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Portraits of Time

Beth Moon

Many of the trees I have photographed have survived because they are out of reach of civilization; on mountainsides, private estates, or on protected land. Certain species exist only in a few isolated areas of the world.  For example; there are 6 species of spectacular baobabs, found only on the island of Madagascar. Sadly, the baobab is now one of the three most endangered species on the island.

I have photographed many of the oldest yew trees in the United Kingdom, some as old as 4,000 years. Before 1940 there were a thousand trees that were over 1,000 years old. Today less than half remain, and their numbers dwindle further every year.

In 2002 I arranged a visit with Lord Balfour to photograph his massive, weeping yew that stands on his private estate beside the old Tower House in East Lothian, Scotland. It is claimed that the murder of Mary Queen of Scot’s was planned under the shade of this haunting tree that was of noticeable size at the time.

Earlier this year I was fortunate to visit the island of Socotra, off the coast of Yemen to photograph the mythical dragon’s blood trees, so named because of the crimson colored sap it produces. Although many older trees were present on the island, I did not see examples of younger saplings. This species is now on the endangered list.

The criteria I use for choosing particular trees are basically three: age, immense size or notable history. I research the locations by a number of methods; history books, botanical books, tree registers, newspaper articles and information from friends and travelers.

The process I use for exhibition prints is platinum/palladium printing.
By using the longest lasting photographic process, I hope to speak
about survival, not only of man and nature’s but to photography’s survival as well. For each print I mix ground platinum and palladium metals with iron oxide, making a tincture that is hand-coated onto heavy watercolor paper and exposed to light. With this process the metals are actually embedded into the paper. A platinum print can last for centuries, drawing on the common theme of time and survival, pairing photographic subject and process.

There are many steps involved in creating the final print and these are as important to me as the capturing of the image.  Crossing the line from machine made to hand made does necessitate a commitment, and  the work is certainly labor intensive, but the finished results ensure a satisfaction that comes with the freedom to define many decisions while working with materials that allow you to be true to your vision. And in the end, what unfolds before your eyes is more of an ‘art-object’ than an ordinary photograph.

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 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 can not 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.

Beth Moon

Artist’s site: Beth Moon

All images and text are the sole copyright of the artist and gratefully used here by permission.

Single click images to enlarge.

Tags: photography, platinum palladium, portraits of time, old trees, yew, oak, baobab, chestnut, fig