Trees, Sacred and Mundane

Gifford Ewing

Little Johns Island, South Side Shore Line, Maine, 2007, gelatin silver print, 16” x 29” 

Untitled, from the series Terrain Vague, 2011, archival pigment print, 20” x 24” 

Gary M. Green

Twin Birches, 2012, mixed media on Plexiglass, 54” x 39,” Courtesy of Dowling Walsh Gallery

Joyce Tenneson

THE CANVAS – November 2013
By Britta Konau

In many ancient cultures and religions, trees were associated with a range of sacred and metaphoric values. From an abode of nature spirits to the biblical tree of the knowledge of good and evil, from a symbol of life to the raw material for totem poles, trees have inspired awe, fear, and love in equal parts. Today, for many people, trees are also emblematic of our relationship to nature, especially our stewardship of the environment in general. Photographers Joyce Tenneson, Gifford Ewing, and Gary M. Green approach the subject of trees in very different ways, from sublime to picturesque and near-dystopian. Their images reveal greatly divergent ideas about beauty and what constitutes a picture-worthy subject.

Joyce Tenneson

Born in Weston, Massachusetts, world-renowned photographer Joyce Tenneson now lives in Rockport. Her work has been included in exhibitions internationally and is part of many public and private collections. Tenneson’s portraits have appeared on the covers of magazines that include Time, Life, Esquire, and the New York Times Magazine. Sixteen books of her images have been published so far, including the bestseller Wise Women. Tenneson is the recipient of numerous awards, including the International Center of Photography’s Infinity Award for best applied photography in 1989, the Lucie Award for Professional Fine Art Photographer of the Year in 2005, and the Lifetime Achievement Award from Professional Photographers of America in 2012, among others. Tenneson was a presenter at the Polish Foto Art Festival earlier this year and will have a major retrospective at the Fotografiska Museum in Stockholm, Sweden, next year. She is represented by the Dowling Walsh Gallery in Rockland, A Gallery for Fine Photography in New Orleans, and the Holden Luntz Gallery in Palm Beach.

Tenneson may be best known for her inspirational and deeply empathic portraits, but she has also photographed flowers and shells to illuminate themes such as wisdom, intimacy, and transcendence. Tenneson has the rare vision to see the beauty in everything and everyone and make it visible to all of us. Whether portraying the nude or barely clothed human body at all stages of life, capturing sensitive and sometimes daring portraits of celebrities or ordinary people, or creating hauntingly beautiful images of flowers full of sensuous delicacy, Tenneson’s photographs are immediately recognized as hers. Although her style varies, it is always perfectly attuned to the tenor of a series, ranging from ethereal, as if the image was created by nothing but breath, to relatively straightforward black and white. While Tenneson seems in complete control of the photographic outcome, she says of her portraits, “My camera is a witness. It holds a light up for my subjects to help them feel their own essence, and gives them the courage to collaborate in the recording of these revelations.” Tenneson’s are works of great personal conviction and deep feeling, expressing her interest in discovering essences of our being, whether in natural forms, individual persons, or elemental relationships between people. While looking for such universals, her images succeed in remaining true to the specific as well.

Following an early series of tree images in the 1970s, she has recently revisited the subject under the title Trees and the Alchemy of Light. It is the rich symbolism of trees and their suggestion of the deep, mystical interconnection of all of life that interests Tenneson. “As with my people portraits, I seek to reveal, in a single frame, the complex lives of trees—including their hardships and tragedies.” Floating against a background of hand-applied gold leaf, individual trees or groups of them are portrayed in an often hazy atmosphere of uncertain depth. Some of the trees spread their crowns protectively, some are misshapen by natural or human force, while others seem to exude an aura of kindly authority, and still others appear bent by sadness. Referencing the ancient use of gold in sacred imagery, Tenneson’s photographs possess the aura of icons and project an undeniable mystery. About Twin Birches Tenneson says, “This image haunts me. Looking at it from across the room, it transports me to a magical realm—outside of time somewhere, but with its own reality.”

Gifford Ewing

Gifford Ewing grew up in Rhode Island surrounded by art, his mother being a painter and his father an amateur photographer in addition to chairman of the board of the Rhode Island School of Design. Surprisingly, Ewing himself did not take up photography until 1970. His images are now held by many corporations, including several hotel collections, and private collectors throughout the world, as well as the Denver Art Museum. Ewing has worked with the Nature Conservancy to photograph remote locations, and in 2003 documented for the Library of Congress Lawrence Halprin’s Skyline Park project in Denver before its demolition. He has had many solo exhibitions and participated in group shows in galleries throughout the U.S. Ewing operates galleries of his own work in Sorrento, Maine, and Denver, dividing his time between homes in both locations. He is also represented by Thos. Moser in Freeport, Landing Gallery in Rockland, Chapter Two in Corea, and additional galleries in Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming.

Ewing admires the magnificent landscapes of photographer Ansel Adams (1902–1984) and has learned from them what is called the zone system. This method of controlling an image’s values assures the exact tonal range a photographer is aiming for. But Ewing’s greatest inspiration has always been light itself. “I am fascinated by how the landscape is almost being painted by sun or moonlight, creating texture and space,“ he says, and it is thus not surprising that many of his images are governed by strong contrasts of light and shadow.

Looking for pristine natural environments, Ewing has found his subjects predominantly in the West’s mountains and grasslands, and in Maine.

As Ewing recalls, “Even when I came to Maine as a kid, I was very aware of the light and the beautiful views surrounding me.” Landscapes typical of Ewing’s oeuvre often include dramatic skies over expansive landscapes such as the prairie or rolling hills; interesting organic or rock formations; brilliant reflections on water; and hazy views of offshore islands. Ewing hopes to convey his emotional attachment to these scenes through his photographs and evoke similar reactions in the viewer. “I love taking pictures and never get tired of looking,” he explains.

The artist is fascinated by the mechanics of cameras and uses a wooden 5” x 7” Deardorff field camera. “I compose my shots like a painter paints: slowly and deliberately,” he says, and his creative process continues in the darkroom. Little Johns Island, South Side Shore Line, Maine was taken during the winter with the pattern of leafless branches supplying a major interest for the artist. Silhouetted in the immediate foreground, the tree acts as a repoussoir, a device to guide the viewer’s eye through pictorial space. Using a long exposure time, the network of scraggly, barren limbs reaches deep into space and contrasts beautifully with the smooth, almost glacial surface of the water.

Gary M. Green

Born in New York City, Gary M. Green grew up on Long Island. His career as a photographer is complemented by that of a teacher. Since coming to Maine in 1998, Green has taught at the University of Southern Maine, Bowdoin and Bates Colleges, and, since 2007, at Colby College. Green has had solo exhibitions at university museums throughout the country, most recently at the University of Southern Maine Glickman Family Library in Portland. His photographs have been included in two Biennials at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art as well as this year’s Portland Museum of Art Biennial. Among museums that collect Green’s work are the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, and the Portland Museum of Art. Green has lectured widely on his own work and photography in general. His photographs are available through Rose Contemporary in Portland.

In 1969, at age 12, Green was given a set of NASA slides of the moon landing by his aunt, and as he recalls it, “at that moment I was bitten.” Although working in distinct thematic series, Green’s sensibility infuses all his images, especially in a sense of quiet. “I like photographs that don’t reveal themselves too quickly,” he explains. Partially for that reason, Green selects banal, nondescript subjects and places to photograph. In a 1999–2003 series entitled Landscape Diaries, the artist documents specific places and their inexorable transition as he passes them on his commute to work. The ongoing series Special Collections focuses on collections of objects which range from garden sculpture to taxidermy animals, and reveals Green’s deadpan humor but also most clearly his archivist’s impulse. Thus, between 2001 and 2008, Green photographed Maine trees, capturing them as individual personalities through a close look at their bark’s texture (frequently including commemorative carvings), at their volume described by light, and their gnarly outlines. Drawing parallels with human verticality and vulnerability, this is as close to portraying the figure as Green has come in his mature work.

Green looks where most of us have learned to look away. Under his close attention, beauty reveals itself to him in order, turning the artist into a collector of the overlooked. This approach most poignantly informs his ongoing series Terrain Vague, to which this untitled work belongs. “Terrain vague” is a term coined by the Spanish architect Ignasi de Solà-Morales and refers to abandoned or marginalized pieces of land within an urban landscape. Green’s version of the concept encompasses places in Waterville and environs “that are vulnerable, or not cogently planned out.” The otherwise plaintive photographs are enlivened by a tension between the formal beauty of the image—its compositional balance, range of textures, and play of light and shadow—and the banality of its subject. Green admits that environmental concerns are important to him, but they are not a motivating factor for his artwork. Instead, he explains, “I feel an almost physical yearning when looking at these places, similar to that longing for empty space associated with the American notion of the frontier.”