Beth Moon's Portraits of Oaks

Continuing our series Oak Artists, we look at portraits of ancient English oaks by California-based photographer Beth Moon.  Her photos in black and white, which she prefers to color because it is “less distracting, allowing form to become more visible,” are suffused with a luminosity that make them memorable portraits, capturing an essence that would not be apparent to the naked eye or a standard color photograph.

For Beth Moon a tree is a metaphor of time, hence the title of her series of photographs of ancient trees: “Portraits of Time”. She first became interested in photographing trees while living in England and her 

The Queen Elizabeth Oak, Cowdray Park, Midhurst, West Sussex, UK. © Beth Moon

subjects there included ancient trees in estates and churchyards, including several oaks. The artist selected trees for her series using three criteria: age, immense size and notable history, and the oaks she chose certainly fit the bill. They are some of the most admired and renowned oaks in Great Britain: the Queen Elizabeth Oak, a sessile oak (Quercus petraea) in Cowdray Park in Midhurst, West Sussex, said to have been visited by Queen Elizabeth I in 1591; the Bowthorpe Oak in Manthorpe, Lincolnshire, the Britain and Ireland Champion for girth; and “Majesty” in Fredville Park in Nonington parish, Kent, a pedunculate oak (Q. robur) described on the Tree Register website as “probably the most impressive oak in Britain.”

In her artist’s statement, we read what it is about ancient trees that inspired Beth to make them the subject of her series: “Standing as the earth’s largest and oldest living monuments, I believe these symbolic trees will take on a greater significance, especially at a time when our focus is directed at finding better ways to live with the environment, celebrating the wonders of

The Bowthorpe Oak, Manthorpe, Lincolnshire, UK. © Beth Moon

nature that have survived throughout the centuries. By feeling a larger sense of time, developing a relationship with the natural world, we carry that awareness with us as it becomes a part of who we are. I cannot imagine a better way to commemorate the lives of the world’s most dramatic trees, many which are in danger of destruction, than by exhibiting their portraits.”

After an unfortunate experience with prints made professionally on an inkjet printer, which after a year started to fade, Beth sought a printing process more suited to her subject matter. “I wanted to use a process that would reflect the age of the trees; that could express this type of aesthetic. Long had I read of the reputation of the esoteric and magic platinum print; a process born of art and science, noted for its beautiful luminosity and wide tonal scale.” For each print, she mixes ground platinum and palladium metals with iron oxide, creating a solution that is hand-coated onto paper and exposed to light. The metals, which like gold are

Avenue of Oaks, Vacherie, Louisiana.  © Beth Moon

stable metals, become part of the paper, and the prints can feasibly last for centuries as a result. You can watch the artist create one of her prints in a short video here.

When I asked Beth which oak she wished to feature for this article, she chose “Majesty,” which she photographed in 2005. In an article published in the Royal Photographic Journal, she wrote: “As I photographed trees and learned more about their history, I became aware that a lot of our oldest trees were disappearing at an alarming rate, and thought it important to put them on film for the sake of posterity, to photograph the spirit that dwells within them, to record the passion that I see come alive before me so that even if a tree is destroyed by tempest, disease, greed or neglect, I will have a record of beauty and passion for those who were not able to make the journey.” This was certainly true of her portrait of “Majesty,” which having already lost a major limb in 1924, lost a giant double branch in 2009, perhaps the last primary limb on the tree. The large branch has been left lying against the trunk (you can see it here). Beth’s photographs of the grand oak recorded the tree prior to the damage, in two views from reverse angles.

Majesty,  2005 (Nonington, UK)

"On a private estate in Kent lies one of the largest maiden oaks in all of Europe. It is estimated to have begun growing during Elizabethan times.  Now  this aristocratic tree boasts a girth of more than 40 feet with a hollow trunk, and towers 62 feet above the grassy mound upon which she stands. At one point a major branch broke off on the north side, leaving a large hole.  It is from this view that one can see the entire trunk is hollow and its huge, cavernous interior is exposed." These photos are taken from the book Ancient Trees: Portraits of Time -- www.abbeville.com © Beth Moon

 

On her website at www.bethmoon.com you can view more of Beth Moon’s work, which includes portraits of other impressive trees, including ancient yews, sequoias, baobabs and dragon blood trees, as well as series on other subjects, such as carnivorous plants and ravens. Particularly impressive is a series called Diamond Nights that shows trees against dramatic backdrops of star-studded night skies.

With thanks to Tammie Russell for bringing Beth Moon's work to our attention.