Women in Trees: Sweet and Subversive Vintage Photographs of Defiant Delight


Chance-anthropology and a secret tribe.


Women in Trees: Sweet and Subversive Vintage Photographs of Defiant Delight

It was always a rapture, a rebellion, a gauntlet against gravity and girlhood — skulking past the teachers, pushing through the boys, and racing across the schoolyard to climb the colossal walnut tree, whose feisty fractal vivacity mocked the bleak Brutalist architecture of my elementary school in Bulgaria.

Then there was my rural-grandmother’s cherry tree, into whose balding crown I would disappear to sulk when my parents discarded me to the country for yet another endless summer. And the copse of horse-chestnut across the street from my city-grandmother’s lightless apartment, whose friendly open-palmed leaves beckoned me to find the first of the spiky green fruit, before they released their shiny brown pebbles of seed onto the cracked sidewalk.

My wrist-bones turned into twigs, and I was able to cross the Atlantic to put down sovereign roots. But the instinct never lost me. Maybe because we are never without our child. I climbed — not with the skills and scientific motive force of an arbornaut but with the sylvan transcendence of Blake — oaks in Brooklyn and coastal redwood in Bolinas and Douglas Fir in Olympia and the Tree of Life in New Orleans.

New Orleans Oak-hopping, September 2020 (Photograph: Milène Lichtwarck.)

I learned to love trees as more than just an aerial playground. They are also a source of great poetic, philosophical and ecological value.

Imagine, then, my delight when a friend handed me a copy of More Women in Trees (public library) by the German photography editor, collector, and curator Jochen Raiss, a follow-up to his improbable hit Women in Trees (public library) — an entry in the ledger of lovely things created by the confluence of chance and choice (which, as Simone de Beauvoir observed with her keen existentialist eye, actually includes our very lives and what makes us who we are.)

It began with a single photograph Raiss found while rummaging through the bin of hodgepodge vintage ephemera at a Frankfurt flea market — a woman, in a tree, happy and carefree.

He was so delighted by it, he took it home to use as a bookmark.

He began to find others through his frequent flea market trips, thanks to the amazing pattern-recognition skills of the human brain. He began collecting them. He meticulously catalogued them all in old wooden crates.

Over the course of a quarter century, he amassed some 140 specimens of the genre, the anthropology of a secret tribe — strange, sweet, subversive photographs of anonymous women engaged in acts of arboreal daring, taken before color film became a commonplace and feminism a conscience.

These photos were taken in Germany, the epicenter of World War II. They may have been taken by women who hailed Hitler. Some of them died in concentration camps. For those precious moments, suspended high above the current, waslanded in time and space, their shared something beautiful and singular, and united in a sisterhood full of sylvan joy.

Their mute, defiant delight seems to be saying, “My grandmother was jailed for wearing trousers but I can win the Nobel Prize in Physics”; seem to be saying, “My mother could not vote but my daughter can be chancellor”; seem to be saying, “I can go as high as I please, damned be gravity and grace, so I can peer at broader horizons.”

Complement the mischievous and marvelous Women in Trees and More Women in Trees with Dylan Thomas’s “Being But Men” — his love poem to trees and the wonder of being human, composed in the same era, an era when “man” included “woman” while erasing women — then revisit artist Art Young’s century-old meditation on human nature in tree silhouettes and Italian visual philosopher Bruno Munari’s existential lesson in how to draw a tree to see yourself.


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