“Poetic Dendrochronology and Human/Tree Portraiture in Historical Photographs from the PNW,” Melody Owen’s Resident Scholar talk

owenMelody Owen, an artist from the Portland area, is the 22nd individual to complete a term as Resident Scholar in the Oregon State University Libraries Special Collections and Archives Research Center (SCARC). The Resident Scholar program, which was established in 2008, awards stipends of up to $2,500 for a month’s study in the OSU Libraries. Previous scholars have included historians, librarians, graduate, doctoral, or post-doctoral students as well as independent scholars.

Owen, whose art often focuses on the fragile state and crucial importance of the earth’s ecosystems, made use of SCARC’s large collection of Pacific Northwest materials. Her research was concentrated on the many collections consisting of materials assembled by the Forest Service sociologist and historian Gerald W. Williams. Working on a continuation of a previous project, Time is a Tree, Owen sought out photographs, postcards, and prints that related humans and trees.

In her Resident Scholar lecture, titled “Poetic Dendrochronology and Human/Tree Portraiture in Historical Photographs from the PNW,” Owen discussed the relationship humans have with trees through the lens of historic photos. Using images from the late 19th and early 20th centuries in which a person or people stand next to a tree, she examined the inclination of humans to take pictures with trees for as long as cameras have existed, and discussed their reasons for doing so.

Owen’s presentation was split into three main themes, which she titled “Time is a Tree,” “Tree Rings,” and “Direction of the Road.” The first theme was dedicated mainly to human/tree portraiture; that is, photographs in which a person or people stand next to a live tree. The next theme focused on photos that showed people next to cross-sections of tree trunks, stumps, and images with loggers. The last consisted of photographs that included roads that had been created to grant public to access the forests.

tree-carOwen also discussed the frequency with which people choose to take photos with trees and some potential reasons for doing so, including admiration or sentiment. More specifically, photographs were often taken to emphasize a tree’s beauty or majesty, its immense size compared to the relative smallness of a person, and a person’s skills or bravado in cutting them down.

A majority of the photos, whether or not they are zoomed in on the person, include a massive tree, and in this they convey the awe and admiration that humans hold for these trees, which are so much larger than us. Although many of these photos show only a single person next to an enormous tree, others include groups. Owen discovered that photographs with groups generally focused on only the largest trees and often showed a group posing on the tree – either across the trunk if the tree had fallen or ranged along lower branches or protrusions on the trunk.

In many of the photos, the person depicted is leaning against the tree, reaching out to touch it, or sitting on it. Owen regards this type of portraiture as indicative of our desire to feel closer to nature. Other photos show trees that have been cut down and that are being transported, with people posing next to them. Owen found many of these types of photos, which she speculated may have been so prolific because urbanization was beginning to occur and people began to spend less and less time in the forests. Instead, trees being brought out of the forest were more accessible and still allowed people to experience a connection to nature.

tree-groupOther photographs show only what was left of these colossal trees after they had been cut and taken out of the forest: the stump. In photos where people posed with tree trunks, Owen found that they often stood on top of the trunk. Owen sees these images as suggesting that the person is an extension of the tree. Logging photos also show the tree after it’s been cut or in the process of being cut. In these, the loggers often pose in the cut they have made in the tree. They also show the tree as a “prize,” like a trophy salmon or elk.

The final type of photo focuses less on the trees and more on the roads that allow access to them. As cars became more popular, so did traveling to awe-inspiring places, including old-growth forests populated by trees that dwarfed the cars driving among them. Popular locations for photographs of this type were areas where trees had had arches cut in them so that cars could drive through. Owen’s selection of photographs from this category included people walking through trees, as well horse-drawn carriages and cars. She saw this series as being a timeline of sorts, showing how, while the world around us has changed, we humans have always been drawn to trees.

Owen plans to use the research that she completed at SCARC to create a book of human/tree photos and writings that relate to the images. This fall, she is also starting a graduate program in environmental arts and humanities at OSU.

The Resident Scholar Program at OSU Libraries is now in its ninth year of operation. For more information about past Resident Scholars, please see the program’s homepage.

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