Book Review: Bark, by Cédric Pollet

Bark is not sexy.  It’s not even a very aesthetically pleasing word.  But under the care of a dedicated photographer with an impressive breadth of botanical and geographical knowledge, it turns out it’s amazingly beautiful.

Cover for "Bark: an intimate look at the world's trees," by Cédric Pollet. Prepare to spend unintentional hours marveling at how intricate the bark on the tree in your front yard is. Seriously.

My husband (who knows me awfully well) came back with this book last year after a visit to a rare book store, and after flipping through it I was seriously considering cutting out every full-page photograph and using them to decorate our home.

Betula utilis var. Wouldn't this look nice framed in the living room? Photo by Cédric Pollet.

Apart from the gorgeous photographs, there’s a wealth of other great stuff in here.  The book is arranged as a global tour, with species grouped by geographical location, and many of the subjects (like the related frankincense and myrrh trees, which are both in the Burseraceae family, or like the life-saving traveler’s palm), benefit from being discussed in a geographical and cultural context.  The phylogenetic placements, botanical features, and potential uses of each tree are given engaging and scientifically accurate treatment.

The traveller's palm, Ravenela madagascariensis, saves dehydrated travelers by collecting dew in the recesses between its leaves. Photo by Cédric Pollet.

For each tree, there are several photographs at different scales, so you can see the whole organism as well as the intimate detail.  The close-up photographs offer a simply shocking range of color and texture in a subject that could not be more mundane, but will (and I’m certain every reviewer of this book has said this, but it is nevertheless quite literally true) force you to look at the trees you pass every day with an entirely new eye.  But careful: like me you may end up staring raptly at a cork oak tree for upwards of five minutes while your colleagues wander by and ask if you’ve lost something.

The book comes across as an unabashed labor of love from a well-trained botanist as well as an incredibly talented photographer.  And, at the risk of alienating some of my fellow flower lovers, I should point out that I am not generally one to fall in love with photography.  If you’ve been to this site before, you’ve probably noticed that my own pictures fall somewhere between utilitarian and sloppy.  It’s not an art form that generally resonates with me, unless the photo captures an unreproducible moment, because it feels a bit like cheating to just push a button and have a work of art exist (I know I know I know this is a HUGE oversimplification from one who doesn’t have any training in photography as an art form!). But I generally find it hard to place equal (at least monetary) value on something that is created instantaneously versus a sculpture or painting that takes hundreds of hours to generate.  I quite like nature photos, and might even say “oooooh, how pretty,” at them with full sincerity, but at the end of the day the data-driven experimentalist in me is usually interested in what is shown, not how it’s shown, unless there is something unusually compelling or complex evident in the technique.

But here, in Bark, it’s all about beauty, and even a photography philistine like myself can appreciate the love, care, and talent that is behind the images.  It’s the kind of thing that makes you want to take more care and time with your work and your hobbies in the hope that you might eventually produce something so worthwhile yourself (it’s also the kind of thing that makes you go figure out how to put accent marks into WordPress so you don’t discredit the artist by spelling his name kinda wrong).  If you have a minute (and if you’ve made it to this point in the post you can probably spare one more minute), go browse through Cédric Pollet’s website (check out the “galleries” page particularly) so you can be amazed by his stuff.

Washingtonia robusta. Ahh, the colors, the detail, the contrast of organic curves and geometric lines! Ok, ok. Photography can be pretty darn impressive, as can the innovations brought about through natural selection that are showcased in this material. Photo by Cédric Pollet.

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5 thoughts on “Book Review: Bark, by Cédric Pollet

  1. Ah, you photography phillistine, you!

    All kidding aside, I’m not ashamed to say that I love bark and I always have. I love the textures, which is very hard to capture with photography. Pollet’s images are truly amazing. Thanks for sharing!

    • It definitely makes me curious how much he messes around with extra lighting in order to capture the texture so well without it being all swamped in shadows.

      • Ah, yes. I’m sure there’s plenty of post-processing involved… which takes something away from the artistry/talent behind photography. Still, though, the photos sure are pretty.

  2. Pingback: Sudden Oak Moth (or, the benefits of staring at tree trunks) | A bouquet from Mendel

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