When humans first had access to cameras, what did they point them at? In the latest in an illuminating series of books published by Thames & Hudson, drawing on the permanent collection of the V&A, Martin Barnes shows how trees fascinated some of the earliest photographers, and how they have remained a popular subject ever since.
Trees, he writes, were among the first photographic subjects collected by the V&A, “alongside photographs of architecture and fine decorative art objects.” In the mid-19th century, when cataloguing and codifying were in vogue, trees were often photographed for reference. In 1857, for example, the V&A’s staff photographer Charles Thurston Thompson travelled to the country estate of the museum’s director, Henry Cole, to take pictures of the trees in his grounds. However, the photographers of this era were also inspired by the Romantic poets, and so were keen to capture the sublime in nature. Cole’s picture of beech roots exposed along the side of a sunken lane is more Wordsworth than Audobon.
As the years rolled by, the ways in which people photographed trees continued to reflect their preoccupations. Towards the end of the 19th century, a time of rapid social change, there was a craze for photographing ancient oaks – reassuring symbols of permanence in an uncertain world. Thomas Ebbage took a picture of the ancient “Watch Oak” in Warwickshire sometime in the 1860s; a storm blew it down in 1888.
Around the turn of the century, as Impressionism became fashionable in painting, so photographers tended to present trees in soft focus, with leaves blowing in the wind looking blurry due to long exposures. By the mid-20th century, however, the stark lines demanded by modernism led to sharper focus, and as abstraction took off there was a marked increase in the number of photographers, like Aaron Siskind, who experimented with ambiguous, semi-abstract close-ups of gnarled tree bark.
Barnes also shows how the tree photographers of the late 20th century and the beginning of the 21st began to reflect environmental concerns in their work; and this is precisely what the Italian photographer Tommaso Protti does, to devastating effect, in his new monograph Amazônia. Winner of the 2019 Carmignac Photojournalism Award, from January to July this year Protti travelled for thousands of miles across the Brazillian Amazon, from the eastern region of Maranhao to Rondonia in the west, portraying both the ongoing destruction of the rainforest and the humanitarian crises that go with it.
His aerial images of vast swathes of forest destroyed by fire are undeniably dramatic, but infinitely more powerful is his image of a member of the Guajajara forest guard mourning a single illegally felled tree, his head pressed against the end of its fallen trunk. Meanwhile, images of gangsters, junkies and abandoned corpses show how, in these regions of Bolsonaro’s Brazil, paradise is rapidly turning into hell. Roger Cox
Into the Woods: Trees in Photography, By Martin Barnes, Thames & Hudson, £24.95. Amazônia, by Tommaso Protti, Reliefs / Fondation Carmagnac, £30