Photos of mystical neon trees danced off the walls of the Irene Carlson Gallery of Photography Tuesday as roughly 40 piled in for the opening reception of photo manager and coordinator for the Carlson Gallery Fred Brashear Jr.’s exhibition “While the Stars Look Down.”
Brashear’s photos, highlighting these unique, spindly trees and the calm nighttime desert they live in, paint more than just a pretty picture. His work also aims to support the conservation of the Joshua tree. Brashear began documenting the removal of Joshua trees from Southern California’s high desert in 2015, and his work has since contributed to the success of the Western Joshua Tree Conservation Act, which was passed by the California legislature in June.
According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s website, “The Western Joshua Tree Conservation Act prohibits the importation, export, take, possession, purchase, or sale of any western Joshua tree in California unless authorized by CDFW,” “requires CDFW to develop and implement a western Joshua tree conservation plan in collaboration with governmental agencies, California Native American Tribes, and the public” and requires “annual reports assessing the conservation status of the western Joshua tree.”
The way he was able to artistically contribute to the Act is by submitting his work to Conservation Director for the Center for Biological Diversity Brendan Cummings, who was collecting proof to use in the case he presented to the California Fish and Game Commission.
“I submitted a body of work showing … Joshua trees that were being chopped down and removed and things like that, and so with that submission it helped kind of propel that project and that conservation act to get passed,” Brashear said.
He believes in the benefit of humans learning to live with nature rather than just take from it.
“As a society, I think we really need to start understanding that we are a part of nature rather than apart from nature,” he said.
Brashear’s reception speech, followed by a Q&A, addressed topics like his artistic process and use of the concepts of time and light in his work, the protection of the Joshua trees against climate change, and parallels he makes between the Joshua trees and marginalized groups of people.
“Being African American, I’ve always looked at them as far as these subjects that suffer from the same kind of trauma that marginalized people suffer from,” he said. “The way that the land is being used and the way that the Joshua trees have been treated, I make the parallel to my own ancestry and my own history of my family.”
His talk prompted eager questions, and even an enthusiastic toss of a rose from one audience member, sophomore photography major Vicente Rodriguez, who came to support his professor.
Several other photography majors attended as well, expressing their appreciation for both the technical and creative aspects of Brashear’s work.
Sophomore photography major Rylee Fournier said her favorite piece on display was “Spiral Future/Past,” which showcased a Joshua Tree lit with bright purple light surrounded by swirling stars.
“I really like how he did the long exposure of the stars,” Fournier said. “It’s really hard to do in photography and it’s really time consuming, so I appreciate his work with that.”
Brashear said the swirled effect was the result of “165 photos stacked together over a three hour exposure.”
Senior photography major Ethan Bermudez expressed his interpretation of the technique’s use in the piece.
“I think the starscape behind it is additive to the anxiety and to the purpose of the urgency that the Joshua Trees are going through…” Bermudez said.
He also found meaning in the color choice.
“Purple to me means the embodiment of someone’s whole self,” he said, explaining that just as red and blue make purple, both the good and the bad contribute to a person’s entirety.
No matter one’s interpretation of the pieces, they are clearly striking, and as Fred Brashear’s daughter, Teresa Brashear, put it, beautiful.
“It’s so beautiful it makes you want to protect it,” the Loma Linda University nursing student said of her father’s work and how it brings awareness to the cause of saving the Joshua Tree.
Olivia Modarelli can be reached at email@example.com.