Mark Hirsch and THAT TREE

Jun 22, 2013  | 00:09:16  | Ep 303

Here in Lacey Keosauqua State Park many of the hillsides are tree covered. It’s rare that a visitor will stop and absorb the details of any one object, let alone a single tree.

But a lone tree may have forever changed the professional and personal life of one Midwesterner from northeastern Iowa. In 2012 Mark Hirsch started a 365 day photographic journey that began with a single picture on his iPhone.

If in my days as a photo editor, if I went to one of my staff photographers and said, hey, I want you to spend an entire year making a picture every day of a burr oak tree, he would think I’d lost my mind.

It began as a simple challenge for a career photographer. An ancient tree in this Midwestern farm field.

After being into it two or three weeks, there’s no turning back when you commit to shoot a picture a day of something for a year. And that’s a lot of skin in the game.

Each day for 365 days the same scene. But with a new image each time. Photographer Mark Hirsch spent 19 years driving past this field before he found inspiration in a solitary burr oak. A tree with roots dating back nearly two centuries. Following a challenge from a photography colleague, Mark descended upon the field with a simple goal -- capture something unique, something different about a tree that had grown tall long before his own arrival. Day after day, sunrises and sunsets, Mark kept coming back. Some days he spent hours circling the burr oak in search of something different. Other days he was inspired by a dwindling sunset seen from his house a mile down the gravel road.

And I turned around to the west to walk and sit down the table and look out the window at the sunset. Just like that, within five minutes, the light changed and it was an incredible sunset. My wife had just put a salad on the table. Supper is in the oven. I remember I said, I’ll be right back and I dashed out the door.

The results were beyond any artist’s wildest dreams. Posting a new photo to his Facebook page each day, a network of followers began to grow. Reporters took notice, and a simple project snowballed into an Internet phenomenon. Thousands of online admirers have flocked to the project dubbed by Mark as That Tree. The photography alone has captured the outdoor imagination of fans but what has defined the project is in part is the camera itself.

During the opening night of the exhibit, a couple of people came over and the artists are there and you’re engaging people in a conversation. And this person says to me, so what kind of camera do you use? They’re expecting me to say a Nikon or a Canon and whatever model it is and whatever fancy wide angle or telephoto lens I used. And I said, actually these are all shot with my iPhone. I remember he adamantly said, no they’re not! I said, no really, these are shot with my iPhone. No they’re not!! And to me, that was wonderful because it helped qualify what I had been trying to tell people all along. It’s not the camera. It’s the eyes and the ability to transform your vision into a meaningful photo. It’s the tool behind the camera that is the most important.

In a way, using a camera phone stripped away many of the high-tech gadgets that can infuse modern landscape images. A man who spent 25 years photographing for spot news for the Dubuque newspaper was forced to focus on a subject and hone his own skills.

I am loving this, man. It’s like stalking something in the jungle. I’m not fond of the bugs. Last year was a wonderful year for bugs, there were none.

Using a variety of applications, like Camera Plus, Mark was able to maximize the iPhone’s capabilities and surprise even himself throughout the 365 day journey. He occasionally dabbled with iPhone lens attachments but largely avoided them. Sometimes he used a flashlight to trick the iPhone into the correct exposure.

Typically the iPhone, like any other point and shoot camera, trying to give you perfect exposure for everything. I want to be a photographer and control the look of the scene. I want it to look more like dusk or dawn. So by using this and locking exposure I can reduce the amount of light going to the chip and emulate the conditions that I want. It’s forcing the iPhone to see the world the way I want to see it, not the way the iPhone wants to see it.

An application designed for timed exposure called slow shutter helped capture these fireflies at dusk. And Mark wasn’t shy about trying new foreground elements including his wirehaired pointer and occasional holiday themes. But the raw beauty after nature was his canvas.

I turned around in that ten minute span the light dropped below the horizon, but with the fresh pristine blanket of snow, the shadow from the tree was this incredibly hard shadow and it was just a big wedge coming out to me. It was brilliant red. I laid down in the snow. I’m like, oh my God, oh my God. Can I get this? Can the iPhone catch this? And it’s just an incredible picture.

In 2013 Mark’s photo book, That Tree, will be shipped to thousands of online followers who saw something simple become a journey larger than the sum of its parts. For the last picture on day 365, Mark recruited his friends, family and followers to join him for a final photo.

It’s a snowy, muddy, kind of a mucky day and it’s this exodus of people making their way to the tree. It was absolutely incredible. Almost 300 people and a dozen dogs. Dude, it was insane. My one friend came who out here and wanted to make a picture of me making pictures. He said to me, that is the greatest outpouring of support I have ever seen for somebody who wasn’t dead or dying.

For Mark it was ironic that a burr oak estimated at 163 years old was nearly pushed over by a bulldozer operator a few months ago. The operator incorrectly assumed the farm’s owner would want to add a few more rows of corn at the cost of that tree. Now free from his one photo a day promise, Mark still returns to that same field. It’s a form of outdoor photo therapy. Always finding a new angle and another excuse to appreciate nature’s beauty.

Those simple discoveries, things we would make, things we would see, things we would witness and appreciate as a kid. We grow up and become adults and we’re so worried about other people’s perception of us. We’re afraid to climb a tree. We’re afraid to lay in the grass. We’re afraid to look closely at something. That stuff has all gone out the window because I’m doing all of the above. I’m climbing that tree. I’m laying in the grass. I’m looking close at the katydid on the bark and enjoying every bit of it.

That wraps up this summertime edition of Iowa Outdoors. Our Iowa PBS crew will continue to criss-cross the state in the coming months to bring you the best of the Iowa’s outdoor environments and recreational opportunities.

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And be sure to check out our growing video online archive of more than 60 features all about Iowa’s outdoor conservation and recreation.

We’ll leave you with some images from Lacey Keosauqua State Park.