Museum Home Current Exhibitions In Focus: The Tree

February 8–July 3, 2011 at the Getty Center

Tree #3 / Myoung Ho Lee
Tree #3, negative 2006, print 2009, Myoung Ho Lee
Purchased with funds provided by the Photographs Council of the J. Paul Getty Museum. © Myoung Ho Lee, Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York
audio Curator Françoise Reynaud from the Musée Carnavalet in Paris discusses this photograph.

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.

An Oak Tree in Winter / Talbot
An Oak Tree in Winter, about 1842–43, William Henry Fox Talbot
audio Audio: Curator Françoise Reynaud explains how Talbot may have created this photograph.

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.

Felling Cedar Tree 30 Miles East of Seattle / Kinsey
Felling Cedar Tree Thirty Miles East of Seattle, 76 feet in Circumference, 1906, Darius Kinsey

Darius Kinsey was a professional photographer who earned his living documenting the woodcutters who conquered the forests of the American West, one tree at a time. The magnitude of their task is visible in this image of a cedar, where the chopping axes look like matchsticks in relation to the girth of the trunk. Lamentably, the now-vanished forests attest to the fortitude and tenacity of these pioneers.

Treehouse, Freese Road, Varna, New York / Garen
Treehouse, Freese Road, Varna, New York, 1993, Rhea Garen
Gift of Nancy and Bruce Berman. © Rhea Garen
audio Audio: Rhea Garen discusses her photograph.

In this image by Rhea Garen, a large tree is pressed up so close to a house that it seems to be growing out of it, or vice versa, calling attention to the interdependence of humanity and nature. The pile of chopped wood in the foreground attests not only to the inhabitants' basic needs for shelter and warmth but also to the fragility of the tree as it exists alongside man.

Although the branching trunk and lush foliage seem to dominate the scene, almost overwhelming the home, the little leaves pasted in the upper-story window witness the domestication of the wild.

Forest / Gill
Forest, 1996–1998, Simryn Gill
Purchased with funds provided by the Photographs Council of the J. Paul Getty Museum. © Simryn Gill
audio Audio: Artist Simryn Gill discusses her photograph.

Now living in Australia, Simryn Gill was born in Singapore and raised in Malaysia. Her art explores the many different cultures and influences that come to define personal identity and a sense of belonging to a particular place.

In her series Forest, she tore pages from specific books that were significant to her, fashioned the paper into organic forms, and then photographed them in tropical settings. In this print, the trunk of a coconut tree is wrapped in paper strips that form rings around the bark, creating a visual pun that suggests both the history of the tree and the artist's own story.