Exhibition: ‘Into the Woods: Trees in Photography’ at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Exhibition dates: 18th November 2017 – 22nd April 2018


Gustave Le Gray. 'In the Forest of Fontainbleau (Bas-Bréau)' 1852


Gustave Le Gray (French, 1820-1884)
In the Forest of Fontainbleau (Bas-Bréau)
Gold-toned albumen print from waxed paper negative
Chauncey Hare Townshend Bequest 1868



Gustave Le Gray trained as a painter in the 1840s but took up photography soon after. He followed the Barbizon School painters to the French forest of Fontainebleau, where he made enchanting photographic studies. Combining technical knowledge with artistic flair, Le Gray rapidly became one of the most renowned photographers of his day.



I grew up on a farm for the first thirteen years of my life. I played in the fields and forests of England, and wandered the cart paths with my brother. I saw him for the first time in thirty years last August, after the passing of my father. We went back and walked those very same paths where we grew up and looked at the magnificent trees planted along the edge of the fields. After all that had happened, it was an emotional and healing journey for both of us…

The innocence of being a child growing up on the land returned, the innocence of something that is never really forgotten. I still am a country boy at heart; I still love the land and the trees. I always will.

It’s a pity then, that this seems to be just a “filler” exhibition from the V&A. No press release, two sentences on the website (see below) and no information about the images such as details of process etc… I had to dig into the collection to find the information you read here, including the text descriptions beneath the images. For such a magical and mythical subject that has fascinated human beings since the beginning of time, you might have expected a more in depth investigation.

As an addendum I have included my favourite tree images. You will have your own. The last image in particular has that element of threat and wonder that makes the forest such a rich, fluid and evocative space.

Dr Marcus Bunyan

Many thankx to the V&A for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.


Trees have long been a source of inspiration for artists. This display explores the diverse representation of trees in photography – as botanical subjects and poetic symbols, in the context of the natural and human worlds.



Royal Engineers. 'Cutting on the 49th Parallel, on the Right Bank of the Mooyie River Looking West' about 1860


Royal Engineers
Cutting on the 49th Parallel, on the Right Bank of the Mooyie River Looking West
about 1860
Albumen print from wet collodion-on-glass negative
Photographed by a Royal Engineers photographer on a U.S.-Canada Border Survey
Received from the Foreign Office 1863



In 1856 the War Department appointed the South Kensington Museum photographer Charles Thurston Thompson to teach photography to the Royal Engineers. On one expedition these soldier-photographers documented the border between the USA and Canada. From the crest of the Rockies westwards along the 49th Parallel to the coast, they painstakingly recorded everything that crossed their path, producing ‘one of the earliest significant bodies of photographs made in the Pacific Northwest’.


Samuel Bourne. 'Poplar Avenue, Srinuggur, Kashmir, from the end' 1864


Samuel Bourne (British, 1834-1912)
Poplar Avenue, Srinuggur, Kashmir, from the end
Albumen print from wet collodion negative



In 1863 Samuel Bourne (1834-1912) arrived in India. He had left his job as a Nottingham bank clerk in order to develop his new career as a photographer. Bourne undertook three treks to Kashmir and the western Himalayas in 1863, 1864 and 1866, during which he photographed his surroundings extensively.

He began his second trip to India, during which this photograph was taken, in March 1864. It was to be a nine-month expedition through the Kashmir region. Throughout his travels Bourne wrote about his first impressions of the places he visited and these writings were published in the British Journal of Photography. Of his first impressions of the poplar avenues at Srinagar he noted: “The next day was devoted to an ascent of the Takht Hill and a stroll among the poplar avenues, of which, as I before stated, there are several about Srinugger. One of them is known as the “poplar avenue,” and is a mile long and quite straight. This is a fine walk and is almost perfect-hardly a tree is wanting, and the effect on looking down it is very striking. It is carpeted with grassy turf and a level grassy plain stretches on each side of it; at right angles to this are the three or four smaller avenues extending to the river, a walk down which when the grapes are ripe is by no means an enjoyable exercise, if one be a good climber. Running up, and entwining themselves among the poplars to a height of ninety or a hundred feet, are numbers of vines, whose tempting clusters hanging at this elevation only mock the wistful, watery eyes cast up to them.” Bourne, S. “Narrative of a Photographic Trip to Kashmir (Cashmere) and the Adjacent Districts,” in The British Journal of Photography, 23 January 1867, p. 38.

Towards the end of the 1860s, Bourne established a partnership with fellow photographer and Englishman Charles Shepherd (fl.1858-1878) and in the space of a few years Bourne & Shepherd became the pre-eminent photographic firm in India. By the end of 1870 they had three branches, in Simla, Calcutta and Bombay.

Samuel Bourne’s ability to combine technical skill and artistic vision has led to him being recognised today as one of the most outstanding photographers working in India in the nineteenth century.


Alfred Stieglitz. 'Poplars, Lake George' 1932


Alfred Stieglitz (American, 1864-1946)
Poplars, Lake George
Gelatin silver print
© Alfred Stieglitz, Gift of the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation



Lake George was the family estate where Stieglitz spent his summers, often with his wife, the painter Georgia O’Keefe. However, he took this photograph when O’Keefe was away in New Mexico. The loneliness of separation led Stieglitz to contemplate his own mortality, a theme reflected in this representation of poplars. Perhaps he identified with the trees’ dwindling vitality, as he photographed them repeatedly that summer, almost as one might check one’s pulse.


Ansel Adams. 'Aspens, Northern New Mexico' 1958


Ansel Adams (American, 1902-1984)
Aspens, Northern New Mexico
Gelatin silver print
Given by Virginia and Ansel Adams



Ansel Adams is well-known for his portrayal of the mountain ranges, deserts, rivers and skies of the western United States. Adams was a passionate lover of the vast American wilderness and an active conservationist. He commented, “my approach to photography is based on my belief in the vigour and values of the world of nature – in the aspects of grandeur and of the minutiae all about us.” Having trained as a pianist before turning to photography in 1927, Adams often discussed his process of composition in musical terms.


Gerhard Stromberg. 'Coppice (King's Wood)' 1994


Gerhard Stromberg (Germany, England b. 1952)
Coppice (King’s Wood)
C-type print
© Gerhard Stromberg


Gerhard Stromberg is one of the foremost contemporary photographers working with the subject of the British landscape. His images demonstrate how constructed this landscape can be. The subtle, large format prints (5 x 6 ft approx.) allow the viewer to contemplate details that reveal the photographers’ intimacy and familiarity with the subject. This piece is one of the most representative of his works.

A C-type print, such as Ektachrome, is a colour print in which the print material has at least three emulsion layers of light sensitive silver salts. Each layer is sensitised to a different primary colour – either red, blue or green – and so records different information about the colour make-up of the image. During printing, chemicals are added which form dyes of the appropriate colour in the emulsion layers. It is the most common type of colour photograph.


Mark Edwards. 'Rotting Apples' 2004


Mark Edwards (British, b. 1951)
Rotting Apples
From the series What Has Been Gathered Will Disperse
C-type print
Purchased through the Cecil Beaton Royalties Fund
© Mark Edwards



This image of apples lying rotten on a peacock blue carpet was taken in a family garden on a Norfolk nature reserve. The owners use pieces of old carpet, often donated by a neighbouring Buddhist retreat, as weed control. The decorative juxtaposition of the natural with the man-made moved Mark Edwards to record the carpet as it became integrated into the fabric of the garden. The photograph hints at ideas of contemplation and the passage of time.


Tokihiro Sato. 'Hakkoda #2' 2009


Tokihiro Sato (Japanese, b. 1957)
Hakkoda #2
Gelatin silver print
Purchased with the support of the Photographs Acquisition Group
© Tokihiro Sato, Courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects



This photograph embodies Sato’s ephemeral imagination. It was made in the primeval Hakkoda forest, in northern Honshu on the main island of Japan. The image reveals a long fascination with the sculptural form of the Japanese Beech tree. Sato has said that to him ‘these trees suggest the ancient continental origins of the Japanese people while representing masculine strength and feminine sensitivity’. To make the picture, he exposed large-format film, during which he moved in front of the camera with a mirror reflecting the sun’s rays. The power of the sun momentarily ‘blinds’ the camera, creating an area that registers on film as an intense flare of light. Although we know that Sato is standing somewhere in the scene, we struggle to locate precisely where. While his traces are like pinpoint coordinates on a map, all we can do is estimate his continually moving location and follow the possible connecting trails. In this way, his photographs can be seen as enigmatic sculptural or physical performances. Knowing how Sato makes his images, we recognise there is not a multiplicity of presences indicated by the lights, but instead a multiplicity of one presence: the artist’s. His omnipresence might be a hint of some kind of divinity: the ever-present force of an invisible creator. Or it may simply be a record of the movement of one human force. However it is interpreted, human or divine, the light is a kind of mark that asserts both transcendence and specificity: “I was here,” even if, as in life, it is only momentarily.


Tal Shochat. 'Rimon (Pomegranate)' 2011


Tal Shochat (Israeli, b. 1974)
Rimon (Pomegranate)
C-type print
© Tal Shochat



Shochat applies the conventions of studio portraiture to photographing trees. The first stage in her meticulous process is to identify the perfect specimen of a particular type of tree. When the fruit is at the height of maturity, she cleans the dust off the branches, leaves and fruit. Finally, Shochat photographs the tree, artificially lit and isolated against a black cloth background. The photographs present a view of nature that would never actually exist in a natural environment. The work highlights the tensions in photography between reality and artifice.


Awoiska van der Molen. '#274-5' 2011


Awoiska van der Molen (Dutch, b. 1972)
From the series Sequester
Oil based pigment ink on Japanese Gampi paper, presented in a handmade linen box
Purchased with the support of the Photographs Acquisition Group
© Awoiska van der Molen



Awoiska van der Molen (b.1972, Groningen, Netherlands) is a Dutch photographer based in Amsterdam. She studied architecture and photography at the Academy of Fine Arts Minerva in Groningen. In 2003 she graduated from the St. Joost Academy of Art and Design in the Netherlands with an MFA in Photographic Studies. Her work is borne out of an immersion in nature and is concerned with the untamed landscape and the sense of solitude that can be experienced in isolated locations. She works with analogue technology and explains that her pictures should be ‘understood as a metaphysical quest, a journey to the essence of being.’

For the project Sequester, van der Molen walked alone in the Canary Islands, seeking to ‘gain access to the stoic nature of the landscape’, as she describes it. She made long exposure black-and-white pictures of the dramatic volcanic terrain and dense forests at dawn and dusk. The exposures could be as long as thirty minutes and result in photographs of great intensity and ambiguity.

Van der Molen’s photographs go beyond the long tradition of black and white landscape photography, exemplified by photographers in the V&A collection such as Gustave Le Gray, Samuel Bourne, Ansel Adams, and Edward Weston. Rather than emulating the visual approaches of past masters, she seeks to portray the inner condition that uninhabited natural spaces engender.

Her interest in psychological states in relation to landscape can be aligned with that of numerous contemporary practitioners, including Chrystel Lebas and Nicholas Hughes, whose landscape photographs are also created using long exposures and convey a similar atmosphere of primeval power and solitude.

The collotype process is a screenless photomechanical process that allows high-quality prints from continuous-tone photographic negatives. Collotypes are comprised of many layers of ink and have a velvety matte appearance; the process has the power to produce the depth and detail of these works faithfully. Other examples of collotypes in the collection largely date from the 19th century and include works by Eadweard Muybridge and Julia Margaret Cameron. Once a widespread process, today, there are only two professional collotype studios remaining, both of which are in Kyoto.

In 2014, van der Molen received the Japanese Hariban Award, which gave her the opportunity to collaborate with the master printmakers of the Benrido Collotype Atelier in Kyoto to produce this set of 8 collotypes from the Sequester project.




Carleton Watkins (U.S.A., 1829-1916) 'Yosemite Valley from the "Best General View"' 1866


Carleton Watkins (American, 1829-1916)
Yosemite Valley from the “Best General View”
From the album Photographs of the Yosemite Valley
Albumen print
Lent by Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries



Carleton Watkins had the ability to photograph a subject from the viewpoint that allowed the most information to be revealed about its contents. In this image, he captured what he considered the best features of Yosemite Valley: Bridalveil Falls, Cathedral Rock, Half Dome, and El Capitan. By positioning the camera so that the base of the slender tree appears to grow from the bottom edge of the picture, Watkins composed the photograph so that the canyon rim and the open space beyond it seem to intersect. Although he sacrificed the top of the tree, he was able to place the miniaturised Yosemite Falls at the visual centre of the picture. To alleviate the monotony of an empty sky, he added the clouds from a second negative. This image was taken while Watkins was working for the California Geological Survey. His two thousand pounds of equipment for the expedition, which included enough glass for over a hundred negatives, required a train of six mules.

Text from the J. Paul Getty Museum website


Albert Renger-Patzsch (1897-1966) 'Das Bäumchen [Sapling]' 1928


Albert Renger-Patzsch (German, 1897-1966)
Das Bäumchen (The little tree)
Galerie Berinson, Berlin
© Albert Renger-Patzsch / Archiv Ann und Jürgen Wilde, Zülpich / ADAGP, Paris 2017


Alfred Stieglitz (American, 1864-1946) 'Dancing Trees' 1922


Alfred Stieglitz (American, 1864-1946)
Dancing Trees
Photograph, palladium print
Gift of Alfred Stieglitz
Photograph: © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


Ansel Adams. 'Edward Weston, Carmel Highlands, California' 1945


Ansel Adams (American, 1902-1984)
Edward Weston, Carmel Highlands, California
Gelatin silver print


Wynn Bullock (American, 1902-1975) 'Child on Forest Road' 1958, printed 1973


Wynn Bullock (American, 1902-1975)
Child on Forest Road
Gelatin silver print
© Bullock Family Photography LLC. All rights reserved



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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His art work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes Art Blart, an art and cultural memory archive, which posts mainly photography exhibitions from around the world. He holds a Doctor of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne, a Master of Arts (Fine Art Photography) from RMIT University, and a Master of Art Curatorship from the University of Melbourne.

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