Trees are one of the primary focuses of landscape photography, and for good reason. They’re a crucial component of our natural world and in addition to being largely responsible for producing the air we breathe, and the homes that shield us from the elements, trees convey specific meanings when it comes to their artistic depictions.
The relationship between human beings and trees is a fascinating one, as we survive on the oxygen they produce and they survive on the carbon dioxide we produce. Many of us feel strong connections with trees and nature in general and as such, art lovers everywhere are drawn in by dynamic and mysterious images of trees. Not only does beautiful tree art add natural elements to a room and add warmth or cold (depending on color schemes), but they do so with intent. They often have deep and profound meaning to the people who collect and display them.
Let’s explore the reasons behind the popularity of trees, both as subject matter in nature and landscape photography and with art collectors themselves along with a dive into what trees symbolize in different forms of artistic expression. From there, I will take you on a visual journey through fifteen photographs of trees that truly capture the majesty of nature and present artistic symbolism without having to say a word.
Symbolism & Meaning of Tree Photography
Depending on the type of tree depicted and the cultural influences of both the photographer and viewer, trees can represent different things depending on the viewer..
For example, the Norse saw trees as a symbol of connection between Earth and the nearby divine realms. One specific tree in Norse mythology, an ash named Yggdrasil, represented the entirety of the known universe to this culture. Yggdrasil was believed to connect all nine realms that Norse people believed to exist, thus tethering all of existence together.
Similarly, Ancient Jews examined the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge depicted in the scripture as representations of creation and the philosophy resulting from it.
Thousands of years ago in China, when the written and spoken language was new, the natural world influenced the development of vocabulary. The sturdiness and semi-permanent existence of a tree sheds light on why the word “willow” and the words “to stay” in Mandarin sound so similar. Additionally, the waving of wispy willow tree branches in the breeze was mentioned in Chinese poetry as a means to say goodbye.
Furthermore, in both the Eastern and Western worlds, trees can personify people and events that take place in human life. In China, fatherhood is often represented visually by Chinese Toon trees, while in western cultures, fathers are compared to oak trees.
In addition to the bright elements of life, trees can also represent the end of the cycle. Cypress and pine trees, for example, symbolized sorrow, grief, and death in Chinese literature.
The Tree of Life | Meaning & Symbolism
A popular and specific tree image that’s rooted itself into the art world, no pun intended, is the Tree of Life. This tree’s appearance differs somewhat from one culture to the next, but in general, the symbolism remains quite uniform.
Tree of Life images often portray a tree with far-reaching branches and spread out roots. In some of these images, the roots and branches come together to encircle the rest of the image. Images that portray similarly spread roots and branches create a mirror effect, which represents nature’s divine balance. Life comes into the world. It eats, it grows, it dies, and then it feeds the Earth to generate the next cycle.
Images that portray the roots and branches connected and weaved into a circle represent the interconnectivity of everything in nature. The existence of everything has an effect on everything else in terms of how we live, what we eat, and where our food and water come from. Nature’s web points to the idea that nothing exists alone, and what affects one community will affect every other in some way.
As an extension of the observations made about the natural world, the Tree of Life can also symbolize knowledge, a type of immortality, existence, family, enlightenment, peace, and strength. These variations are due to the fact that the Tree of Life is known in Judaism, Wicca, Paganism, Buddhism, and an array of other faiths and cultures.
The Symbolism of Specific Trees
We’ve covered the tree of life, but to delve further into tree symbolism in photography, we need to explore the representations of specific species of trees. While trees in general symbolize elements of life and nature, certain trees (and bushes) have their own meanings.
Health: Wild Apple, Aloe Vera, Wild Pear
Love: Rosemary, Rose, Camellia
Fortune: Fig, Cherry, Juniper
Strength: Irish Oak
Happiness: Myrtle, Wild Plum
Protection: Hawthorne, Bay, Silver Birch
Several tree species carry more than one meaning. The Rowan Tree, for example, represents life and existence in general. The Myrtle mentioned above represents both joy and love. Oak, truffle, and hazel represent a combination of faith, courage, wisdom, and inspiration.
In addition, while Pagans of ancient times and today view trees in general as a representation of the natural world, yew trees held a special place in Pagan culture as a symbol of death and rebirth. Areas with copses of yew trees were considered sacred and Pagans routinely planted new yew trees in locations they planned to designate as hallowed ground for ceremonies, burials, and rituals.
15 Stunning Examples of Tree Photography
Now that we’ve taken an in-depth look at the influence of culture in tree symbolism, the meanings connected to famous tree symbols, and the ways certain tree types can carry with them their own unique meanings, you’re equipped to explore the symbolism present in tree photography with an informed eye.
Let’s explore fifteen dynamic and stunning photographs of trees. When looking upon these images, think about the meaning depicted in each shot. How do the trees captured affect the mood and overall message the photograph is attempting to convey? What does each mean to you?