01.07.10

This Is Not a Tree

That evergreen by the highway may be hiding something. VIEW OUR GALLERY of Robert Voit’s deadpan photographs of cellphone towers disguised as trees.

In 2003, while researching a project about artificial Christmas trees, German photographer Robert Voit stumbled upon a Web site for a company that designs and manufactures the camouflage for cellphone towers. Dressed up in a variety of ecological disguises, cellphone trees are typically tailored to the geographical terrain they inhabit, and stand hidden—blithely, if not ominously—in plain sight. And for the past seven years, Voit has traveled around the world, photographing these trees in their natural habitats. The result, Some New Trees, will be shown at Amador Gallery in New York (January 13-March 6), and a book is forthcoming from Steidl.

Click Image To View Our Gallery Of Robert Voit's Photographs

The 40-year-old Voit studied at the Dusseldorf Academy in Germany with Thomas Ruff, a disciple of Bernd and Hilla Becher. The Bechers are highly regarded for their strict photographic documentation of industrial structures such as water towers, gas tanks, and blast furnaces. The Becher approach was to photograph the object straight on in conditions of light that were neutral and uniform, and to render each one with a precision of detail that is virtually scientific. Their photographs are presented in grids, each image depicting the object as a specimen, each grouping a typology in a comprehensive, career-long enterprise to catalogue relics of industrial society in the 20th century.

Voit has employed a similar method of documentation, a neo-objectivist approach that is both clinical and forensic. His series presents individual specimens of a 21st-century breed of industrial object, although his iteration on the Becher tradition allows for variations in color and light, as well as a broader view of the context in which the object resides.

His photographs also straddle an interesting paradox. In the Photoshop era, artists commonly alter images to suit their own intentions, and, often, the manipulation of a photograph presents a subtle discrepancy between appearance and reality. Sometimes it is not even apparent to the naked eye. Voit, however, adheres to the strict orthodoxy of photographic documentation—an 8 x 10 view camera, sheet film, and available light. In his case, the discrepancy between fact and fiction resides not in the photographic image, but in the subject. While the masquerade varies from tree to tree, their covers are blown in the dissociation we experience with the palm tree, say, that is twice the size of those in the same vicinity. Voit documents a perceptual anomaly and allows it to trick us—or not—without any representational manipulation.

If the cellphone tree masquerade were not epidemic, it might actually be pretty funny—perhaps an extrapolation of Las Vegas artifice and obfuscation as ordained and promoted by the visionary architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. But the ubiquity of the practice suggests an industry-wide global policy with intentions beyond beautification—or irony.

The effects of cellular transmission in the atmosphere are not yet known; no long-term studies have determined whether radio signals in such high concentration are harmful to biological life. The state of Maine is considering a bill to require warnings on cellphones stating that they may cause cancer, just as the warnings required on cigarette packages. In October, the Daily Telegraph reported that a soon-to-be-released study by the World Health Organization is expected to conclude that people who use cellphones for 10 years or more are at an increased risk of developing cancer.

Of course, that isn’t the point of Voit’s pictures. He is not an environmental activist so much as an artist who found a double-edged subject. While his method is bound to the sober legacy of the Dusseldorf school, he chose a potentially menacing subject to document that borders on the burlesque. To his credit, his formally resolved images register a trace of deadpan wit. And, in photographic terms, he has created a body of work that advances the tradition of the Becher school inherited by the reigning generation of German photographers—Andreas Gursky, Candida Hofer, Thomas Ruff, and Thomas Struth—and marked the next generation.

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Philip Gefter writes about photography for The Daily Beast. He previously wrote about the subject for The New York Times. His book of essays, Photography After Frank, was recently published by Aperture. He is producing a feature-length documentary on Bill Cunningham of the Times, and working on a biography of Sam Wagstaff.