William Henry Fox Talbot, "An Oak Tree in Winter," 1842/43
One of my college student daughter's favorite photographic subjects during her recent semester in London was trees. Trees of all shapes and sizes caught Sean's eye on outings in the city and day trips around the countryside. I first noticed when she posted pictures on Facebook from a day in Hampstead Heath. Time spent walking around the Victoria Embankment Gardens, Hyde Park, Buckingham Palace Gardens, Oxford, and even Liverpool yielded more arboreal subject matter. I wondered the cause of her attraction. She grew up in Los Angeles, and while she's been avidly using a camera for years now, she's never shown any interest in photographing trees.
Who better to invite along to view "In Focus: The Tree," the newest offering in the Getty Center's series of thematic photography exhibits. This is a small show, about 40 images, but it gives viewers a chance to see how the tree has been interpreted by a variety of photographers throughout the history of the medium. William Henry Fox Talbot's 1842/43 An Oak Tree in Winter is one of the show's earliest pieces. There are images by photographers famously associated with trees, such as Ansel Adams and Carleton Watkins, and surprises by some who are not, like Man Ray and Dorothea Lange. There are pictures which faithfully record trees in their environment, like a Henri Cartier Bresson from Brie, France , and also works like Simryn Gill's large-scale black and white close-up conceptual image of a tree trunk.
Sean gravitated to an image from London, naturally: John Jabez Edwin Mayall's 1851 daguerreotype showing a tree growing inside the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park. She saw irony in Darius Kinsey's photo of loggers trying to saw through a giant cedar, 76 feet in circumference, by hand near Seattle in 1906. Robert Adam's closeup of a blossoming tree in Utah struck her as more optimistic. I sensed that as she looked at the photographs she felt the stirrings of a bond. Maybe she was realizing that these photographers were drawn to trees in part by the need to understand and connect with what's unique about a particular location. No surprise, then, that someone who has taken trees for granted in her hometown would suddenly pay them close attention while far away in a new place for an extended period.
The exhibit — co-curated by Francoise Reynaud (photography curator at Paris' Musee Carnavalet) and Getty associate photography curator Anne Lyden — began as a research project when Reynaud was a guest scholar at the Getty in 2004. Walking through the exhibit with us a few weeks ago, Reynaud explained that she has been fascinated by trees since childhood. Especially trees standing alone in the countryside.
"I thought that they were like people looking at us, trying to send us messages that we probably wouldn't understand," she said. Reynaud collected images of trees from books and auction catalogues with the thought of someday doing a project on the subject. When she arrived at the Getty and was asked what she would like to concentrate on, Reynaud requested to explore the trees represented in the museum's photography collection. "It was like a gift — doing something I really wanted to do."
Lyden said that Reynaud "brought to light many aspects of the collection that we hadn't realized existed in our storeroom and vaults....We asked her in 2008 if she would be interested in working on an exhibit and she very graciously said yes!"
Reynaud pointed us to some of her favorites in the show, among them Eliot Porter's richly colored dye-transfer print "Juniper Tree, Arches National Monument, Utah, 1958." She takes delight in mentioning that the show's popular favorite so far seems to be William Eggleston's "Untitled, (Small Tree against Wall), 1980," which depicts a tiny, almost-bare tree struggling to survive in dirt against the backdrop of a wall.
Before leaving us, Reynaud recalls a friend's experience with a neighbor's burning house and the tree growing next to it. The friend was instructed to tell the firemen, "save the tree — I can always rebuild the house!" Those words stayed with her. In the exhibit's book, Reynaud writes: "Such a desperate plea highlights the fierce attachment a person may feel for the presence and company of a tree; in fact, human identification with the tree is a recognized phenomenon....The tree has, for millennia, also been a symbol of life, and the structure of a tree's branches, leaves and roots is mirrored in other living systems."
On our way out of the exhibit, I asked Sean if she had gained any new perspective. Unaccustomed to analyzing her photographic motives, she simply said, "whenever I saw something that turned a light on in my head I took a picture. I think that with the trees I just really wanted to capture something that was naturally there." And really, when you think about it, what more reason does a traveler need to make a photograph?
In Focus: The Tree is on view at the Getty Center through July 3, 2011
Curator Lyden leads a gallery talk on the exhibition on April 7 at 2:30 p.m.
Photographs courtesy of the Getty. Click on the image to see bigger.