Peter Coles


“…I have always loathed flat and treeless country. Time there seems to dominate, it ticks remorselessly like a clock. But trees warp time, or rather create a variety of times: here dense and abrupt, there calm and sinuous – never plodding, mechanical, inescapably monotonous.”

John Fowles, The Tree

“Ghost trees” is part of a larger project on the “urban forest”, which explores relationships between people, trees and time in urban settings. “Ghost trees” refers to the fleeting presence of trees as shadows cast on walls and pavements, sometimes alongside odd, ghostly reflections from windows and cars. They are there one day, but not another. There one minute, gone the next.

Interestingly, in London, there are roughly the same number of trees as people – about 8 million. But many of these trees are cloned, nameless, street trees, herded into straight lines. This “urban forest” is more like a collection of young individuals than an established, interlinked community, with its elders, as in an ancient woodland.

Yet, in some cities, like London, in amongst the transient street trees, a few veterans have survived from a distant past. These are trees with character, with a story to tell and long outliving the human inhabitants. They may have once marked a boundary, long stripped of its meaning under successive developments, or have stood in the grounds of a disappeared manor house or monastery. Fowles likened these isolated trees to “hermits” and “marooned sailors” – anomalies in the essentially social world of trees. These enduring trees are the focus of another strand of my work, in sharp contrast to the ephemeral “Ghost Trees”.


A self-taught photographer from my early teens, I have exhibited and published my work internationally, alongside a parallel career. After a decade of postdoctoral research in experimental psychology, I left academia and moved to Paris as a science journalist and design research consultant, joining UNESCO in 2000 as editor and photojournalist. During this 20-year period, I completed Paris Traces, a major photographic project on abandoned, everyday objects.

Since returning to London in 2007 I have resumed an earlier interest in urban trees, while continuing my work on everyday objects with a new series, Walking the Dog. In 2016 I helped the Conservation Foundation set up Morus Londinium, a project to preserve and document London’s ancient mulberry tree heritage, with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

I am one of the founding directors of the Urban Photographers’ Association and have been Visiting Research Fellow at the Centre for Urban and Community Research, Goldsmiths, since 2007. I teach on the M.A. in Photography and Urban Cultures (PUC) at Goldsmiths and the International Urban Photography Summer School. and 


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