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Photographer cultivates a naturalist

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Jesse Burke and his daughter Clover at RISD.
Jesse Burke and his daughter Clover at RISD.(The Boston Globe)

PROVIDENCE — The first time photographer Jesse Burke took his daughter Clover on a road trip to go hiking — up through Maine to Canada — was pivotal for both of them.

"That's when we bought Moosey," says Clover, who was 4½ at the time, and is now 9 (10 in March, she'll tell you). Moosey is a stuffed animal who goes on all the pair's nature trips, some of which are featured in "Jesse Burke: Wild & Precious," an exhibition spotlighting Clover's relationship to the wild, at the RISD Museum.

Burke took something just as precious home. The artist, at that point, was known for his staged photographs of men, works that put masculinity under a microscope.

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"I think of myself as producing photos," he says. "Stand here, look here, wear this shirt."

It's not the most effective tactic with a 4½-year-old. "I wanted her to stand and look longingly at the ocean," he remembers. "She wouldn't, and I was frustrated, and yelling, 'Please!' "

He gave up, but that night in their hotel room, "I opened the laptop, and it was like a glowing beacon," Burke says. The photos he had taken of Clover following her own whims outshone any in which she attempted to pose.

"I learned, let it go," Burke says. "Be in control, but be willing to not be in control." That's a lesson, he adds, that also applies to parenting.

In the five years since that expedition, Burke and Clover have gone on many more. They take road trips three or four times a year, and hike locally year-round. Burke's wife, Kerry, a death-scene investigator for the Rhode Island medical examiner's office, and Clover's little sisters, Poppy, 5, and Honey, 3, also get in on the action. But Clover in the wilderness — looking forlorn, intent, dwarfed by nature, bloodied after a nosebleed — is the sun around which "Wild & Precious" revolves.

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"What's exciting for me is how they engage in nature in such an intense way," says Jan Howard, the museum's curator of prints, drawings, and photographs, who organized the show after Burke's book "Wild & Precious" came out last year. "And a lot of people are tuned into environmental issues. Getting your children to be responsible to the natural world."

"I didn't plan on creating a socially conscious project with a cute kid," Burke says. "Kids are less connected because they're so connected. [Clover] has an iPad, an iPhone, an iMac, a TV."

"But I'd rather spend time outside," Clover puts in.

"My job is to balance it all," Burke adds. "Our job is to create the next environmental stewards."

The exhibition is a pared-down version of the book (published by Daylight Books, and available at www.wildandprecious.co). But the exhibit's design has Burke's signature style: images link together in a chain that undulates along the wall. This time, he's put them in colored frames.

"It's a visual line of poetry," he says. "Shapes, subjects, and colors repeat."

The book and exhibition share a loose narrative arc: They begin and end with images of Clover sleeping.

One night on a road trip, after his daughter had fallen asleep, Burke watched her, wondering what she might be dreaming. He photographed her. The images in "Wild & Precious," consequently, become dreamlike, epic.

The wilderness can be epic, and it can be delicate. Father and daughter encounter dead animals and consider mortality. Clover faces situations that scare her — like a rope swing into a lake — and conquers them. In one picture, she wears a butterfly in her hair.

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"I said, 'Look,' and he came and sat on my finger, and I put him in my hair," she says.

Then there was the elk. Father and daughter were in Washington and had stopped along the Hoh River, where Clover started to explore the riverbank.

"She's on the edge of the river," Burke remembers. "If you fall into the river, you're gone. But she's on solid ground, so I say, 'Don't move, I'm backing up.' And at my farthest point, a bull elk jumps into the river from the other side and starts swimming toward her."

Just as Burke was ready to make a run for Clover, grab her, and hightail it into the woods, the elk spotted the girl and swam in the other direction.

"Elk are docile," Burke says. "But you don't want one charging your daughter."

The morning after Burke had watched Clover sleeping, he asked her what she'd been dreaming.

She told him she'd dreamed that the two of them were catching salamanders.

That day, in the late afternoon, after too much driving and not enough hiking, they stopped at a trailhead.

"We found a little stream, and I walked over to her, and she was playing with salamanders, collecting them, and putting them in her hat," Burke says.

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"I was photographing you last night dreaming of this moment, and now we're experiencing it," he remembers telling Clover, and he took a picture to remember it by.

Lately, their encounters with the wilderness have been limited to local hikes, since Burke has been working to get the book out, the exhibition up, and a short film about the project made, in addition to his other photography jobs and teaching at RISD. But they'll go on other trips.

"When's the next one?" Clover asks her father. "February break, we should start again."

JESSE BURKE: Wild & Precious

At RISD Museum, 20 North Main St., Providence, through Sept. 25. 401-454-6500, www.risdmuseum.org


Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.