Shooting Trees – Into the Woods: Trees in Photography, V&A

I have a bit of a habit, perhaps a bad one, of seeing faces in trees.

This sort of thing, whilst mildly odd, is not uncommon – the human brain has a strong tendency to create face shapes or body forms from abstract patterns – like the man in the moon, or houses and rocks that look as though they are smiling. My own profile for this blog and on twitter is an angry-looking Oak I once met in Regent’s Park. The phenomenon is called Pareidolia; though I’m not sure if deliberately seeking out tree faces in woods and streets and gardens counts.

Yesterday I went to an exhibition at the V&A, which sounded as though it might be an excellent source for all manner of wood-faces. Into the Woods: Trees in Photography, brings together a small selection of the museum’s collection of photographs of trees – which are apparently amongst the earliest photographic subjects the V&A acquired.

As it turned out, very few, if any, of the images on display looked like faces. However, as these photographs were almost entirely intended as portrait studies, rather than  landscapes, every tree on display seemed to possess its own distinctive personality.

The exhibition is not a big one, but so engaging were these photos – mostly black and whites, but with some stunning colour shots too – that I spent a thoroughly enjoyable hour staring through glass at a host of sylvan models. In part, because this was looking at ‘art’ rather than trees out in the world, the sense of each tree having its own character, its treeiness, was magnified.

Here were ancient trees, darkling trees, summer and winter trees, ancient oaks, looming pines, explosive cherries, laugh out loud at the wonder of it all trees. In a display case a massive old volume was open on a page showing a 19th century photograph of a Beech. Especially fascinating was the tree’s position on the side of a sunken lane, which meant that its multiple tangled roots were exposed to the world, in a glorious, twisting, serpentine display.

This image was taken by the V&A’s first official photographer Charles Thurston Thompson, and some of his other tree images are featured in the exhibition. Nearby on the walls, other trees were portrayed in all manner of ways. Trees seen through windows, striking reversals – with negatives paired against their exposed opposite – trees on the edge of town, framing Welsh and Californian suburbs in the distance.

Edward Steichen’s The Pool, from 1899 almost vanishes in the gloom, its trees and water a dark haunting study of shade and tone. An early colour photograph by Anges Warburg highlights subtle green and brown pigments of earth and bark against the luminous white of a cherry in blossom.

Nearby Alvin Langdon Coburn’s 1912 photograph captures a moment of magic with tall London Planes (I think) and trams bathed in winking New York lights on a hazy dusk. Then there are stark winter poplars, broken stumps, brutally coppiced trees, fallen apples on a carpet jarringly placed outdoors in an orchard.

Another image captures a dead tree in Vermont, its outstretched branches now arms, giving it the look of a surrendering outlaw, rounded up and captured at last. The tree’s  ‘mouth’ is crumpled in dead resignation – or maybe it’s just a knobbly shadow. Elsewhere Ansell Adams shows us a stand of ethereal Aspens, thin glowing ghosts in New Mexico.

In a case, like a cabinet of curiosities, a series of black and white trunk studies highlights the similarities and differences between trees: wych elms lean in, deodars appear to point out of frame – ‘they went thataway’, swarthy, pustuled mulberries sport battered rugby players’ ears, a slender box keeps quiet, while the rumpled skirts of an oak contrast with the tiled, fissured scales of an elderly scotch-fir.

There’s a Cartier-Bresson image that captures the felled and sectioned remains of a once towering mountain fir in Switzerland. A study of an ancient Yew by Veronique Rolland catches a glimpse of the tree at the four seasonal peaks: spring equinox, summer solstice, autumnal equinox and winter solstice. I found this series incredibly arresting and oddly moving, with a visceral sense of a living, yet incredibly still thing, ageing and growing slowly through time as seasons change and light shifts, berries fall and shadows play over its surface.

Opposite, another series of four images shows a playing field at night taken by Sophy Rickett, these are almost black except for a mysterious light that catches and silhouettes the tops of the woods behind the goalposts. Another arresting image is a large print of a group of Korean pines, appearing to twist in an elegant dance.

Amongst all these wonderful images, one resonated for me above the others, for its sheer exuberant, joyfulness. The photograph by Neil Drabble is part of a series called Tree Tops Tall, in which the type of tree or situation is not the focus, instead the crown or canopy takes centre stage in all its spreading glory. The intention is to reflect a child’s awestruck sense of wonder at these vast, natural presences.

This one fills the frame in an explosion of shape and space and colour. It’s like a massive, photographic Jackson Pollock, with prolific splashing bud, branch, leaf and sky standing in for paint, brush and canvas.

I don’t know quite how he achieved it, but I couldn’t help grinning at Drabble’s astonishing portrait and thinking: Yes, yes, trees really are awesome.

Links & References

Into the Woods: Trees in Photography – the exhibition is on until 22 April 2018

There is also a small companion display upstairs, Trees in illustration, which features examples of work by Arthur Rackham, Beatrix Potter, E H Sheppard, Edmund Dulac and Paul Nash amongst others.

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