More than meets the eye … and then some.
I do a lot of driving, as many of us do living in Southern California. The windshield and the rearview mirrors frame much of my experience of the outside world. My mind records only a reference, devoid of details, of intersections, of landmarks, the places I turn to get to where I am going.
Sometimes my mind will create an image, picking up a flash of color, a tree, a building, a sense
of place, trigger a fascination, an idea about the world requiring a second look. If I have time, I
drive around the block, pull over, and look to see what’s there. Most of the time, the juxtaposition my mind creates out of the passing scene does not conform to the world as it is, whatever caught my attention is not really there and I keep going. Sometimes, when it is there, I get out of the car and walk around studying the way the light defines the elements that came together in my mind, to see if I can put them into a photograph. If I think I can, I get the camera out of the trunk. It usually takes me forty-five minutes to set up. I expose two sheets of film, eventually choosing one.
I try to set into motion the elements of light, film and exposure with the objects I find in the world (a tree, a person, a street, a vehicle, the wind, the clouds, the sky), which when they come together in a photograph are unpredictable, which create visual phenomena unique to photography, unrepeatable even if the camera is stationary, and in the next second another exposure is made.
I photograph trees because their activity lacks the ambivalence about being alive that the activity of human beings so often expresses, that they are alive at all is often surprising, hopeful, even triumphant in the urban sprawl, in the vast, mind-numbing sameness of how we have made everything.
I process the film in a pyro developer, the formula originated in the 19th Century at the beginning of photography, scan the negatives into Adobe Photoshop, reprocess them, literally making thousands of adjustments which reproduce exactly using inkjet technology, presenting the polished version of reality we have culturally come to take for granted through our constant exposure to advertising. The images are cropped for balance. Verticals are trued to 90 degrees. Any defects in the photographic process removed. Contrast and brightness selected.
Then, I let my eye drift through the photograph and anything that disrupts the flow of the movement of my eye through the image is changed (leaves cleaned off sidewalks, oil spots removed from the street), freeing the eye to roam through the image in a perfect Brownian motion, while at the same time retaining their sense of place, the impression of reality, the feeling that somewhere the scene depicted in the photograph exists, that the events, however prosaic, have actually happened.
The exposures are long, creating an expression of the relativity of the time frames of trees, of people, of traffic, of the earth, as they co-exist, compressing many individual events into a single image. The images have a formality about them, a sense of balance between lights and darks, pristine, structured, Cézanne-ian, Matisse-ian.
All this, so the viewer will relax, feel reassured. To experience pleasure looking at the photographs, develop a sense of peace, of equanimity, so they can open their hearts to what normally passes without notice, to draw into consciousness what is ordinarily avoided, to live in the world we have made for ourselves, present for the way we live our lives.
Tree Spotting with George Haas
To open a portfolio of George Haas’s trees is to embark on a visual tour of his arboreal world. I imagine the mode of transportation, in true L.A. fashion, to be a car. George is driving, and we ride in the passenger seat. We spend the day navigating the highways and byways of Southern California; from time to time George stops the car, we all hop out, and he introduces us to another tree—each one a dear friend who has a story to tell. For Los Angelenos, this may be the first time they have actually stopped and focused on the trees that occupy their day-to-day lives. For those from afar, it is a fresh opportunity to explore this quirky place. Haas’s portraits make us pause: with humor, irony, and bluntness, his views of individual trees reveal much about their particular surroundings and the humans with whom they share their habitat.
Haas certainly isn’t the first artist to be interested in natural phenomena. As long as human beings have been visually interpreting their world, they have been drawn to the flora around them. Albrecht Dürer painted hyper-detailed images of blades of grass; Claude Lorraine depicted people frolicking in the shadows of larger-than-life, leaf-laden trees. The trees in Albert Bierstadt’s paintings and Carleton Watkins photographs of the West contributed to the overall grandeur of their compositions. Between 1855 and 1857 Gustave Le Gray created portraits of individual trees in the Fontainebleau forest. More recently, Robert Adams has photographed trees in rural and urban areas largely with the intention of drawing attention to the destruction that humans have left in their wake. Haas brings many of these same qualities to his work: an attention to detail, a sense of playfulness and wonder, and an ecological concern.
Haas’s trees are situated in rural, suburban, and urban settings throughout Southern California. They live amidst nondescript buildings, streets, cars, and telephone wires. Though very few people
appear in the portraits, these environments have been molded by and for humans. Their presence is marked by their ghost-like traces or the streaked lines left by cars that have sped through Haas’s long exposures. We are reminded that the trees’ lives are subject to manipulations and changes. In the midst of this metropolis, human beings choose what trees to plant, where to plant them, what shape they will take, and even how high they will grow; the trees’ fates ride on the whimsy of their human neighbors. In Eucalyptus #3, Camarillo, 2002 (black-and-white p27) Haas portrays three trees
trapped between two fences that straddle a highway and a frontage road. Palm #9, Los Angeles, 2002 (black-and-white p33) peeks over the top of a large, boxy retail building as if to say, “I’m still here, but for how long?” A year later this Palm might be replaced by a microwave tower as in Microwave Tower #14 v 2, Los Angeles, 2004 (color p32). Some of Haas’s portraits, such as Cedar #14, Norwalk, 2003, (black-and-white p45), show naked, vulnerable trees that have lost a good deal of their limbs in a seemingly brutal pruning process; one wonders if they will ever recover.
Despite this heavy-handed control on the part of humans, many of Haas’s trees thrive. The wise, old Live Oak #11, Thousand Oaks, 2003 (black-and-white p28) fans out beyond the frame of the composition and metaphorically beyond its human-ordered sphere. In Cypress #9, Simi Valley, 2003 (black-and-white p23), a gaggle of trees huddles together to decide the fates of the dwarfed houses below them. These flourishing trees beg the question: can humans fully reign over nature? With all of our attempts to confine them, the trees still find ways to survive.
In Haas’s portraits, the trees are the stars of the composition. Everything else takes on a secondary role, particularly in the black and white series. The trees are the primary living beings in the photographs, each with a distinct personality. Stand-ins for humans, they take on anthropomorphic characteristics. Their individual expressions are as varied as those of the people who live with them. If we were presented with a portfolio of portraits of people in Southern California we could formulate impressions of a place by scrutinizing their gestures, their physical attributes, and their dress. Haas’s trees offer similar insight into this place. There is an exoticism in the lush flowering trees as well as in the lithesome Palms that stretch high above the buildings. When one turns to Haas’s color series, the fantastical and exotic nature of this place is highlighted even more.
The fluorescent green leaves, the fire engine red flowers of the tree on the cover [Eucalyptus #31, Hollywood Riviera, 2004], and the delicate lavender Jacaranda flowers seem unreal. The bright warm light that floods the trees and their surroundings adds to the sensuality of the scenes.
Haas’s trees belie a sense of the artifice that is so prevalent in this glamorous town. A group of highly groomed Ficus (Ficus #3, Morning Side Park, 2002; black-and-white p32) pose in a perfect row down the center of a street like a chorus line awaiting its musical cue. His Floss-Silk Tree #1, North Hills, 2003 (black-and-white p21) look like aliens from a Hollywood movie or characters from a children’s book. Elm #10, Garden Grove, 2004 (black-and-white p44) wears one top layer of leaves as if it were a toupee. Actually, trees in Southern California reveal the invented nature of this place, since few are indigenous to the desert climate. Like many of the celebrities, they have been imported to enhance the illusion that is L.A.
Cars and their ghosts are omnipresent in Haas’s photographs; the trees are part of a culture of cars. The fleeting automobiles act as a counterpoint to the stationary, patient trees. In images such as Coral Tree #1, Manhattan Beach, 2002 (black-and-white p37) a tree struggles to survive at the intersection of two busy streets and in Floss-Silk Tree #3 v2, Pasadena, 2004, (color p48) a small wisp of a tree stands guard at the entrance to a highway.
As we move from picture to picture, we travel with George from town to town and neighborhood to neighborhood in the greater Los Angeles area. In the process we encounter the great ethnic and
economic diversity of Southern California. Perhaps the trees themselves don’t say much about ethnicity, but by giving the names of their neighborhoods in the titles—Koreatown, Chinatown,
Filipinotown—and by including the graphic signs in various languages,Haas is calling our attention to the ethnic richness of L.A. In economic terms one finds healthy, burgeoning trees in the wealthier areas such as Thousand Oaks and Santa Monica. Yet, Haas also shows trees thriving in the lower income sections of Los Angeles. In the end, it seems that the well-being of an individual tree is based more upon whether someone chooses to care for it and whether it has its own strong will to live.
Interestingly, Haas takes the notions of control and artifice one step further in his own artistic process. He uses film to take his photographs, then he scans the negatives, and transfers the files to Photoshop where he manipulates them. He sometimes uses multiple negatives to create one image, or if he feels his composition would be better with an extra branch here or one less bush over there, he essentially becomes a digital gardener who prunes or plants with the click of a mouse. He hasn’t created an entirely new world, he has only tweaked it. Like a painter who chooses to portray his sitter in a flattering manner, Haas carefully edits his works, and in the process, controls and directs his viewers’ focus.
After having taken George’s tree tour, one does see a little differently. Out and about on the streets of L.A., I find myself LOOKING at the trees and wishing I could actually talk to them. What stories could they tell? What things have they seen? What lives have they watched go by? I think about how we humans have tried to determine their destinies and how they have, at times, outsmarted us and have found their own modes of expression and growth. Whether out in the world or in one of Haas’s photographs, the trees and the humans are partners in a dance; they cohabitate and collaborate in a creative existence. Somehow this all makes me feel hopeful for both species.
A String of Crimes Against Ansel Adams
In George Haas’s photo-based compositions, the only subject granted the unadulterated luxury of triumphant repose is the tree. Everything else exists as some kind of ghost, or maybe, an abandoned husk, totems otherwise hollowed, their sole purpose to refract the glorious tree at the compositional heart of each piece.
But what is it that we should make of this favoring exactly? Is this a simple object correlative gone wild? Some falsehood perpetuated by Haas, imposing a vision that’s surely a far cry from how things ever are? Well-heeled negation disguised as process, all in the service of Haas’s romantic re-rendering, his ongoing meditation manifest in two dimensions, foraging through permutations of cityscape, attempting to bolster the premise that the best things in life seldom if ever speak actual English, and thus lack the capacity to lie?
Who really knows?
And therein may be the single strongest element in this work. From the craggy peak on which I’m stationed, the questions of intent are what prompt me to return to the pages of Forcing Nature. Despite being made aware of the almost monastic process required to create these pictures, one is spared the didacticism inherent in so much of the work requiring a comparable amount of labor. Haas conjures tirelessly but never insists we feel one way or the other about what we’re taking in; it is a wisdom that alludes to a substantial degree of artistic maturation—brave enough to whisper where others feel obliged to scream. And yet, those quiet pictures when gathered culminate into a sonic exploration of the afterlife of the altered image, with Haas’s pursuits amounting, at their apogee, to a string of crimes against Ansel Adams. And I mean that in the best of ways.
His is a prayer laid opened across the ravaged desert range upon which we’ve cast the dreamscape of our mistress. His work pays homage to the warm and fuzzy artificiality of Los Angeles, a city that has lovingly schooled me never to dismiss the lessons taught by the fraudulent, forever prodding and reminding the onlooker that fake doesn’t necessarily mean bad. A quiver of eighty images, this book is an adulterous journey into the unholy alliance between the precise and the random.
In my initial encounter with this work, I was drawn to the colors: their effusive but controlled boasting, ROYGBIV conspiring in a Technicolor orgy enveloping the artist’s beloved hero-tree. In the black and white work, though, with its near-monolithic graphic levity and solidity of composition, it’s as if inspiration for each was drawn from an early communist propaganda poster; the bands of black & white as propped up by a geological layering of grays. But, then time passed, and a longer view, something very different, began to emerge.
More and more, my eye was drawn to the artist’s very intentional trail of evidence. Haas was like a thief, stealing imagery, erasing as he saw fit, yet always with a hint or two trailing behind—proof that he took what he needed, but then by leaving a residual, almost like a tag, he invited us to look beyond what remained in the frame. We must use our imagination to fabricate another layer, the specter of another dimension, that prompts us to forge onward past the obvious and embrace that notion that there is always something equally if not more arresting lurking underneath. Haas performs like a stealth puppet master, his cosmological mission unfolding and gathering momentum with each flipped page. In fiction, the truth is always much more at liberty to reveal itself: THIS IS NEVER ALL THERE IS.
In Redwood #2 Filipinotown, 2005 (color p13), a pair of redwoods stand in front of the Beverly Discount Mall. The clouds above hanging heavily, give the appearance of roiling past the scene, abandoning the image. A lone, white van is parked in foreground, and a figure clad in a red top crossing the frame is smudged in motion. There is little in the way of story here. Trying to transpose or imagine a drama seems futile, with any kind of constructed narrative feeling far too much an exaggeration. The image acts much more naturally as a mirror, the haze pushing the trees into the foreground and the signage with its fusion of English title and Spanish description evoking the reality of their economic embrace. Meanwhile, in front and running along the left border, the two trees stand like verdant pillars holding up the man-made elements in the field. One could quite easily envision the trees standing alone in the shot, the pre-shot shot, a benevolent witnesses to what comes next—the moment when everything else around it comes crashing down from out of the sky.
In Palm #11, Chinatown, 2002 (black-and-white p49), a Palm arches ever so slightly to the left, the earth flattened all around it. The lean of the tree, like a staggering prizefighter, implores one to cock one’s head, adjusting the point of view to take in the full breadth of the image. As we scan our eyes downward across the image, resting upon the swath of pavement that runs the entire bottom of the image, we can see that the delicate balance of the composition—managing to be crooked yet somehow also holding true to the vertical field—is the result of Haas’s hand deftly sculpting the wrongness into a formalist right.
Even the most banal vista offers the human eye infinite fodder. The myriad options make the visual artist’s process of selection, at the very least, a behemoth act of negation: a near-Byzantine mental lottery of attrition. With thousands of decisions to be made, the synapses sift and filter through all layers, conscious and otherwise, searching for a sense of order that appeases the original impetus.
Though, in truth, agendas are doomed to be forever changing things. The tumblers spinning, backward and forward, are in hot pursuit of some magical and unpredictable combination that will convey, in a compelling way, what it was that moved the artist to stop, look, listen, and report at exactly the moment they did. Haas, rooted in what at first glance appears to be the mundane, takes us to a place very far away from the ordinary—his vision a galaxy dangling coyly over the sublime.