Some years ago, Robert Schultz, a poet, witnessed an exhibition of photographs printed in the flesh of leaves of trees and plants, portraits of war-worn Vietnamese and of Cambodians documented in the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge.
These chlorophyll prints, as they were called, were made by Binh Danh, a Vietnamese-born American photographer. About his method, Binh Danh wrote, “This process deals with the idea of elemental transmigration: the decomposition and composition of matter into other forms. The images of war are part of the leaves, and live inside and outside of them. The leaves express the continuum of war. . . As matter is neither created nor destroyed, but only transformed, the remnants of the Vietnam and American War live on forever in the Vietnamese landscape.”
Robert Schultz responded to Binh Danh’s chlorophyll prints with a series of poems, which he composed formally, as if in grief after suffering. He turned back, he said, to the “circular movement of traditional forms (the villanelle, sestina, pantoum) to enact cycles of natural and historical recurrence.”
These poems and those images are present in Ancestral Altars. Here, the reader may encounter them as if in company with the poet and the artist, and yet, in contemplative solitude. In their beauty and dignity is compassion.
In its design, incorporating moving-poems, audio, and a gallery, Ancestral Altars is the response by Artist’s Proof Editions to their poems and images. In this digital book, a reader hears the poems spoken by the poet, carried on his breath as, simultaneously, s/he taps to open and examine the enleafed or daguerreotyped images, digitized, that called them forth.
The reader can view, intimately, Binh Danh’s leafprints and daguerreotypes, as s/he listens to Robert Schultz telling his poem for his friend and co-worker.
. . . . . .
I sit before ancestral altars
And the dead have questions:
“How could this have happened?”
I have gazed for hours at their startled faces.
He makes portraits out of sun and leaves,
Builds altars for the lost, a place.
About the work of these artists, commentators have written:
“The deep friendship and shared artistic vision of Binh Danh and Robert Schultz is reminiscent of the one between the most prolific and most accomplished verbal-visual collaborators of the twentieth-century, Ted Hughes and Leonard Baskin, whose Crow and Cave Birds, also seek to illuminate ways of knowing and making meaning.” — Magdelyn Helwig, “Uttering Tongues,” American Literature Association.
“[Binh Dahn’s] images—ethereal and fragile, endowed with a sense of heart-wrenching loss—speak poetically of memory, impermanence and the remnants and aftermath of war.” — “Legacy in Leaves: The Vietnam War Remembered,” April 30, 2012, LightBox, Time.