ArtWeekend

Photographers Among the Trees, from Steichen to Bae Bien-U

An exhibition at London’s V&A captures the dance in life’s stillness and the stillness in life’s dance.

Tal Shochat, “Rimon (Pomegranate)” (2011) (all images courtesy the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, unless otherwise noted)

I started the day by drawing a rhinoceros. Most animals that weigh tons live amid roaming herds and few people. London’s heavily trafficked Natural History Museum is now the home of my thick-skinned subject. Still as a tree root, it seems all too practiced at tuning out crowds, including hordes of children who look happy seeing taxidermied beasts, strong and beautiful, up close.

Later, replacing rhino horns for bigger bones yet, I found myself in the lobby beneath an 82-foot-long, suspended skeleton of a blue whale — the world’s most massive animal, ever. The museum has named the whale Hope. Its skeleton replaced that of a diplodocus dinosaur, which until last year guarded the building’s main entrance. I missed the prehistoric monster but welcomed the trade-off of brute force for giant optimism.

Hope, the blue whale, at the Natural History Museum, London, with the plaster ceiling panels above, right (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Next stop: Into the Woods: Trees in Photography (November 18 – April 22, 2018), an exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum located directly across a small side street. The first image that touched me was Edward Steichen’s gauzy photograph, The Pool – Evening” (1899). “Damn. To draw like that.” I may have said it out loud. Steichen’s subject is not only trees; it’s twilight. The picture is pure romance, poetry of place, people-less, and misty enough to confuse a rhinoceros for a unicorn, a crow for a dove.

With seductive tranquility and lulling shimmer, Steichen’s trees sway and hum. Rhythms of their trunks, rhythms of their reflections, and rhythms of light trickle through the woodland. Watch them. And listen. As Thomas Hardy writes in the opening lines of “Under the Greenwood Tree”:

To dwellers in a wood almost every species of tree has its voice as well as its feature. At the passing of the breeze the fir-trees sob and moan no less distinctly than they rock; the holly whistles as it battles with itself; the ash hisses amid its quiverings; the beech rustles while its flat boughs rise and fall.

By celebrating an integral, life-affirming, often-ignored part of our world, this exhibition is heroic in its own modest way. Organized by Martin Barnes, the V & A‘s senior curator of photographs, it includes its fair share of usual suspects, apparently, each one a tree listener (as the curator himself must be). From the historically established likes of Edward Fox (1823-1899) to Lady Clementina Hawarden (1822-1865), to Jerry Uelsmann (1934- ), with Alfred Stieglitz, Aaron Siskind, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Alvin Langdon Coburn, and Ansel Adams in between, it’s an impressive, if male-oriented lot. Other, recent artists hail from far and wide.

In “SNM O12H” (2014), from the series Sonamu Pine Tree, the contemporary South Korean photographer, Bae Bien-U, portrays animated, atmospheric syncopations, as he appears to blend art forms; the calligraphy of his pines reads as much like a large-scale ink wash drawing as it does a photograph. Lights, middles, and darks — each tonal passage is a world in itself. But, of course, in “SNM O12H,” the magic lives not only in each distinct pocket of tonal space, but in how Bien-U orchestrates their weave. What music grays can make. Damn. To draw like that.

Awoiska van der Molen, “#274-5” from the series “Sequester” (2011) (all images courtesy the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, unless otherwise noted)

And how lyrical black — or more accurately, nuances of very dark gray — can be. In “#274-5” (2011), from the series Sequester, the Dutch photographer Awoiska van der Molen looks into darkness, penetrating the primeval, the primordial, the present. No individual trees receive special attention. Rather, the artist addresses overallness. Or, better, the singularity of multiplicity. In “#274-5,” Van der Molen aims us toward the secluded center of her picture, of the world. Details happen mainly around the periphery. She explores and photographs settings far away from the center of things. To find them, she goes, as she states in an interview with Lensculture, “to the end, where you feel you are really alone. The furthest place [. . .] .” The void. Darkness. Whether life or death, she says (in another interview, in FK Magazine), “it’s always in between things.” Perhaps her point zero is what T. S. Eliot describes as the still point in his poem, “Burnt Norton.” Without this, he writes, “there is no dance, and there is only the dance.”

Ironically, in “#274-5,” Van der Molen‘s “furthest place” is in the center. This she empties out, leaving just enough behind to make it utterly worth our while to penetrate the mystery that fills the imagination.

The working process employed by many of the artists in this exhibition involves — honors — time and patience. Van der Molen‘s images are a case in point. She travels great distances to remote locales, hikes alone through miles of wilderness, sets up her camera, and lets the lens remain open for sometimes up to half an hour. Even her (admittedly old-fashioned) darkroom process is lovingly labor-intensive.

Consistent with Tal Shochat’s usual working process, for “Rimon (Pomegranate)” (2011), this Israeli artist photographed a tree in her studio as she might photograph a person posing for a portrait, black cloth backdrop and all. Looking at any one of the colorful images from her series of fruit trees, one thinks of people combing their hair and beards, applying makeup, and tucking in their shirts and blouses for the camera. As the wall text that accompanies this pomegranate tree states: “The work highlights the tensions in photography between reality and artifice.” With blatant, unapologetic focus, she captures a compelling sense of unnatural nature. Like the rhino that doesn’t live in the wilds and the whale that doesn’t live in the sea, her trees don’t live in the woods.

Tokihiro Sato, “Hakkoda #2” (2009), courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects

A related tension surfaces in Tokihiro Satō’s “Hakkoda #2” (2009). Lost in a whirl of weeds, trees, and shimmying leaves, relieved by spots of sky — and spotted light trails resulting from intentionally projecting the sun’s rays back through the lens during a long exposure — the “artificial” photographic process captures the trunk of a tree in the middle of a Japanese forest. Picture Hiroshige and Pollock as a double exposure. Distance disappears. You smell the close-up fragrance of the thicket, where there’s little “in front” or “behind” except for the central, rustling beech. Yet even there, the woods and vegetation and dappled sunlight merge. Which is what this show is about, what hope is about: how things have a way of coming together.

After Into the Woods, it was back to the NHM for another look at the rhino wrinkles that had moved me earlier. In a narrow corridor, a young man was drawing an otter; artist and otter, rooted. The young man seemed well-practiced at tuning out passersby. Damn, to draw like that.

Leaving slowly through the main entrance, it was no longer the oceanic expansion of the lobby or the colossal, diving leviathan that I found most impressive. For me, the new stars of the sky were the gridded, hand-painted plaster panels of delicate trees and plants (162 of them) decorating the lobby ceiling. Not far below them stands a ringed, 15-foot-in-diameter cross section of a sequoia. I hadn’t noticed these risen stars earlier, despite their proximity to the boney, aquatic-turned-aeronautic Moby.

This time, not only did I notice the painted arboretum, I could swear I heard wind whistling through its leaves, along with sobs and moans and hisses. Across the street, the V & A’s camera-toting artists had worked their magic. They had conjured up treasures in the Natural History Museum that were already there. The beeches and pines in Trees in Photography embody the dance in life’s stillness and the stillness in life’s dance. But these trees don’t just do something, they stand there. In silence and out loud at once.

In the NHM lobby, I had eavesdropped on a conversation between a forested sky, a ringed giant from the woods, and the awesome remains of a flying sequoia-scale mammal from the sea. Low-pitched prehistoric echoes rang through the Hall, overlapped by high-pitched children. Meanwhile, wide-eyed museum-goers scurried across the mosaic patterns of a dry ocean floor, tuning in and out of their surroundings, immersed in rings of life and death and life again.

Into the Woods: Trees in Photography continues at the Victoria and Albert Museum (Cromwell Road, Knightsbridge, London) through April 22.

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