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Display: Into the Woods: Trees in Photography / from 18 November, V&A (UPDATED)

This autumn, the V&A will explore how trees have been a source of inspiration to photographers all over the world, from the earliest practitioners to the present day. This display features photographs by celebrated artists such as Ansel Adams, Alfred Steiglitz and Agnes Warburg who consistently responded to trees as a subject in their work. Into the Woods: Trees in Photography will be the first display that draws on works from both the recently transferred Royal Photographic Society (RPS) collection and the V&A permanent photographs collection ahead of the opening of the new Photography Centre in 2018.

From an early example of manipulated photography made in 1839 by Johann Carl Enslen, a German painter inspired by Henry Fox Talbot’s work in England, to recent photographs such as Tal Shochat’s work in which she applies the conventions of studio portraiture to photographing fruit trees, the display will demonstrate the fascination that trees have held for artists. It will include a study of an ancient oak tree (1854) by William, Second Earl of Craven, who custom-built a horse-drawn van which acted as both camera and darkroom on his estate in Berkshire; recent work by Tokihiro Sato made in the forests of the Hakkoda Mountains in Japan; and prints by Awoiska van der Molen who created long exposures of the dramatic volcanic terrain in the Canary Islands.

Trees were among the first photographic subjects collected by the V&A as a resource for artists and designers, such as Edward Fox’s pairings of summer and winter trees seen from the same vantage point that became part of the collection in 1865. The V&A has continued to acquire photographs of trees in various contexts: within landscapes and forests, as lone subjects, in relationship to humans, in rural and urban settings, and as symbols of cultural significance. The display will also include historic works by Edward Steichen, Henri Cartier Bresson, Paul Strand and Lady Clementina Hawarden, alongside contemporary artists Simone Nieweg, John Davies and Stephen Shore.

While photographs of trees have served as botanical and topographical illustration, contemporary photographic artists have also looked to trees for creative expression. Like portrait subjects, isolated trees convey individual and national identities and can mirror our characters and moods. Robert Adams highlights the human impact on the environment in an image showing a pair of deciduous trees contending with the smoggy Californian cityscape beyond, dominated by rows of palms. Sheva Fruitman captures an urban scene where a pair of tree trimmers appear like a performance of marionettes in silhouette. Gerhard Stromberg’s felled Sussex woodland shows traditional coppicing in action: cutting back to encourage new growth. Carried out in the UK since at least the 16th century, the practice creates poles used for buildings, furniture, fencing, charcoal and many other functions.

The display marks the 800th anniversary of the Charter of the Forest, signed in 1217 by King Henry III, to protect the rights of free men in England to access and use the Royal Forests – and the launch of the 2017 Charter for Trees, Woods and People to protect trees and woods in the UK.


V&A Museum, Room 38A
from 18 November

Image: Samuel Bourne, Poplar Avenue, Srinuggur, Kashmir, from the end, 1864

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