Gesche Würfel: When Trees are Dying

June 11 – July 24, 2021

Join us as we host photographer Gesche Würfel in conversation with Peter White and Larry Wheeler. When Trees are Dying is an exhibition of photographs by Würfel that explore the effects of human-made climate change on forests. Home School will host an online discussion with the photographer and Wheeler, former Director of the NCMA + retired UNC Professor Peter White.

Press Release

 Tracey Morgan Gallery is pleased to present When Trees are Dying an exhibition of photographs by Gesche Würfel that explore the effects of human made climate change on forests. This will be Würfel’s first exhibition with the gallery.

“Trees have always been a reassuring presence. The reassurance they provide is partly their continuity. Rooted in place, we may recognize still living trees in the oldest photographs. Further, a tree that lives as long as we humans, 8 decades or at most 10, is deemed, among trees, to be a “short-lived” species. More typical tree lifespans in old growth forests exceeds three centuries and the oldest trees reach several millennia.

And yet trees now face unprecedented environmental challenges. Each tree species has an evolved optimum set of environmental conditions in which it does the best and each tree species has an evolved range of tolerances for variation in the environment. The problem is not that trees have never seen change before, it is that the magnitude and rate of change in the present time are pushing them to the limits that defines the simple proposition that their ability to turn sunlight into organic matter exceeds the loss of organic matter through the energetic cost of living.

We now know that our species, through increases to the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere, the harvest and fragmentation of forests, and other effects, has produced a rapidly warming world. The effects of that warming are not uniform, but some places are warming faster than others. Artists help us see and interpret the world around us. In When Trees are Dying, Würfel makes climate change effects on trees direct and tangible. In this exhibit she has created a dramatic illustration of climate change by treating trees —through her photographs — with warming, drought, fire, invasive species, increasing salinity and storms.”*

Using 4x5 film and a large format camera, Würfel photographed forests in two U.S. states and climate zones (North Carolina and Massachusetts) to show the impacts of global warming. These impacts include warming, drought, fire, storms, flooding, invasive insects, sea level rise and saltwater intrusion. Würfel used specific photographic processes to represent each impact. For example she invokes warming through solarized prints in the darkroom; drought with solarized prints roasted in a kiln until they are browned, blistered and sometimes cracked; storms by ripping the solarized prints into several pieces; sea level rise by mirroring gelatin silver prints; saltwater intrusion by adding sea salt from the North Carolina coast. The resulting photographs are presented as an installation with both color and black and white photographs.

Photography creates a plethora of carbon emissions such as traveling to locations, shipping, supplies such as paper and darkroom chemicals among others. Würfel tried to stay local as much as possible to emit as little carbon as possible. The portion photographed in Massachusetts was taken at the beginning of the project while she was attending a residency at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art and while a visiting researcher at Harvard Forest in 2019. The carbon emissions created with this project were offset through www.carbonfootprint.com. This project was supported by awards from the Office of the Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost, the Institute forthe Arts & Humanities, and the Department of Art & Art History, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Würfel lives and works in Chapel Hill, NC. She holds an MFA in Studio Art from UNC Chapel Hill, an MA in Photography and Urban Cultures from Goldsmith’s, University of London, UK and a diploma of Spatial Planning from the Technical University Dortmund, Germany. Her work has been exhibited at the Tate Modern, UK; the Contemporary Art Museum, Raleigh, NC; the Nasher Museum of Art, Durham, NC; Goldsmith’s, University of London, UK; Blue Sky Gallery, Portland, OR; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MA, among others. Würfel is the author of Basement Sanctuaries (Schilt Publishing 2014). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Guardian, WIRED, Slate, and others. She is a recipient of grants from the German Academic Exchange Services (DAAD), the North Carolina Arts Council, the Puffin Foundation, the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. Her work is in the collections of MIT Museum, MA and the Portland Museum of Art, OR.