Ar­bo­re­al­ism Irene Kung’s tree photography

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Whether it’s an­i­mals, moun­tains, clouds, trees, an­cient cities, or mod­ern ar­chi­tec­ture, pho­tog­ra­pher Irene Kung brings an em­pha­sis to the beauty of forms in her photography, re­mov­ing back­ground im­agery to fo­cus the viewer’s at­ten­tion on a sin­gle sub­ject. In Trees, an ex­hibit of re­cent large-for­mat dig­i­tal pho­tos on view at Chiaroscuro Con­tem­po­rary Art, Kung gives view­ers the sense of an en­chanted land­scape. The trees have a per­son­al­ity and pres­ence that is en­hanced by Kung’s ma­nip­u­la­tions. To stand be­fore one and re­ally see it, you have to fil­ter out what sur­rounds you, vy­ing for your at­ten­tion, and then you can ex­pe­ri­ence the trees not as ob­jects — one among a for­est of many — but as be­ings.

Kung, who was born and lives in Switzer­land, moves be­yond tra­di­tional land­scape photography or cityscape photography in her work, which feels less about place than about en­coun­ters. Kung dig­i­tally re­moves de­tails in her com­po­si­tions, which com­bine sharp res­o­lu­tion and soft fo­cus; the sub­ject ap­pears to emerge from dark or light sur­round­ings. When iso­lated, you can more read­ily see and ap­pre­ci­ate the sym­me­try of the mys­te­ri­ous trees. Each of the seven images on dis­play bear a com­mon or sci­en­tific name for the tree de­picted. In Al­bero della Vita, an im­age that ap­pears at least twice in her reper­toire — one in a set­ting of white, the other of black — of­fers an in­ter­est­ing look at con­trast in back­ground tones and how they af­fect the ap­pear­ance of the sub­ject. In the darker im­age, Al­bero della Vita 1, the leaf­less tree is skele­tal white, seem­ing to pop out at you with re­mark­able vivid­ness while at the same time draw­ing you in. It was shot in day­light but pro­cessed to ap­pear like a night­time pho­to­graph, with il­lu­mi­na­tion that ap­pears su­per­nat­u­ral. In the lighter im­age, Al­bero della Vita 2, the tree it­self is darker, sil­hou­et­ted against a at­mo­spheric white sky that sug­gests win­ter.

An­other im­age, Al­bero Neve (Snow Tree), is a more ex­plicit evocation of win­ter, as the tree’s branches are laden with snow. There is a sense of some­thing wild in the windswept, blan­keted form, but the shape is also co­he­sive. The tree is rav­aged by the ele­ments; nev­er­the­less it en­dures. The large scale of Kung’s pho­to­graphs al­lows the vis­i­tor to ex­pe­ri­ence each tree at a hu­man level, but the pho­tos are also large enough to con­vey the trees’ stately and ma­jes­tic spir­its.

Trees is part of a larger body of Kung’s work called For­est of the Soul. Also in the se­ries is a group of pho­tos fo­cused on an­i­mals — par­tic­u­larly, but not ex­clu­sively, horses. Not only do these images, sev­eral of which are por­traits of an­i­mal faces, un­der­score the di­ver­sity be­tween and within species, but they also cap­ture their per­son­al­i­ties, as though go­ing be­yond mere rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the crea­tures to get at their souls.

Kung, who stud­ied as a painter be­fore turn­ing to photography, brings a painter’s sense of com­po­si­tion to her images. For in­stance, Fico 2, one of

the most re­cent images in the se­ries, looks as though it could be a wa­ter­color or il­lus­tra­tion. The nat­u­ral col­ors of the pale green veg­e­ta­tion give way to white, the green be­com­ing more muted around the edges of the cen­tral form. Her Gomero, of a squat baob­a­b­like tree, is full of sharp de­tail, like a land­scape ren­dered by the hand of Henri Rousseau, but it has a magic qual­ity, as though it is the kind of tree you might find in a fairy­land. It’s the per­fect set­ting for the Cheshire Cat, or per­haps a satyr, hid­den in the leaves and branches.

Di­vorced from their land­scape con­texts, many of Kung’s pho­to­graphs are, in a sense, ab­strac­tions. Where outer edges of the forms she shoots van­ish into the light, or into the night, she some­times ac­cen­tu­ates only a sec­tion of them, whether trees or other sub­jects. But when shoot­ing in black and white, as she some­times does, or in color, her dig­i­tal ma­nip­u­la­tions cre­ate new con­texts. This can be seen par­tic­u­larly in her ar­chi­tec­ture-based im­agery, where a sin­gle build­ing is iso­lated from the sur­round­ing cityscape, ap­pear­ing oth­er­worldly or dream­like. These images of hu­man-built en­vi­ron­ments have more in com­mon with her nat­u­ral sub­jects in their pre­sen­ta­tion than you may ex­pect. The build­ings, too, have a sense of char­ac­ter or a soul, and as with the trees, sen­su­ous, curv­ing lin­ear de­tails and bal­ance are among their for­mal at­tributes.

What Kung does for the trees is ef­fec­tively al­low them to speak, and what they seem to speak of is their longevity, their semi-per­ma­nence, and all that they have wit­nessed in the decades and cen­turies of their ex­is­tences. A per­son who en­coun­ters an an­i­mal in the wild might ap­pre­ci­ate that the beast is siz­ing him or her up just as cu­ri­ously as the hu­man watch­ing it. Trees, how­ever, are things we feel aware of in a dif­fer­ent way, that we re­gard with a dif­fer­ent sen­si­bil­ity than the one with which we re­gard sen­tient be­ings. Still, one leaves Kung’s Trees with a more pro­found sense of the woody peren­ni­als’ ex­is­tence as liv­ing forms. The sen­tinels of the for­est are watch­ing.

Melo in Fire, 2014, pig­ment print on rag pa­per; be­low, Al­bero Gen­i­tore (Par­ent Tree), 2017, pig­ment print on rag pa­per

The trees have a per­son­al­ity and pres­ence that is en­hanced by Kung’s ma­nip­u­la­tions.

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