Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Dreaming Tree

When I first visited Cypress Lake I fell in love and I knew I'd come back. Actually, I knew I'd return for one particular image but it took a few years. This is a recurring pattern for me, especially regarding locations I shot early in my career. Looking back on old images with fresh eyes, the ideas of what could have been start flooding in, and burrow under my skin, itching.

A combination of four images, I had to individually light these trees and hammock. Such is the price of working solo.
As a child sees a covert fortress in a pile of couch cushions, I saw days of entertainment in this twisted wooden jungle gym. So, when the time was right, I called up my good friend Joe Guthrie and told him we'd be sleeping in trees for the weekend, again.

In classic form, we didn't get out on the water until well after dark. With his dog Wallace in tow, Joe paddleboarded while I stuck to my trusty kayak. Reaching the shoreline, the moon was on the rise and everything turned to magic. 

The hierarchy of the species, egrets roost closest to the water while the vultures and anhingas stayed towards the tops of the trees. This 30-second exposure was made possible by my 10-foot tripod that spared only a foot above the waterline. The trees were illuminated by the moon.

Joe looks for a place to camp amongst the cypress trees.

The first night, I didn't get any sleep. I was fired up exploring the shoreline and making long exposures. The moon was so bright I didn't even bother using a headlamp. Weaving in and out of the cypress trees, floating on a mirror of stars, I couldn't have been happier. Around 3:00am I set up my hammock and began playing around with different compositions. Everything takes much longer with night photography, especially when you throw people into the mix. To make this image, I had to set up my tripod, then set an intervelometer to expose an image every 30 seconds. This gave me time to paddle to the hammock, light it up, and try again, and again, and again to make sure I got one usable image. I'm pretty sure you need to be some kind of insane to go through this process at this hour, but I was so drunk on insomnia and delirium that it felt like a good idea. The glow of a nearby city gave a soft gradation to the sky, but at this point the moon was so high that the stars were only a faint glitter. I knew I was onto something, but it wasn't the image I had in envisioned. I made photos all night, cracked out on adrenaline, and before I knew it, dawn was fast approaching.

Predawn was spectacular, and it came faster than I anticipated. I had to act quickly to take down my hammock and get the right composition, slowly moving my massive tripod through the water. The clouds couldn't have performed a better symphony of color and form, radiating from the leafless branches of the tree. Mustering the last of my energy reserves I paddled out further and made a few more compositions along the shoreline of the other gnarled cypress trees in morning light.

By this time, my body started to shut down. The soft winter sun and crisp breeze flapped through my hammock, calling me to bed. It was 10:00am and I slept hard for an hour.

My digs for the night. Photo by Joe Guthrie
Joe gets his fill of water, filtered from the Lake. Packing these bladder bags instead of gallon jugs helps cut down on a lot of extra gear.
All you have to do is pretend you're drinking unsweetened tea. 

When I woke up, I began scouting a better composition for my ideal hammock image. After eating some warm mac n cheese and tuna (my favorite camping food), Joe and I paddled out to prepare for sunset light. We were not disappointed.

Once the sun set, we gathered up our gear and headed back to camp. A waning gibbous moon, I knew I had a couple of hours until the sky was dark enough for stars and moonrise. Still, I didn't want to be caught unprepared when the good light presented itself. Just like sunrise or sunset, during long exposures, a rising moon casts a warm and low angle light, exaggerating contrast and texture. Just as planned, the stars put on their show, the moon was right on time, and Joe crawled up into the hammock while I worked the camera.

After five years of living under my skin, The Dreaming Tree was finally born. That night Joe and I stayed up planning the next adventure, thinking of ways we could top this trip. I slept like a baby.

In the morning, I fought every urge in my body to get up before dawn and sit in my wet kayak. I knew it could be another year or two before I came back, so I wanted to squeeze every little drop out of this place. It paid off, because when the sun reached the trees, it was one of the best light shows I've seen. All in all, I'd say the two nights and two days on the Lake were pretty productive. I'd love to hear your thoughts.