Bay Nature magazineFall 2019

Art and Design

The Impossibility of Describing Nature …

...and attempting to photograph a redwood at scale instead

September 16, 2019
redwood tree
Redwood #1, 2017. (Photo courtesy Sarah Bird)

In his 1979 book The Tree, British novelist John Fowles characterizes nature as “an experience whose deepest value lies in the fact that it cannot be directly described by any art … including that of words.” Undeterred by the impossibility of directly describing nature, Fowles wrote about it anyways, modestly suggesting that “perhaps any representation of nature is better … than none.” Bay Area artist Sarah Bird evokes Fowles when discussing her own photographs of trees, and yet she too is undeterred. “I accept that to be true,” she says of Fowles’ declaration. “And I decide to try to represent nature anyway.” 

For about four years, Bird has been photographing the enormous coast redwoods in Big Basin Redwoods State Park, La Honda Creek Open Space Preserve, Portola Redwoods State Park, and Montgomery Woods State Natural Reserve. Bird’s redwood photographs differ from most, however, because she prints at full scale. The trees are represented at the same size in her photographs as they are in the forest—but because they are so large, she has only photographed segments of them, such as the base of a trunk or a root system. The images can be as large as 11 by 8 feet and are printed in black and white, which Bird believes further emphasizes the form and scale of these giants.

Scale is not a novelty for Bird; it is a central concern of her practice. “I’m interested in what scale does and what it conveys,” she explains. She is influenced by philosopher Donna Haraway, who speaks about the importance of people being in “right relationship” with both human and nonhuman nature. “Humans are too big,” Bird paraphrases Haraway as saying. “We’ve consumed too many of the resources of the rest of our web of being.” For Bird, making full-scale photographs of redwoods is an attempt to redress “that dire mistake that we’ve made as human beings to overconsume the planet.”

Bird says social science research supports the idea that visual experiences can change the way we engage with the world. She cites a 2015 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that found that experiences of awe—and specifically looking up into tall trees—increased ethical decision-making, generosity, and “prosocial” behavioral traits such as compassion in research participants. And what are redwood trees if not awesome and awe-inspiring? Bird wants to bring this experience into cities.

Though Bird has only photographed portions of redwoods so far, she has big plans to reproduce an entire tree at scale. She has worked with Save the Redwoods League to identify a suitable subject, and she thinks she’s found one, a 1,200-year-old tree in the Santa Cruz Mountains. A photograph this large, however, presents numerous technical, ethical, and administrative challenges. 

Bird points out that former National Geographic photographer Michael Nichols has photographed a coast redwood (as well as a giant sequoia) as a vertical panorama, using a robotic dolly system, a gyroscope, and three cameras. But Bird plans to mount a camera on a drone programmed to take photographs in a precise grid formation, which she will then stitch together. The key difference is that rather than creating a five-page magazine foldout or a 60-foot-long print, Bird’s photograph will be about 320 by 50 feet in size. 

Bird envisions three ways of presenting this future photograph. The most dramatic is to hang it from the side of a skyscraper. She is also interested in creating an oversize accordion book that could be unfolded in a large room and in unfurling the photograph at San Francisco’s Oracle Park, where the distance between home plate and the outfield fence is 399 feet. Bird wants to mitigate the environmental impact of using the petroleum-based vinyl or nylon that such large images would normally be printed on and has identified plastic harvested from the ocean and nylon fishing nets that wash ashore as suitable recycled alternatives.

Given the magnitude of this project, one might ask, as I did of Bird, “Why not just go and look at a real redwood?” Bird would be the last person to stop you. But observing an entire redwood in isolation is not the same as looking up from the forest floor, squinting to see the crown through the sun, branches, and neighboring tree. She isn’t so much trying to re-create an experience we can already have in nature, but more to show these trees in a different light and bring their capacity to inspire awe where it is absent. Bird, like Fowles, is humble about her artistic engagement with nature, but she does not deny the importance of these engagements. This is her effort at forging right relations.

About the Author

Matthew Harrison Tedford is an arts writer focused on ecology, history, and politics. Based in San Francisco, his work has appeared on KQED, Hyperallergic, SF Weekly, Art Practical, and elsewhere.

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