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Turning Apples Into Alternative Energy, And Surreal Photographs

Somewhere between a fifth-grade science project and a meticulously arranged still life is the work of Caleb Charland. The artist fastens wires to fruit and trees and anything else he can find to create luminous installations, proving that alternative energy is all around us.

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Still-life art is often concerned with order, and for centuries its creators have depicted the scenes of harmony in controlled settings, with natural and man-made objects on display. But although the fruits and vegetables associated with traditional still life paintings are stationary, their real-world counterparts are full of energy. Look no further than the large-format photography of Caleb Charland for proof. Charland fastens wires to apples and trees and other objects that produce energy to power LEDs and other lights in his photographs, which are absolutely surreal. In so doing, he brings the enthusiasm of a fifth-grade science fair participant to the world of large format photography, and reminds us that alternative energy can be found in all sorts of places.

Co.Exist: Your most recent work, "Apple Trees and LEDs," is remarkable. How did you go about creating it?

Charland: Last October, I learned that an old friend of mine who lives Newbergh, Maine, has this old apple orchard that they don’t really do anything with—they might pick a few bushels but the apples mostly end up as food for the deer. So I started at 10 in the morning and I was still wiring stuff up after sunset. Their were three cameras, and for the actual landscape they were about four hours of exposure for each one.

That’s kind of a big production for one image. Were you sure it would work?

Well, right after I clicked the shutter, in the total dark, I started hearing these noises in the woods; it sounded like someone blowing through their lips. So I run into my friend’s house, and he says it’s probably the deer. Deer! So then I had to stay there with a radio and make noise to keep the deer away.

When did you start wiring lights to fruit?

The idea for that project came to me in 2008. At the time I was doing work for Progressive Insurance; they hire artists to do work for their annual reports. I wired together a bunch of limes and placed a six-volt flashlight battery and did a four-hour exposure in black and white [See Lime Light in Charland’s Demonstrations series for more of these.] When I submitted it, they didn’t want to put it in the publication because all the limes with the wires coming out of them, they thought, looked like grenades. But they did buy it for their collection.

My work has to do with that fifth-grade science curiosity and wonder, combined with large-format photography. It started on a small scale, in the studio, with the limes. Then I tried it in my garage with a table and a lamp and maybe 40 pieces of fruit. They take so long to make all the connectors with the wires, and the exposures are like four to six hours, so I didn’t want to jump into a whole apple orchard until I knew going bigger would actually work.

But it really does work. And it turns out marvelously. Do you think you’ll go even bigger next time?

I’m really excited because I just met a guy who owns a 600-acre potato farm up in northern Maine. He’s going to let me use whatever crops I want, and since they don’t even start harvesting until the 20th, all the fields are going to be perfectly lush with green plants. So I’m really excited for that. That’ll be roughly the same scale as Apple Trees and LEDs. I have a 9-to-5 job, so I kind of take vacations and work around them. Probably the next step would be to do multiple lamps all over the place. I do like keeping it somewhat simple: a single lamp and the power coming out of the earth.

That’s poetic, and it resonates with this idea of the fifth-grade science fair participant and the idea of finding alternative energy sources in unlikely places.

Photography is kind of this merger of science and art, and it has been since the beginning of it, and for me it has always been a way to explore visual curiosity. I grew up in sort of a DIY household, using tools for a very pragmatic purpose of building a house; as a kid seeing sawdust in the air at sunrise, or that cloud that comes off a chalk-line when you’re cutting plywood, all these little moments of wonder arose. Probably, when I was around 24 or 25, I was living with my folks again and helping my dad with projects, and I was also teaching classes. I was studying to be an X-ray tech before I started grad school, taking classes in anatomy, physiology, algebra, and pre-calculus again. I guess there was a certain moment when all these things came together, so I started doing those black-and-white demonstrations, using magnets and fire and being elemental and curious.

These days we work with so many invisible interfaces, but in your work, you let it all hang out.

That’s totally intentional. Someone said something really interesting to me about my photographs: that the image is sort of a question, and my titles are kind of the answer or a clue to it. I sort of propose a visual question and I like to be really direct with my title. It gives you things to find in the image.

And that’s how traditional still-life paintings are titled, right? But these aren’t traditional—even though they’re arranged, they seem wild and alive with energy.

Again, I don’t know how they’re going to turn out, and if they turn out exactly the way I imagine them in my head, they’d probably be less interesting. I guess that’s why I stick to one sheet of film either through multiple exposures or reshooting. I know that’s kind of an old-school, antiquated way of working, but I like that limitation. If nothing else it’s a challenge for me. Nowadays with Photoshop or post production you can nudge things or move them around, but I kind of like leaving the accidents, because, well, that’s how it happened. I don’t think it’s so much about truth or anything, but I kind of like those little mess ups. They make it a little more fascinating for me.

Caleb Charland will be part of the group show There’s Something Happening Here this September in London at Brancolini Grimaldi.