With his Traces series, Stuart Franklin explores the hybrid intersection between nature and society, as well as between landscape and memory. His photographs gaze outwards at the sublime and sometimes haunting landscape, and inwards to memories that the strange, crooked forms evoke and recapture. They are an invitation to journey to the walnut forests of Kyrgyzstan; to the twisting tree-roots of Angkor Wat; to the chewing gum trees of Mexico; to the ancient olive trees of the Mediterranean littoral; and home to some of the oldest trees in England and Wales. A selection of motifs from Traces, which was recently published by Dewi Lewis in a photo book of the same title, is on display at the Leica Gallery in Vienna. We spoke with the photographer about his project.
What does the connection between landscape and memory mean to you?
There are many ways, as an artist or photographer, of responding to landscape. My chosen approach, for at least 15 years, has been to see landscape through “the spectacles of memory”. By that I mean to respond to recognizable (anthropomorphic/zoomorphic) shapes and forms in landscape, to respond to the cultural context of landscape – such as trees that William Wordsworth wrote poetry about, or to respond to elements within a landscape that prick the memory. This is not a new approach. The painter Giorgio de Chirico took this approach; or the photographer Josef Sudek while photographing trees in the Carpathian mountains.
Generally speaking, what do trees mean to you?
I grew up in many places. Trees, and the sometimes quiet places where they grow, have always offered a form of therapy. I am passionate about trees. I am always sad when they are cut down. In so many ways trees have provided inspiration and joy to me.
Trees are more than just a resource – how philosophical or ecological do you see the series?
I don’t think that we can meaningfully separate Homo sapiens from the rest of nature: we have just become quite a dominant force on the planet. Thus, our relationship with and responsibility for our environment is critically important, as is the way that we consider future generations.
When did you start photographing trees, and when were the photos for the new series taken?
I’m not sure when I began photographing trees seriously: probably while a student in the 1970s. 90% of the pictures in the book and the exhibition were taken between March 2022 and May 2023. I was very focused on this project at an early stage, after completing the first pictures of ancient olive trees that I took in Malta in March 2022.
Why is the series titled Traces?
The title Traces was based on several layered thoughts I had quite early on while working on the book. First, perhaps, I think it was John Berger who wrote that “a photograph is a trace”. His choice of the term “trace” echoes multiple reflections on the indexical context of the photograph – its physical relationship to its referent: like a footprint in the sand. Second, I draw in the book on traces of personal biography and memory in my response to trees. Third, I explore the traces of ancient and extant pathways, such as the Via Augusta or the Silk Road, where trees took root thousands of years ago and where their future is uncertain.
Are there any trees with which you have a special connection, and which you have photographed over a longer period of time?
Yes. The willow tree that I tended for 12 or 13 years, at the bottom of my garden beside Lake Holsvatnet near Molde in Norway. I photographed that tree in every condition: snow, wind, rain and summer sunshine; and on every format – from 10×8 to 35mm. And I did return to photograph ancient olive trees in Spain twice over two years: in one case because I was unhappy with the composition; in another case because I wanted better light.
Why did you choose black and white, and which cameras did you work with?
My focus was on drawing out the forms, the shapes of trees in the landscape. Colour would not have helped. I’ve been working with a Leica since my first M3 in the 1970s. Throughout my time at National Geographic I worked with M6s. In this book I worked almost entirely with my M7 and my MP. Only a few pictures were taken with an old bellows Mamiya 6 or other cameras.
How would you describe the relationship of your nature and landscape photographs to your photo-journalistic work?
The larger distinction is less the subject: people versus landscape, more the level of subjectivity I have been able to bring to work I have done while unencumbered with commissions or assignments. So you could say that the relationship between wholly authored work and work where there are specific expectations, can been seen in the difference between, say, the National Geographic commissions that I was doing in the 1990s and the books or articles that I have published in the 2000s: in both periods I produced landscapes and photo-journalistic work.
In addition to your work as a photographer, you studied Geography and earned your doctorate in that subject. What was it about this discipline that particularly interested you?
I enjoyed the appeal of in-depth research – the time and space to digest ideas and to think.
Stuart Franklin was born in London, UK, in 1956 and lives in Norway. His work combines a direct documentary-style with a strong personal vision. He has photographed some of the most important media events of the 21st century, produced many excellent personal projects and published numerous books. In 1989, he took his highly acclaimed photographs of Tiananmen Square in Beijing, where a demonstration for freedom ended in a massacre. Between 1990 and 2008, he photographed about twenty reportages for National Geographic magazine. During this time, Stuart decided to pursue a better theoretical understanding of some of the issues he confronted, and began studying Geography in 1995, graduating with a PhD from Oxford University. In 2016, Franklin was awarded a professorship in Documentary Photography. Franklin joined Magnum Photos in 1985 and has been a full member since 1989, serving as the agency’s elected president from 2006 to 2009. Find out more about his work on the website of Magnum Photos and his Instagram channel.
The photo book Traces, with essays by David Nash and Martin Barnes, was published by Dewi Lewis.