Into the woods at the V&A’s exhibition of trees in photography

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Marking the 800th anniversary of the Charter of the Forest signed by King Henry III, and corresponding with the launch of the 2017 Charter for Trees, Woods and People, the V&A’s new display Into The Woods: Trees in Photography, celebrates the significance of trees in the work of photographers across the world and throughout history.

The exhibition is comprised of works from the V&A’s permanent collection as well as photographs recently transferred from the Royal Photographic Society ahead of their rehousing in the museum’s new Photography Centre in 2018. Curated by Martin Barnes, senior curator of photographs at the V&A, Into The Woods began as an impulse – “I just like trees!” – but gradually revealed itself to be the germ of a great idea. In presenting an “unbroken chronology”, he says, this exhibition tells a story of photography’s evolution and of society’s enduring relationship with trees and forests.

“The V&A has always collected pictures of trees for various reasons,” Barnes explains. “For example, in the 1850s the museum’s official photographer, Charles Thurston Thompson, was sent out to photograph the trees on the first director of the museum Henry Cole’s estate in Surrey. Art students would then copy them in the same they would copy drawings or sculptures.

“The more I thought about it,” he continues, “the more I realised how relevant a subject trees are for photography, and how well they reflect the medium itself. A tree goes through its cycle through the seasons, with a huge range of visual possibilities. They are graphically stark in the winter, lush in the summer. The basics of photography like light, form and time are reflected so well in the subject matter of trees.”

As he explored the various selections of tree photographs the museum had gathered through the years and examined them within that context, Barnes started to notice patterns and ideas emerging. “Once you start to gather a theme like that you begin to see the images differently,” he remarks. “There is, for example, a photograph by Cartier-Bresson in there, but you’d never have thought of him as a nature or landscape photographer. Introducing a simple theme like this shifts the emphasis.

“Trees have always stood for nature as a whole,” he says. “They become emblematic of regions, cultures and states of mind. Rather than just being illustrative of botanics or illustrative of a place then, you start being able to read a photographer’s emotions and character in the subject matter. There’s huge variety in this one subject.”

Hakkoda #2, 2009 © Tokihiro Sato, courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects

The exhibition features work from a variety of eras and landscapes, from the historic work of Johann Carl Enslen, Edward Steichen and Lady Clementina Hawarden to 20th and 21st century work from the likes of Robert Adams, Simone Nieweg, John Davies, and Tokihiro Satō, and ranges from practical photography and botanic illustration to work that is much more experimental.

“Much of it is about personal creative expression and how the subject allows artistic photographers to express their ideas,” he says. “For example, I love the images we have by Tokihiro Satō. He sets up a camera with long exposure in the woods and moves in front of it with a small hand held mirror. He uses that to reflect light back into the lens, momentarily blinding the camera. It creates these little spots of light that look like fireflies or something otherworldly. It’s a wonderful use of long exposure and analogue technology that creates something that looks natural and magical.”

Of course, despite its multi-faceted purpose and appeal, the environmental slant of the exhibition is also not lost on Barnes. Given its correlation with the new Tree Charter, launched on 06 November to protect the UK’s forests, it seems there’s never been a better time to venture into the woods.

“It’s all about giving us a chance to think about what trees do for us,” he concludes. “Be it for our sense of wellbeing, for art, or for controlling the quality of the air. It’s an opportunity to show them off, and to remind us all that we shouldn’t take them for granted.”

Into the Woods: Trees in Photography runs until 22 April 2018 in Gallery 38a at the V&A.

#274-5 from the series Sequester, 2011 © Awoiska van der Molen

Rotting Apples from the series What Has Been Gathered Will Disperse, 2004 © Mark Edwards
Coppice, King’s Wood, 1994 © Gerhard Stromberg
Aspens, Northern New Mexico, 1958 © Ansel Adams
Poplars, Lake George, 1932 © Alfred Stieglitz, Gift of the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation
Poplar Avenue Srinuggur Kashmir from the end, 1864 by Samuel Bourne © Victoria & Albert Museum, London
Royal Engineers Cutting on the 49th Parallel on the Right Bank of the Mooyie River Looking West about 1860 © Victoria & Albert Museum, London