People

Women in Trees:
A Charming Genre, Rediscovered

Written by Stephanie Murg
Photographed by Sebastian Sabal-Bruce

Most perch on a limb, grasp a branch or two, and grin. Some peer inscrutably into the camera, having found a foothold on a scabby trunk. Others are gleefully bound for the top. One beams, legs dangling, even as she risks falling into the waiting arms of a large cactus. They are women in trees, an anonymous group captured ages ago on black-and-white film and brought together by German photo collector Jochen Raiss in a new book—and the inspiration for the contemporary images that follow.

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The story of Women in Trees (Hatje Cantz) began some 25 years ago at a Frankfurt flea market, where Raiss came upon a vintage photograph of an elegantly dressed young woman smiling for the camera while climbing a tree. “I liked the picture right away, because it was just so unusual,” he explains. “The woman had on a dress and dancing shoes!”

At first, he embraced the image as an idiosyncratic addition to his collection of amateur photographs depicting “people in unlikely situations,” but over time, he found many similar snapshots. Raiss had rediscovered an entire genre of portraiture, one that thrived in the early 20th century. “It seems to have been popular at least from the 1920s to the 1950s, but these photographs are difficult to date,” he says. “Sometimes a year or a place is marked on the back, but that’s rare.”

Unmoored by the particulars of who, what, where, and why, each of the found photographs in Women in Trees is free to breed imagined stories of what might have been.

“These photos are fascinating because of their seemingly incongruous components,” notes Raiss. “What was this woman in the tree’s life like? Who did she go for walks with? Whose idea was it for her to climb a tree and sit on a branch?” He savors these mysteries, which only add to the book’s charm. Unmoored by the particulars of who, what, where, and why, each of the 55 images is free to breed imagined stories of what might have been. Women in Trees is fuel for Kopfkino: a German word for an especially cinematic daydream.

Already a best-seller in Germany (“I did not expect that,” admits Raiss), Women in Trees is now delighting readers and tree lovers worldwide. Some of them send Raiss vintage photos or create their own in homage. “On Facebook and Instagram are all of these pictures of women climbing trees inspired by my book,” he says. “It’s wonderful that the genre is experiencing a kind of renaissance!”

Having amassed more than 100 photographs of women in trees, Raiss is hoping to publish a second volume. Meanwhile, he has tapped into another prominent theme in his vintage picture collection: soccer. His Ballverliebt (ball love) was published earlier this month by Edel Germany. The found images are accompanied by the invented narratives of Jochen Schmidt (who is, according to Raiss, “a member of the German authors’ national soccer team,” a group surely deserving of a photo book of its own). “He writes very beautiful, almost melancholy texts,” says Raiss, “replacing the ‘true’ stories that have been lost.”

Calvin Klein Collection Juen Coat and Caitlin Dress, Pierre Hardy Danny Boot

Styling Gabrielle Marceca
Hair Takayoshi Tsukisawa
Makeup Kaija Mistral Towner
Model Hirschy

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Explore another chapter in The Stories:
Fine Prints: The Power of Pattern