While Virginia Wilcox’s debut book Arboreal (Deadbeat Club, 2021) may appear to be about trees, it is much more about honesty and acceptance. Among the harsh sun, skeletal trees and hewn pathways of the parks, Arboreal feels, to me, as much about taking somewhere on its own terms as the plants that are the subject of almost every frame.
Arboreal is shot around a variety of parks in Los Angeles, and often operates as an act of appreciation for the trees present there. Turning towards the most gnarled and withered of these, Wilcox continually finds ways to organise the frame to show something remarkable, or remarkably interesting, about such a simple subject. The trees often form a part of a whole, where leisure, loneliness, habitation or pollution exist side-by-side in the images. There, it is not just trees being shown, but how they house all of the complexity and by-products of being a part of a city encompassed in the photographs. Wire fences, people in the distance reclining, gravel car parks and palm trees round the work out, bringing it to something more connected to the people and city the parks are a part of.
This means that there is never any move towards wilderness or romance as the human, the built, and the harsh are all embraced in the work. Images of trash, highways, skylines and earthworks all push the work away from viewing nature as romantic and towards embracing a place as it is. LA is hot, harsh, car-choked and beautiful, and Wilcox’s images are all those things too. A pipe hanging over a precipice feels oddly fragile and calming; a desiccated hillside opposite a lush suburb feels normal. The lighting is, I think, crucial for avoiding anything romantic: we get searing whites, high sun and deep shadows; no sunset lighting, California pastels or studio-adjacent textures. Images of the ground are dusty and gravel-strewn, images of paths are dirty, shade is dark and the haze ever present. Here, then, there is no escape from the city to be found in nature, just more of it, ever-present.
Juxtaposition so often is used as a tool to highlight problems, yet here it never feels like Wilcox wants us to hate the suburbs, mourn the trees, or feel sad at what we have wrought.
And, crucially, the book never becomes patronising or judgemental. Desire paths are contrasted with asphalt, sun-drenched dead trees with shady hollows, the ramshackle ugliness of squalid plants with the too-perfect squareness of a suburb. Juxtaposition so often is used as a tool to highlight problems, yet here it never feels like Wilcox wants us to hate the suburbs, mourn the trees, or feel sad at what we have wrought. In that way the book feels refreshing, as so much work about nature (understandably) asks its reader to feel grief or anger. I think, then, Arboreal is Wilcox’s attempt to be non-judgmental and honest about the spaces, not desiring to tell us off or draw attention to a tragedy, instead just allowing a place to be and loving it for what it is.
However, there are two portraits in the book and I find these quite challenging. Undoubtedly they are amazing images, yet it is hard to see how they fit in with the rest of the edit. Visually these portraits are the most ‘large format’ of all of the book: shallow depth of field, incredibly lit, frozen. I really loved the way that most of Wilcox’s images feel a bit less precise and a bit more alive, so the portraits really interrupt the pace and tone of the sequence. Thematically, they do not seem to add much either, which confused me quite a bit. Without wanting to labour the point, to my eyes, the book would have been stronger without these portraits.
There is a lot to enjoy about Arboreal, from the embrace of ‘bad’ lighting to large format images that feel alive and close. Despite my preference for fewer portraits, I really did respond to the honesty in the work. Denying a tendency for nature to be romanticised, Wilcox has woven so many less-traditionally-pretty elements in and is much more interested in what a place is rather than what it does for us. There is a remarkable lack of ego in this work that reads as genuine and accepting, which is a really great place to make a book from.