one way to photograph a tree

Photographing a tree can present some challenges. You can walk around it to select the best angle, or pick a time of day with the best lighting conditions, but you still have to deal with the fact that the tree stays rooted in its spot and that the background behind the tree may be an unsightly or incomprehensible mess.

Myoung-Ho Lee Tree #8

Myoung-Ho Lee. Tree #8, archival InkJet print. [ source ]

Last year I ran across the work of Korean photographer Myoung-Ho Lee, whose photos of trees present an elegant–and spectacularly not practical–solution to this problem of background. He just brings a plain background with him and stands it up behind the tree. If you figure that the trees in the photos are at least 25 feet tall, you get a sense of how huge the background sheet has to be.

Myoung-Ho Lee Tree #13

Myoung-Ho Lee. Tree #13, archival InkJet print. [ source ]

Some of the photos have just the tree isolated against the plain background. Others show the tree and background in the larger context of the landscape where the tree is growing.

The results are pretty amazing, and create photos that are rich with suggestion and ideas about photography.

Myoung-Ho Lee Tree #11

Myoung-Ho Lee. Tree #11, archival InkJet print. [ source ]

You might be driven to think about the fact that to photograph something in the wilds is to select it. Although this act of selecting the tree isn’t really digging the thing up from nature, it’s still bringing something from the wilds indoors onto a wall. That might make you think that photography–and much of art–is finding something interesting interesting in the world and bringing it into a gallery.

You also might think that looking at a photograph of something might tell you something about how the thing in the photo looks, but very little about its context or meaning.

And you might even think of Marcel Duchamp displaying a signed urinal in an exhibition, with the basic premise that if an artist calls something art, it’s art.

Myoung-Ho Lee Tree #12

Myoung-Ho Lee. Tree #12, archival InkJet print. [ source ]

None of those thoughts are “right answers,” and you will probably have other thoughts of your own. I think you’ll agree, however, that these are some of the more striking photographs of trees that have ever been taken.

12 thoughts on “one way to photograph a tree”

  1. Wow–thanks for posting those. I had not seen this before. Reminds me strongly of Avedon’s “In the American West.” They both have the same effect on me, in showing how beautiful the look of a plein air studio can be, and in making me want to look much more deeply at someone/something I might ordinarily pass by.

  2. Great posting. I am aware of the difficulty of photographing plants in the wild – and in gardens – though I don’t approach this from an artist’s perspective. My photographs are intended to teach gardeners how a given plant or an arrangement of plants look in a garden, but they are actually “lies” because I carefully edit the scene. I love Myoung-Ho Lee’s approach – to me the result is so clean and beautiful. It says “look at me.”

  3. Town Mouse, pen and ink would be easier for sure. I guess I like the utter ridiculousness of what this photographer has done–and they’re striking resulting images.

    Lynn, funny that you thought of Avedon, because that’s who I thought of as well. His are portraits, and I guess that you could also think of these tree photos in the same way. And both photographers aren’t ashamed to reveal the artifice of their project by letting you see that the backdrop is just a backdrop.

    Barbara, I like your comment about photos being carefully constructed lies. Just think what better lies we could all tell if we carried thirty-foot-square backdrops out into the wilds along with our cameras…

  4. Yes, yes. Lies. I struggle with the fact that photographs show an entirely different “reality” from the actual experience of a garden (or tree, etc.).

  5. Well, but actually even LOOKING at the garden means we are in a different reality than the plants, birds, or even other people in it: our brains and senses “edit” what we see, and we edit that even further by what we choose to look at and the opinions we have about it. I don’t have a problem with photographs being lies in that sense, though I hate tarted-up photos that make plants look like Hollywood starlets with that surgically perfect skin. That make plants into a commodity.

    These photos make that choice of vision super obvious. I like that, and though this is not a way I’d choose to portray it, they make me look at trees in yet another new way. I would hate to be the one lugging and setting up that background, though.

  6. The photos are great. My thought was that this is why we plant a specimen tree every time we get a good wall to provide a backdrop behind it. Tree #13 looks both ordinary and elegant to me.

  7. James, the more I think of garden photography, the more I think that the gardens and the photos of them inhabit different worlds. The gardens seem more time-based, like music, and the photos of them more about the frozen instant, like a two-dimensional artwork.

    Pomona, I like your comments about how even looking at something involves acts of editing out things you don’t look at, even when they’re right there in your field of vision. I also feel the same way about garden photos that are too perfect–What garden is without the occasional browned leaf or dropped petals?

    Ryan, I can see how architecture can provide the same sort of background. Most weekdays I walk past a new building where they spent all their money on the inside and left the outside blank walls. The trees and big plants that are filling in against the walls help hid the architectural gaffes and really do, like you point out, gain from the fact that you can really focus on the single plants against the bare walls.

  8. He is definitely a photographer that goes to great lengths to capture his subject. Couldn’t imagine how big his backgrounds must be. The trees have nice silhouettes and the background does show it well.

  9. Hiya James,
    I honestly hadn’t seen this or known of it when I did my tree photo for this month’s contest yesterday.
    There was me thinking I had an original thought 🙂
    Mind you, I would have found fault with the creases in the top corners of the sheet. That is why I rejected cloth in favour of MDF. And I didn’t want a rectangle.
    GGW stretches our mind at the minute.

  10. Tina, I saw a set-up shot where you could some assistants holding the big background sheet. Its definitely a photo you have to plan ahead for!

    Jo, well, talk about great minds… Your photo uses some of the same thought processes, for sure, but your results are so different. I really like what you’ve done!

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