In honor of this new project, I caught up with Beth to discuss her affinity for trees, her 2018 pilgrimage, and more…
— Anne Kelly, director of the photo-eye gallery
Anne Kelly, Gallery Director (AK): Your mission to photograph the oldest trees in the world began about 20 years ago. What is the origin story of this exploration, and did you expect it to end up spanning decades?
Beth Moon (BM): The first ancient tree I visited was in 1999. I drove about an hour outside of London to a cemetery in Surrey to see this extraordinary yew whose presence was felt throughout the cemetery. But I didn’t come back with a photo. I was so upset; all I could do was sit in front of the tree and stare at it in complete amazement.
Over time, I was able to harness my enthusiasm for taking pictures, but I had no idea I would still be doing this job 23 years later. Of course, I was interested in exploring other work at the time, but I always seem to be drawn back into the realm of trees. Either someone tells me about an amazing tree, or I’ll read an article. It seems there is no escape!
AK: And why would you want to escape!? Your exploration of trees has taken you to many places, including Africa a few times. The most recent trip was a “pilgrimage to visit a tree” that you had photographed in the past, which was falling. Upon receiving the information, I have the impression that you made the decision to come back as soon as possible and that you made the decision very quickly. It wasn’t a question of if, but when. Is it precise enough, and can you tell us more about it?
BM:I had made various trips to Botswana, South Africa and Namibia, as the oldest trees are found mainly in the southern hemisphere, and I have traveled to Madagascar three times.
Yes, when I was told the tree was dying, I knew it would be a matter of a few weeks at most before the whole tree fell, so I had to act fast. This meant traveling during the rainy and hurricane season and it came with its own set of obstacles!
|Beth Moon, zebu cart, NFS|
AK: Like most things worth doing, nothing about your journey has been easy – from five days of travel to the storm you arrived in. The original plan to get to the Tsitakakoike tree by car had to be redesigned – and you ended up traveling by wagon, pulled by large African cattle – yet another testament to your dedication. Do you think the changed travel mode changes the project?
BM: What was initially seen as a deterrent has actually turned into a positive. The large pools of water were too deep to cross, but amazing African zebus can cross the water without difficulty. Taking alternate routes through the forest, we discovered trees of significant stature that the local villagers had never seen before.
AK: It makes a lot of sense – kind of like choosing to travel on a two-lane freeway, as opposed to a freeway or an airplane! What was the most exciting or surprising encounter you had based on this mode of travel?
BM: I would like to use an excerpt from the book for this.
I asked the chief for permission to spend the night in the forest… An unknown sound wakes me from sleep. I sit in complete darkness and remember that my headlamp is still on my forehead. Fear is the time it takes for my eyes to adjust. A flash of light illuminates twenty pairs of eyes in front of me. A herd of surprised zebus, looking for a place to settle down for the night, stares at me.
The rhythmic sound of the zebu snoring nearby puts me to sleep.
|Beth Moon, Zebu Panoramic Study, NFS|
AK: Would you choose this mode of travel again in the future, even if it is not necessary?
BM: By letting go, I was able to tackle so many things beyond my control and ultimately trust in spontaneous results. Being forced to slow down and enjoy the view along the way is not only a good metaphor, but a good lesson!
AK: You described the partial collapse of the Tsitakakoike tree as a mixture of “amazement and horror”. I can only imagine how that must have felt. Was photographing the tree a cathartic experience?
BM: Standing in front of the destruction of this tree was a life changing experience in a way that I cannot describe in words. Much of the project was simply about witnessing.
Coming home, I had a mixture of anxiety and grief that consumed me. Directing my energy into the book felt cathartic. Writing the text, organizing the information and sharing pictures of the trees allowed me to reveal the fate of the trees to others.
AK: I like the way the text in the book reads like a newspaper – and the way the text is interspersed between the images. Can you talk about that, and the design of the book as a whole?
BM: On trips like this, I usually write in a journal to keep track of daily details. Professor Patrut and his team have radiocarbon dated the oldest trees over the past decade and through this study they have learned how quickly ancient baobabs were declining. I thought this scientific research was of great value, but the information seemed dry and clinical. Weaving a story of my personal experience around the data was the reason for making the book, so the journal entries became the backbone.
|Beth Moon with baobab tree, NFS|
I generally prefer to see images without the clutter of text, but it was more compelling to weave the images around the story, like in a travel book. I was hoping to take the reader on the journey in this way. The enlargement of certain sentences has replaced the legends.
To differentiate the platinum portraits, I hand-colored the travel photos and left the edges unmasked, which were also platinum prints. Many tree portraits were panoramic and single frames were 2:3 ratio. There is always a fine balance between using the highest quality materials while remaining within reasonable retail price. The price also dictates the size of the book, so I was thrilled when my publisher accepted my suggestion of a 10″ x 15″ book that would make the most of this format.
AK: I hear you, pairing text with images can be a challenge, but I think it was the right choice in this case – it adds to the experience of viewing the book. The text you wrote is anything but dry.
Regarding your printing process, it would be great if you could talk about it. I have an affinity for the printing process, however, it is laborious and expensive. For you, what keeps your black and white work anchored in this process?
BM: I guess I’m sticking to my original thought when I started this series, “a platinum print can last for centuries, building on the common theme of time and continuity, pairing photographic subject and process.”
However, I also make prints with pigment inks of large scale panoramic images to mimic the size of trees and landscape.
I never like to talk about new projects because sometimes they don’t gain enough momentum to be fully actualized, but more often than not the reason is that I usually sit on projects for years before they are finished. Often I like to look at the work months later, hopefully with new insight and inspiration.
BM: I should probably point out that most of the places I go to are not known for their culinary expertise. However, having fresh fish from the Arabian Sea cooked over an open fire in the Incense Forest remains etched in my memory. My guide was also able to make flatbread baked on a hot stone, drizzled with honey and strong Mokha coffee. All with two jars!
>> See the online exhibition of BAOBAB <
>> Signed copies of BAOBAB in the photo-eye library <
>> Learn more about Beth’s practice of photographing trees! <
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Printing charges are in effect until the time of publication and are subject to change.