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Philadelphia Museum of Art hangs massive tree banners to mark new wildlife photography exhibit

The exhibit runs June 27 through Sept. 17.

A 60-foot print of a 3,200-year-old sequoia tree hangs in the Great Stair Hall at the Art Museum.
A 60-foot print of a 3,200-year-old sequoia tree hangs in the Great Stair Hall at the Art Museum.Read moreNick Vadala / staff

The Philadelphia Museum of Art's Great Stair Hall has some new decor, in the form of 60-foot banners emblazoned with photographs of a redwood and sequoia, courtesy of a new exhibit that features work from renowned wildlife photographer Michael "Nick" Nichols.

Titled "Wild: Michael Nichols," the exhibit is the first of the artist's work in a major museum, and it spans the award-winning photographer's 40-year career. Nichols served as National Geographic's editor-at-large for photography until his departure in 2015, and he has photographed everything from lions, tigers, and bears to those 300-plus-foot redwood and sequoia trees.

"I want people to think for a moment in this time of climate change," Nichols says of the exhibit, which runs through Sept. 17. "People may want to reconsider how they interact with this planet."

To that end, the exhibit organizes Nichols' modern interpretations of wildlife among older works from the museum's permanent collection to highlight the relationship between human beings and nature throughout history.

In one display, a photo of a wild silverback lowland gorilla hangs next to Tom Palmore's 1975 painting Reclining Nude, in which a large gorilla sleeps on a carpet. In another, a photo of a young lioness with her cubs taken in 2012 is juxtaposed with Virgin and Child in a Landscape, a 16th-century painting by a Dutch artist known as the Master of the Embroidered Foliage.

The largest artworks on display in "Wild," however, are photos of some of the largest living things on Earth: coastal redwood and giant sequoia trees. The photos are reproductions of ones Nichols took in 2009 and 2012.

Museum representatives said they weren't sure whether the tree tapestries, printed by Image Craft in Phoenix, are record-breaking in their size. However, the portraits — one of a 1,500-year-old redwood, and the other of a 3,200-year-old sequoia — are the largest prints Nichols has produced.

"We consider them distinguished visitors from California," Peter Barberie, Brodsky curator of photographs at the museum's Alfred Stieglitz Center, says of the tree photos.

Works from "Wild" are placed in more than a dozen areas throughout the museum, giving families a scavenger-hunt-type activity. Those with little ones can also look forward to the museum's Art Splash program, which runs from Tuesday through Sept. 4, with gallery explorations, musical performances, and weekend festivals.

In addition to mounting "Wild," Nichols will take part in an "In the Artist's Voice" talk to discuss the exhibit, at 2 p.m. Sunday. A new biography, Wild Life: A Visual Biography of Photographer Michael Nichols, was released this month.

Despite the accolades, attention, and adulation, Nichols remains somewhat awestruck that the exhibition even exists. After all, it isn't every day a former National Geographic photographer gets put on display at a place known more for its collection of works by  Duchamp and Cézanne.

"The guards here told me, 'It's so good to have you here, and you not be dead,' " Nichols says. "People like me don't end up in art museums."