I am probably not alone in having become jaded about "wonders of the natural world" photographic anthologies; those slick and perfect screen-saver images of animal and plants just leave me cold. A book of tree photographs—big yawn, right? So what a surprise to fall in love with photographer Larry Lederman's book Magnificent Trees of the New York Botanical Garden (The Moncacelli Press; 2012).
The visceral response I had upon encountering Lederman's photographs blindsided me, and some of it must have to do with his unusual approach. He doesn't seem to look through a viewfinder to settle on a visual composition: His trees are more often photographed in part rather than whole—tops are lopped off, or the photograph shows an assemblage of trunks, branches, and leaves. But the results are not abstract or overly cerebral; you can always read the whole from its parts. Shapes and colors are new, not like anything we have seen before. One imagines Lederman just standing there in the landscape, intuiting what it feels like to be with these trees, waiting for the picture somehow to emerge, then snap—it's frozen in time.
For many readers, I suspect encountering the magnificent beings on the pages of this book will border on the spiritual. I don't use the term lightly, given its New Age associations, but the experiences of not just looking but actually feeling what it's like to be in the presence of another life form, feeling connected to the whole chain of design that is expressed in the unique patterning of each image, is transformative. Lederman has artfully documented his own communion with these creatures. He just loves them, and it's palpable.
It's often difficult to tell where the photographer could have been standing—on the frontispiece he appears to have been stationed somewhere below the ground plane; in other photographs he seems to be suspended halfway between ground and canopy, or hovering over the canopy like an angel. We can get lost in these photographs, not even thinking about where our feet are hitting the dirt. And isn't that one of the great purposes of landscape design, to allow you to lose yourself?
Margie Ruddick is a landscape architect who integrates design with ecology.