Section: Arts

Trees the central focus of photo professor’s passion project

Trees the central focus of photo professor’s passion project

by Claire Oxford


While trees line much of Middle Path, not many individuals have an appreciation for them like Professor of Art Gregory Spaid. Four years ago, he began a project focused on photographing trees around the country; more recently it earned him an artist-in-residence position at Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado for the last two weeks of May.

“This project is not just trees per se, but our relationship with trees, what they mean to us and how they act upon our well-being and our life,” Spaid said.

In 2010, the J. Paul Getty Museum collaborated with a curator and selected some of Spaid’s photography, displayed in the museum, for inclusion in The Tree in Photographs. Four years ago, Spaid noticed the presence of trees as a motif in his work and decided to pursue a project focusing solely on varieties of trees photographed in color.

During his sabbatical last year, Spaid traveled around the country — from Nantucket, to Wyoming, to Colorado and back to Knox County photographing trees. At Mesa Verde, he will add to this portfolio and give a public presentation to parkgoers on a topic he will pitch to the park’s staff. Eventually, Spaid hopes to exhibit this project in its entirety either in a gallery or in a book, with the presentation divided into chapters such as “Fire,” which will document the burnt remains of trees after wildfires at Mesa Verde. Another chapter may focus specifically on the complex and abstract patterning of bark.

In his upcoming residency, Spaid plans to change his subject matter slightly, by photographing the sites of wildfires where trees have been burnt as part of a natural cycle of destruction and regeneration. Spaid hopes to capture these scenes mostly at night, or by using the fading light at dusk.

As Spaid read more about trees, he became more fascinated by his subjects. One article he came across presented the theory that the simple presence of a tree outside a patient’s window in a hospital improves their chances of recovery. Another phenomenon he came across was the act of “forest bathing” — a term coined in Japan to refer to the act of walking through forests and the resulting physical effects, like lowered blood pressure and anxiety. He remembers this research struck a chord with him. “I thought that was almost mystical when I heard that, that just by seeing something it can have that physical effect,” Spaid said.

He discussed these interests with Associate Professor of Biology Andrew Kerkhoff, as both professors enjoy the intersectionality of botany and photography. One fact that mutually interested Kerkhoff and Spaid was how the tips of tree branches are continually growing toward light in a path that traces itself back to the base of the tree.

“Of course for a photographer, when you start talking about light producing signals and making meaning and producing movement, that was very meaningful,” Kerkhoff said.

For Spaid, trees have a way of simultaneously mirroring our psychological states and embodying principles of art, such as balance.

“Some trees seem really fragile, particularly urban trees, like they’re threatened, isolated, like they’re not going to make it, so we can ascribe feelings of if we’re feeling fragile,” Spaid said. He also noted trees’ tendency to restore balance within themselves, as in moments when a tree loses a limb and works to grow another in its place.

“One thing in art you worry about is balance, whether something is in balance or should be intentionally thrown out of balance to create tension, and obviously the same thing is true of trees,” Spaid said.

A former student of Spaid, Hannah Laub ’16, raved about her photography courses with him, mentioning when the Photography II class visited his studio and saw a wall covered with an array of pictures of trees.

“They’re all just so unique and he has this element in a lot of his photographs which just makes them interesting and compelling,” Laub said.


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