Fog was rising over the Wiltshire fields and the majestic beeches of Roche Court Sculpture Park dripping with November rain when we arrived for the opening of Tess Traeger’s photographs. Stark black and white images of isolated trees bent and bowed by the weather. Great murmurations of starlings. Nature elemental and stripped bare to its essential beauty.
Born in Streatham, Traeger was very much part of the swinging 60s. At 25 she married Ronald Traeger, celebrated for his shots of an iconic Twiggy cycling in Battersea park. On leaving art school, she started to assist him. Then, after his premature death from Hodgkin lymphoma, began to work with Vogue.
Brought up in a family of artists – her mother, aunt and grandmother were artists, and her brother the celebrated architect Sir Nicholas Grimshaw – photography was not considered, half a century ago when she started out, to be a serious art form. To be a female photographer was especially hard. Over the years, Traeger has experimented to give unique expression to subjects that other art forms cannot. The stippled surface a starling murmuration, with its smudged black and white marks, might be read as an engraving or even a pointillist painting. She uses Kodak TMZ 3200 film that is very fast, grainy, and particularly suited to recording the tender balance of low light.
On moving to North Devon, she realised that she had found her subject matter. The ancient structure of the farmland and wooded valleys. The stark majesty of winter trees silhouetted against the ancient landscape at dusk, a black and white world so different from the summer Devon of lush fields and beach holidays. Her images are imbued with an intense zen-like stillness, her leafless trees bent and gnarled by the weather like giant bonsai. It is impossible not to think of Caspar David Friedrich’s Abbey among Oak Trees; the crippled branches etched against a darkening sky. The Romantic artist of the 18th and 19th century saw in trees an expression of life, death and the endurance of the human spirit. The blasted tree, wounded by the weather, stood with fortitude against the odds. As in Samuel Palmer, the twisting trunks suggest the forbearance of both the individual and the English landscape.
These powerful poetic images are a paeon to nature an wilderness, to all that we are losing in this deteriorating world. To stand in front of their black, white and silvery surfaces is to meditate on all that is in danger of being lost.
Words/Photos Sue Hubbard © Artlyst 2019
Tessa Traeger – New Art Centre – Roche Court – 23 Nov 2019 – 19 Jan 2020
Sue Hubbard latest novel Rainsongs can be bought here: