Detail (Tree + Fence) and Tree + Fence, 6th St. (Close-up) (P79208) are from a series of photographs of trees growing into fences that Leonard took in New York in 1998, collectively entitled the Tree + Fence pictures. As its title suggests, P79207 shows a close-up view of a tree trunk into which a wire chainlink fence has become partially embedded as the tree has grown in size. Leonard’s tight crop shows bark growing through the diamond-shaped spaces between the fence’s wire grid; some areas of bark have completely engulfed the fence while others have retained its patterning, expanding beyond it into a thickly textured crust. Where it is not being gripped by bark, the fence has buckled under the pressure of being gradually pulled away from its supports. Behind the cropped trunk, a new section of fence appears to have been erected to compensate for the damage created by the tree.
Leonard was inspired to begin photographing the Tree + Fence series by a tree that she had witnessed growing outside her New York apartment over a period of nearly twenty years, gradually extending towards and around the neighbouring fence. After a prolonged stay in the remote village Eagle on the Yukon River in 1995–6, where she was immersed in the Alaskan wilderness, surviving almost entirely from her own physical labour, she returned to New York with a changed attitude towards nature. She has recounted:
What I’ve always liked about photography is that it’s such a direct way of showing what’s on my mind. I see something. I show it to you. When I returned to New York, the tree outside my window attracted my attention in a whole new way. Once I had photographed it, I began to notice similar trees throughout the city ... I was amazed by the way these trees grew in spite of their enclosures – bursting out of them or absorbing them. The pictures in the tree series synthesize my thoughts about struggle. People can’t help but anthropomorphize. I immediately identify with the tree. At first, these pictures may seem like melancholy images of confinement. But perhaps they’re also images of endurance. And symbiosis.
(Quoted in Debord, p.101.)
A committed grassroots activist, in the 1980s and 1990s Leonard was involved in several New York political groups and artists’ collectives, most notably ACT UP, WAC, Gang and Fierce Pussy, who were working to end the AIDS crisis, protect black and gay identity, women’s rights and universal freedom of choice. This led her, in the early 1990s, to photographing anatomical models and medical curiosities in European museums – such as Wax Anatomical Model (Shot Crooked from Above) 1990 (P79209) – and Natural History Museum displays – Carnivores 1992 (P79210) – as well as, most notoriously, disembodied vaginas for an installation at Documenta IX in 1992. During the latter half of the 1990s Leonard’s political concerns developed into an interest in the relationship between contemporary culture and nature. She has said of the Tree + Fence pictures that they are ‘sort of still lifes’, elaborating: ‘these are slow pictures ... The ideas feel so big to me – they are about the essentials of life: food, growth, death, subsistence, metamorphosis, survival ... big, slow questions.’ (Quoted in Zoe Leonard, p.12.) Unlike her earlier photographs, which are framed using extreme angles, movement and a shallow depth of field, with the Tree + Fence pictures Leonard tried to approach her subject in the most direct way possible – putting the emphasis on viewing simply what is there, rather than creating an emotionally charged mood or atmosphere – to allow the viewer a more ambiguous response. The photographs show the trees in flat light, without shadows and with the minimum of extraneous detail.
A related sculptural work made the previous year – Tree 1997 (Paula Cooper Gallery, New York) – is a tree sawn into pieces and then reassembled in the gallery, held together with metal screws, bolts and plates and supported by a structure of metal rods that evoke a crutch. With such works Leonard subverts the idealisation of ‘wild’ nature, traditional in nineteenth-century American photography and painting, replacing it with the uneasy cohabitation of culture with nature evoked in P79207 and P79208.
Leonard does all her own darkroom work, printing her photographs full frame – resulting in a narrow black border – without any correction or alteration to the image. She printed Detail (Tree + Fence) in an edition of six with two artist’s proofs; Tate’s copy is the fifth in the edition.
Zoe Leonard, exhibition catalogue, Centre for Contemporary Art, Ujazdowski Castle 1999, p.12, reproduced p.27.
Matthew Debord, ‘A Thousand Words: Zoe Leonard talks about her recent work’, Artforum, vol.37, no.5, January 1999, pp.100–101.