This Display ran from 18thNovember 2017 to 22 April 2018, exploring the many ways in which trees have been represented in photography. According to a brief article on the V&A website trees were among the first photographic subjects collected by the museum as a learning resource and the display itself marked “the 800thanniversary of the Charter of the Forest, sealed in 1217 by King Henry III and the launch of the 2017 Charter for Trees, Woods and People, an organisation that will reconnect people and trees and guide policy and practice in the UK” and is rooted in more than 60,000 ‘tree stories’ gathered from people of all backgrounds across the UK.
The display at the V&A wasn’t a large one by any means but I enjoyed exploring it with two fellow students. I’m noting below three images that particularly attracted me and what they brought to mind.
Pine Forest in Le Barroux, Vauclusefrom the series Seeing the Forest for the Trees (2012)
(c) Simone Nieweg
The gnarled, curved shapes of the tree on the left against the soft colour of the background trees drew me first and then I read that this series had been inspired by a poem written by Heinrich Heine.
After looking at this photograph I did some more research during which I accessed a website describing a 2002 Exhibition Nieweg was involved in, in Amsterdam, which was her first ‘foreign’ museum exhibition . Several aspects struck me:-
Unlike the classical tradition in landscape painting, she does not seek a form of the picturesque or romantic landscape. Not is the heroic or sublime landscape against which man appears insignificant a theme in her work
[She chooses] … the neglected, ordinary landscape of the vegetable garden that extends into open land and fields, with woods further in the distance.
Here, at the edge of city and countryside, the boundary between culture and nature, where gardens merge into fields or meadows, Simone Nieweg finds an inexhaustible source of subject matter. People are not directly visible here, but their traces are all the more so. This is the so-called ‘Nutzlandschaf’t(utilitarian landscape), or more specifically, the ‘Grabeland’ (wasteland)…. It comprises leftover pieces of land that have not yet been allocated by city planners and until then are free for private use.
She makes no moral judgements, but observes, analyses and structures. With her passion for the landscape of the vegetable garden, she no more walks the beaten path of landscape painting than landscape photography……. The light, the weather conditions, and the time of the year lead her to the spot where she takes a photo at that moment with great precision
Nieweg, born in Germany, was taught by Bernd and Hilla Becher during the late 1980s.‘Great precision’ is something I might well expect from a photographer trained by the Bechers and the shapes of nature and its colours are finely drawn out. I have read elsewhere that Nieweg photographs in soft light and uses long exposure times. In thinking of vegetable gardens and utilitarian landscapes, I was reminded of a series I created in an earlier module which was about local allotments, so I was not surprised to read elsewhere that Nieweg did photograph English allotments – a shame I can’t find them yet through a web search.
Rotting Apples from the series What Has Been Gathered Will Disperse (2004)
(c) Mark Edwards
A family garden where apples decay on a blue carpet, donated by a neighbouring Buddhist retreat, as weed control. A reminder of the circle of life and how we all return to the soil in some way or another The interesting snippet of information re the Buddhist retreat leads me to wonder how much that adds to the information and interest for the viewer.
Rimon (Pomegranate) (2011) (c) Tai Shochat
This is a Pomegranate tree, one of a series of five different varieties of fruit trees that grow in Israel – this one shot at night and illuminated by artificial light. A portrait of a tree, or is it a still-life? (I’ll be writing about Tacita Dean later on). Brought back memories for me – going to the Saturday afternoon matinee when I was quite small – a nearby greengrocer sold halves of pomegranates and we used to pick out the fruit with a pin, to me that was all very exotic. Shochat spruced up the tree, polishing its fruit, placed a black backdrop behind it and then photographed it. An image of perfection and, of course, questioning the boundaries between nature and artifice. Also tree as metaphor as in “the Tree of Life .
Looking at the photograph above also took me right back to the series of photographs of the Bonsai trees that I created in my previous module, as Shocat’s tree looks quite small (apparently these trees grow 5 to 10 metres) . It also gave me another idea which I wanted to try out as soon as possible. We have a small, old, gnarled apple tree in our garden. It still bears a lot of apples and I’ve photographed it several times. It reminds me of myself, the tree of life and the family tree. What if I did something similar? I’ve certainly previously experimented with hanging an illustrated backdrop from a tree up in the nearby small wood, but not putting a backdrop behind a tree and thus treating it as a portrait subject in itself. I discussed my idea with my husband who was intrigued. We established that, although our apple tree is quite short we don’t have a large enough backdrop or frame. I’m thinking that either the pomegranate tree was a miniature or Shocat used a large scaffold for her backdrop.
We do have two young pear trees though – just larger than saplings, not much taller than me and they have borne fruit. Off I went down the garden; struggled quite a while on my own at first trying to set up the backdrop, because the frame needed to be raised to its full height and was quite wobbly. Almost achieved success, with extra help from my husband, and then there was a gust of wind. The frame and backdrop slowly collapsed together and landed on my leg. It was quite painful and the scar has still not completely healed! Therefore – I decided that my next experiment would involve one of the Bonsai trees, although this hasn’t happened yet as firstly the weather was really bad and secondly I spent two weeks preparing my previous Module for formal assessment.
Poems as inspiration – I have used them in the past
Think about the neglected and ordinary landscapes at the boundary between nature and culture
Observation, analysis and structure
Landscape as metaphor
Think about information (i.e. text or caption) and how this adds interest
Creating a portrait of a tree