Mark Hirsch, a 52-year-old photojournalist based out of Dubuque, Iowa, has formed an unlikely attachment to a tree. The attachment is so strong, in fact, that he's spent the last year photographing it, venturing out to this lone oak each day to capture a unique snapshot of his photosynthetic friend.
The images of this endearing project have been collected under the name "That Tree," a fitting title for a series that began on a whim. Hirsch had actually spent 19 years driving by his tree without a thought, and it wasn't until a fellow photographer challenged him to try his hand at the iPhone camera that he began his over 365-day photo journal of the growing relationship between a man and a plant.
We recently caught up with Hirsch, who is planning to release "That Tree" as a book later this summer, and asked him a few questions about his strange fascination with a single tree. Here's what Hirsch had to say about his unassuming subject matter and the sentimental connection he was able to discover. (Scroll down for interview.)
What struck you about this tree in the first place?
My selection of this particular tree as my subject matter was more coincidence. I've driven by and admired that tree for 19 years. It really is a lovely tree with an incredible form on the horizon but I had never taken the time to make a photo of it. I was driving home one day and had just received a text from a professional photographer friend who saw my post on Facebook indicating that I had switched over to an iPhone. Her text suggested that I should try the iPhone camera. My reply to her was "Really?" Her reply was, "Seriously, you need to check it out".
It was January 20, 2012 during a terrible snowstorm. I was making the six mile drive to my home in the country. I turned onto the road I live on and saw the tree shrouded in the blowing snow and decided to make a photo of it using my iPhone. I sat down to open the files on my computer and I was actually blown away by the image quality. This motivated me to start making a photo a day of whatever inspired me. On March 13, I was making the same trip home, admiring an incredible sunset, wishing I had something I could place between me and that gorgeous sky for a photograph. I turned onto the road I live on and saw the tree sitting in the perfect spot. I walked down and made my image for the day with "That Tree" and that gorgeous sunset.
Ten days later, a good friend finally saw the photo I had posted: "Dude, what's with you and that tree? You should do a photo a day with it." The next day on March 24, 2012, I officially started my unintended adventure. His comment was also the source for the projects name.
Before photographing "That Tree," had you ever spent this much time on one subject before?
As a photojournalist, I have photographed many stories that required multiple visits and maybe even weeks or a month spent with one subject but it was always for stories about people and issues. I had never spent more than a month on any given subject. I had never even considered doing landscape type or nature photography either until this project self generated.
Day 294: January 11, 2013
How did you relationship with the tree change over time? Did you begin to notice new things, develop a sentimental connection, maybe even grow protective of the tree?
All of the above! At first it was just a tree in a cornfield. Then it became this entity that I grew to respect for its precarious existence and its longevity. Then I began to recognize its role as the source of life, food, habitat and protection for so many other plants and animals living within its little realm. Kind of like a mother in the forest. Having spent so much time with her, I felt a communal relationship with her as a silent friend. I cannot drive by "That Tree" now without glancing down to be sure she is still safely standing there. I actually worry that I have compromised her 163 years of quiet existence by drawing undue attention to her.
What obstacles did you encounter while documenting the tree? And what actions did you take to find the next fresh image?
As a photojournalist, I was used to covering events where things are unfolding pretty quickly. I was used to forcing quick reaction images while trying to stay ahead of evolving events. With landscape photography and inanimate objects like my tree, I had to learn to slow down and take on a more contemplative approach to photography. I learned to become more sensitive to the subtle changes in light, the details and the textures.
I also learned to recognize potential compositions that might make interesting images at different times of the day or under different lighting conditions. I would revisit those opportunities when the light was more conducive to my preconceived compositions.
You've stated in interviews that you were skeptical of the iPhone camera at first. After a year of using the technology, how do you feel about it now?
My skepticism actually evaporated pretty quickly when I started embracing the iPhone camera for what it was and not what it wasn't. I especially like the simplicity and convenience of shooting a project with the camera in my pocket. Using the iPhone instead of my high end DSLR cameras has been a challenging but also a liberating and transformative process. It yielded images I might not have captured with my DSLR cameras because instead of reaching for a different lens I had to change my position, my perspective or my visual expectations.
Day 101: July 2, 2012
Do you have a favorite portrait of the tree?
Oddly, the first iPhone image I made on January 20th, 2012 is still one of my favorites. It truly inspired the project and showed me a more relaxing way to release my creative vision. Another favorite is the firefly photo I made on July 2, Day 101. I was out that evening trying to make a photo of "That Tree" with the deep indigo sky of dusk when the fireflies came out. It was a mystical scene reminiscent of my childhood evenings spent chasing fireflies through the milkweeds and tall grasses near where I grew up in Boscobel, WI.
What's next for you? Are you ready to move on from your oak?
I am still in the process of designing, writing, and compiling the final content for my book. I am also continuing to shoot fresh photos of "That Tree" in an effort to keep my new and old followers engaged. My publisher and I have been mulling over possible ideas for my next project but nothing has inspired me like "That Tree." I'm hoping my next project and subject matter can evolve organically as an unintended adventure much like "That Tree" did. I've always had a grand appreciation for the forest and the land.