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Back to his roots! Photographer Adrian Houston's, A Portrait of the Tree

Uber talented photographer Adrian Houston shares his passions for nature and art...

What is your favourite tree? A simple question, but one that can spark a treasury of stories. From childhood memories of scraped knees and scaled branches to incredible histories of veteran species that have hidden Kings and provided shelter for Queens.

It is a question that I have spent the past four years asking any number of people – conservationists, campaigners, adventurers, gardeners, landowners – all with their own personal tale of how these giants of the natural world have touched their lives in a profound and intimate way. As a photographer, capturing these great specimens, I have had the luxury of spending time in their company. On frosty mornings with misty dew coating the grass and branches, late at night with a canopy of stars above, with the summer sun sparkling through latticed woodland ceilings. Each tree has a distinct personality – as a photographer you seek to capture something of the spirt of these remarkable trees in each portrait.

I have always had a strong affinity to trees having grown up in Scotland surrounded by woodlands and forests. My earliest memory was sheltering under a Scots Pine on a fishing trip with my farther aged 6 or 7. It’s where I caught my first Brown Trout, and I am happy to say that the tree is still standing proud overlooking Loch Tulla in Glencoe - and it’s my favourite.

My mother was a well-known Scottish painter and, as well as nature, I grew up surrounded by art. I have been a photographer for over twenty years; in my early years I assisted a famous advertising photographer in London and specialised in Portraiture. As I grew in stature, I have been lucky enough to be able to photograph the thing that I love most of all which is the natural world.

Nature has an intensity so strong it gives you a totally different view on the world. When you witness earth’s natural power, it is sometimes hard to see its underlying fragility. But scratch beneath the surface and it is there. The need to protect what we have before it is too late has influenced my work for as long as I can remember. Experiencing first-hand the natural power of the earth, makes you realise the sheer force of what surrounds us and gives us the ability the breath. In 2004 I was photographing the vent of Kilauea (the goddess of fire) on the Big Island in Hawaii when the volcano started to erupt. This near-death experience made me release how insignificant we are to the natural power of the Earth and how we must do our upmost to protect our planet.

My life’s journey has made me realise how important trees are to us: they provide us with the very air we breathe, soaking up and capturing carbon from the atmosphere and converting it into oxygen. They stabilise our soil, preventing erosion, and help to limit flooding by absorbing stormwater. They provide shelter and food for wildlife – from multitudes of tiny insects to tawny owls, bats and deer – supporting teaming ecosystems. In our cities, it is estimated that trees can reduced temperatures by as much as 7°C and their canopies trap dust and pollutants from the air.

Many trees have healing properties and some of the world’s pharmaceuticals are derived from trees: Aspirin comes from willow bark, Yews are a source of Taxol used for skin cancers, as well as tree oils and bark quinine. Doctors are releasing the importance of the environment in which patients recover is just as important as the medicines they take. As well as the physiological benefits of trees, attention is turning to eco-psychology based on our notion of our disconnection with nature. Modern medicine often sets the physical and the emotional apart, yet their roots are firmly intertwined, and research has shown how powerful exposure to the natural environment is for both our mental and physical wellbeing. Trees have the calming properties to bring back our connection to nature, reducing stress levels and providing joy and inspiration. Spending time walking through a forest or sitting under a tree has been proven to be incredibly beneficial to our well-being.

We in Britain have a strong affinity with the Oak being our National symbol of strength. The ruling majesty of our woods, the English Oak (Quercus robur) supports more life than any other native tree species in the UK. Oaks have been common to these Islands since the end of the Ice age and are steeped in our history, from ancient Druid rituals practiced in their groves to stories of royalty finding protection among their canopies and couples married under their branches in the time of Oliver Cromwell. The durability and usefulness of the tree’s timber is one of the reasons we ruled the waves, HMS Victory being constructed from over 6,000 trees 2,000 of which were oaks. Luckily for us these trees have been preserved in our deer parks and Royal Forests, status symbols of the aristocracy in the medieval ages many of which have remained protected areas of land.

Our pagan ancestors worshipped trees but for many of us nature has been pushed out of our lives. In the United Kingdom today, only 13 per cent of land is covered in trees, compared to an average of 35 per cent elsewhere in Europe. From a land rich in forests and woodlands, we have become a nation literally stripped bare of this most valuable of natural resources.

‘The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity and some scare see nature at all. But to the eyes of a man of imagination, nature is imagination itself’

(William Blake)

This quote has always stuck in my mind I feel sometimes that people have grown to take trees for granted and forgotten how important they are in every way. For as long as we have been on the planet, they are an integral part of us. Trees are under threat, endangered with disease, global warming deforestation and pollution. Yet they represent one of our greatest hopes for the future of the planet.

Over the past four years I have immersed myself in the world of trees. Trees have lived decades longer than any human being on the planet. They are old and wise, and I have acknowledged that with my artistic vision – A Portrait of the Tree.

This was conceived as a way of illustrating how trees connect us all on a universal level. The great beauty about asking people to think about their favourite tree is that most people have one, thinking back to climbing them as a child, sitting in their shade or as a defining and constant part of the landscape. The fact that some people have forgotten about their connection to that special place with a special tree is understandable in the frenetic world that we live in but returning to that happy place from time to time would be the best form of therapy we could have. The way trees communicate with one another and other species underneath the forest floor sharing nutrients and water through their root systems, is something known as the wood wide web, and the way in which more seasoned mother trees are able to detect the ill health of their neighbours through this mycorrhizal network and proved them with much-needed nutrients is a lesson to us all.

My hope is that together the stories and pictures in this book offer a powerful tool to help educate people. From children to adults, about the vital role that trees play in all of our lives and in turn give these amazing trees a voice.

When you are photographing a portrait of someone generally the more famous, they are the less time you have with them, so you need to make that connection in a short space of time in order to get the best out of them. Making that connection is the same with a tree, I would need to visit it and spend some time working out the best time of day or night to capture it and connect with it to understand it. The great advantage is the more famous the tree you can still spend as much time getting to know it as any other. Once you understand your subject you will be able to capture its best moment, the more patience you have waiting for that perfect light the better the result. Throughout the day and twilight hours trees will take on many forms as the light moves across them often the chosen tree maybe surrounded by many others, so You need to wait until the light form picks out the best moment to photograph it. Photographing a tree with atmosphere through the early morning mist of dawn or the last rays of sunset or on a dull rainy day to bring out its mystical charm inspiring people to look at trees in a different way and understand their beauty is the most important thing to me.


by Adrian Houston

£30 Hardback


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