On Forest

Image: Yan Wang Preston | Text: Thomas Dukes

In considering contemporary photographic practice, we can draw upon epithets of our human nature and challenges. Photography and our lives are drawing ever closer, making it apt to investigate our modern issues with our modern language. Issues such as how, through rapid social updates, our traditional needs, pleasures and fears seemingly recur, or whether development must be essential and destructive. Without contradiction, these factors of our time show how breadth of vision is vital to imagining our future. Ideologies have disguised their form, grand narratives have been occupied, but a photographic conversation on the now is a powerful thing, acknowledging positive and negative – synthesis of styles made for this moment, where research, craft and message amplify the photograph’s power to change.



“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for?…”

Robert Browning, Andrea del Sarto, Published 1855


Dr. Yan Wang Preston’s practice is an exceptional example of the nuanced way photography might be interpreted and internalised, using contemporary awareness and canonical style to create images capable of communicating this high stakes moment. The work addresses the great threat to humanity, which is perhaps our human nature. This is the photography we need now, in this Anthropocene moment of world-changing possibility.


There is a human urge to extend the possibilities of what might be done, creating new opportunities for some and disadvantaging others. With the same medium as the industrial revolution, photography continues to reach forward as the language by which we report these changes. Through almost 200 years, photography has and will be implicated in documenting, sharing and contributing to the human repercussions brought about by social change resulting from new visions of the world.


When modernism created upheaval in social relations, causing marked difference and flux in the winners and losers, Lewis Hine and the Farm Security Administration in the US brought an awareness of the effects of mechanisation, working conditions and poverty. In the UK, anthropology met reportage in projects such as the Mass Observation Group, notably the Worktown project recording people in industrial Northern towns.


Good projects inspire us to discover the past and future in a photograph, to enhance our awareness of a situation so that we might act to make change. The image becomes a point from which to look backwards or forwards, imagining fictions, presenting truths, or a blend of both. In turn, these perspectives become part of the stories we share and the present we inhabit.  How might photography adapt to the ways we perceive and share the ‘now’? Especially as our reference points have become richer through the dismantling of Western-centric hierarchies.


Preston’s practice creates new ways to discuss and absorb the photograph as a moment in time. The images function with a visual parlance that’s traditional and new, composing with awareness of balance and form the mythology of the Anthropocene. I’ve worked with Preston on commissions about contemporary identity: people’s stories of movement to new lives, reflections on gender; or the present effect of traditional norms. Discover these projects and consider your relation to the portraits. The vitality in these photographs comes through their curiosity to how the world changes and is perceived. The photographer as intrigued but invested participant, aware but dismissive of the tired ‘insider vs outsider’ binary, creating projects which are timeless but pertinent to today.


Forest (2010 – 2017) is a series of photographs of contemporary life, new environments, modern-day landscapes, which invite reflection on our relationship to each other, to nature, about our notion of what nature should be and the priorities and responsibilities of contemporary society. These photographs grow through conversation and discovery – a layered and measured approach to the story of references and events brought to the image.


The project challenges us to deal with our environmental crises and has a breadth of geography and time. Taking over seven years of research and exploration, it has a compositional confidence informed by a breadth of landscape photographers, an anthropological imperative of the UK social documentary tradition, a grounding in the New Topographics photographers and further back through Ansel Adams, nature as sublime, into the tradition of shān shui paintings. Despite the scale of the project, the work has a lightness of communication beyond the fixed moment of the now, and let’s us talk about photography as art and myth – a mirror and folktale.


Forest originated whilst Preston was working on another epic project, Mother River (2010-2014). Mother River consists of 63 large format photographs at 100km points of progress down from the frozen mountain source of the Yangtze River to its mouth into the East China Sea above Shanghai. During this journey, Preston saw the trees which inspired Forest. In Chongqing, placed with mechanical, repetitive spacing, trees stood along roadsides and within ambitious new developments. Not natives, but trees bought and shipped in, needing support in their new location. Held by crutches to stabilise their weight, dripper bags containing nutrient solutions carried by tubes into their trunks. Over the course of Preston’s journey, the tree as the token of our relationship to nature recurred, and the idea of ‘green living’ as commodity became increasingly visible.


The majority of the images are produced in Chongqing, China.  The largest city in the world and home to over 30 million people.  Historically a city of natural beauty amid mountains and around rivers, its ambitions now are of the most modern infrastructure and living.  The backdrop to Forest is this ultra expansion of society: fresh steel and glass skyscrapers in new business districts; gigantic cement highways winding over tree tops around 40-storey apartment blocks; neoclassical hotels with columns of metal and plaster with gold-gilded capitals. With a few pointed exceptions, the transplanted tree is also present.  Sometimes bare of leaves, or in plastic bags, branches lopped. We are shown examples where the process is almost complete – seemingly comfortable trees growing against the base of half-finished towering buildings.


The project creates fables for the Anthropocene – myriad tales cautioning and celebrating – that question modern life’s multifaceted environmental destruction, geographically particular but globally applicable. It shifts from micro to macro, while building compositional foundations adding deftness of touch in its message.


In China, the movement of people from rural to urban is considered the largest migration in human history. The scale of opportunity to rewrite human society and its relationship to nature, while unique, is not confined to China. Just as they are considered essential in urban environments across the UK, these trees are more than garnish. From where I am sitting in Liverpool City Centre (UK), I can see 12 silver birch trees planted in a perfect 3 x 4 grid, trunks growing straight from granite flagstones laid in 2010 when the area was redeveloped. It is not considered unusual that this small urban forest should grow neatly from paved land between new glass and old brick buildings. Why do we expect a proximity to the natural world, even as we disregard it? In Chongqing, proximity to the natural world is one of the Five Ideals of the city – to be a forest city, a healthy city, a safe city, with good education and with good infrastructure. Positive and generous, the ideals present environmental responsibility alongside safety and health. Chongqing has a history as a city in nature, but the desire for conurbations to coexist with nature while the urban area continues to spread raises the question – why? Given the scale of China’s rural migration, are the trees replanted in the city as a familiar gesture for these new populations?


Many of the transplanted trees are uprooted from rural villages as trophies. We are presented with one such character, suggesting the wider story through three frames. The protagonist is Frank, a 300 year old tree first photographed in March 2013. The photograph is made in a rural village where houses stand in front of stretching hills. Framed by the tree’s canopy, trunk, and foreground, a sign encourages the villagers to move out – Resettle early, Start again faster, Make money sooner. Frank has grown here for around 300 years.

Three months later and Frank has been uprooted and moved – the positioning of Frank in this frame is proximate to the first.  The canopy is gone, empty branches stretch upwards, the trunk planted in a huge mound of red soil.


In the final frame, Frank has gone. Only the red soil remains, now covered with scrub and weeds. This story starts at a home, moves through development, and results in the failure of transplanting the tree. An incredibly neat tragedy, it impacts the way that you see the rest of the project.


Scale is present across this collection of images in subject and approach and in the spaces and ideas depicted. Preston speaks of working on a timeframe commensurate with the trees she photographs. The scale of development alludes to the ideological stakes in making a modern society, and her approach allows this to enter the project.


In Dali, Yunnan Province, the images are composed in a palette of blues, ochres and greens. Images inside a former quarry show the cities ambition of ecological recovery there, and image D9 – Yunlang Quarry Ecology Recovery Project, Dali, Yunnan, China, 2017 demonstrates the size of the task. People and the industrial machinery are miniscule against scraped out walls of the former quarry.  The transplanted trees are making hardly an impact on the bare land.




Forest is published by Hatje Cantz.