“For centuries, trees have evoked a primal sense of wonder. They are a source of life and wisdom and an enduring subject for artists, often standing as visual emblems for nature as a whole.” (Barnes 2019 p9).
I have photographed trees regularly in my practice and spent a considerable amount of time working with a silver birch perched on the top of a hill overlooking the Black Cuillin, but Barnes’ book and a need to stay local provides me with an opportunity to focus again with the intent of searching for the essence.
It can be all too easy to take trees for granted. I can remember as a child climbing a relatively small oak tree on the way home from school and collecting the acorns. I am also old enough to remember Dutch Elm disease, and the devastating effect it had on these iconic British trees in the 1970s. Trees provide us with the raw materials to build houses, make furniture, start a fire, as well as gracing the landscape. When I return from travelling abroad, not something I have done for a while, I always enjoy seeing the still large numbers of trees from the air.
In The Wild Places (2007) by Robert Macfarlane in the chapter entitled Beechwood he speaks fondly of climbing a large beech:
“I had climbed the tree many times before, and its marks were all familiar to me. Around the base of its trunk, its bark has sagged and wrinkled, so that it resembles the skin on an elephant’s leg. At about ten feet, a branch crooks sharply back on itself; above that, the letter ‘H’, scored with a knife into the trunk years before, has ballooned with the growth of the tree; higher still is the healed stump of a missing bough.
Thirty feet up, near the summit of the beech, where the bark is smoother and silver, I reached what I had come to call the observatory: a forked lateral branch set just below a curve in the trunk. I had found that if I set my back against the trunk and put my feet on either tine of the fork, I could stay comfortable there.” (Macfarlane 2007 p 3-4).
In terms of photography, trees remain a popular subject, not least because of the endless visual possibilities. They can be photographed alone, in small groups, or large never-ending woods and forests. There are so many different shapes, species and seasons within which to capture their majesty or vulnerability. However, although these visual attractions are valid, my connection with trees, and particularly the lone silver birch goes deeper than this. As I have said in previous posts, I connect with its vulnerability, tenacity, endurance and beauty but I am also, at times, aware of its being. What it is like to be that tree – being in the shadow of the Black Cuillin, with their dark jagged basalt edges, and being battered by the uninhibited rain and gales in this exposed spot – and through this connection can reveal the essence of Skye in my imagery. But, in late spring, its leaves unfurl, and the full magnificence of its canopy shelters anyone sitting against its trunk and also providing warmth to the weary traveller, or resting photographer, through its glinting bark.
Artists are drawn to trees for aesthetic reasons and pictorialists such as Edward Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz are among some of the earlier examples from the exhibition. Today, photographers have other reasons for making trees the focus of their imagery – these can range from those with ecological concerns such as Paul Hart, those exploring personal, local, national or wider identities and those that have psychological or spiritual connections such as Sophy Rickett, Chrystel Lebas and Awoiska van der Molen.
Update: Plans put on hold
Sadly, for now, my plans to photograph trees, have been put on hold because of the current lockdown restrictions but as soon as I am able I shall pursue this project as part of my ongoing photographic practice.
Barnes, M. (2019). Into the Woods – Trees in Photography. London, Thames & Hudson/V&A.
Macfarlane, R. (2007). The Wild Places. London, Granta Books.