Over the past decade, Israeli artist Tal Shochat has scoured her homeland for the perfect cypress, plum, palm and other particular trees.
Even after settling on an ideal specimen, she often waited patiently until the plant dripped with luscious fruit before photographing it, taking care to clean each branch first.
From this painstaking process she compiled a series of large-format photographs titled "In Praise of a Dream." Seven of the images appear in special exhibit on the concourse floor of the National Museum of American Jewish History through April 22.
True to the collection's title, the trees have a surreal quality about them, standing rich and sharp against deep, black backgrounds.
They haven't been altered or touched up by computer, Shochat said, emailing from her home in Tel Aviv. Instead, she stretched a velvet screen behind the trees to isolate them from their natural environment and swallow shadows.
"We understand that the object has volume, but there is no shadow," she said.
On top of that, intense flashes and artificial lighting give the image a high level of clarity that people don't usually perceive because of the way our eyes focus on specific areas, leaving everything else out of focus. This uncanny sharpness combined with the lack of dimension and surrounding orchard turns the lone tree into "a sort of icon," Shochat said.
"I try to build new, impossible hybrids of different broken genres — for example, nature photo beside social photo — and, as such, to ask questions regarding the way we perceive reality and how we define it to ourselves," explained Shochat, 37.
"While what we see here is apparently a simple nature shot, it is actually loaded with more meaning and becomes a complex symbolic image. On one side you see a simple, symmetrical image, but something looks different and unfamiliar, and the unfamiliar creates an unclear tension."
Then there is the symbolism of the trees themselves, which often remind us of place and territory, "of wanderers to a promised land," Shochat continued.
Museum curator Josh Perelman said he'd been thinking about how to bring special exhibits to "unlikely places" throughout the building when he saw Shochat's series at the Andrea Meislin Gallery in New York.
"It was just a beautiful confluence of circumstances," he said. Aside from being "incredibly taken" with the dualism between the utopian images Shochat created and the reality of the physical existence of the trees, he said, the timing worked out perfectly: The photos were put up just before Tu B'Shevat and will remain on display until just after Earth Day.
Even though the works might appear simplistic on the surface, Perelman said, "the power of their presentation in my mind really kind of raises these fundamental and very Jewish issues about our responsibility to and relationship to the natural environment."
The way Shochat decontextualizes the trees from where they were photographed invokes questions of rootedness, identity and perhaps even safety — themes that Jewish people have wrestled with for decades, Perelman said.
While artifacts comprise the heart of the museum, Perelman said, bringing modern art into the mix creates a new avenue "for reflecting on Jewish religious life in America today and in particular about Tu B'Shevat, which many of our Jewish visitors will be familiar with but many of our non-Jewish visitors may not have heard of."