Nature Photography

The series “Arboretum” features found nineteenth-century cabinet cards whose painted forest backdrops have been transformed to allow the trees to take over the figures. In so doing, the forest claims a position in the foreground of the picture as the main subject; the figure becomes the ground.

Taking its cue from the pictorial tradition of nineteenth-century landscape painting, studio backdrops adopted an idealized vision of nature as a romantic setting for the figure, essentially taming the wilderness to provide an elegant pictorial frame—the picturesque. Embedded in this act of representation is the problematic notion that we are the main subject, and that nature is a mere decorative feature subservient to us. Indeed, the idea of landscape itself is a pictorial construct, as Simon Schama writes in Landscape and Memory: “The wilderness, after all, does not locate itself, does not name itself…At the very least it seems right to acknowledge that it is our shaping perception that makes the difference between raw matter and landscape.”¹

Produced in photographic studios, cabinet cards were part of the commercial democratization of photography. They featured portraits with a singular sitter, with couples, or extended family groups. Typically measuring 4 ¼” x 6 ½”, they were larger than the cartes-de-visite, and tended to be displayed in photo albums or framed and presented in the home. In this larger form, the cabinet card was a popular way to have a family photograph taken for posterity, stylishly staged with everyone dressed in their best.

But family groupings are not the purview of humans. Recent scientific research is revealing that forests contain their own social and family networks. According to German forest ranger Peter Wohlleben, trees are social beings who “can nurse sick neighbours, warn each other of danger by sending electrical signals through a fungal network, and for unknown reasons keep the ancient stumps of long-felled companions alive for centuries by feeding them a sugar solution through their roots.”² Many scientists and foresters would assert that trees are complex sentient beings.

“Arboretum” gives visual presence to the notion of the sentient tree, extending the concept of the family album beyond the frame of photographic pictorial tradition. These pictures suggest a deeper consideration of not only the figure-ground relationship in photography, but also our position in relation to nature.

Sara Angelucci

¹ Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), p. 11.

² Sally McGrane, “German Forest Ranger Finds That Trees Have Social Networks, Too,” The New York Times, January 29, 2016. See Peter Wohlleben’s book, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How they Communicate—Discoveries From a Secret World (Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2016).

“This project is a representation of how reality can set limits to imagination, which is in turn something limitless. Each photograph was taken in a section of the Bronx Zoo in NYC called ‘The World of Birds’.  Every photo represent a bird’s cage. The idea was then to associate these cages to the different places I used to live around the world, since I was born until today.  All these places have been to me sometimes like nests and sometimes like cages.  There my ideas ‘grew up’ and my thoughts have been more free or less free, depending on the different characteristics of those places.  By adapting myself to those different environments, my creativity struggled with realy to develop.  This project is meant to be an expression of repressed feelings of freedom – such as the ones birds experience in their cages.”

Giorgia Valli


Freeride on Plateau Putorana in May, near Norilsk, Taymir, Russia

Freeride on Plateau Putorana in May, near Norilsk, Taymir, Russia

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Winter—zima (Зима)—is the principal season in Russia. Depending on how far north you are, the season can stretch from a bearable three to a seemingly interminable nine months. Almost 2/3 of the country’s territory is covered with permafrost.

As someone who grew up in Russia and spent much of her life there, I can say that the people have a contradictory relationship with the season, especially in regards to their interactions with winter and the influence it has on their lives.

The winter is penetratingly, bitingly, shockingly cold. But underneath this sharp surprise lies a familiar white blankness; the season offers its customary joys of winter activities—skiing, skating, snowball fights, ice-water swimming…

While the clamping cold fetters the rivers and freezes the very earth, it also offers the possibility to lay ice-roads [temporary roads laid over deeply frozen permafrost areas, which in the summer become marshy and practically unpassable] and thus link disparate small settlements across the great North. This is essential for creating infrastructure and communications—even if only for a moment—between remote areas.

And less practically, but just as importantly: there is no aesthetic like the Russian winter. Yes, it can be grey and dull at times, but at its height, it completely reconfigures the environment. The universal white cover fills the land with a pure, magical beauty, full of dignity and mystery.

According to an old saying, truth, in reality, is white, sparkling, frosty cold, silent and endless: something like the boundless Siberian tundra landscape.

Elena Chernyshova