Photographer Shelley Lawrence Kirkwood
December 12, 2022
Photographer Shelley Lawrence Kirkwood honors the place she came from and the place she left behind.
Text by Nathaniel Reade
When Shelley Lawrence Kirkwood was twenty-three, she spent six months traveling through Mexico—until someone stole her return airline ticket. She used the last of her money to purchase a bus ticket for as far north as she could go, which happened to be Tucson, Arizona. A native of Amherst, Massachusetts, she immediately fell in love, not only with the man she would eventually marry but with Tucson’s desert landscape. She still yearned for Western Massachusetts, where her family had lived for five generations, so over the next two decades she moved back and forth several times. Then, in 2019, her husband’s profession required that they permanently settle in Amherst, so Kirkwood found a way to use her photography to say goodbye to her adopted arid landscape.
Because the Hampshire College grad had always loved the outdoors, she chose to focus her photography on objects from the landscape she’d left. During her first winter back in Amherst, she asked six friends in Tucson to send her boxes of whatever bits they chose.
The arrival of those parcels, Kirkwood says, was like Christmas. She would carefully open each one in the quiet solitude of her studio. When she did, the sights and aromas of her old home poured out. One friend sent hand-decorated bags filled with acacia pods and dried sage. Another friend sent fresh blooms and green cuttings in plastic bags still steamy from the heat. “Here I was in the freezing cold weather,” Kirkwood says, “opening these boxes of sunshine.”
Then spring came to Western Massachusetts, and Kirkwood resumed her walks in the meadows and the woods of Amherst, collecting milkweed pods and Queen Anne’s lace. As she smelled, arranged, and combined the debris from both landscapes, she gradually decided to photograph like objects rather than mixing disparate ones. “I kept thinking about monuments,” she says. “Simplistic, reductive, they distill an idea into a form and convey something essential about that place.”
Her highly enlarged close-ups of these natural monuments became a portfolio she named I’ll Follow the Sun after a Beatles song about leaving. It toured several venues in the Southwest before heading to Saatchi Gallery in London at the end of 2021, where it won both a gold medal and best-in-show from the Royal Horticultural Society.
“The series is a letting go,” Kirkwood says. “It’s a love letter to both places. And it took me through a process that I had to go through.”
Editor’s note: To see more of Shelley Lawrence Kirkwood’s work, visit shelleykirkwood.com.