Study of Trees is a collection of photographs by Garth Meyer drawn from his ongoing, long-term project based on the documentation of diminishing primary forests in South, Central and West Africa. Throughout his travels Meyer has archived selected trees from critically degraded forests, saving them for posterity on film. His journeys to various countries form part of his artistic process, based on a conviction to document the ever-present human element that has lead to the depletion of indigenous and original trees.

Meyer’s emphasis on the craft of photography is connected to his cognitive awareness about the plight of the world’s primary forests. From this basis Meyer brings the poetic to the practical, using a now rare 11x14-inch large-format camera, known for the high-resolution and super-realism that it can achieve. The crisp, clear detail evident in Study of Trees allows Meyer to capture often-imperceptible visual information about trees, characterizing the subject matter of his work, forming his conceptual foundation.

Albeit an overtly romantic notion, the level of clarity and realism achieved in Study of Trees entices a counter-level of realization, framing that which is usually filtered-out of the human field-of-vision, or simply taken for granted. From this perspective Meyer has shaped his process to fit the tradition of nature photography, following in the footsteps of other large-format photographers, such as Steven Shore, Eliot Porter, and Ansel Adams. Unlike these masters of photography, Meyer’s documentation is a call-to-arms, communicating the possible loss of the subjects up for study in his photographs, trees-turned-objectified-bodies in a human incarcerated world.

Meyer’s emphasis on the documentation of endangered forests across the world has given him good reason to travel to many isolated geographies, crossing many borders in order to capture his didactic imagery. Study of Trees is thus a collection of photographic texts extracted from his journeys, branding his photographs with a personal, artistic mark, filled with introverted undertones, communicating an almost spiritual connection to his tree studies. Imbued with a sense of nostalgia and possible loss, depicted through hyper-realistic, black and white scenes, Meyer’s work becomes abstract through an overload of sensory information. This variety of realism-turned-abstraction transfers the disparate story of these virgin, untainted trees plagued by deforestation and the demands of the ever-growing, equally desperate yet indifferent human population. From this basis, Meyer immortalizes about-to-be-erased natural scenes, palimpsests for a foreboding future, where the landscape, without trees, would be nothing more than desert.

Meyer’s play of abstraction against realism makes his work inadvertently mimic late 20th century Modernist painters, such as Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline, known for their contributions to the Abstract Expressionist movement. Thus, Meyer’s photographs have a painterly edge; they look like paintings, rather than the other way round, as was the case with the Photo-Realist painters, such as Chuck Close and Richard Estes. Meyer’s unconscious hybridization of Abstract Expressionism and Photo-Realism allows him to build surprising relationships between the seemingly opposing concepts of realism, naturalism, and abstraction, making his work grounded on both formal and conceptual foundations.

This cross-pollination of realism and abstraction also alludes to the distinction between ‘pure pattern’ and ‘pure image’. Simultaneously, Meyer pays homage to the link between the craft of photography and the art of photography. So too, his images are realistic depictions of dying forests that are communicated through realist understandings of climate change, population growth, and deforestation, which require abstract forms of thinking and seeing in order to find relevant and sustainable solutions. Notably, the documentary-like characteristics and study-like approach evident in Study of Trees brings the differing worlds of the journalist, scientist, and artist together, in much the same manner that Joseph Beuys envisioned a holistic social role and responsibility for artists, with the key understanding that we are all artists in relation to our place, space, and environment.

Furtherore, Study of Trees challenges the common perception of nature photography as an industry that merely produces ‘pretty pictures’ or ‘coach art’. Meyer creates this challenge by subtlety mangling the traditional disciplines of landscape, still life, and portraiture in order to depict his trees in the most effective manner. Due to the fact that it is people that hold the responsibility for the loss of such landscapes, Meyer turns a study of trees into an anthropological investigation of sorts. Meyer portrays his trees as if they were people, contextualizing the idea of mortality on a human scale, literally becoming ‘still-life’, and further releasing his work from the realm of kitsch that often dominates nature photography.

From a purely formal stance, Meyer’s work is reminiscent of similar attempts to capture the essence and spirit of trees. Most importantly, the work of Inter-World-War Modernist painter Piet Mondrian comes to mind, with his prolific studies of trees (circa 1912, opposite page), which evolved from Expressionist roots into geometric abstractions, morphing trees into grids. The influence of Paul Cezanne and his tree studies on Mondrian cannot be ignored, specifically through his gradual abstraction of the picture plane, which can be seen as an ancestral root to Modernism. One can observe from the evolution of Cezanne to Mondrain a form of territorializing; a mapping of the landscape, a terraforming of the land into and onto the substrate. Meyer has poeticized this evolution through his own observations of the progress and destruction of man, and has transferred this message onto the photographic topology and topography of his work.

But perhaps the most prudent example in this context is John Constable’s Study of the Trunk of an Elm Tree (1821, opposite page), made at the height of the Industrial Revolution, representing a desire and respect for nature in a time of rampant urbanization mechanization, and population growth. Constable’s painting, produced around the time of the invention of photography, poses a similar question to that which situates Meyer’s work, only Meyer is set within the context of a post-industrial, globalized world with a different set of problems, however stemming from consequences set by the Industrial Revolution. Some key photographers in this respect include: Charlie Meecham (The Wood), Robert Adams (Turning Back), Eliot Porter, Robert Glenn Ketchum, Joseph Sudek, and Sally Mann (Deep South). Following the Industrial Revolution, the Modernist worldview, epitomized by individuals such as Mondrian and Pollock, saw the landscape as something to be dominated, trapped, and owned: control through the grid and the substrate. Thus, it is apt that Meyer recalls their work through contemporary visions that alter Modernist hegemonies and systems of taxonomy, creating a sublime sense of consequence, neurosis and urgency.

Meyer’s socio-political commentary about over-population, globalization and deforestation can be described as a contemporary Baroque perspective, specifically regarding the counterpoise of his anthropological inquiry and the border-crossings he makes between the seemingly separate roles of the journalist, scientist and artist. Meyer constructs counter-realizations, in an attempt to portray the ignorant and narcissistic acts of man. Essentially, by suggesting a fleeting moment where once trees existed and only deserts may remain, Meyer comments on the bankrupt bond between man and nature, centered upon an examination of the human condition through the study of trees, elevating normal, commonly ignored scenes to the level of high art and quiet political protest.

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