Around the base of each tree is a metal cage, perhaps designed to protect them in their younger days. These cages intrigue me. There are so many contrasts to investigate.
I tried to document them a couple of weeks back, but the results were disappointing. A failure is just a false start. A false start is not a failure. The field trip turned into a challenge, followed by a post describing my dilemma and the solution I found – Know your depth of field.
So, armed with a deeper understanding of the intricacies of my digital camera, it was back to the car park, bright and early on an overcast Sunday morning.
In the mid-1920s, painters and photographers reacted against the dominant styles of the day and sought instead to present the world as realistically as possible. The Mannheim Art Gallery, in Germany, held the first exhibition of these realistic work and applied the label “New Objectivity”. The gallery’s director tried to explain the positives and negatives of this new phenomenon…
“Cynicism and resignation are the negative side of New Objectivity; the positive side expresses itself in the enthusiasm for immediate reality”.
I am strangely enthusiastic about the relationship between these metal cages and the trees they contain. They are an “immediate reality”, yet the passage of time is evident. There is resignation, born from abandonment and neglect. But cynicism? I’m not sure there’s any distrust of other people’s motives evident here.
Nevertheless, I see both positive and negative traits of New Objectivity when I look across this car park. There is enough to justify using this photographic style.
The Set Up
There are rules to follow, according to a TV documentary I saw recently. For this project, I borrow from a 1920s-era German photographer whose name I did not write down. First, the sky must be overcast to eliminate strong shadows. Second, the camera must be at the very centre of the image, horizontally and vertically, to avoid distorting perspective. Then, as you move around the tree, take a photo every 45 degrees. That will produce eight photos per tree.
The rules are the easy part.
Set ISO to 100. Check white balance. F stop to 5. Auto focus on. Decide on exposure setting. Set auto exposure bracketing. Plug in shutter release. Position tripod. Adjust height of tripod.
Now. Don’t. Touch. Anything!
It takes a long time to download 600 files. It takes a longer time to decide how to crop the photographs to produce images that fit the Mannheim Art Gallery’s description of New Objectivity.
My first attempt was a standard 16 x 9 landscape format to capture the full width of the concrete surround. The tree and it’s cage are clearly the subject of the image, but their insignificance has grown against a domineering background. There’s too much concrete and, at times, too much colour.
This is supposed to be New Objectivity. The resulting image should be strong. No distractions … limited distractions. An image sufficiently strong that any potential distractions loose that potentiality. Which size would achieve this? 5 x 5? 9 x 16? 8 x 10?
My second, third … sixth attempts included vertical and square formats of various sizes. I printed each set of eight, looked long and pondered, compared and contrasted, selected and deselected features in my quest for an image that would meet the criteria. And then there was a final question … In each set of eight, should the tree dance within the cage, or should the cage dance around the tree?
It seems a little of the romantic has crept into the process.
Compare for yourself. In the first set below, the widest points of the cage decide where the edge of the image will be. Effectively, the cage is the centring device. The tree dances.
In the second set, the cage seems to dance because the tree occupies the centre third of each image. The changing relationship is more obvious.
(To see the photos up close, click on the first one of each set. This opens the gallery. When you’re finished, hit the ESC key.)
I’m voting for the second set. Even though a cage sometimes wins, and the tree is removed, the immediate factor here is the reality of THIS tree’s survival. It is surviving not because it is flexible and nimble but because it is straight and solid. Yet, one can’t help but note that future growth will be limited. There is an impending fate evident, and the severity of the problem depends on the viewpoint. Only from certain angles can the true limit be seen.
Although … if realism is the aim here, then it should be noted that some trees do fight back. It’s not the cynicism and resignation of New Objectivity’s original definition, but this apparent resilience should not be portrayed as some romantic hope either. The reality is some of these trees are gone and some have survived within their cage. And with the amount of redevelopment that surrounds them, one day they will all be gone.
Janson H W and Janson A F, 1997, History of Art, fifth edition revised, published Thames and Hudson Ltd, London.
Gersheim, H, 1962, Creative Photography: Aesthetic Trends, 1839-1960, published 1991 by Dover Publications Inc, Mineola, New York.