Art, J. Paul Getty Museum, Photographs, Film, and Video

Finding the Grace in Trees

Tree #11 / Myoung Ho Lee

Tree #11, Myoung Ho Lee, 2005. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 84.XM.893.1. Purchased with funds provided by the Photographs Council. © Myoung Ho Lee, Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

Someone asked me last week about my favorite tree images—not an unfair question, because I now ask people that same thing all the time.

When I began to research tree photographs in the boxes of the collection for the new exhibition In Focus: The Tree, each image I selected spoke to me in a special way. At the time, I wasn’t thinking at all of an exhibition, I was simply conducting research to see how trees and photographers dialogued through the centuries—a very universal but also extremely personal dialogue between nature and humans.

Then, when it was decided that we would create a book and an exhibition from this work, my co-curator Anne Lyden, associate curator in the Department of Photographs at the Getty Museum, and I chose to emphasize how each photograph was able to convey a message. The images had to be expressions of beauty, strength, fragility, grace, grandeur, strangeness, utility, and so on. The relationship between the individual tree and the scene or the event depicted is what’s interesting to see and to understand. Each photo tells a unique story. Trees are sometimes so old; they have seen so much. Trees don’t wait for the photographer to be beautiful or expressive, they just are.

An Oak Tree in Winter / Talbot

An Oak Tree in Winter, William Henry Fox Talbot, about 1842–43. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 84.XM.893.1

Ranging from 19th-century works to contemporary pieces, the prints in the show are by both recognized and lesser-known artists. Among the photographers whose work is on view are Robert Adams, Eugène Atget, Simryn Gill, Gustave Le Gray, Myoung Ho Lee, Eliot Porter, Alfred Stieglitz, and William Henry Fox Talbot.

The most interesting thing in the exhibition to me is how all of the images do relate to each other—they have a dialogue. Photographers like trees because, very often, they make portraits of themselves while taking these pictures. But not always, of course! Sometimes it’s just a way of finding inspiration and beauty in nature. Some photographers are well known for making pictures of trees, like Carleton Watkins, Atget, or Adams. But sometimes the picture is an exception to their body of work, as with Man Ray, André Kertész, Dorothea Lange, or Diane Arbus. It seems to me these exceptions mean something very personal: perhaps the tree embodies a feeling very present in the mind of the photographer, and somehow resonates with what they as a human are going through in their life. I like to think so.

So, which is my favorite tree image? That’s very difficult for me to answer, since all of these graceful trees have become beloved. A number of them couldn’t even find place in the show due to space, like a lovely Garry Winogrand image of a tree and dog in snow (Central Park, New York City from 1968) that we chose to include in the book but not in the exhibition.

For the moment, my favorite image when I enter the gallery is Eliot Porter’s Juniper Tree, Arches National Monument, Utah, with its dynamic shape, and the bright green color against the deep blue rock behind it. The image is so expressive of the struggle for life, and yet it is startlingly beautiful.

Juniper Tree, Arches National Monument, Utah / Eliot Porter

Juniper Tree, Arches National Monument, Utah, Eliot Porter, negative, August 27, 1958; print 1988. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2005.93.23. Gift of Daniel Greenberg and Susan Steinhauser. © 1990 Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas, Bequest of the artist

In the gallery, each photograph has its own way of glowing on the wall. I hope you agree when you see the exhibition.

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One Comment

  1. Posted February 14, 2011 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    Ms Reynaud,
    I am so glad you have put together these photographs of trees. The different ways we view, experience, and use trees is a major theme in my photographs, too, and I wish I could see your exhibition in person.
    Warmest regards,
    Beth Dow

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      gettypubs:

      COBALT

      The histories of many colors are amazing, but cobalt may well have the most brilliant of them all. From the Ming Dynasty to Renaissance Italy, cobalt was a popular glaze for porcelain and other ceramics. Cobalt ink is invisible unless exposed to flame, which turns it a vivid green. In the 17th century, this quality made Europeans believe it was witchcraft, but decades later it was used as a neat trick on fire screens. It wasn’t until 1802 that painters added cobalt to their palette. 

      It is this little tidbit from cobalt’s history that saved master forger Han van Meergeren’s skin after WWII, when he was tried for collaborating with the Nazis. Want to find out how some art history sleuthing and smart science got him a not guilty verdict? Hint: Don’t try to forge a Vermeer with cobalt! 

      Read all about it in The Brilliant History of Color in Art!

      Images, clockwise:

      Glazed earthenware dish with a marchant ship, Italy, about 1510. 

      Glazed earthenware tile floor, Spain, about 1425-50.

      Porcelain lidded vase, China, about 1662-1772.

      All objects from the J. Paul Getty Museum. 

      12/18/14

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