It all began at a flea market in Frankfurt, when photo collector Jochen Raiß came across a picture of a woman wearing a summer dress and high heels. While she looked ready for a Sunday stroll, her delicate footwear was odd for what her photographer caught her in the midst of doing: climbing a tree. She became the first of many shrub-scaling ladies from the past that Raiß found and kept during his excavations of photo-filled shoeboxes in markets; he has since amassed 91 such photographs, now collected in an endearing photo book simply titled Women in Trees, published by Hatje Cantz.
The snapshots are imbued with mystery. Most lack any notes that might anchor them to a particular location, an identity, or a special occasion. For some reason, those Raiß has been able to date were often snapped between the 1920s and ’30s. But what remains most intriguing is why so many of these women, largely dressed to impress, chose to hike themselves up a trunk and strike a pose — from the comfortable to the clumsy — amid leaves and branches.
“These photos are fascinating because of their seemingly incongruous components,” Raiß writes in the introduction to the book. “What was this woman in the tree’s life like? Who did she go for walks with? Whose idea was it for her to climb a tree and sit on a branch? This is something I’ll never know.”
Unlike another recent collection of bizarre found photographs of Germans posing with polar bears, these images don’t come with any clear historic explanation. Perhaps some photographers wanted to remember a special plant, such as a giant cactus that cradles within its pads a smiling woman, like a queen perched on her throne. Perhaps others saw angular branches as simple but bold props for a fashionable or fun portrait. But what unites them all are the women’s knowing gazes. Most of them stare directly down the barrel of the unknown photographers’ lenses. There’s a subtle, underlying sense of intimacy in these portraits; yet, seen together, the repeated visual delivers a familiarity that transcends the individual quiet moments between photographer and subject, and a feeling of collective, inexplicable bliss that keeps us flipping to the next frame.
Women in Trees is available through Hatje Cantz.