‘Trees strike us as beautiful, as mysterious, as frightening; Jung considered them as an archetype; and certainly they possess certain properties that have a natural physiological value, like the capacity to grow and to rise, to endure, to renew, to bear fruit, to burn, and these properties bring their own freight of social, familial and emotional metaphor’. (Warner, 1989)
This section is different to previous ones in that I wish to use it to explore my photography of trees from 1970 to 2017.A period that covers a number of bodies of work from ‘Wounds of Trees’ in the early 1970s; to ‘Lila’ in the late 70’s; to work made for two commissions in the mid 1980s and finally work from a residency at Derby Arboretum ending in 2018.
What I wish to consider is the interaction of idea, of subject and of process of the medium.
How to begin? As a lecturer it became important to find ways of talking about the activity of picture making, the relationship of photographer, motif and medium. In pedagogic tradition I defined a personal three R’s. - Relationship, Recognition and Realisation.
Relationship seeks to understand the ‘why’ of subject choice. The photographer’s familiarity with and knowledge of subject. How that might be deepened, developed through prolonged visual exploration of subject or by research. My own work was based upon a ritual of intimacy. On visiting and revisiting places of intrigue, to learn to see more deeply, to enhance understanding.
Recognition is the moment of saying ‘yes’ to that aspect of the world which fascinates. Imagine a photographer, burdened with bulky equipment, traversing a landscape. Stopping occasionally to look more intensely, then a shake of the head and the progress continues. Finally a moment of affirmation, an exposure is made. To a viewer there is no discernable difference to the many sites previously dismissed. So why this decision? To see, to affirm, to say yes to that aspect of appearance that fascinates is the basis of all photography. Whether you work with an I phone, a digital camera or 5x4 analog, the moment of seeing is the crux; all else is craft. Practice seeing, be open to the light.Beginning to understand this ‘why’ for ones self, through looking at contact sheets, at previous work, is a path to self- understanding. In recognising what attracts, through understanding and exploration, leads to a possibility of moving on to new forms of recognition and to different photographic strategies. Don’t pursue the elusive masterpiece! I see my work as a chain. Each image is a link, some significant, some to be dismissed, but all adding to my knowledge and to my experience of subject. Even the least interesting may point to new possibilities.
Realisation is the play of the process, the strategies brought into play to transform subject to image. Making a particular type of negative to allow the desired print. A print begins not in the darkroom but in the moment of pre-visualisation when a motif is recognised. Exploring alternative tonalities, using print controls to emphasise key elements of the subject.
When I began to photograph in the landscape I had little idea of what I wanted to do. I knew more clearly what I did not wish to do! I did not wish to photograph the wide landscape, but to discover the significant detail, those details which implied the underlying processes, which shaped the landscape.Trees which live and respond to environment, to climate, to weather, to human depredations are a subject worthy of prolonged consideration. I began to work in the landscape in a period of crisis in my practise, my previous work had been in documentary and the portrait. I had never expected to photograph in the landscape though to do so was a return to the intense preoccupations of my childhood when I spent most of my time in the landscape, exploring, bird watching, observing.
Some Trees 1: I began to collect details of trees, the marks of time which alluded to the tree’s history. In retrospect I defined the marks as ‘wounds’, as metaphors for my then precarious emotional state. The close viewpoint negated the context and totality of the tree. Prints were small, dark, intense.Print controls emphasized the marks of wounding. The relationship of print and subject was minimal. This way of working resulted in the sequences ‘Wounds of Trees’ and ‘Premonitions’. Gradually the space of my images widened, but my concerns remained the same.
Some Trees 2: In 1974 I began with a friend, Martin Roberts, to explore the Zone System.The discipline of the system changed my ideas of print tonality, gave me the freedom to use the totality of the tonal scale. This freedom coincided with developing ideas of how I should work in the landscape. Photographs made of water (All Flows) had clarified my intentions in photographing the landscape. I wished to explore ideas of the landscape as energy, as process, light, growth, movement. Water movement was an obvious indicator of energy. How to extend that to the wider landscape? I decided to photograph the wind. The wind is invisible, how could wind movement be made manifest in the photograph? I decided that the medium should be trees, their foliage gesturing and moving to the intensity and rhythms of the wind. This necessitated a wider viewpoint, and after much experiment the use of multiple exposure. My working practices also needed to change, sunlight was essential to give the striations of implied movement I wanted. My favourite time of working shifted from early morning to afternoon. Working into the light meant high contrast which I had to learn to control, lighter prints demanded fuller exposures, drastically reduced negative development times.My exhibition ‘Lila’ was structured through tonality. Organized in four sequences which varied in print tonality in response to idea to image content and to exhibition structure. Sequences were of predominantly dark or light tonality or moved from light to dark as the sequence progressed. An exploration of print tonality which I defined as a layer of emotional resonance which nuanced the viewers response to the print.I enjoy making prints which explore the limits of tonality, which redefine definitions of what the fine print might be.
Some Trees 3: In 1986 I accepted a commission to photograph a single tree for a year. Finding a suitable tree proved difficult, the tree finally agreed upon was a mature and magnificent beech tree in a local park.So began a series of photographs showing seasonal change in the tree through the effects of light and weather. Images to celebrate the presence of the tree. An exploration of the tree within the context of the trees which shared its space. Shifts of distance and viewpoint, print tonalities varied to evoke seasonal change in the tree, the weather.
Some Trees 4: A commission from the CPRE to photograph an ‘Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’ facing additional environmental threat. The area I was assigned was a disused aerodrome in Lincolnshire, under consideration as a nuclear waste dumpsite. Photographs to be made within a three mile radius of the airfield and of Fulbeck ,the closest village. The flat Lincolnshire landscape was different to any in which I had previously worked. My first response was to seek out familiar areas in which I could make work which continued my usual practice. I eventually decided that such photographs were inappropriate in the context of the commission and began to photograph the wider, intensively farmed landscape. Trees marking the verges of narrow lanes or punctuating the flat arable land.
Some Trees 5: A period as artist in residence at Derby Arboretum, England’s first public park, and, surprisingly, the model for Central Park in New York.So, a period of time to spend in a space dedicated to the tree in all its variety and splendor. I used all the ways of working that I had explored in the past; details, wider views, an exploration of print tonality. I have introduced a small selection here. I had not used my 5x4 camera out of doors since 1986, not used it at all since 2005. It had in the intervening years grown inexplicably heavier, more unwieldy, less co-operative. It was to be my last use of 5x4. My old MPP became redundant.
Since then a digital camera and colour, for me the B&W print can only be a silver print!
Reference – Marina Warner ‘Signs of the Fifth Element’ in The Tree of Life, The Southbank Centre, London, 1989