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Richmond photographer Paul Thulin’s family-themed exhibit blurs fact and fiction at Candela


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An adolescent girl sleeps in bed, the rose-colored sheets and creamy-white blanket pulled up to her chin. Later, she stands outdoors at night surrounded by a forest, her body shrouded in silhouette while her eyes glow like planets.

In a final photograph, she sits upright in a Regency wooden chair and her brown hair frames the stoic expression on her face. The weathered robins-egg blue wall behind her mimics her blue T-shirt and the broken blue vase perched on a shelf.

The girl's name is Scout and she is the main protagonist of Richmond-based photographer Paul Thulin's "Pine Tree Ballads," a photographic collection of 200 images taken during a decade. It's also a photo book published by Candela's Books and a current exhibition at Candela's featuring 55 photographs.

Scout, who is now 16, is Thulin's daughter and she is a character in the project's cast that includes Thulin and his mother, wife, grandmother, father and son. In one sense, Thulin says, "Pine Tree Ballads" is a photo album of his family that will sit next to the photo albums his grandfather made.

"It is what this family did at a particular time in history and will become more and more weighted with fact over time. These people are family and they are caught — in moments aware of the camera and moments unaware of the camera — with objects and an environment that affected their actions and every day."

However, these familial relationships aren't readily apparent to viewers. Instead, a narrative that blurs fact and fiction emerges through the format of the book.

Scout is a multidimensional character whose life jumps back and forth in time: She is at once a young girl, a middle-aged woman and a seasoned matriarch. It is a celebration of the female, as one image of scrawling cursive text states: "They loved each other ELEMENTAL from swollen belly to sunken earth Widows, Daughters, and Ghosts sit patiently."

While many of the photographs are portraits, some of the most intriguing attempt to visually record ghostly presences: Pattern and surface are other strengths of Thulin's. For example, Thulin's father, dressed in a plaid shirt, jeans and bedroom slippers lays on a twin bed with his eyes closed under an eerie rainbow-colored light. Though Thulin's father isn't dead, the angle and position of the figure alludes to the custom of laying a deceased person in a house. It also recalls Andrew Wyeth's "Garret Room" from 1962.

Another image depicts a seated woman wearing a red sweater and her face has been overexposed leaving only an orb of radiant white light. In Thulin's photographs, light, color and reflection jockey with subject matter for attention.

Thulin points out that the Wyeth analogy isn't far-fetched, especially given the location for these photographs in Maine, where Wyeth and Thulin spent a large portion of their lives. "Pine Tree Ballads" was photographed on a 7-acre wooded property that Thulin's family has visited every year for more than a century.

"The land is everything — narrative comes from the land — the labor and the love. It is romantic but brutal at the same time," he explains. "My grandfather's ashes are scattered there, as will my father's, as will my own. When you know a particular place long enough all aspects of it contain living history and legend."

The title for this project is appropriated from Holman F. Day's book, a collection of tall tales about Maine, of the same name from 1902. A copy sits on a bookshelf at the family's farmhouse. Thulin isn't particularly interested in Day's stories, but rather the aesthetic experience of the book.

"If you aesthetically absorb the combination of being in an old farmhouse possibly on a foggy day, the smell of the book, the worn texture of the book cloth on your hands and the folk culture content it becomes a classic. It becomes more than just the words inside," Thulin says.

While "Pine Tree Ballads" is a finished project in response to Thulin's paternal lineage and his grandfather's archive of 25,000 photographs, Thulin is currently working on a sister project, "Isla de Las Palmas," that explores his mother's biography as a Puerto Rican woman.

In contrast, his mother's "name and culture were essentially erased when she married my dad. … I have less than 20, yes 20, [photographs] and most of them are quite damaged. … [It's] erasure."

"Pine Tree Ballads" is up through April 20 at Candela Books and Gallery. For information, see


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