Helen Glazer, Big Bird (Tree, Los Angeles)
Helen Glazer, Big Bird (Tree, Los Angeles)

Portraits of Urban Street Trees

Los Angeles

These are part of an ongoing photographic series of trees in urban environments, which relates to my ongoing search for a deeper understanding of what natural forms tell you about the particular conditions of the moment. The main body of work has been photographed on successive visits to Los Angeles of Indian laurel fig trees, a Southeast Asian species planted along neighborhood streets there and in other cities on California's Central Coast. With their smooth bark and humanoid forms, they have an animated, expressive presence. They're sturdy survivors, bearing the traces of time's passage and the indignities visited upon them, still standing. I highlight their distinctive profiles and gestures by replacing the backgrounds of my photographs in post-processing with a flat color gradient, as if the tree had posed for a studio portrait. I also capture them in three dimensions using photogrammetry.

Santa Barbara

I also have a series of photographs of the Moreton Bay Fig in Santa Barbara, California, a gigantic Australian import planted over 140 years ago, which are presented here as a separate slide show.

See images and more information about the series below.

Background: I first noticed rows of strangely humanoid Indian laurel fig trees along a busy Los Angeles thoroughfare, after family members moved there in 2012. On subsequent visits, I realized they are widely planted. From Little Tokyo to Beverly Hills, they endure similar treatment: bearing the scars of interaction with humans — staples, nails, street lamps, bits of torn posters. For decades they have also provided a seemingly irresistible surface for graffiti carvers. They frequently push back forcefully against the concrete and asphalt that contains them, cantilevering sidewalk slabs and curling their roots over curbs. Eventually I discovered that they are Ficus microcarpa 'Nitida,' a non-native Southeast Asian shade variety frequently used as a street tree in Southern California. My research turned up a government report that indicated that this species comprises 5% of the trees in LA. I have photographed them repeatedly and my series has gradually grown to encompass neighborhoods all over the city.

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, and in the case of the Indian laurel figs, the story is one of interaction with human beings in a non-native urban environment.

I have also turned one of my photo sets from Los Angeles into a 3D file using photogrammetry, and produced it as a sculpture. Occasionally I photograph trees in other cities as well, including a series focusing on one of the largest trees in California, the Moreton Bay Fig.

Image Notes: Dates given as (year photographed/year edited and completed). Sizes are given for ones that have been printed, but all are available in the 12 x 18, 16 x 24, or larger sizes, in editions of 10.