The tree by Richard Woldendorp

The Tree by Richard Woldendorp

Reviewed by Wendy Lipke

In his coffee table book of photographs, the tree, acclaimed landscape photographer, Richard Woldendorp, highlights the individual statements made by trees. He believes that ‘every tree has its own personality – no two trees are the same. Like people, they emerge from the circumstances of their environment’ (9). In a way he is revering trees which are so necessary for our survival, reminding the viewer that through logging and deforestation in our race to dominate this land, we are carelessly tossing aside these beautiful, majestic, unique, colourful, life-sustaining trees.

Born in the Netherlands, Richard Woldendorp, AM, moved to Australia in 1951 and since that time has photographed the Australian landscape, from different points of view – initially from the ground and then from the air. His work is exhibited throughout Australia with photographs displayed in major galleries and collections. The excellence of his work has been recognized through his being named Australian photographer of the year in 1982, and his being admitted into the Commercial and Media Photographers Hall of Fame in 2002. In 1998 he became an honorary life member of the Australian Institute of Professional Photography and in 2004 he was awarded the title of Western Australia’s State Living Treasure. He received his Order of Australia for services to the Arts in 2012.

It is obvious through the photographs displayed in the book that Richard Woldendorp has a great respect for Australian trees and is fascinated by their individual characteristics which he has gone to great pains to present in this beautiful book.

Photographs dominate the book, each accompanied by a brief acknowledgement of the species name and location. The only other text comes from a one page Foreword by Piers Verstegen, Vice-President, Australian Foundation Director, Conservation Council of Western Australia; a one page statement from the photographer explaining his reasons for choosing trees as his subject and a brief acknowledgement statement to those who have inspired and encouraged him through his long career and those who gave their time to helping to bring this book to fruition. The paper covering that encases this hard cover book also provides extra information about the photographer. The size of the photographs varies throughout the book from double page and single page spreads, to smaller one or two photographs on the page where the white background provides stark contrast to the photographs displayed.

Richard Woldendorp has used many different camera angles to highlight the unique characteristics of the trees included – from a birds eye view placing the subject in its environment, to close-ups of sections of individual trees – looking up and down. He has also employed the use of shadows, silhouettes, reflections, colours and contrasts to enhance his representations.

In his aerial photos on page 38,39 and 104-5 the mangrove trees along the tidal creeks in Western Australia and the river system around Boulia in Queensland echo the shape of the trees they nourish, while photos on page 44 to 47 show how the trees follow the rivers whether they are surrounded by water, sand or salt lakes. Many of his photographs have been taken in some of the hottest and most arid areas in Australia showing that ‘Australian trees have adapted over millions of years to climate, (and) soil … in order to survive… , giving them their unique characteristics and diversity’ (9).

Photos taken on farmland in Western Australia’s wheatbelt region (106, 107) highlighting shadows cast by the trees add a different perspective, as do the shadows of branches on the elephant-like trunk of the boab tree on page 120. The use of silhouettes on page 12 highlights the colour of the rock of Uluru, and with the dead tree on page 13 makes it look like a human heart with its connecting arteries and veins. This same technique was used to dramatic effect in the double page spread on pages 122-3, showing the magnificent boab trees set against a vivid Western Australian sunset.

Several photos have been taken looking up into the branches of the trees. The canopy shots of this kind are found on pages 16, 24, 25, 34-5, 84-5, 99 and depict the rugged and colourful, the strange regeneration after a fire, the misshapen arthritic upper branches of a lemon-scented gum, the majesty of the Sydney blue gum with its bark stocking falling around its feet and the Indian God-like arms of a Scots pine.

Trees that have been killed by their environment or by bushfire are also included (51 to 53 and 54 to 57) while some trees have survived even the harshest environmental conditions. Represented in this book are trees that are proud (21) and others that are scruffy (19, 37, 92-3). There are those that standout as if to say ‘look at me’ (102, 128, and 129) and others who are the ‘ugly ducklings’, covered in warts and obese folds  (23, 26, 78, 79, 94, 95). The twisted (114, 116, 117); the lacy, which inhabit the rainforest (80-81); and the whimsical grass trees (58, 59) are all included. Photos show trees in the water, in the snow and in the deserts.

The photographs that fascinated me the most were those featuring the root systems and the bark coverings. For me, the shiny roots of the Moreton Bay Fig (8, 96) had a menacing serpentine characteristic, while the re-sprouts of the jarrah after the original trunk had been felled (31) resembled two large feet at the ends of legs made of multiple tubes.

The variety of markings and colours on the bark of the trees is truly amazing – from the camouflage colours of the spotted gum (109) to the green, brown and white vertical striations of the silver mallee (91); the deep orange miniritchie bark of an acacia (87); the ink-like markings on the scribbly gum (88); the golden molten appearance of the salmon gum to the lizard-like faces on the spotted gum (90). Also highlighted are some of the vibrant flower colours such as the bright orange of the Western Australian Christmas tree (70, 71). The purple of the jacaranda and the red of the Poinciana have been interestingly portrayed by looking down at the shadow of the canopy superimposed on the carpet of fallen blooms (68, 69).

If one takes the time to look more closely, the photos in this book can generate past memories or create new stories. I remember as a primary school student being asked to write a story about ‘A day in the life of a penny (or using modern language, a 20 cent piece)’. I believe many of these photographs could also generate varied and interesting stories. The viewer will need to look closely to spot the wallaby in one of the photographs.

I have not covered every photograph in this book, nor have I mentioned every characteristic of trees as caught by Richard Woldendorp’s camera.

I had always been of the opinion that photographs were very personal and meant something to those there at the time they were taken, but very little to others. The book, the trees, by Richard Woldendorp has shown me that there is much to be gleaned from a book like this, if one is prepared to give it the time to discover. This is a very interesting, professional, thought provoking book of photographs highlighting the variety found in Australian trees.

The tree


By Richard Woldendorp

Fremantle Press

ISBN: 9-781925-591699

$45.00; 144pp

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