The writer and photographer Robert Adams wrote in Beauty in Photographythat landscape art can offer three truths: geography, autobiographyand metaphor.These three kinds of information “strengthen each other and reinforce what we want all work to keep intact – an affection for life.”1
Developing the truth of our sense of place about these woodlands started of course, with geography. By making visual and written records of our responses to these doorstep havens, we were reassuring and reminding ourselves (wherever we may be) that if we were ever forced to grieve these now internalised places, they would never be truly lost.
Both woodlands contain a community of species living out challenging yet largely successful lives adapting where they must to find harmony with their specific location.
Dramatic Shaw Gill epitomises “wetness.” Mindful human intervention has made space for a great diversity of life, growth, maturity and the moist decay of decomposition. Rain seeps through the canopies of titanic beech, elm and ash, courses through a variety of smaller trees, bushes and mosses to the under-planted woodland floor, then drains into the ever-turbulent beck. All is damp and swollen. Thirst is always slaked.
In the Mediterranean heat of Catalunya where rain is infrequent, Can Coll Wood is the epitome of “dryness.” Here, pine, olive, fig and carob trees jostle for limited space. It’s a battlefield of wilful intrusions into the occasional openings revealed after violent storms and winds topple some of their old guard; or when human delinquents hack and saw for the pleasure or greed of it.
Everything here is dust-dry; normal life is a state of almost permanent drought. This is a place where top-own and bottom-up, the heat of day and night evaporates life away, finally dis-integrating fractured wood particles back to dust. In this natural arid greenhouse, growth may be slow, but these adapted species suffer no shortage of fecundity as long as there is just enough rain, just when needed.
To convey the truth of our own sense of these places, we had to make a multitude of decisions about how to represent our visceral, emotional and philosophical responses to them. Such choices put the photographer in the picture and the writer on the page, for they are underpinned by the sum of our prior experiences, knowledges and intuitions about similar places and from our own previous work and others’ works like these.
We developed a relationship with the tree communities in their natural environment and then with the tree portraits in the studio. Feelings, notions and insights from these relational encounters compelled us to shape and express them into a prose-photography form which best represents those responses.
Those responses were to do with the beauty we found in the trees’ capacity to demonstrate their sheer presence within the stark reality of impermanence. In glut or famine, tempest or calm, there they stood, expressing their utmost elm-ness, pine-ness, olive-ness (or general such-ness) through their unique shapes and individualities.
It was humbling to face such solid, massive characters who started life up to 150 years ago and their offspring, who may outlive us by the same margin. Ridiculous to think of ourselves as a ‘higher’ species. Touching the carpets of last season’s foliage, nuts and cones mulching on the woodland floors was to touch impermanence itself, which nourished us spiritually and philosophically as individual human beings.
To convey this, Paco chose to make ‘tree-portraits,’ not landscapes, to give our subjects the vertical space on paper which their form uses in the natural environment to show themselves in their fullest sense of tree-ness.
Everything in the images is a compositional choice, with nothing moved or removed to prettify or make up a scene.
Black and white photography rather than colour was selected to jolt the viewer, who may have been expecting the usual greens and blues of nature landscapes, and thereby open her to a different experience.
The images (direct from camera with minimal editing), display degrees of contrast between natural light and shade that cannot be appreciated in the lived environment. The details of roots, bark, trunk and branch junctions in their context with light, and the abundance or scarcity of water, reveal the character of each tree.
Many images were taken in winter, when an entire tree’s shape and its relationship to its neighbours and to the entire woodland community is exposed. Such nakedness suggested the trees, as individuals and as a community neither have, nor need, anywhere to hide when conditions turn rough.
Visually, the individuality of the trees is emphasised by giving them the maximum space possible on the printed page. Since insights about beauty and impermanence are essentially no more than snippets of ideas, notions and feelings, Barbara chose to write short prose and poetry pieces.
Partnering images to prose was not felt necessary, other than to locate the written piece close to a selection of images from the woodland where notes were made. As with photography, radical composition and compression of the written themes were required, as well as cycles of editing for clarity and simplicity of the messages.
We wished to encourage taking sufficient time to peruse the presentation, allowing time for personal responses to the work to form, just as an actual visit to the woodlands may encourage. Therefore aesthetically, in the final presentation, as much negative space as possible was provided next to the tree portraits, and around the prose, in order to give the viewing-reader the sensation of mental and emotional space.
Like watermarks, our geographical and autobiographical choices became signatures giving form to the on-your-doorstep universality of beauty and impermanence in nature and in human lives.
“Passing Through” became a metaphor for expressing truths about our human lives and ways through its connection to the natural life cycles underway in these woodland communities. Such truths related, often directly, to how we respond to sudden, unexpected change or to gradual transition which, though a feature of every human life, we often struggle to deal with. Similarly, we can find ourselves unexpectedly immersed into shock, delight or other feelings from an array of human emotional states, wondering what to make of it?
Often, human experiences are most impactful and keenly felt when the prospect of their ending or loss is brought into focus. This was inevitably the case in Passing Through because we resonated with our subjects manifesting the essence of life in every stage of their impermanent existence.
In this book and exhibition, we unify viewing and reading to make it memorable. Through metaphor and symbolic expression, we hope to guide or prompt the viewing-reader towards a discovery of meaning and significance in her own life. We hope she may find herself in a similar mental and emotional spaces to the ones we inhabited during the creation process, and perhaps find herself recognising something that is ready to be revealed, something that was probably already known but not yet embraced.
Something else passing through.
Barbara Murray & Paco Valera
Sant Pere de Ribes, April 2018
1Robert Adams, Beauty in Photography: Essays in Defense of Traditional Values Paperback, 2004, Aperture