Trio of Trees

It seems that when one of our photographs is considered successful by our own definition and standards, if afforded the opportunity, we often attempt to relive that success by revisiting the same location to hopefully produce another successful image. But it is nearly impossible to be at the same location and have a duplicate set of circumstances (atmospheric conditions, lighting, season, etc), as when the original image was created. And even if the location is nearby, one that’s easily accessible on any given day, and conditions are pretty much identical, replicating that image might not be as easy as first thought because, you will be a different person on the day of the second encounter with the same photographic subject.

During the interim, experiences have occurred in your life that will have an affect on your general outlook to life and the world around you. A new love perhaps, or one that was lost; a birth, or a death; a new appreciation for the natural world or a deep involvement with new employment. Whatever was thrown at you in life, becomes part of who you are, how you view, interact and respond to your surroundings. And that affects your response to any outside stimulus, whether on a personal or an emotional level. You continue to evolve in the day to day living of your life, and so you are no longer the person you were when you took that photo the first time. You may be a different person from who you were a month ago, a week ago, maybe even a few minutes ago. So on that second encounter, you may approach the same subject and set of circumstances, but the main ingredient, you, is now different, and therefore your engagement with any potential photographic subject will differ. This can be especially true during this last year as the entire world grapples with a virulent virus, and will likely affect everyone in some manner for a generation.


On a morning in late March, a light fog was beginning to burn off at the White Oak Marsh area of Jordan Lake, a place I go to quite often, especially in the spring when the buds are just beginning to emerge, or anytime when fog surrounds the skeleton trees there. As the sun began to burn through the fog, making photography in that direction difficult, my attention shifted to the opposite side of the road for possible subjects. Spotting a grouping of three “interesting” trees, I wandered over and was struck by the diffused side-lighting on them and their surrounding woods, and decided they warranted a photograph. Switching to a 50mm lens to narrow the field of view and keep out much of a bright sky, the framing was adjusted, adjusted again, and several times afterward until finally satisfied with what appeared in the frame. It was then I realized I had already taken a similar photo of these same three trees around this same time the year before. It was interesting that I was still drawn to them and wondered how my response to them, and photographic decisions, would compare to the previous image. I thought I might be taking the exact same photo, or would it be different?

It didn’t take long to find the file from the previous year, and though the lighting was nearly identical, it turned out the images were very different, while being oddly similar, if that is possible. I struggled in determining which I preferred; and could there even be a preference considering their similarity? Were they too similar for a preference? or were they too different to be similar? I shared them with a few friends, hoping to get some clarification, but there was no consensus among the group, although there were some strong feelings about each. But looking more closely at each of these two images, we might discover some possible hints as to why the same subject emerged differently. The image from this year was processed without any prior comparison to the one from last year, so there was no influence from it in the processing of this year’s version. But by comparing the two now side by side, may provide a window into the emotional context of the maker.

The initial image on the left was taken on February 17th of 2020. At the time, Covid-19 was just beginning to appear in our consciousness, with only a few cases sprinkled throughout the country, and assurances that everything was under control concerning the spread of this disease, and the ability to cope with it. It was just before the dramatic turn toward lockdowns and quickly mounting cases and deaths, the totals that would eventually amount to a level that was then, even by the experts, unthinkable. In the photo, the three trees are shown as being among many others, surrounded by the other inhabitants of the tangle of woods as members of a collective family and friends, a wide view afforded by a 25mm focal length. There is a warmth to the soft glow coming from an obvious direction, that permeates throughout the frame. That warmth is evident even in the blue sky that stretches completely across the top of the frame, and transcends through to the warm, orange tones of the understory that shares a prominence with the main subject trio of trees. As a viewer, we cannot avoid the fact that it is an environmental portrait of these three trees, illustrating the importance of their surroundings that even includes a few very young trees sharing the same space.

The second image on the right, was taken on March 27th of this year, a year after the isolating lockdowns were initiated, and shortly after the disastrous month of January when thousands of deaths occurred unrelentingly each day, and the horror of citizens storming our nation’s capital was witnessed on live television!! Is it any wonder that this image exhibits much colder tones throughout, especially in the smaller area of sky, and lacking the obvious warmth in the understory of the original? The choice of a “normal” 50mm lens and slightly different camera position make the subjects more prominent in the frame, more isolated and apart from the surrounding woods, seemingly alone against the forces that may affect their growth and survival, something similar to our own personal struggles to keep the virus at bay, avoiding contact with friends, and even family. Their prominence make the surroundings much more subservient. In the initial image, they are among their surroundings, here there is a separation, an aloofness, lacking the inclusivity of the original image. They are positioned slightly off to the side, while more centered in the original, which in itself, is a statement about their connection with their peers. The directionality of light is barely discernible, and could be a direct result of atmospheric conditions that day, or an unknowable, unconscious choice made in the processing. Compositionally, I am pleased with each of them as both seem balanced in their arrangement and have a painterly quality about them, something I often try to achieve in these more intimate studies. To be sure, they are different. But these are only personal interpretations, and may not align with other viewers since we all have such varying life experiences.

Because these two images are so similar, and were taken under almost identical conditions, it can be said the subtle differences lie not in the photographs themselves, but within the maker. The personal engagement and emotional connections we have with our subjects, certainly influence the decisions we make for our images in the field, such as positioning and lens choice, as well as in the processing afterward to advance them to their final form, and might tell us more about ourselves and our psychological circumstances than about the subjects and how we choose to portray them. Who we are at that moment, certainly impacts the moment we capture.



For those who might be inclined to do so, it may prove interesting to share some thoughts on your emotional engagement with these two images, and/or preference, so please note them in the comments below. Thanks.

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