Untitled (for Barb) is a black and white photograph showing a view of trees in winter. In the foreground, which is not in focus, a cluster of narrow trunks or branches extends vertically beyond either end of the picture frame; in the mid-ground a forest of tall saplings and older trees beyond a scrubby mass of twigs and branches is shown in sharp relief. Behind them, the contour of a hill gives way to hazy white sky. In the dead centre of the image, an unidentifiable object that superficially resembles a dead leaf hangs from the end of a twig. Looked at more closely, it suggests an animal heart; this interpretation is borne out by its large scale relative to the twig it appears attached to, and the artist’s dedication – ‘for Barb’ – of her untitled image. It is not known who the subject of this dedication is.
Although she has been based in New York’s urban environment since the late 1970s, nature has been a central preoccupation in Leonard’s work. In the mid 1990s, after spending extended periods of time first in the East Coast resort of Provincetown, and then in the remote Alaskan village Eagle, Leonard began to take photographs that show nature in an uneasy cohabitation with culture. Her Tree + Fence series of 1998 (see P79207 and P79208) show fences that have been partially engulfed by trees; another group of photographs presents the parts of animal carcasses discarded by Alaskan hunters, subverting the idealisation of ‘wild’ nature traditional to nineteenth-century American photography and painting. Although it was taken some years before the Tree + Fence series, Untitled (for Barb) already hints at this theme in a subtly ambiguous manner. Close scrutiny of the picture reveals a series of straight lines running through the organic chaos of the forest twigs and branches: three black lines suggest wires of some kind, stretched taut, while a diagonal white line extending from the ground to a point behind the fuzzy sapling in the foreground could be a plank propped against a tree. Leonard has commented:
Part of why I like photography is that it is a form of observation. Just walking down the street I am amazed by how much of everything already exists. There is so much beauty; there is so much cruelty. Part of the wonder of photographs is that ... you are making another object, but the object that you are making is from something that is already there. There is an aspect of photography that is like hunting and gathering ... I go out into the world and find thing, images or situations that strike a chord in me. Like any good hunter or gatherer I am grateful that those things are there. And I recognise their autonomy from me even if they are inanimate objects like rocks, bones or stars.
(Quoted in Secession: Zoe Leonard, p.9.)
The peculiar object hanging from a twig in Untitled (for Barb) heralds a group of works Leonard created in 1995, beginning with a photograph of a tree she came across that had lost all its leaves, but still had its fruit clinging to its branches (Untitled, reproduced Secession: Zoe Leonard, p.22). Another related image from the same year, Effigy (reproduced Secession: Zoe Leonard, p.49), shows a stuffed man hanging from a leafless tree. These images were reproduced in her book Strange Fruit (New York, 1995), its title referring to the song, made famous by Billie Holiday (1915–59), about the lynching of African Americans in the Southern states of America. The powerful image central to the song is the bodies of men hanging like ‘strange fruit ... from the poplar trees’. In addition to the photographs, Leonard’s project Strange Fruit includes fruit skins stitched together after the pulp has been removed (Philadelphia Museum of Art). During the same period, Leonard reconstituted a tree that had been cut up outside, developing an elaborate process of preserving dried leaves in order to attach them to the branches (Secession: Zoe Leonard, p.21).
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 Untitled (for Barb) in an edition of thirteen with three artist’s proofs; Tate’s copy is the twelfth in the edition.
Secession: Zoe Leonard, exhibition catalogue, Wiener Secession, Vienna 1997, reproduced p.6 and front cover (detail).