The Psychology of Trees

This book of photographs is wrapped with an image of eucalyptus trees, animated by the last traces of daylight and shadow. A strange flatness between its foreground and background gives the effect of squinting into a View-Master, with its overarching sense of filmic nostalgia. Beyond the cover image, the psychological drama of the title continues to be played out through a cast of extras – young women and a range of built structures. While an otherworldly mood is set by the cold tones of deep shade, the uncertainty of dappled forms and the strangeness of reflected silhouettes which appear in every picture, an overwhelming sensuousness is also apparent.

Far from a series of isolated picturesque images, the book is much more like that View-Master. A fiction is woven through the interplay of images that are deliberately sequenced and, caught in the spine, must be read one after the other as if at the cinema. These qualities are encapsulated by the second image – a woman, inside, reading a book, seen from behind, the nape of her neck exposed – which offers a clue to the imaginary realm into which Jenny Bolis’ images want to take us.

Trees have long been considered a metaphoric symbol of life – specifically of fertility, endurance, knowledge and creativity. Spurred on by the anthropomorphism suggested by the title, Bolis invites us to speculate on the particular qualities and consciousness of the trees depicted in the half-light of her photographs. Although tall and lean, these trees are not lonely sentinels, nor threatening woods, but more like comforting strangers. Upright but somewhat messy, their sometimes uneven trunks and foliage suggest a complex character. Trees are, of course, fundamentally non-human, completely ‘other’ in their mute inability to communicate. They have a living presence – a ‘consciousness’ – that is utterly appealing in part because it is completely inaccessible. And of course they are often old, and tend to outlive any single human life, offering a remarkable connection to cultures and events past.

The female figures presented in Bolis’ photographs, seen always alone – as if in a noirish fable – appear to be in some kind of communion or dialogue with the trees when they share the same pictorial space. These smartly dressed young models, presumably a stand-in for the photographer while also positioning us as viewer-voyeurs, mediate our relationship to the images. These women are not specific people, but ciphers, or portals to this dream world of trees (which is why we never see their faces). Their sensual world – hair, skin,fabric, leather, book pages, walls – is intensified by barely-lit surface textures, with all their expressive but muted tonality. This is a world familiar to us from film, with its ability to evoke a that curious sense of uncertainty we can only vaguely define as uncanny. It is the realm of diffuse desire epitomised by dreams, with their frustratingly unfulfilled journeys – here evoked by doorways, reflections and curved paths that lead nowhere. These are enchanting spaces of potential transition and passage. And like all dreamscapes,they are intensely personal in inspiration – in this case, ones evoked by the artist’s childhood spent in the suburbs of Melbourne’s inner-north, sites retraced in the course of making these photographs.

A broader, critical dynamic between nature and culture begins to unfold. In the third image, behind the silhouetted foliage of a group of trees stands the regular rectilinear white concrete forms of a modern building. A further two pages on, such vertical lines imitate a jail cell. A young woman looks out through the slots between steel bars in a subterranean concrete zone to floppy grasses, jeering at their stiff surrounds. Her pose suggests a sense of longing, but also a resigned lethargy, a calm inertness. Once we notice her sense of imprisonment, we become conscious of the repetition of the vertical bar motif across several of the other photographs – and its associated story of human confinement. But if this is an inner-city scene, a majority of the other images evoke the edge of the city’s boundaries, where the buildings of light industry recede into unkempt, overgrown natural environs. In these images, trees are fenced in (or out), or grow in spite of human intervention. Nature’s fecundity is pictured most dramatically in a rural image of a Victorian house, sinking into the ground, and smothered by creepers – reminiscent of a famous image, beloved by Surrealists, of an abandoned locomotive overtaken by ivy. Photography’s funereal character excels at evoking the romantic temporality of the ruin.

As a book, The Psychology of Trees unfolds as a layered, thematic narrative, like a sonnet with an emotional pace and flow. Its eighteen images seamlessly combine a documentary mode of photography – with its capacity for subtle observations – with the restrained use of the theatrical staging, often with painterly poise (there are echoes of Bill Henson’s combination of landscapes with figures and use of twilight, although Bolis’ world has a quality all of its own). This ode to the wondrous otherness of trees ends with an ambivalent image of captivity and freedom – a little old wooden nesting box, pinned to a tree. We are left to ponder whether the birdhouse in nature is a wholly unnecessary habitat, or an imagined home high up in the trees.

Dr Daniel Palmer is a Senior Lecturer in the Theory of Art & Design at Monash University. Kate Rhodes is the Editor of Artichoke Magazine. 2009
To view available works from this series please make your enquiry through the contact page.