Back when I started photographing nearly a decade ago, my main subject was nature and landscapes. Over the years I continued to broaden my motifs to cityscapes, architecture, abstracts, and street photography. I still love to do them all, but there is one theme that has continued to evolve with me over the years, and that is trees.
Photographing trees built on my original broader interest in nature and landscapes. I continually tried to reduce and simplify the scenes I was shooting to the essential elements and that drove me towards isolated trees.
I was also inspired by Michael Kenna and Josef Hoflehner who had shot isolated trees in their monochrome photographs. Another great inspiration was a photography exhibition I saw in 2013 in the Sinebrychoff Art Museum in Helsinki. Trees were the main subject of the exhibition which involved the images of four Finnish photographers (Kristoffer Albrecht, Pentti Sammallahti, Ritva Kovalainen, and Taneli Eskola). The exhibition was aptly named “Trees Are Poems.” Initially, my interest was skewed towards black and white photographs that I thought helped in simplifying the scenes, but over the years I’ve become oriented more towards colour photography.
In the beginning, I didn’t have any specific goal in mind when photographing the trees, but after a few years, I noticed that my images had grown into quite a large thematic project that could be a book project. I started calling the project “Trees Are Poems” because there is a strong poetical mood in my isolated tree images shot in foggy or misty conditions. The title of the project refers to the exhibition, which was among my original inspirations, and even more to the famous quote by poet Kahlil Gibran:
“Trees are poems the earth writes upon the sky, we fell them down and turn them into paper, that we may record our emptiness.”
Over the years, trees have evolved into a strong metaphor in the fight against climate change. This project reminds me of the invaluable ability of trees to modify the effect of carbon dioxide that is the cause of the global warming we are currently experiencing.
Most of my tree images are shot in Finland, especially near where I live in Helsinki and Espoo, because I usually photograph trees only during very special weather conditions such as dense fog or heavy snowstorms that provide the isolation and poetic atmosphere I’m searching for. I try to visit the same trees several times under different conditions. A good example of this approach is a tree I’ve named “Veterans’ Tree” that is located at the seaside in Helsinki. I’ve shot a series of images of this tree in different seasons and conditions. I find the optimal season to photograph trees is winter when the trees have no foliage and they reveal their true inner beauty.
Compositionally I’m searching for simplicity, balance, and calmness. For this purpose, I like to crop my images in a square format, but also try to use some degree of negative space or off-centre compositions to balance the simplicity. I try to depict the silence, emptiness, contemplation, and transcendental essence of nature in these images. I contrast the simple scene with the complex zigzag of the branches.
Post-processing is, of course, a central part of making the final images. Photos are just raw material and I sometimes finish the images several years after photographing them. When making colour images I favour soft subdued tones that highlight the silent, tranquil, and artistic look I like. One common post-processing feature in my images is the gradients that help in focusing on the main subject. Sometimes I do extreme post-processing by, for example, inverting the images into negatives to transform white winter images into virtual night images or transforming light-painted images shot in pitch dark into almost winter-like scenes.
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About the author: Vesa Pihanurmi is a photo artist based in Helsinki, Finland. His work has been published and exhibited internationally among others in London, Paris and Arles. He travels worldwide photographing wide range of subjects from city scenes and architecture to abstract motifs, landscapes and of course trees. His photographs have won several international awards such as SWPA, IPA, PX3 and ND awards. He has released three fine art photography monographs recent of which is the highly acclaimed Trees Are Poems (2020).