Bay Area, California, United States
In the Landscape
HIn the Landscape
How do people identify with the landscape? In the past, I have made pictures of the natural world that has been altered by man in some way or another – from subtle incursions to a near annihilation of it. While people were present in some of my previous work, I was concerned more with the evidence of their intervention. They were there in spirit but not in actuality. In this new body of work where people are the focus of my photographs, I investigate how they relate to, interact with, and experience the landscape.
Yet I have intentionally photographed people from behind, in shadow or at a scale where it is difficult to obtain a clear read of their faces. These “anti-portraits” are not about the individual identities of the people being portrayed but about how people “fit into” (or not) the landscapes that I have captured. For this series, I was inspired by the paintings of the 19th century German romantic landscape painter Casper David Friederich, who painted people from behind to allow the viewer to project him/herself into the scene before him/her and experience the landscape vicariously - a visual technique called “ruckenfigür.” By obscuring the identities of the people in my photographs, I am hoping to give the viewer a similar experience - to imagine themselves in these overwhelming, calming, peculiar, mundane, social or lonely depictions of the landscape. Each of us experiences the landscape in unique ways, and these experiences shape who we are and how we see the world around us.
Note: None of the photographs in this series were staged. I am not acquainted with any of the people represented, and I did not speak to or interact with any of them during the shooting process.
Death Wooed Us
Suicide is a difficult topic to talk about. Most try to avoid it. Yet some of us have personally experienced despair so great that we have thought about it as an option. We have also known others who have tragically succumbed to it. In 2011 after the birth of my daughter I developed a severe case of postpartum depression and considered taking my own life. I imagined I would drive to the California coast where I could look at the magnificent ocean and then jump off a cliff. Since then I have recovered, and learned that many suicidal people have similar inclinations: they travel near or far to well-known or obscure natural places to end their lives. Often these places are near water, mountains or valleys. There is even a term for such places – “suicide destinations.”
The photographs in this project attempt to capture the views of these settings. Using research gathered from media reports, I found several locations in the Bay Area and travelled to them. I walked along the paths taken by these people before they ended their lives. Most of these photographs were taken from bridges, including the Golden Gate Bridge, one of the most well-known “suicide destinations,” but also lesser-known beaches and overlooks. I purposely photographed from the perspective of looking up at the sky, down at the water or crags, or straight ahead but far away, thinking that these views might have resembled the ones seen by others moments before dying. Many of my images have a hazy and elusive quality, which I believe reflects the clouded state of mind of the suicidal.
Yet I do not pretend to know why others really chose the specific locations that they did. Nor do I claim to know what they were truly thinking before they jumped, hanged or drowned themselves. The reason behind each suicide is highly personal and, often, an enigma to the ones left behind. But I do believe that there have been others, like me, who wanted to die surrounded by a beautiful landscape. One survivor even said there was a “certain grace and beauty” about dying from the Golden Gate Bridge.
There are some who may think that my photographs romanticize these places of death. I can understand that point of view, although that is not my intention. Death is not beautiful – in fact, jumping from a bridge 200 feet high is a very painful and violent way to die. Yet the sublimity of these places continues to lure people to them. I do not intend for my work to glorify the allure of these places. Instead, I hope that it may offer a glimpse into the minds of those who may have thought that dying by these beautiful places was a peaceful way to end their suffering. As the poet Louise Gluck wrote in her poem “Cottonmouth Country,” "Death wooed us, by water, wooed us By land…"
In this body of work, I investigate how people relate to, experience, and interact with the landscape. Yet I have intentionally photographed people from behind, in shadow or at a scale where it is difficult to obtain a clear read of their faces. These photographs are not about the individual identities of the people being portrayed but about how people “fit into” (or not) the landscapes. I was inspired by the paintings of the 19th century German romantic painter Casper David Friederich and his use of a pictorial technique where he would paint people from behind to allow viewers to project themselves into his paintings. By obscuring the identities of the people in my photographs, I am hoping to give the viewer a similar opportunity and to explore the overwhelming, calming, mysterious, mundane, peculiar, social and/or lonely nature of the landscape. Each of us experiences the landscape in ways unique to us, and these experiences shape who we are and how we see the world around us.
Donna J. Wan was born in Taiwan and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She earned her BA in Economics, Phi Beta Kappa, from Stanford University and MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute. She grew up in New York City and only in the past several years has developed an interest in the natural world. Her photographs reflect her continual search to understand how perceptions and identities are shaped by the landscape.
Her work has been shown at the Museum of Photographic Arts, New Mexico Museum of Art, RISD Museum of Art, Southeast Museum of Photography, and Silver Eye Center for Photography. She has been named a Magenta Foundation 2007 Flash Forward Emerging Photographer and both a 2012 and 2014 Critical Mass Top 50 Finalist. Her awards include The CENTER Santa Fe 2012 Project Launch, 2012 Lucie Foundation/APA Scholarship, 2013 Kolga International Award, The CENTER Santa Fe 2013 Gallerist’s Choice, Silver Eye 2014 International Fellowship, and CDS/Honickman First Book Prize Finalist.
Her work has been featured both online and in print including, Lenscratch, PDN, Feature Shoot, Forward Thinking Museum, Beautiful Decay, Profifoto, Wired.com, Conscientious, Fraction Magazine, Flak Photo, La Journal De La Photographie, Center for Documentary Studies Porch, Real Simple and the New York Times Style Magazine. She has been awarded an artist’s residency at The Center for Photography at Woodstock and was invited by Catherine Opie to lecture at UCLA. Her work is included in the collections of the Pulitzer Prize winning author Richard Ford, BNY Mellon Bank, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
She is represented by Rick Wester Fine Art in New York, NY.
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