For millennia the tree has been a symbol of life. Celebrated by most ancient civilizations, the tree has stood for the center of the cosmos and the origin of creation. Represented throughout art and literature, trees feature in the earliest photographs from the 1840s as well as in contemporary works today. This exhibition, drawn entirely from the J. Paul Getty Museum’s permanent collection, presents a range of photographs that reveal various artistic responses to the perennial subject. Documenting primeval forests and cultivated nature, these images explore the tree in its many connotations—as a graphic form, an evocative emblem, and vital evidence of the natural world in which we live.
For the image at right, South Korean artist Myoung Ho Lee worked outside, but cleverly employed a common photography prop that is typically used inside: the studio backdrop. After he digitally removes all evidence of supports used to hoist the sheet, the image reads as an elegant portrait of the natural world. His images of single trees isolated against stark canvases, yet still within the context of the countryside, create an interesting tension between the genres of landscape and portraiture.
Talbot captured this oak during winter, when the deciduous tree had shed its leaves. The stark silhouette of the trunk and branches creates a lace-like pattern against the blank sky. Talbot invented the calotype process, an early form of photography that employed paper for both the negative and the positive print. Unlike the highly polished metal surfaces of daguerreotypes, paper prints were softer in appearance, often compared to drawings or watercolors.
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By Jim McKinniss