Sitting in the courtyard of the White Space, a gallery tucked away in one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods with an abandoned, Secret Garden-esque beauty, Charlie Watts and I talk about her recent collection, “Hortophilia”. Well-suited for the venue, the work bears a sense of mystery along with the familiarity of a story forgotten long ago.
Many of the images depict women wandering in the verdant heart of a forest. These women are neither lost nor navigating a path. They are simply being. In nature. In the nude (some of them that is). Other models are sleeping, pillowing their heads in the underbrush.
There’s nothing unnatural about these images. No winged creatures. No anthropomorphic horns or hooves. Still, there’s something uncanny — both surreal and nonchalant about these scenes. The tranquility, the freedom to cast off outer garments and seek adventure in the outdoors. If it a glimpse into the fairy world, there is something surprising familiar about it. After all, what force is stopping us from exploring the majestic beauty of the forest in our own backyards?
Hortophilia – the desire to interact with, manage and tend nature (Oliver Sacks 2009)
In 2014, Charlie started a project where she and a few of her closest friends would take for the woods with her Canon Mark IV, a rough idea connoting a plan and a quiet confidence that the ideal shots would present themselves.
“There’s definitely some magic to it,” laughs Charlie, admitting that many of her best shots were happy accidents, occurring as a result of the camaraderie between herself and the models as well as the natural phenomena of light, wind and the world-class views of the California coast and redwoods trees.
The collection grew, took a life of its own, and then, Charlie discovered its name during a cyber treasure hunt of sorts. For Charlie, who was an MFA student at the San Francisco Art Institute at the time, discovering the word “hortophilia” was nothing short of a eureka moment.
The word was coined by the late British neuroscientist, Oliver Sacks, M.D. A physician, professor of neurology at NYU School of Medicine and the best-selling author of titles like Everything in its Place and Awakenings, Sacks was famous for treating patients by taking them for walks in gardens as part of a holistic, nature-centric therapy.
“[Hortophilia] — it’s this innate aspect of ourselves . . .” says Charlie, whose most beloved childhood place, other than her father’s darkroom, was the great outdoors.
The profound connection between nature and women is a subtle theme amongst the 500 and some odd photos that comprise the collection. Viewing these images of women lying in ponds, climbing trees and resting serenely in a stream, I sense a feeling of unity with one’s surroundings.
But anyone who has visited a gallery, observed a painting, or enjoyed a film at their local cinema will know “Hortophilia” is but one chapter in an ongoing, often unspoken conversation regarding the artistic depiction of women.
“Historically there’s the consumption of the male gaze . . . all throughout art, it’s men creating this work of women as opposed to this . . .” Charlie said. Her work, the photographer went on to explain, is one that involves women working with women and where consent is not a mere step in the creative process — it is the process — taking place before, during and after every shoot. “So, it’s kind of reclaiming the male gaze. It’s something I hope people find.”
Charlie says she hopes to create a world that “[is] much softer, much more feminine much more magical [than the world as we usually experience it]. Alongside this softness is a wanton abandon for the rules apparent in the models who impishly shed their clothing and embrace their natural form.
I visited Charlie’s website to see some of her previous collections and couldn’t help but note she has a knack for capturing that which is disturbingly beautiful. One of her previous collections, “Honey on Tar” depicts a woman clothed only in moss and rope restrictively bound around her breasts, hips and core. The content in her collection “Feast” is even more visceral. The female subject is also naked and lies in fetal position on a dining table beside animal hides and melting candles.
Even in her commercial work, there is the unmistakably moody light, the jarring composition. As a whole, her work appears to be something out of a dream.
“I really try to be timeless in what I’m doing,” says Charlie. Having grown up in the outskirts of Florence, Italy, her aesthetic is influenced by Italian Renaissance painters whose techniques for lighting and symbolism, for instance, first translated into her work as a painter.
For most of her adolescent life, Charlie believed she would make a living with the brush. In college, she chose to study art history and visual arts but was ultimately converted by the stellar photography department at Emory University. Enamored by the craft, she went on to pursue her MFA at the Art Institute of San Francisco.
“I had always been doing photography on the side; painting had always been my main thing, but I kind of hit like a funny duality,” Charlie explained. “I hit a wall with my paintings because I wanted them to look like photographs. So now, I’m just trying to make all my photographs look like paintings.”
One of her most iconic photos reimagines the John Everette Millais painting, “Ophelia.” It depicts a young woman floating in a stream; the model wears a long, loose-fitted gown and could pass for a medieval character save for her tattoos and the jarring juxtaposition of trash, floating beside the languid figure. “So, there’s that weird duality,” Charlie explained her choice in leaving these context clues. “And she’s wearing jellies. So, it’s kind of having a call to who women are right now, but in this more timeless setting.”
Charlie’s list of influencers does not exclude her own family, wherein each member is an artist in their own right. “Everyone in my family is a musician,” she explains, adding that her mom is also a writer, her father a carpenter and her sister is a stand-up comic. “Everyone’s just a little too creative. It’s fun . . . keeps things weird.”
Creative contributors for the exhibit at the White Space include Charlie’s father, who built the frames for her large prints; her mother contributed an essay, and her partner assisted in chiseling down a large chunk of wood that Charlie later sculpted into the shape of a swan with the help of a friend who is also a local artist.
Along with the swan, several installation pieces were nestled throughout the exhibit and located remotely in the gallery’s shed space, where visitors would have to go looking to find it. As I explored the grounds of the gallery, feeling the breeze and hearing the rustle of leaves, I noted how the arrangement of these 3D pieces contributed to the exhibit. It required a conscious choice to go find the remaining installation. In making that decision, I had to leave the main gallery space, walk around the yard and descend an old wooden staircase to finally find “Disembodied Studies”, an installation featuring weathered branches adorned with vintage light bulbs.
The necessity to search for the piece brought on a childlike joy, for I, like the subjects in her photos, was an adventurer.
Unfortunately, I missed the opening reception and wasn’t able to observe the performance Charlie orchestrated with the help of local fashion designer Megan Huntz. The two of them designed a robe comprised of two parts so it can be removed, placed on another’s shoulders and worn by two individuals at once. Dancers contributed to the performance as well, and I can only imagine what the multi-sensory experience was like.
“I think it’s more powerful if you feel immersed in the art,” said Charlie, who admits she is taking her artistic expression to a more performative and 3D space. “It’s more fun to map out space and allow people to escape a little bit.”
Today’s world is growing less ideal for photographers and artists in general, I think. Audiences are saturated and, as a consequence, jaded by the abundance of stimuli all around. For me, that’s what makes Charlie’s work relevant. The stillness depicted in her photos, the sublime languidness of her characters — it appears altogether unearthly.
She writes that her photography is meant to be “a stepping-stone to the unknown realm just past the peripheral edge of consciousness,” and she creates images “to provide “a visual escape from the mundane to the fantastical.”
Roaming about the grounds of the White Space, I was fully aware that Atlanta’s center, filled with traffic and noise, was only miles away. But right then, I was there. Transcendently present. I had stepped foot into the world that Charlie has created.
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For those who missed the exhibit, a catalog of the images is available for purchase in the form of a fabric-bound volume including 35 photos from the collection. To reserve your copy of “Hortophilia”, visit www.charliewattsphotography.com.