I didn’t pay any special attention to trees until I stopped seeing them. It sounds strange when I put it like that, but it’s true. I was raised in suburbia, in the Midwest, where we had trees in parks and yards and mall parking lots; but they hardly registered. Not until I encountered the sad specimens on the sidewalks of Brooklyn did I learn to appreciate the particular beauty of a tree. Just as Richard Avedon photographed his subjects in front of a stark-white backdrop to accentuate their individuality, I needed a concrete square in the city to recognize the tree’s essential form. The sidewalk was the great equalizer, letting each tree play on the same urban stage.
Not coincidentally, the sidewalk meets three of the four conditions necessary for photography. First, it provides a frame. Second, it reduces the world to two dimensions, to a play of shadows on a flat surface. Third, it has a causal/indexical relationship to the world: a shadow indicates the presence of an object blocking a source of light.
The missing condition is the arresting of time, without which the sidewalk is merely a poor man’s camera obscura. To create a photograph I needed a way to record time’s passing. Conventional light-sensitive photo paper (the kind used in a darkroom) is too sensitive and expensive to handle in an uncontrollable environment like the city street, so I opted for blueprint paper, which is more forgiving. Years ago, the blueprint — or diazotype — was the tool of the architect, but its use has steadily declined with the advent of CAD and digital plotters. Still, the medium exists — due mostly to demand from emerging economies — so I was able to procure a steady supply of paper and my own processor.
I set out on the streets of Brooklyn, making portraits, at first, of individual trees. Eventually, I was drawn to clusters of trees of various heights, which created what I describe as an “all-over” patterning of shadows. The variances in height result in differing degrees of focus, which creates a beautiful push-pull effect. The viewer, hoping for clarity, sharpness and detail, draws closer to the image, only to back away in order to resolve the scene. These kinds of tree groupings were rare in my Brooklyn neighborhood, but I escaped to the small town of Peterborough, New Hampshire, where I spent a month at the MacDowell Colony, immersed in thick woods at the base of Mount Monadnock, creating big blue shadows of trees. Two panels became four, four became eight, and eventually I found myself working on a panorama so long that only a sports stadium could display it in its entirety.
Blueprint paper is, in museum-speak, “non-archival,” meaning that the image degrades over time. This process is so rapid that you can make a blueprint in the morning, hang it on the wall in a sunny room, and it will be noticeably faded by the end of the day. I embraced this ephemerality as a counterpoint to the archive-happy nature of mainstream photography, and I was happy to watch the images change with the passing of days and weeks. But I was also attracted to more permanent methods of preservation. Naturally, my mind returned to the sidewalk. What is more stable then concrete? So I started working on a series of preparatory sketches for minimal concrete structures — essentially, disconnected sidewalk panels — to be installed in the middle of the woods. I saw this as a reversal of the “lone tree in the concrete jungle” scenario that inspired me in Brooklyn.
These days I live and work in San Francisco, conveniently across the street from Golden Gate Park. Unable to pour concrete in the woods on a whim, I found a substitute — a projection screen. Like the sidewalk, the screen is a blank slate that has a long history of shadows falling across its surface, although it’s more assertive in signaling “look at me.” I installed the projection screen in various locations throughout the park, documenting my work with photographs and videos. I thought of this as making a photograph within a photograph, which is harder than it sounds: not only do you need to frame a shot twice, but you also need to make sure the two frames look good together. As I was balancing these compositions, joggers and dog walkers would often stop and watch — not just to see what I was up to, but also to appreciate the shadows on the screen. In those moments, I was taken back to a pre-photographic time, to the shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave, signifying deception and illusion. Watching the screen with these strangers, I couldn’t help but think that the images seemed more real and unmediated than most contemporary photographs, and that through their simplicity and temporality, an unaffected beauty emerged.