Skip to main content


Art meets horticulture as photographer finds beauty in apple trees

Jessica Rath's finished work

A close-up of artist Jessica Rath's finished work "Apple Shadow (sisters columnar with difference)" (2011, 48 x 36 inches, inkjet on exhibition fiber).

Plant breeders often say that what they do is both art and science, but rarely does an artist create an exhibit from a breeder's seedlings. A photography project by Los Angeles artist Jessica Rath based on trees in Cornell's apple breeding program on the Geneva, N.Y. campus aims to do just that.

Horticulture professor Susan Brown has been breeding and evaluating new apple varieties for more than 20 years. Although she focuses on improving apple fruit quality and disease resistance, her crosses also have spawned trees with new forms, from the traditional semi-spreading form to those that weep, arch or head skyward in a narrow column. Some offspring are architecturally indecisive, with weeping lower branches and columnar above.

Apple breeder and horticulture professor Susan Brown with artist Jessica Rath

Apple breeder and horticulture professor Susan Brown, left, with artist Rath. See larger image

It was this diversity of arboreal architecture – as well as the fact that diversity was unleashed by traditional breeding – that caught Rath's eye when she visited The New York State Agricultural Experiment Station for an earlier project.

"I have never felt or understood the power of diversity so deeply as when I viewed row upon row of hundreds of trees that were so visually different, odd and strikingly beautiful," explains Rath. "The trees are truly what nature can do, not what we have built. The breeding process is true to the nature of the apple itself. There is no way to stop the diversity."

Rath, whose work includes large-scale sculptures and immersive sound installations, received funding from the Center for Cultural Innovation to produce a series of portraits of leafless tree silhouettes in Brown's orchards. In March 2011, she and her team of photographers, Ken Marchionno and Mary Wingfield, and three photography students from the Rochester Institute of Technology, spent an arduous weekend shooting in muddy orchards and battling unpredictable weather.

Photographer advises crew in apple orchard

Photographer Ken Marchionno advises the crew in the positioning of a muslin backdrop. See larger image

Capturing the form of individual tree silhouettes in the crowded orchard required a 20-foot-high white muslin backdrop, which was hoisted and secured against the wind gusts with framing and ropes by the crew and one very dedicated apple breeder. Although the trees' nicknames came quickly as Rath and Brown walked the rows – "Dr. Seuss" and "Centurion," among others – photographing a single tree sometimes took hours.

The tree portraits will be approximately 30 by 40 inches with sufficient precision to communicate the architectural form, while maintaining texture and color. For Rath, the tree portraits are works of art, documents of science and a means for education by interweaving diversity at the molecular and aesthetic levels. She sees the project as a visual contrast to the cloning that happens not just through nature's engineering but also through human acculturation.

Crew prepares to hoist backdrop for shot

The crew prepares to hoist the 20-foot muslin backdrop. See larger image

"My breeding projects on tree architecture are good for my spirit because of the extensive variation and many unanswered genetic questions," Brown says. "I've always found great beauty in them, but to have someone else who has an eye for art see it as well was really gratifying – a true marriage of genetics and art."

The collection, "Apple Shadow," will be shown at the Pasadena Museum of California Art in November 2012 for the artist's solo exhibit "Take Me to the Apple Breeder" before traveling to other U.S. museums.

Amanda Garris is a freelance science writer living in Geneva, N.Y.

Back to top