In the Company of Trees: The Photography of John Sexton

John Sexton (b. 1953) is best known for his luminous silver-gelatin black-and-white photographs of the natural environment. Photographs of trees are the heart of Sexton’s work, luminous examples of which are collected in his book, Listen to the Trees (1994). From the quiet dignity of eucalyptus bark enfolding in its cycle of renewal to the sweeping grace of a mature aspen forest, Sexton’s photographs brilliantly evoke the essence of trees – their primeval strength, their beauty, and their serenity. Accompanying the book is Sexton’s moving essay “Within the Forest”, reproduced here:

As I stand within an aspen grove in Castle Creek Valley, Colorado, I am reminded again of the rejuvenating quality of trees, how being surrounded by them can cleanse the mind, body, and soul of the distractions of what we call the real world. I am afraid that, as time has passed, what we accept as the real world has become distorted. As I wander with my camera in this beautiful stand of aspens, it is clear to me the real world is right here. The real world is within the natural environment, and for me one place to find the real world is within the forest.

Forests are sanctuaries. This aspen forest is like a room, with luminous white trunks for walls. I find myself looking upward to the green leaves quaking in the wind… toward the ceiling of thunderclouds passing by. In the distance thunder rolls through the valley… the sound of birds singing within the forest mingles with the remote whisper of a creek as it rushes over the rocks in its path. The forest creates an envelope like a protective cocoon. I feel at one with the trees, more comfortable among hundreds of them than in a group of people.

And as with people, trees have body language. Each tree is unique, has its own posture and gesture. Each has a quality that makes it an individual. As I stand here raindrops begin to fall from my ceiling of sky. Soon, the trunks that form the walls of my room will change their character, as moisture begins to streak down them, altering the quality of their surfaces, altering the way they reflect light.

During photographic workshops I have been asked what makes me stop and make a photograph. For me, with any subject it is the quality of light. It is a question of whether the light reveals or obscures the personality, the shape, the individuality of the tree. In the delicate light of this misty rain, the trees seem to glow as if illuminated from within. For me, then, the challenge becomes finding a group of trees that seem to relate to one another.

I am not often drawn to photograph a stand of trees in the distance, but would rather be within the forest, surrounding myself, and the viewer, with my woodland walls. As I look out the windows of my tree house, I see blue spruce, I see pine trees among the aspens, and I hear the leaves flutter as their trunks move gently and smoothly in the wind. I feel at home here, I feel at peace, I feel as if I have been delivered from those distractions we accept as the real world.

Selected Images from “Listen to the Trees”

Glowing aspen, Castle Creek Valley, Colorado.

Beech forest, autumn light, Braddock State Park, New York.

Forest in spring, Yosemite Valley, California

Fall Foliage, streams, Jedediah Smith State Park, California.

Forest in mist, X’ian, China.

Burned trunks and branches, Yosemite National Park, California.

Aspens and conifers, near Cloudcroft, New Mexico.

Trees in mist, Huangshan, China.

Aspen filigree at dawn, Sun Valley, Idaho.

Buckeye branches, autumn, Carmel, California.

Oaks at dusk, Carmel, California.

Dancing trees, winter, Yosemite Valley, California.

Burned trees, snow, Yosemite National Park, California.

Tree shadows on snow, Yosemite Valley California.

Curving Tree, Yosemite Valley, California.

Bare trees, cascade creek, Yosemite National Park, California.

Burned forest in rain, Yosemite Valley, California.

Fallen branches, reflections, Emerald lake, Canada.

Aspen and spruce forest, near Snowmass, Colorado.

Stands of aspen, Castle Creek Valley, Colorado.

Aspen glow, Kebler Pass, Colorado.

Spruce forest, late light, Castle Creek Valley, Colorado.

Black oaks, morning mist, Yosemite Valley, California.

Forest palette, Yosemite Valley, California.

Black oak, fallen branches, Yosemite Valley, California.

Aspen, quiet light, near Aspen, Colorado.

Diagonal aspen, Castle Creek Valley, Colorado.

Monterey Pines, Pebbles Beach, California.

Willow reflections, mirror lake, Yosemite Valley, California.

White beach hillside, Letchworth State Park, New York.

Smothering forest fire, Yosemite National Park, California.

Mist-shrouded tree, Vernal Fall, Yosemite National Park, California.

Cottonwood, winter light, Zion National Park, Utah.

Sycamore and buckeye, Pfeiffer Canyon, California.

Aspen trunks, early evening, Conway Summit, California.

Redwoods, new growth, California.

Trees and boulders, Yosemite National Park, California.

Burnt forest, new growth, Yosemite Valley, California.

Avalanched aspens, McClure Pass, Colorado.

Mythic forest, Yosemite National Park, California.

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