At the recent AIPP APPA awards, I picked up a Gold Award for an image I call Tree Museum. For the Awards I captioned it "You don't know what you've got 'til its gone"...a line from Joni Mitchell's famous song, Big Yellow Taxi. A lot of people have said how much they love this image so I wanted to talk a little about the inspiration and the journey this image took to arrive at where it is now.
Joni Mitchell’s most recognised song was written in 1973 . Joni introduced the song this way on November 29, 1969.
"Two weekends ago I went to Hawaii. It was my first time there and I was only there for two days which was kind of a bummer, I wish I could’ve really seen more of the island and I arrived there at 11 o’clock at night and the next morning I ran to the window and threw back the curtains and sure enough, there it was, paradise, you know, green, lush hills, old Sugarloaf Mountain up there, white birds flying low, Myna birds all over the place, and, right in the middle of it all, was a big parking lot . So I wrote this little rock and roll song to commemorate the occasion. It’s called “Big Yellow Taxi,” or, alternately, “They Paved Paradise and Put in a Parking Lot.”
The song has been recorded by 459 other artists. You can read more about it on her website
Of course in the early 70’s I was at High School and very much aware of the growing protest movements about environmental destruction, the Vietnam War and Woodstock happened. Heady years that produced some of the best music and lyrics. Maybe I’m biased, but I loved it.
Big Yellow Taxi has always resonated with me and continued to resonate as I studied the impact of human induced climate change on our fragile planet during my PhD. My initial ideas and inspiration for this image came way back in early 2013 only a year or so after I started my photography of the imagination journey so its been a long time in development. Initially I thought I would show a building with trees and a big yellow taxi reflected in big glass windows but I could never quite find the right building. It was impossible for me at that time to create the building I had in my imagination. I came close on a visit to the famous artist Brett Whiteley’s studio in Surrey Hills, Sydney, Australia but somehow it was too modern, too much glass…..Then I thought about using an old building with individual trees in each windos…but it still wasn’t sitting right with what I was imagining, it was all too literal. I wanted to make viewers think more about what the image meant to them…Plus where was I going to get a photograph of an old style yellow taxi…only in NYC…but that was a few years of waiting before I got there..
The image had been marinating away in the back of my mind, quietly sipping away on new skills and soaking up the imagery and experiences of the intervening years, including New York. I was working on some images that I had shot in the USA when “lightening” struck, well what I thought was a good idea…I had just spent some time at Cradle Mountain on an Artist-In-Residence at the Cradle Mountain Wilderness Gallery ….a wonderful setting in which to find inspiration. My light bulb moment was that I needed to combine the ideas and thoughts from the song about the greedy human destruction of nature with my own thoughts, knowledge and experience of climate change. Both issues threaten the future of our beautiful planet and its inhabitants. As the song says, we don’t know what we’ve got until its gone, we dig up our forests and precious natural habitats just to be replaced with buildings, hotels, resorts, roads, car parks. Meanwhile make theme parks to keep us amused, at a cost…to our pockets and our lives. Our animals in zoos, our plants in herbariums. All our history is held in museums of one sort or another instead of being protected in its natural environment. I for one do not want to see our natural world be displayed in museums like a row of Old Master’s paintings.
So next came the concept image, of what was in my imagination, a photographic “drawing” if you like using existing imagery in my collection… just to see if the idea had promise. I decided it did.
It wasn’t until another trip to Cradle Mountain for Fagus Week that most of the photographs actually used in the final image were taken. I came home all excited and rephotographed all the bottles I wanted to use, from my collection of old and not so old bottles. I had shot the table top Formica surface in my cabin at Cradle Mountain whilst at Fagus Week which made the perfect background wall and then added each individual old master’s paintings from visits to major Galleries across the USA, the National Gallery in Canberra, the NSW Art Gallery and the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. The shelf , in my home is made from Tasmanian Myrtle timber, Nothofagus cunninghamii.
The image is a series of metaphors and definitely intended to be surreal. The light coming through a high window, just out of sight casts an old worldly warm glow over the background wall, highlighting the dusty, musty impression I have of old art galleries. It feels to me like we’ve snuck in there when nobody is about. In contrast each of the bottles seems to have its own mysterious and unseen light source, like some futuristic laboratory where living things are kept in preserving jars with just the right conditions in which to survive.
The light changes subtly from left to right, bottle to bottle, as diverse lush rainforest gives way to the loss of species diversity, forest clearing, the impact of human activities and lastly the final blow, the death of a species, the death of all that we have left, gone forever. Each bottle is a metaphor for what seems like a fast train to inevitable extinction.
I hope the image makes you reflect on the beauty and the values we are putting at risk with our greed and desire for material things. Nature is our lifeblood! if this image can make you think about your footprint and demands on this fragile planet and inspire you to make just one change to support its survival, then it is not in vain. I truly hope this metaphoric image does not turn into a prophetic one. Make a difference, NOW, please.