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A fine obsession: A photographer make the case for a focus on big trees. (Earthkeepers).

A life committed to art is a life committed to a series of obsessions. The obsessions of my own creative life have always been about the natural environment in some form or another, and art has been a mechanism for pulling back the veils that limit human perceptions of nature. Lately, I'm often asked why someone so long obsessed with photographing the personalities of wild animals is now photographing trees. The questioner usually has a befuddled tone, often with an emphasis like, "How did you wind up working on trees?", suggesting that of all the subjects in the world I could be imagined to photograph, trees would not come to mind.

But the choice really makes perfect sense. Some years ago, I clipped out a newspaper article about people who seek out these curious things called champion trees. That article nestled into a corner of my studio bulletin board under a red pushpin for the better part of a decade: I wasn't quite ready to do anything about the idea of champion trees yet, nor was I ready to make it the obsession or my future. I read it every so often but was too engaged with other issues to really get serious about it.

One summer day in 1998, that clipping fluttered down off the bulletin board once again. This time it landed on new mental ground, fertile and fresh-plowed. After a long period of domestic and emotional upheaval, I was only weeks away from being remarried--and with the strong and vital resurgence of life's energy sprouting from such a landmark event, large and strong trees somehow resonated with me. (I hasten to add that the linkage between life's evolution and my interest in trees is considerably more apparent with hindsight.)

During our honeymoon in Africa, my wife Suzanne and I stopped by a stupendous baobab near Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, a tree under which tribal chieftains, as well as Stanley and Livingstone, are said to have met. It was my first real contact with a tree of epic proportions. And it was the beginning of an obsession, for in this tree I sensed a similar kind of personality, character, and presence that photography bad helped me discover in wildlife.

This baobab's beauty as a sculpture, or as natural architecture, was overwhelming. Finding it impossible to adequately capture the tree in a single frame, I shot it as a mosaic of several dozen images, to he composited together at some future date. Within a week after our return to America, a magazine editor friend called to inform me that funding for a small portfolio of portraits on megatrees had been approved.

Time was of the essence, since autumn was about to strip the last leaves from even the southernmost deciduous trees. As fast as my assistants and I could get half a ton of lighting gear together, I was out the door.

Since that day in October 1998, something like 30,000 miles of driving and more than that much flying have gone into my engagement with megatrees from Key West to the Pacific Northwest. It has so far taken close to a year's worth of actual work time to build a portfolio of 44 species. Some species have been small and obscure, like the 28-foot-tall champion spicebush Michael Davie showed me in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. Others have been among the most titanic on earth: the sequoia and redwood of California and the Olympic Peninsula's redcedar and Douglas-fir.

Magic seems to lie around every meander in my trail. Magic in the unending discovery of new forms of natural aesthetics and grace. Magic in the bird-twittering dawn and the hushed twilight. Magic in the personality of substance that is supposedly mute and insensible.

In fact it hardly seems like an obsession at all, this quest. Obsession often means unwilling compulsion or torment. But these trees? They are a perfectly delightful and enriching way to spend my time.

Fine art photographer James Balog resides in Boulder, Colorado:
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Author:Balog, James
Publication:American Forests
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2002
Previous Article:Nurturing nature: Trees give scale to human life. They're also a measure of how well we're protecting the world around us. (Communities).
Next Article:Letters.

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