Trees and the Alchemy of Light
Trees, throughout history, have inspired deep symbolic meaning in cultures around the world. The “tree of life” metaphor expresses the mystical concept that all forms of life are interconnected. When we stand with the trees, we feel we are part of them, and they are part of us. They give us a sense of belonging to the greater universe.
“Knocking on wood” for good luck is a practice originating from primitive tree worship, as humans sought to call forth the protective spirits they believed resided in trees. Their ability to send roots down through the ground and branches up to the sky, has given trees deep sacred meaning throughout the ages.
The first museum exhibition of my career featured a large series of tree images exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, in 1974. I was young and poetic at this point in my life, and nature provided a mirror for my own artistic yearnings. I would often walk in Washington’s Dumbarton Gardens writing in my journal and taking self portraits. In retrospect, I believe I was carving out my own creative voice, sheltered by the trees.
It has taken me 40 years to come full circle - reconnecting with the early pull to pay homage and explore once again the mysterious world of trees. It was not a conscious decision to revisit this early passion. I was actually surprised by the intensity of my renewed interest in trees. For most of my career, my signature style had been what critics have called “haunting, otherworldly, almost mystical photographs of people.” In this new work, the people have been replaced by the trees, but I am still seeking the spiritual element in my subjects.
For the past year, I have awakened daily with excitement, eager to see the pre-dawn light from my windows overlooking the harbor. No two days are ever the same, and that is why the view is so compelling. I love days when there is a mist, fog, or sea smoke creating mysterious sanctuaries - worlds within the larger world. It is then I rush out with my camera in hand. In this light, the trees emerge most clearly and iconically.
As with my people portraits, I seek to reveal, in a single frame, the complex lives of trees - including their hardships and tragedies. Perhaps this is why I have been drawn to photograph trees with broken limbs and misshapen forms, as well as those whose strong presence gives them an aura of benevolent power. Their life journey is visible as is often true of a human face. During this year of intense photographing, my connection to the trees has evolved. I have been on my own spiritual journey, as well. The poignancy of the cycle of life - birth, death and regeneration - has affected me deeply. I have found in nature “icons” that speak to me personally.
I was equally as obsessed with developing a new technique for creating exhibition pieces capable of transporting the viewer to new realms, sharing with them the excitement and sense of discovery these trees evoke in me.The use of gold in the history of art had long attracted me - Byzantine icons, Renaissance altar panels, gilded domes, temples and statues of Buddha... On a recent trip to Peru, I was also inspired by the Incan use of gold to pay homage to the Divine and commune with the spiritual realms. Since this trip, I have immersed myself in the ancient craft of gold leafing - it has felt like 21st Century alchemy as I learned to combine gold with modern technology. This tree series really took flight when the gold leaf was fused together with the photographs. The resulting mixed media work blends materials I truly love - gold leaf from the ancient world and film from the high-tech present.
In this book, I hope to share the spirit of the pieces, which will be exhibited in a traveling show called Trees and the Alchemy of Light. I hope these images will inspire others to see the natural world around them in new and meaningful ways.