Tree + Fence

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Detail (Tree + Fence), 1998/99

Detail (Tree + Fence) is a 1999 black and white photograph by US artist Zoe Leonard (born 1961) printed in an edition of six gelatin-silver prints.

The work shows a closely cropped trunk of a tree that has grown into, and through, the gaps in a chain link fence that appears to have been placed around it at an earlier stage of its growth. Out of focus background details suggest an urban setting. The image is framed by the black edge of the film negative, the work printed using the artist's characteristic, unedited full-frame format.[1]

Detail (Tree + Fence) is part of a series that Leonard produced in the late 1990's of similar subjects, most of which were shot at locations close to the artist's apartment in New York's East Village. The first work in the series, Tree + Fence, out of my back window, 1998, was of another tree that Leonard had watched grow in her backyard over a period of eighteen years. In that image, an appendageal growth from the tree overlaps the top of a chain link fence that horizontally bisects its trunk midway through the image's frame, the tree appearing to 'cling to' the fence for support.

"Once I had photographed it, I began to notice similar trees throughout the city. I was going running every day and noticed trees that had grown through fences and gates, pushing the metal aside, or others that had warped and bent the steel. In some, the barrier had been almost swallowed by wood and bark."[2]

Though Leonard acknowledges the tendency to 'anthropomorphize' and read the works as "melancholy images of confinement", she has nevertheless emphasized the series as images of endurance and symbiosis.[3] Leonard produced the images upon returning to New York after several years living in Eagle, a remote village on the Yukon River in Alaska. There, she was forced to hunt for food and made a number of images of the experience, which have been related by Matthew Debord to the Tree + Fence series in their shared "fascination with subsistence".[4]

Tree, 1997

Elizabeth Lebovici has taken up the same theme, describing the Tree + Fence pictures' "microphysics of power" in terms of a "simultaneously constrictive and constructive relationship."[5] The works can be set alongside Leonard's contemporaneous Tree, 1997, a sculptural installation first shown at the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York, in which a tree disassembled limb by limb, is reassembled upright in the gallery space, its supporting bolts, metal plates, and armatures clearly visible.[6]

The series has also been related to Leonard's early Aerial photographs and cloud imagery. Urs Stahel has noted how the clouds' "world of brief configurations" can be contrasted to the imagery of cities and suburbs as seen from above, "the world as a model, notion, a plan...", however "fuzzy" that cartography might be. Like the Tree + Fence images, these works articulate contrasts between the constructed and the natural. In the later works, however, Leonard affects a merging of these dichotomous relationships, tree and fence "becoming one, like the object observed and the desire to understand it…"[7]


  1. Urs Stahel, "Charting Life", in Zoe Leonard - Photographs (Gottingen: Steidl Verlag, 2007), 11
  2. Zoe Leonard, "A Thousand Words: Zoe Leonard talks about her recent work", in Artforum International, January 1999, 101
  3. Ibid.
  4. Matthew Debord, in "A Thousand Words: Zoe Leonard talks about her recent work", Artforum International, January 1999, 101
  5. Elizabeth Lebovici, "Spaces of Species", in Zoe Leonard (Paris: Centre nationale de la photographie, 1998), 51
  6. Elizabeth Lebovici, "The Friction of Everyday Life", in Zoe Leonard - Photographs (Gottingen: Steidl Verlag, 2007), 75
  7. Stahel, "Charting Life", 14