Thief (Tree, Los Angeles) (2013) archival pigment print, hand-colored with pastel pencils 12 x 17.25 inches

Portraits of Urban Street Trees

These are part of an ongoing photographic series of trees in urban environments, mostly Indian laurel fig trees, a Southeast Asian species planted along neighborhood streets all over Los Angeles. With their smooth bark and humanoid forms, these hardy immigrants have an animated presence; they bear artifacts of human activity, and often push back dramatically against the urban infrastructure of concrete and asphalt. I replace the backgrounds with a flat color gradient, as if I had brought the tree into a portrait studio to pose in front of a backdrop.

See images and more information about the series below.

Background: I first noticed Indian laurel fig trees along a busy thoroughfare in Los Angeles a few years ago. They are a non-native Southeast Asian shade tree, frequently used as a street tree in Southern California, and so ubiquitous, many Angelenos don't attend to them and don't know what I'm talking about when I describe them. (A forestry report from 2000 stated they comprise 5% of the trees in LA.) Whether in a low income neighborhood or Beverly Hills, they've endured similar treatment: bearing the scars of adaptation and interaction with humans -- staples, nails, wiring and street lamps, bits of torn posters, carved initials and peeling paint. Some are also studded with fascinating, strangely shaped bulbous growths. They are not wholly passive though, and often push back forcefully against the constraints of infrastructure: cantilevering sidewalks at sharp angles and wrapping their roots over curbs.

I've been photographing them on periodic visits there for the past few years. My underlying motivation is to find beauty in an unexpected place, complexity and layers of experience in something we think we already know, underlying relationships in what at first glance seems random, and experiences that cannot be fully described verbally. I search for a deeper understanding of what natural forms tell you about the particular conditions of the moment, especially what they say about human interaction with nature in the urban environment. But it isn't as if my attraction to these particular trees is purely intellectual. Some childlike part of my psyche has never stopped seeing faces and bodies in inanimate objects. I've come to understand that what drew me to return with my camera after I first noticed them is also a sense of personal identification with them: bearing the traces of time's passage and life's indignities, still standing.