I’ll declare an interest upfront: I like trees.
Trees do good stuff for our environment, they lock up carbon, improve air quality, prettify our towns and cities, and support a myriad of animal and insect life. They also provide building materials, heat our homes and provide the paper for our books and currency. Wood is used to make boats, car chassis, furniture, house guttering, and even practice torpedos for submarines. Without wood we would have no Stradivarius violins and cellos, and a host of other instruments. Many of our first infant sleeps are in wooden cots, and our final long sleep is in a wooden box. Thats why I like wood. And trees. And after five years apprenticeship, became a carpenter.
We spend a huge amount of our lives surrounded by trees, and products made from them.
But do you have a relationship with trees? Do you watch them grow, change through the seasons, move according to the mood of the weather, reflect the light of a dimming evening and hear them rustle into darkness? No?
Photographer, and good friend, Iain Sarjeant does.
Iain loves trees too. He watches, he listens, he wonders, and he photographs them. And the result of this passion is a wonderfully evocative exhibition currently on display at the Inchmore Gallery between Beauly and Inverness, in the Scottish Highlands.
They’re just pictures of trees I hear you say. Well yes, but they are so much more than that. They are a thoughtful and reflective meditation on nature. The carefully observed and lyrically composed images are an insight into the way one photographer’s relationship with a particular place has developed and grown.
“Initially I photographed interesting trees wherever I came across them. But quickly I realised that much of the work I was most pleased with came from woods that I knew well, where I had spent a considerable amount of time (both with and without a camera). So, as the series began to take shape and develop, I started working almost exclusively in woods local to me.”
This type of photography is not easy. It might look simple, but it’s technically and aesthetically complex. Imagine being given a human portrait commission, but you’re told you cannot photograph the feet, nor head, not even the hands or fingers of the subject, yet you still have to convey the essential character of the individual. Give some sense of their determination, their energy and their sheer physical presence and strength. Not easy? Well Iain does just that with trees, and with apparent ease.
I’ve long admired the work of American photographer Robert Glenn Ketchum whose environmental activism and photography has for many decades been a cornerstone of North American environmental awareness-raising. Like his contemporary and mentor, photographer Eliot Porter, Ketchum has the uncanny knack of being able to distill the essence of what at first glance seems to be a jumbled mess of organic ‘stuff’ and transform it into an elegant and cohesive whole. A mass of tangled brambles and several angled branches become a path to elsewhere, a lone tree looming in the mist becomes an ethereal figure, caught in mid-dance to some unheard music. And the same inspiration dances through Iain Sarjeant’s work too.
There’s a timelessness captured in his images that is deceptive. Because it’s a lie. These woodlands are growing, and changing daily. Trees fall, branches are torn off in storms, leaves are eaten by deer, saplings thrust through the woodland floor. These woodlands only existed as they are portrayed in these photographs, in the instant the photographer pressed the shutter. And that makes each image unique and precious.
Like us, the subjects of Sarjeant’s photographs must age and wither and die, but what has been so sensitively recorded for posterity in this exhibition is not just an insight into the many intimate moments shared with them, but their individual characters and presence. And in return the woodlands that Iain knows so well have bestowed upon him a wonderful gift – the immortality of the artist.
Among Trees. And with trees. That’s a good place to be.