February 11, 2012, 7:00 AM
Mitch Epstein, Tree StalkerBy KATHY RYAN
Mitch Epstein’s series of New York City trees were featured in this week’s Voyages Issue, accompanied by an essay by Michael Kimmelman. His work will be exhibited in March at Sikkema Jenkins. Kathy Ryan, the magazine’s photography director, talked to him about the peculiar challenges of his project.
What inspired you to do the trees?
Trees have long been an interest of mine, and I wanted to do a piece that was in part about New York and also a work that would take me forward from “American Power,” where I spent five years traveling the country looking at sites where energy was produced and consumed. It had long been an idea in the back of my head to photograph trees in New York. A year ago I was traveling in the Everglades, and I had the intuition this was the time to do it. That led me to buying a box of 8-by-10 black-and-white sheet film. I’m essentially a color photographer. But I had this instinct that color would be an interference with the pictures I wanted to make. I really wanted the trees to be a part of the city — to be contextualized by the city.
Q. How does black and white give you a greater ability to contextualize the trees?
A. Well, I wanted the trees to come forward, both in a formal and a conceptual way. I realized there was a lot about the contemporary urban landscape that was colored that was going to become a distraction. Whether it was the yellow streetlights, the cross lights at the intersections, or the color of the red fire hydrant. There was also the potential to fall prey to the sameness of the color, especially in the summer season, when yes, there are varieties of green but the green is what is prevailing. Somehow black and white doesn’t prevail as a palette the same way color does. I wanted the urban populace and the architecture to in some way serve as a stage set and become something that would drop back for the trees, which would become the primary subject — the primary focal point of the picture. I also had the sense that it would be riskier in color because of the pitfalls of the picturesque.
Q. What do you mean by the “pitfalls of the picturesque”?
A. There are certain subjects for photography that are by their nature contrived. It would be hard to make a breakthrough picture of, say, a baby. At the same time, it is hard to photograph fall foliage because it’s so seductive. It takes over. It is hard to penetrate. I didn’t want the color to be intrusive. I didn’t want the color to be a distraction to what was intrinsic to the picture. The way I have moved forward with my photography is to change tools, materials, and subjects in ways that are unfamiliar and often a little bit uneasy. That was all part of the gambit here for me.
Q. How did you choose your trees?
A. I found a list the city drew up in the ’80s designating certain trees in the five boroughs as “great trees.” I also found a resource guide — “New York City Trees” — a field guide for the metropolitan area by Edward Sibley Barnard. It was also helpful in steering me as well to areas that were rich in parkland and in old groves of trees. Researching on the Internet, I found out about a 300-plus-year-old tree in Washington Square Park. That was the first tree I went to.
Q. Tell us about photographing that tree in Washington Square Park.
A. Before bringing the 8-by-10 camera, I photographed the tree several times with a little digital camera. I spent time with the tree. It was January, and I first had to educate myself as to when the light would be at a favorable vantage point in the sky.
Q. Why did you choose January for this tree?
A. After initially photographing it in January, I went back several times over the course of the winter months, trying to understand the best vantage point to photograph the tree. I wanted the transparency that the bare branches gave the tree, so you could see the buildings through the branches. Once it became spring, the trees began to bloom and suddenly there was no more transparency, because of all the leaves and growth that came with spring. So I didn’t have the opportunity again until the fall. I made several visits in the fall, but it wasn’t until late December, early January that the leaves were all gone from the tree. Not every picture is like that, but in this case it was important for me to find a way to step back, to see the tree in its full scale.
Q. So you went from showing a detail of the tree the first time you shot it, to deciding that the picture had to be the whole tree, with bare branches.
A. That often happens. Often I am making pictures that become sketches for other pictures. With the 8-by-10 camera, there is the opportunity to make pictures that are very layered. The prints of these pictures for the exhibition will be 68 inches high — the size of a human being. You will have the opportunity to step into them and to engage with every detail.
Q. Can you tell us about the gigantic Cottonwood on Staten Island?
A. What was interesting is that an old house by the tree had been torn down, and there were rows of condominiums put in, and before I had even taken the camera out, people in the neighborhood came up to me and began to tell me stories about how the contractor that put up the houses had to tear out a lot of the roots of the tree, and they were concerned about it. The tree was a kind of anchor for the people, and they were disgruntled about it. There was a sense of community ownership of the tree. I’m conspicuous with this big camera, and people are curious, especially today when nobody is using cameras like these.
Q. So when they pulled up the roots of this tree, it looks like it wasn’t enough to hurt it.
A. Well, one doesn’t know. It was within the last decade or so. The tree looks like it’s thriving.
Q. What month did you photograph this Eastern Cottonwood?
A. September 2011. There was a deep fog, and I was thinking, ‘Gosh, I got up at a this early hour, and maybe nothing’s going to happen.’ But I got there, and I photographed the tree. One of the problems that I had during multiple visits to this tree was there were always cars parked on the street, including one in the spot I needed to place the camera for the vantage point I wanted. I asked this one gentleman who was always coming out to walk his dog in the morning whether he would move his car, and he always refused to do so. He had absolutely no interest in the fact I was there. And one day, and it happened to be this day, I got lucky, and he got in his car and he drove off. This was the fixed point from which I could make the picture I’d been striving to make.
Q. You said it was arduous photographing this tree. Why?
A. I’m on a ladder. To decrease the distortion you get up on a ladder so you are not tilting too much. I have certain limitations of depth of field with a large camera like this. By being a little above the ground, I can bring the focus in. When I have a tree that’s 100 feet high, I can get myself at a vantage point which is going to enable me to photograph the lower part of the tree so that it’s not just flat to the ground. I’m always working up against time. The light is changing all the time. With this tree, I was there maybe at 7:15 a.m., but I’ve already been there before, and I know that at 8, this corner is where all the kids congregate to get picked up by the school bus.
Q. Are there trees that you want to photograph that you haven’t yet? Are there still some on your wish list?
A. Yes, there are. Many.