Concerning Trees Photography Exhibit by Nico van Dongen

"Concerning Trees" by Nico van Dongen
Spring 2020 / Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, California

Enter this fantastical world and get lost. And found. These trees, forests and vistas beckon you to enter an experience that re-examines time and place.

Each final photograph is the result of hours of production work combining multiple exposures and layering as one image–with evocative results. The artist has ultimately created a two-dimensional echo chamber that transports you and asks you to observe with awareness and heightened consciousness. And in this state, with your own memories and longing, may it also give you a more personal connection with trees.

"The layers allow us to touch what we like about nature. That's why I would want one in my house. Looking at it gives me the ability to have that energy in my own home because I can't have a big tree there.  

~ Jeffrey Levin, Poet and/the Bench goldsmith and curator

Concerning Trees | Nico van Dongen | Catching High Light
Catching High Light, 2020

How did you conceptualize the Concerning Trees series?
I started photographing trees as sketches in the beginning to see what it would take to frame them the same way I would do with my close-ups in the studio. Thoughts and questions began to arise:

  • How can I translate a tree’s mass and lightness?
  • Trees make it seem so easy to be a tree.
  • Revisiting the same location in a park or forest makes for a deeper connection.
  • Just like a human, trees radiate differently every hour of the day, every season or moon cycle.
  • I am trying to show what I see when I take my glasses off.

My intention is for this work to be about the visual experience and not let the tools stand in the way. The visual impact of the photography should speak louder than how it's been made, and you can filter out all those technical questions. This effect allows you to step into that image and be part of this transition of time and space in one moment. The layers just came–natural, multiple images and multiple layers.

You mentioned feeling a sense of freedom with the project. Are the resulting composited images a visual syntax of that state of mind?
It all started with a personal intention. If I think back about how this project came together I have to go back about 5 years. I decided to self-examine and see how I could be a better person. A better husband, a better father, a better man and a better artist. I started journaling, drawing, and painting. I took martial arts classes and found a shaman to assist me on my quest. The intention for my journey was to “let go and listen.” During this journey I saw the interconnectedness between all things. I truly felt how I was part of something far bigger and began to see my part in it all.

Photography means writing with light. Light travels in waves. Light is energy. We are energy. Trees are energy. That is the connection I make with my subject. The layers are there to create an initial doubt in what you think you're looking at. Once you see them you can turn them off, but at the same time you have to surrender to them.

When you are playful with your mind there are no more limitations and everything you conceive you can make possible.

Nico van Dongen Horse in Forest Fine Art Photograph Golden Gate Park
Horse in Forest, 2020

There is a dreamy and ethereal quality to the images–they beckon one to enter the environment. You used the word, evocative to describe the results... can you expand upon what this achievement meant to you?
Trees are great subjects to photograph. They’re impressive, they’re complex, they play with the light and they blend in with their surroundings. So maybe my intention was to allow myself to have no rules and to be there for the trees.

The eye has to learn to listen before it can see. What I see with my eyes, what I can draw, what I can capture with my camera is only a slice of reality. Nothing is ever still. How is it that we are so accustomed to still images? My photographs try to break through the clutter of a still image. My photographs provoke re-examining of time and place. It's a still photograph with an echo of its surroundings. 

After I shot my first test photographs, worked on the layering, and saw the results, I immediately understood the potential. I became wildly enthusiastic and photographed a dozen images daily.

I would go for walks, bring my images home and work on them immediately. It is a pure photographic process. Most of the heavy lifting is done on location with a camera. The ghosted semi transparent layers are like echoes of visual memories, representing elusive ripples in time over the image.

I noticed that what captures our interest varies over time. In the real world, we absorb scenes around us with our senses, as our attention constantly shifts. The camera is used as an instrument not to replicate what the eye observes, but the refractions of light camera captures. What seizes attention at first glance in my photographs, might change with a closer observation. When we shift our gaze, we can see the connection between space and time in a two dimensional plane.

Nico van Dongen Fine Art Photography Light Waves
Light Waves, 2020

Around the same period I also started painting with oil paints and it forced me to look at my color palette much more as a painter than as a photographer. I started looking at focus impressionists and especially the Russian and northern European painters. I come from the land of Rembrandt and I love the darkness and the saturated deep rich amber in the paintings, offset with the beautiful blue skies with puffy clouds. I spent many hours looking at paintings, looking at composition, looking at color, looking at texture. Most of my life my photographs have been referred to as paintings, so it all seemed to come together.

I let go of my ego as a photographer and I started listening to the trees.

I started reading philosophy, the classics, the contemporaries, the locals, the crazies. During this time I also became wildly interested in the science and metaphysics of our visual world. Is it really true that what we see, what we are in? (The matrix). For the first time in my life I questioned reality.

As an artist I want to share with you what I found. My way of seeing the world. I have pretty poor vision and have dyslexia, so when I take my eyes off my phone or my monitor or when I take off my glasses I put my gaze at infinity. I see what I see in my photographs.

It took me to fully surrender to trust that I see the world the way I see it. And with this story I want you to trust that you see the world as you see it. These photographs allow you to stand in the light as I see it. And I hope that for a moment when you put your gaze on infinity it will brighten up your day.

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.

~ William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Nico van Dongen Feather Light Photograph from Concerning Trees Exhibition
Feather Light, 2020

Where was the world at the time in relation to the Covid pandemic?
When Corona started I knew immediately that there would be a time span and there would be an ending, and we still don't know how or when this will end. I knew at the beginning that if there is an ending, I want to be able to look back and say “during Corona this is what I have done.” Corona gave me time to focus on what is important in my life, my family, my work, my creativity, my health, my spirituality and my general well-being. I also feel cut off from sharing the daily things with my friends. I miss a hug, a handshake, a kiss.

I am a professor at three colleges: University of San Francisco, College of San Mateo and HULT, and all of my classes moved online. The whole family was sheltered in place, glued to screens. We were all devastated to see the large scale destruction of the fires. Trees became even more meaningful.

I set up shop in the studio, our attic with views of Golden Gate Park and the Panhandle. In the spring of 2020, I had been photographing fruits and flowers intimately close up. These organic forms and characters taught me to be more observant in nature of its colors, its lines, its textures. The idea of using multiple angles in my studio instead of still images naturally progressed onto a bigger stage.

What does Golden Gate park mean to you / your personal experience about it?
Trees are the largest living organic form close to my home. The park has been my backyard for 20 plus years and provides the ultimate San Francisco outdoor experience.

Spending more time here during Covid is spurring my ongoing fascination with the enormous trees in Golden Gate Park. What struck me most was the density of the material of a tree. Trees contain both weight and lightness. A tree can hold itself up so gracefully–so effortlessly. So on my walks in the park and the Panhandle, I took pictures of trees and looked at them in my studio. I started to dialogue with the camera and a live object–the tree. I couldn’t portray it as a still image because nothing is still in nature. Nothing is still, “change is the only constant”.

Were you changed by the experience of looking at the park with the perspective of this project?
Because I changed, the park changed, and the trees changed. The trees are there in all their glory. They are much bigger, much more powerful, much more complex than we are, but they breathe like we do. So it's not the experience in the park, it's the experience of how I experienced myself that brought the park and the trees to me.

Fork Tree Layered Photograph Composite in Golden Gate Park
Fork Tree, 2020

Take a short tour with fine art photographer Nico van Dongen:

We love this new series by Nico so much. The exhibit has immense resonance for us–we have witnessed the devastation of trees, forests, homes, businesses and lost lives in the years of fires that have ravaged our neighbors north and south of Mill Valley where our shop is. We are casual hikers, with a love of what we call "forest surfing"–to be under the canopy of trees, with light filtering in just so, taking in the smells of the earth as we walk on fallen leaves, enjoying the shade that protects our skin from exposure and the sublime noises and stillness of nature. The neon lichen, bracken and moss in some of our favorite forests give us delight and childlike imaginings as we walk through the density of colors. The respite from the challenges in life.

To see the scorched lands near us, and know the pain of life and livelihoods lost, breaks our hearts.

Nico's stunning photographs struck a nerve. The timing also came in parallel to the launch of Obi Kaufmann's latest book, The Forests of California. This book is an expansive and accessible exploration of the biodiversity that defines California in the global imagination–nearly one hundred species of trees, and an astonishing richness of ecosystems. We have been carrying Obi's books for a few years and enjoyed having him in-person at our shop June 2019. He has reminded us to ground ourselves in nature. To take a walk with the trees, to slow down, put bare feet on the earth, and just listen. 

Jeffrey sees layers in forests, trees, feels they have energy, souls. "There's a conversation. They're not inanimate objects. They're alive," he says. "The layers allow us to touch what we like about nature. That's why I would want one in my house. Looking at it gives me the ability to have that energy in my own home because I can't have a big tree there.”

"Concerning Trees" are hauntingly beautiful, ethereal photographs that celebrate trees, and a way of seeing that powerfully brings each of us to a place of magic.

Come see the selected photographs from this series in person at Poet and/the Bench or view the collection online here. Read more about Nico in our Conversations with an Artist series. 

Please do let us know if you have any questions. We'd love to help you bring trees into your home.

In beauty,
Bonnie & Jeffrey 

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