On a recent afternoon at Madrid’s Royal Botanical Garden I went looking for Clément Verger’s exhibition Endeavour, but couldn’t find it. I walked around for a while, until a gardener directed me to an area I’d never been before. Along a wall covered with blooming jasmine, a door appeared. Inside was a small courtyard and a glassed in room, where Verger’s large black and white photos in eucalyptus frames stood on tables along the walls. I viewed the pictures in silence, immersed in their soft, lush detail as shadows from the tree in the courtyard moved slowly across the floor.
Endeavour is about the Iberian Peninsula’s most controversial plant: the eucalyptus. Native to Australia, the plant was brought to Europe by the English botanist Joseph Banks in the 1700s. Now eucalyptus florishes in Portugal and Northwestern Spain, where it grows quickly and is utilized by the paper industry. But ecalyptus depletes local biodiversity and water reserves, and has been responsible for forest fires that have been especially devastating in recent years. Verger is currently doing a residency at the Casa de Velázquez in Madrid, where I contacted him for an interview.
Your work has a level of detail and focus that reflects serious technical skill. How did you get started with photography, and why were you drawn to the medium?
I first studied visual communication and graphic design. I moved to photography when I turned 20 and moved to London, where I did a Masters in Photography at the University of Westminster between 2009 and 2011. The graphic design degree and the years studying art history definitely shaped my gaze and influenced my approach to photography. The photographic medium came as a continuation of the development of my artistic practice and became my tool of choice for over 10 years. But it really depends on the project, and today photographs are just one part of my practice, along with research, experimentation with materials, and installation.
Natural landscapes appear throughout your work. You depict them on a large scale in images such as forests and caves, and on a micro-level with individual stones and trees. What continues to attract you to working with nature, and with landscape specifically?
Landscapes appear natural in my pictures, but the question is: what is natural? What is the impact of man in the landscape? What appears to be natural and wild is more often than not manmade or man-influenced. What I am interested in with the landscape, more than the quest for the sublime, is human history. These photographs of landscapes, although deprived of humans and man made elements like roads, phone lines, etc., are actually talking about mankind and its relation to the environment. The point is to see in the details, in the layers of the images, the clues that demonstrate the human presence through time in a specific location.
You started Endeavour the year before the devastating June 2017 wildfires in Portugal, where 66 people were killed and 204 were injured. Many people in the Iberian Peninsula place the blame for wildfires on eucalyptus, the plant at the center of your project. How did your approach change after the catastrophe? Did the human impact shape the direction of the project?
I have always been aware of the relationship between eucalyptus plantations and forest fire, especially in Portugal. But this fire was on another scale; there has never been one so deadly. But I have seen the devastation of fires started in a huge monoculture of eucalyptus; a landscape which was devastated for kilometres. I can’t say it changed my approach, as I have been photographing forest fire for this project since 2016, but it certainly did confirm my desire to include a chapter of the work on that phenomenon as a direct consequence of the gigantic monoculture of a non-native species.
The charred trees in Endeavour reflect the consequences of human intervention against what is natural to a place. The implications run in the long term (the introduction of the plant species in the 18th century), and in the present (the paper industry and forest fires). Tell us more about how history functions in your work. How important is the past compared with what’s going on in the present day?
I see it as a continuum. The choice of the eucalyptus and its introduction through Cook’s first voyage is just one example of many to understand the processes man uses to shape the land. And this influence that mankind has had and is having on the environment is linked to the history of the human species. Only the scale and the tools have increased its effect on the global ecosystem. But for me, it was interesting to show and understand the many reasons why a plant is found sometimes en masse, in a landscape where it isn’t native. I asked how it was bought to the region, when, for what reasons, how it was used then and how it is used today, and what are the consequences. In the second chapter of my trilogy on the voyages of Cook’s “Resolution”, I take the example of the Norfolk Pine. Brought by Cook on his second voyage, this tree is endemic to a small island in the South Pacific which found itself planted across the globe. The British empire thought it would make good timber for ship masts, only to find out decades later that the fibres couldn’t resist strong winds at sea.
In Endeavour, your photos are so lush and picturesque that as a viewer I want to enter the scene, too. The images seem to give access to an intimate encounter you’re having with nature. How do you find your shooting locations? What makes you decide to take a photo in the moment?
The work is research-based. My photographic process usually starts by finding a location for a specific picture needed in the project. Most of the times I know exactly what I am going to photograph, but I also allow for surprises and explorations. I shoot with a large-format camera. The high level of detail generated by the film is important for the project, but so is the slow process induced by this type of camera, which is key. Taking only one or two pictures per location adds something important to me. I want my pictures to have a certain quietness, but also different ways of reading them. Beyond the initial appearance of naturalness, you can discover the human intervention in the small details.
You exhibited Endeavour at Madrid’s Royal Botanical Garden, my favourite place in the city. What was it like to show your work at a place that’s been importing, studying, and cultivating non-native plants since the mid-18th century?
It is certainly a very special place, and perfect for that project. I have worked closely with botanical gardens and botanists on my projects, so it made perfect sense to have the Endeavour project there. Botanical gardens are key structures in the introduction of species across the world. They have been communicating and exchanging from garden to garden across the globe for centuries. If you take the case of the eucalyptus, it was bought back to England by the botanist Joseph Banks aboard the HMS Endeavour, then to Kew Gardens in London, and from there it went to the botanical gardens in Coimbra, Portugal, where it was named by a French botanist.
Earlier this summer you participated in PhotoEspaña, and you’re currently a resident at the Casa de Velázquez. What are you working on now, and what’s coming up next for you?
The next step for this project after PhotoEspaña will be an exhibition in Avignon at the Collection Lambert for the Viva Villa Festival, which will display works by artists doing residencies abroad (at Villa Medicis, Villa Kujoyama, Casa de Velázquez). And in the meantime, I am developing two more chapters of my trilogy focusing on the two other voyages of James Cook and on the plants that they bought back.