Jewish Journal

Capturing Life: The Tree in Photographs

by Naomi Pfefferman

Posted on Jan. 11, 2011 at 6:33 pm

Myoung Ho Lee, “Tree #3,” negative 2006, print 2009. © Myoung Ho Lee, Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Myoung Ho Lee, “Tree #3,” negative 2006, print 2009. © Myoung Ho Lee, Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

On car trips as a young girl, Francoise Reynaud traveled through the French countryside, captivated whenever she saw a single tree alone at the side of the road or in the middle of a field. 

“Its presence was so strong,” recalled Reynaud, curator of photographs at the Musée Carnavalet in Paris and a co-curator of “In Focus: The Tree,” opening Feb. 8 at the Getty Museum. “I always wondered, ‘What is this fellow thinking, seeing where he is?’ ”

“Cultures all around the world view the relationship between human and tree as intimate,” Reynaud notes in her new book celebrating trees, which accompanies the exhibition and appears just as Jews are preparing to celebrate the holiday of Tu B’Shevat, the New Year for Trees, on Jan. 20. For Jews, trees represent life; for some ancient civilizations, trees symbolized the origins of the cosmos.

Among the approximately 40 photographs is Andrew Young’s majestic 1879 image “Arbor Vitae” (Latin for “Tree of Life”), a dramatic Romantic portrait in which deep shade contrasts with bright light.

In Robert Adams’ “Near Heber City, Utah, 1978,” the branches of a flowering tree burst through a fence, overflowing with blossoms that appear to explode through the picture frame, “as if you cannot contain life,” said the exhibition’s co-curator, Anne Lyden, the Getty’s associate curator of photographs.

Brett Weston, “Sierra Pond,” circa 1950. © The Brett Weston Archive. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Other artists represent trees “in their vulnerability, subject to being cut down,” Reynaud said in a phone interview from Paris. Diane Arbus’ “Xmas Tree in a Living Room in Levittown, Long Island” is a tinsled pine whose top has been shorn in order to squeeze it into a spare early-1960s living room.     

The gnarled trunk in Roi Partridge’s “Mother Nature” approximates a female torso. Two pieces by the late Czech photographer Josef Sudek, who lost an arm in World War I and whose work became darker in tone after the Nazi invasion, are quasi-self-portraits — in particular a stunted, broken tree in “Vanished Statues: A Walk in Mionsi Forest,” with its truncated limbs, a stand-in for the artist himself.

“In Focus: The Tree,” Feb. 8 through July 3 at the Getty Center.

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