A Favorite Tree

Buttress Tree — Sequoia NP, CA © jj raia

Buttress Tree (2017) — Sequoia NP, CA © jj raia


First, let me wish all the Moms a very

Happy Mother’s Day!!


Working on a project with a few friends of mine, I converted this color image taken in 2017 to black and white. This same basic photo was originally taken more than 40 years ago, way back in 1978 on Kodachrome 64, well before I was anywhere near being serious about photography. The conditions under which the two photos were taken could not have been more different. The earlier 35mm image was taken around 1pm, and while the roots of this fallen giant sequoia were in shade, the sunlight reflected off the nearby roadway into them, illuminating many of the darker nooks and crannies. The more recent image was taken around dawn, with any sunlight blocked by the Sierras to the east, leaving everything in shade. These were the exact conditions I wanted because it would allow for even lighting, and be better able to record the darker areas of the roots without having to wait for early afternoon to duplicate the conditions back then. This was the morning of the second day of a three week California trip, after spending the overnight photographing the General Sherman Tree in the spooky darkness under the stars, and then getting acquainted with the SUV rental that would be my home for the three weeks, for a few fitful hours of sleep. Afterward, it was off to Yosemite National Park, further north.

I had always hoped to retake the shot on medium format film after moving up in the early 1990’s, but just never made a trip to Sequoia National Park in the 22 years before switching to digital. For some reason, the original image left a personal indelible mark, and was one of the earliest of what were considered “art photos”, a descriptor coined by a relative. It was also the first photo of mine that was printed. So it isn’t any wonder why I remember it was taken at 1pm! The tree fell on June 3, 1959 on a clear and windless day, so it was still relatively “fresh” on that first visit, less than 20 years afterward. Seeing those roots awakened in me the realization that there were designs in nature, things that when left alone, grow or are sculpted over time into beautiful shapes and forms, subjects I search for now to photograph.

The change over to black and white didn’t require any rocket science. Using a Lightroom preset for low contrast allowed the light values to stretch completely across the full dynamic range, with very few extremes on either end. Doing that allowed easy adjustments to the tone curves to increase contrast, and still keep light values within useable ranges. Then certain areas could be lightened or darkened without worrying about blocking up shadows or blowing out highlights. The main thought in processing was to darken and lighten specific areas to create a recognizable shape within the wild and diverging root system. It is subtle, but it’s there. And it’s much easier to use this process in black and white because light values can be darkened without worrying about muddying the tones as happens in color images. The subtle shape is not present in the color version below, and so it may be less impactful for that reason; but the root system has quite a color palette to keep the eye moving through the frame.

Buttress Tree — Sequoia NP, CA

Buttress Tree (2017) — Sequoia NP, CA  © jj raia

But much of the dramatic rusty brown coloration and gritty texture of the roots during the initial visit, had been lost over the intervening decades, so there was a bit of disappointment on the return. I suppose much of it was worn away by weather and bleached out by the rain and sun, but the abstract root design of this particular tree still kept me in awe. During all those years, and later on during the 2017 trip with visits to the redwoods in northern California, I had never come across a fallen tree with roots of such symmetry. This tree is truly unique, and in all likelihood, its memory will remain with me forever.

Buttress Tree (1978) — Sequoia NP, CA © jj raia

Buttress Tree (1978) — Sequoia NP, CA © jj raia

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