Ancient Trees

One cannot look at Beth Moon’s images of gnarled, overgrown trees and not feel the intrinsic gravity of time. — Chicago Tribune, Printer’s Row

Jewel of a book. — Booklist

In our age of mass species extinctions, we never know from where, if anywhere, consolation may come. Try looking at Beth Moon’s new book, “Ancient Trees: Portraits of Time.” — San Francisco Chronicle 

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“Beth Moon’s fourteen-year quest to photograph ancient trees has taken her across the United States, Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Some of her subjects grow in isolation, on remote mountainsides, private estates, or nature preserves; others maintain a proud, though often precarious, existence in the midst of civilization. All, however, share a mysterious beauty perfected by age and the power to connect us to a sense of time and nature much greater than ourselves. It is this beauty, and this power, that Moon captures in her remarkable photographs.

This handsome volume presents sixty of Moon’s finest tree portraits as full-page duotone plates. The pictured trees include the tangled, hollow-trunked yews—some more than a thousand years old—that grow in Englishchurchyards; the baobabs of Madagascar, called “upside-down trees” because of the curious disproportion of their giant trunks and modest branches; and the fantastical dragon’s-blood trees, red-sapped and umbrella-shaped, that growonly on the island of Socotra, off the Horn of Africa.

Moon’s narrative captions describe the natural and cultural history of each individual tree, while Todd Forrest, vice president for horticulture and living collections at the New York Botanical Garden, provides a concise introduction to the biology and preservation of ancient trees. An essay by the critic Steven Brown defines Moon’s unique place in a tradition of tree photography extending from William Henry Fox Talbot to Sally Mann, and explores the challenges and potential of the tree as a subject for art.”

Tree’s play a colossal part in the makeup of Escot. Whether they have been planted for historical purposes to mark a moment in time or simply to add to the view or because the current landowner fancied it, tree’s are part of the environmental fabric that are much of the estates constant focus. Many are older than the house itself (since it burnt down in 1808) with the oldest recorded oak on the estate coming in at 750+ years. Their bark has seen much of the estates changing landscape and turbulent history- from landowners who enjoy gardening to neglect when a landowner prefers the social city side of life. On Jan 6th 2015 some 580 trees shall be planted to accommodate the Escot Shoot; some as beech hedge and some as shrub cover for birds on bare patches of the estate in the woods. Amenity planting has long been a part of Escot, be it for sporting benefits, shooting, butterfly and bird walks or in more recent years quad biking and segway safari’s, these majestic giants each have a role to play in the social fabric of Escot Estate.

Moon’s monumental photographs are awe-inspiring and demonstrate the majestic nature of trees at their best. With each nook and cranny comes a story and each twist and turn or gnarly bark stretching like a waking animal in the morning sun oozes sentimental sincerity as you look upon these great features of earth. The low angle used by Moon emphasises the huge size of these beautiful formations each in relation to its own environment. Moon has also used the cropping device to select what she wishes to show, which has inspired me to realise that I do not need to show every element of the tree in my own photos- I can crop it how I feel best shows it at its finest, drawing attention to the parts I feel are most deserving of our observation. I love the energy Moon has managed to capture in her work despite photographing still objects. You can almost feel the strenuous effort of growth as the branches stretch into the distance, out of the frame up towards the sky as they reach for the sun, her images bursting with life.

Below the article where I came across Moon’s photos (link at top) there is much debate over her choice in using black and white images rather than colour. A selection of comments read:

“I disagree about the black and white choice. Trees are magnificent in their colors, they express so much more of their life!”

“Though I love color photos, black and white photos show texture in such magnificent depth and detail.”

“It’s her medium to choose as an artist to show what she sees. B&W if you know how to “see” it brings out so much more depth, ancient wisdom.”

“I wish the prints were in colour. Their magnificence would have been felt a lot more.”

“B&W shows a lot more detail than Color Film. The colors always look fake. Anyhow most mammals see B&W only. I vote with the photographer.”

“Color pictures of trees are a dime a dozen and definitely do not convey the magical quality and emotion of these time imorial giant beings.”

“Some detail & beauty can be more easily seen in black and white. That is not to say everything should be in b and w or color either.”

“Yes, the black and white is a bullshit choice that makes it all about the artist. Make it about the trees! Show them how they are. COLOR.”

“The point of them being in black and white is to express their age. They are as old as time, so b&w gives them thus atmosphere. Big like!”

“B&W is totally artificial, and does not convey the reality of the tree. It’s an artistic distortion, not a faithful photograph of the tree.”

“Just the act of framing an image and deciding what to leave out is artistic “distortion” as well.”

I personally feel that it is completely the artist own jurisdiction as to whether or not they use colour or black and white, personally I have always been drawn to using colour as I feel it shows off my work in the best possible light as how I see it when I take the shot is how i want it to be received by others. I want to share the moment in which I am seeing this magical beauty before me and for me, colour is a large part of that. However I would not be against using black and white as I feel for more serious matters it allows the viewer to focus on the details before them and the finer points that may otherwise have been overlooked when overshadowed by bright colours. With regards to Moon, her work is called “Ancient Trees” thus I would feel it inappropriate for her images to be in colour if the message I have understood her to be trying to portray is that of an aged beauty that time only heightens. The colour would bring a whole new angle and dimension to her work, almost juxtaposing her message, which could dwindle the power of the collection. For my own work I am currently undecided as to whether or not to use colour or black and white- the B&W connecting the archival element of the estate and colour representing the constant efforts of the landowners to keep the estate moving forwards meeting the demands of society of the time.


“Many of the trees I have photographed have survived because they are out of reach of civilization; on mountainsides, private estates, or on protected land. Certain species exist only in a few isolated areas of the world.  For example; there are 6 species of spectacular baobabs, found only on the island of Madagascar. Sadly, the baobab is now one of the three most endangered species on the island.

The criteria I use for choosing particular trees are basically three: age, immense size or notable history. I research the locations by a number of methods; history books, botanical books, tree registers, newspaper articles and information from friends and travelers.

Standing as the earth’s largest and oldest living monuments, I believe these symbolic trees will take on a greater significance, especially at a time when our focus is directed at finding better ways to live with the environment, celebrating the wonders of nature that have survived throughout the centuries. By feeling a larger sense of time, developing a relationship with the natural world, we carry that awareness with us as it becomes a part of who we are. I cannot imagine a better way to commemorate the lives of the world’s most dramatic trees, many which are in danger of destruction, than by exhibiting their portraits.”

Beth Moon


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