18 Tree Portraits - presence and absence


The Exhibition


The job of the documentarist is not to direct reality, but to let reality direct the documentarist [1]

If I am anything, I suppose I am a documentary photographer. Thus, most of my practice has been concerned with a series of attempts to make honest accounts of the things people do in their public and private lives. In doing this work I have, of course, had to come to terms with the problem of objectivity in visual representation, and the risk of aestheticizing my subjects rather than serving them. Whatever my success as a practitioner, I have been able to benefit and learn from a long tradition of humanist visual documentation - from the early work of Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine, through to that of Dorothea Lange, Bill Brandt, Jean Mohr, Nan Goldin or Susan Meisalas.
    When it comes to landscape photography I am less sure of myself. I find myself caught between a romantic aesthetic which still sees landscape as 'natural' and its contemplation as a way of accessing the sublime, and my contemporary understanding of landscape as a construct, something which can be interpreted from art-historical, social or ecological perspectives.
    Given this insecurity, I started to become aware of a problem of absence in the tree portrait project I was undertaking. In earlier documentary work my engagement with a community and my own contextual analysis have been essential aspects of my practice. In landscape photography, although I can use principles of pictorial aesthetics to organise the elements in the images I am making, I bring with me a very limited understanding of the landscapes that I am witnessing. Each time I walk across the scars, moorland, or farm and parkland around Kendal I am astounded by the beauty I find there – but there I am, back with the romantics! My lack of insight into what has formed and is forming the landscape, how the trees are part of wider ecological and economic systems, left me feeling unsatisfied with the images I was trying to make.
    In an attempt to solve this problem I have been having an extended conversation with my friend Simon Stainer (who has a great deal more knowledge about the natural environment than I will ever have). The images in this exhibition are an initial result of this exchange. As a starting point I have done my best to make a set of portraits which will, I hope, encourage viewers to look anew at the trees in the landscapes around us. Simon's commentary on what is present and what is absent, how these often isolated survivors manage to persist in these landscapes, introduces a new narrative. I hope very much that this account (along with the Notes on Trees we've provided) will encourage the viewer to reflect both on how the trees and we ourselves relate to our contexts, and also to reconsider our understanding of representations of these natural/unnatural landscapes.
[1] Albert Maysles (http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/aesthetics-documentary)

Heath & moorland

Moorland and heath Moorland and heath Moorland and heath Moorland and heath Moorland and heath Moorland and heath

Commentary #1 (Heath & Moorland)

These portraits feature trees in a wider landscape of open moorland that is typified by a mix of rough grassland, bracken and rock. The trees are the remnant of a formerly rich upland mosaic of scrub or open woodland which included rowan, ash, birch, aspen, holly, alder and willow amongst other species. Within this landscape of scrub, heath and bog, the diversity of tree species that formed the forest edge was determined by soil type and aspect. The great range in physical structure was another reason for this diversity. Along with tall old-growth trees, there was low-growing scrub, grassland and heath on poor soils and rocky knolls, and transitions into open bog habitats where impeded drainage prevented tree growth. The isolated trees in these photographs represent the end point of generations of grazing: a process which has led to the failure of new tree growth and the gradual decline of a structurally diverse ecosystem.
    The survivors we see in the photos include:
    • Hawthorn and oak: both are very long-lived trees, but oak has often been selectively removed for timber or fuel. Eventually both trees will succumb to old age or storm damage, and the loss of the forest edge will then be complete.
    • Birch and rowan: the trees shown here are opportunists – species that exhibit rapid growth and tolerate a wide range of soil types. The rowan has been spared from browsing by being protected in the cleft rock, and the birch may have had sufficient protection from dense bracken to escape browsing. Both trees are short-lived species (75-100 years), and once lost will not regenerate where sheep graze.
    • Bracken: this is a woodland fern and thrives in the rich brown earth soils where once it was shaded and suppressed by trees. Bracken is not an 'invader' as is frequently claimed. This much maligned plant is the ghost of a habitat that once covered vast areas of the uplands.
    When you look at this austere landscape, imagine the bloom there would once have been as the massed hawthorn, blackthorn, rowan, cherry and gorse successively lit up the Spring hillside. The flowers provided huge quantities of early-season pollen and nectar for invertebrates, which in turn form the diet of many insectivorous bird species. Later in the season autumn fruit again provided food for birds and insects.
(Simon Stainer, 2018)

Limestone Scars

Limestone_scars Limestone Scars Limestone Scars Limestone Scars Limestone Scars Limestone Scars

Commentary #2 (Limestone Scars)

Trees on the limestone escarpments of Scout Scar and Whitbarrow show a low tortured growth, with the trees' size being limited by thin soil and windswept locations. The trees in these photographs are difficult to age, but the ash and yew may be surprisingly old despite their poor form and low stature. Ash usually grows well on limestone or alkaline-flushed soils, but here skeletal upland soils stunt growth, and summer drought conditions are never far away, even in the north-west of England. Yew is another species to favour chalk/limestone or more acidic crags where it may find pockets of nutrient-rich soil and drive its roots into clefts for purchase.
    These scrubby grasslands form a diverse summer mosaic. Here, you can find flowering limestone species such as rock-rose, heathy patches where a blind of acidic soil may sit across the bedrock, and patches of raw open stone. Some of these patches are original and scoured from the last glaciation. Other areas are the shattered remnants of rare limestone pavement that has been removed by human activity.
    Trees add a scatter and texture to this landscape. This forest-edge scrub seldom succeeds into woodland due to the constraints that climate and poor soil quality impose on growth, but many species of bird and invertebrate prefer this open mixed structure. What may appear ragged and unkempt creates niches between the trees which support the development of a patchwork of spring-flowering hawthorn, grassland flowers and heather bushes in amongst sun-warmed rock. Grazing cattle further diversify this mix with their dunging and scraping. The tearing of coarse vegetation they cause has a positive biological impact as it opens pockets for more delicate species that would otherwise be unable to compete without help from large herbivores.
    These limestone scars retain an element of primeval wonder. The auroch would have roamed here, perfectly adapted to the smashed post-glacial vegetation regrowth.
(Simon Stainer, 2018)

Park and farmland

Park and farmland Park and farmland Park and farmland Park and farmland Park and farmland Park and farmland

Commentary #3 (Park & Farmland)

Open-grown trees often have a characteristically spreading canopy, indicative of the lack of competition for light during the main growth phase. This contrasts with the pattern of development in a woodland or forest setting where close growing trees go up upwards towards the light with limited branch spread.
It's not always easy to work out why the apparently random trees seen in these images are distributed across these landscapes. In some cases isolated parkland trees may be the remains of an earlier pattern of planned landscape planting.     This is usually obvious when many trees of a similar age are found in a clearly defined location (often associated with an estate or great house). However, many lone trees or clusters have no such grand history, and may be a remnant of a landscape where trees were more numerous. As older specimens have died without replacement, these hardier instances have continued to survive in isolation. In other cases, clusters of trees may be the remains of some form of stock shelter, or a fuel resource, particularly where pollarding was practised to regularly harvest trees for wood.
    Trees in hedgerows will usually have been deliberately (or accidentally) spared the flail and been allowed to grow into specimens. These are then able to exhibit the open-grown character of parkland specimens. Defunct hedgelines can often be seen in a row of mature or ancient trees. These may mark the original line of a hedgerow that has long-since ceased to function as a boundary. By contrast, some old trees in walls may have been planted originally as boundary markers, and in some cases (particularly in the case of oak trees) will pre-date the wall.
    The conservation value of ancient trees is enormous. A stag-headed ruin will support many niches for birds, bats and invertebrates. It offers the cavities, rot-holes, hollow stems, and canopy deadwood which so many species require for part of their life-cycle. In a grazed setting it is essential to foster replacements for these monoliths, but this requires carefully managed tree-planting. Without this, future generations of insects - essential pollinators and food sources for many other species - will lose the dead wood and rotting tissue turning to frass that are essential to their life cycle. Sadly, we will also lose the wonderful shapes and features of the wood-pasture as storms and death take their toll.
Simon Stainer (2018)


If you would like to buy one of a limited edition of 20 prints of any of the images from the Exhibition, please contact me by email.  Prices are £65 per 32.90cm x 48.30cm (A3+) unframed print, including post and packaging.  All photos are printed on archive fine art Hahnemulle Photo Rag paper using Epson archival Ultrachrome K3 inks.  Some framed prints are also available for £100 + P&P.  Please contact me for further details (email address below).


A hard cover photobook printed on high quality paper is also available from Blurb.  If you would like to order a copy, click on the link below:

18 Tree Portraits

By C. Tribble & S. Stainer