Today’s blog post comes from Kyle Ford. Kyle Ford is an artist and educator currently residing in the Adirondack Mountains of Upstate, NY. He holds a Master of Fine Arts from Savannah College of Art and Design and has been published an exhibited worldwide. Kyle’s work investigates ideas of perception, representation, and interaction surrounding the natural world. For more information and insight into his work please visit: www.kylefordphotography.com
It was a hazy Monday morning in early May 2007. A forest fire had been burning in the Okefenokee Swamp since the weekend and thick smoke had begun to descend upon the coastal city of Savannah, Georgia. That morning I had set out to make a portrait of one of the oldest living things east of the Mississippi: The Majestic Oak.
I first came in contact with the tree a week before. Back then, my friend Jarrid Spicer – a great photographer in his own right – and I would often take trips to seek out these ancient sentinels of our country. Our expeditions, more often than not, would end up in forest preserves or state-run parks. Because of their strict environmental regulations and separation from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, these sanctuaries proved to harbor many beautiful old specimens. But this time was different. We found ourselves smack in the middle of a suburban housing development just a few miles southeast of Savannah proper. The development, aptly named Majestic Oaks, was somewhat of an over blown cul-de-sac. At the center of the giant turnaround stood our living relic.
With a branch span of over 165 feet and a base girth of 27 feet 8 inches, this 300-plus- year-old tree was enormous. Its trunk alone was wider than I was tall. Its symmetrically shaped branches hung effortlessly, like a cloud descending upon the surrounding landscape. Strands of soft gray Spanish moss draped evenly throughout the tree, while patches of red and green lichen modeled the branches with splashes of texture and color. I instantly thought to myself, “I’m going to need a bigger camera.” Somehow, the prosumer DSLR that I traveled with (mostly for note taking) just wasn’t going to cut it. So much texture, gradation, and detail would be lost to the APS-C sized sensor. I knew to do it justice I would need to capture it in large format on Kodak film.
I returned the following week with my 4×5 K.B. Canham field camera and twelve sheets of Kodak Portra 160NC. This was before the marrying of VC and NC film types. As luck would have it, the haze of smoke from the fire burning in Okenfenokee Swamp had created a beautiful warm diffusion of the morning light. As I stood there setting up my camera, I heard a voice. About 200 feet behind me, a person emerged from a screen door on the back porch of a townhouse. It was the owner of the home on her way to work. She stood behind a waste high stonewall, waving a piece of paper. As I approached her she said, “This is the Majestic Oak,” indicating the paper in her hand. On the paper was an artist’s rendering of the tree. In pen and ink, the tree floated there, isolated on the soft white base of the paper. Absent of background and surrounding context, this “tree” she presented me with looked more like a symbol or an icon of the majestic tree.
We had a short chat about the artist, the history of the ancient oak, and the neighborhood. Before the owner left, she informed me that I was standing right where the artist made the illustration. As I turned to face the tree, from where I stood, I could almost take it all in in one glance. From that distance, The Majestic Oak seemed more like a perfect sculpture than a tree. As I looked around at the surrounding houses I began to realize that similar to the artist’s drawing, this tree itself was an icon.
Separated from the forests that once surrounded it, this tree stands isolated in the center of the cul-de-sac. Akin to a great work of art, it adds value to all the surrounding homes that gaze uponit. A plaque to the left of the tree indicates its title and estimated age. The neighborhood even installed lights to illuminate the treasure year round. At that time, I realized the artist’s rendering hadn’t done something new by isolating and iconizing the tree; that happened long ago, when a decision was made to preserve it.
Its intrepid strength as a living organism aside, The Majestic Oak still stands today for one reason: its aesthetic characteristics. Without those traits, the tree might have fallen the way of the forest that once surrounded it. The Majestic Oak survives as a reminder of a decision made long ago to preserve an aesthetic. Somehow, by photographing the tree, I feel a connection to the countless others who along the way chose to preserve its beauty, iconizing it in one form or another – be it pen and ink, poetry, photography, or even the seemingly small, yet lasting decision, not to let the tree fall subject to human development.
I knew I had to take my photograph from the exact spot where I stood and where I’m sure so many have stood before me. I had to create an image that would consume the viewer the way the tree consumed me.
I set up my camera once more. Originally, I had intended to use a wide-angle 90mm lens (roughly equivalent to a 28mm lens in 35mm) but upon looking at the ground glass I realized that the aspect ratio and detail in texture still left a lot to be desired. I needed the final image to have a large enough native resolution to produce a print the size of the wall with tack sharp detail you could get lost in. So I decided to transfer a technique that was common in digital photography to my view camera practice. I would shoot several negatives and stitch them together digitally to make one seamless photograph. This is one of the many reasons why I religiously shoot Kodak. The Kodak Portra series has a phenomenal film grain that produces unparalleled depth in tonal gradation and texture when scanning. Shooting Kodak allows me to practice a kind of hybrid technique of shooting film and scanning for digital process and output.
I switched lenses and grabbed my Symmar-S 210mm. At that distance, distortion caused by rotating the angle of the camera would be minimized, and I could easily set my aperture to the middle (f22) and sharpest point of the lens, still obtaining the full depth of field I required in the shot. I then divided the tree into six different quadrants and made an identical exposure of each, leaving a small amount of overlap to line up the negatives in post. I returned to the lab, processed the film, scanned each sheet in 16 bit at 2400 dpi resolution, and began the week long stitching process. I opted not use any automated stitching programs to minimize any distortion automation might create and instead used layer masks and blending modes to stitch the negatives.
In technical terms, the end result was a 4GB file that could produce a seamless mural sized print of up to 10ft x 5ft at a resolution of 300dpi. For me, the final image was a small tribute to the beauty of The Majestic Oak and the simple decision made long ago to preserve it.