The Forever Tree: The Story Behind The Photo And How It Appeared in National Geographic Books!
I was on the tail end of a fun night photo journey that took me through the deserts of Nevada in summer 2014, which included ghost towns long forgotten, strange art installations in the middle of the desert, and more. I had left Gold Point ghost town and drove through several mountain ranges to reach the White Mountains, where the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest is located. I stopped off at CARMA Radio Telescope Array on the way, speaking to the people who worked there, and arranging a visit to return later that night to photograph their enormous telescope dishes. Yeah, this was going to be a long day! 😀
I then drove up, up, up into the White Mountains to the Ancient Bristlecone PIne Forest, a very special place that is not always on people’s radar. But maybe it should be. There at Patriarch Grove, at 11,000 feet/3350 meters in elevation stands some of the oldest trees in the world, many eerie, gnarled, stark, and timeless. Past Schulman Grove, you must take a 12-mile long dirt road to get there, which keeps some people away. Not me. I drove up there and breathed in the beautiful mountain air.
I hung out there and ate, throwing on layers of clothes as the air grew colder. While this was the middle of summer, temperatures still fall rapidly in the thin mountain air at this altitude. I had two cameras, a Nikon D610 full frame/14-24mm f/2.8 lens, and a Nikon D7000 APS-C sensor/Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8, and a couple of Feisol carbon-fiber tripods. I would set up the D7000 to take long star trails shots, photos that capture the movement of the stars caused by the rotation of the earth. I love how a single image can show these movements over long periods of time. With the D610, I walked around to different trees and photographed them while “light painting” (illuminating the bristlecone pines while the camera shutter was open).
And in thin-air mountain areas like this, sometimes I thought about how nice it would be to have a lightweight camera instead of a large DSLR (or two), perhaps something similar to Light.co‘s new Light16 52 MP compact camera, something the size of a smartphone that actually seems to take very sharp photos in low-light situations. You know, my shoulders might appreciate something like that. If you needed a tripod, one of those little bendy Joby Gorillapods would be more than adequate. And then, you could instantly share it. That is, if you have connectivity on a mountain top in the middle of nowhere (and there is signal there…thank you, Verizon!). 😀
After a while, I decided to descend to photograph CARMA. I had thought about shooting some bristlecone pines at Schulman Grove, but it was already a little late. There was a tree that I thought was really beautiful that was on one of the shorter hikes. I waffled while driving the 12 mile dirt road back, vacillating between continuing to CARMA and photographing it. I thought, “Many photographers have already photographed this tree already. It’s really been overdone, hasn’t it?” But after a while I decided, “It may have been photographed many times. But that doesn’t make it any less beautiful. I’ll try and see if I can say something a little different with my image and enjoy the whole process.” I frequently argue with myself in this manner. This is normal, isn’t it?
I hiked the trail in reverse so I would get to the tree a little faster. The ground by the tree seemed to be some sort of rocky shale-like composition, so I slipped a few times while walking around the tree in the dark, trying to frame my composition. It really was a magnificent tree, and I was happy that I had decided to stop and photograph it. I “light painted” the tree from several different angles. I really took my time there. After all, night photography is something to savor, and not something you rush. But I also wanted the tree to have a lot of texture and dimensionality. In short, I wanted it to feel visceral, like you could reach out and grab it. I wanted dimensionality and texture. I took my time illuminating the tree to try and achieve this from several different angles. Finally, satisfied that I had some decent images, I walked back to the car in the beautiful moonlight, drove down the windy road, and photographed CARMA radio telescopes until past 3 am.
Then, in what was arguably complete madness, I then continued driving, thinking I would pull over and go to sleep if I became fatigued. But I was so excited from photographing everything that I stayed awake and drove 4.5 hours back to Los Angeles, where I live, arriving just in time to drive in rush hour traffic. Yippee.
A few days later, looking at the images of the bristlecone pine in Schulman Grove, I liked one of the compositions a bit more than the rest. I decided to upload that to Your Shot on the National Geographic website. It looked good. But it didn’t exactly light the website on fire with responses. At least, not at first. A year later, to my surprise, a couple of friends contacted me. “Your Forever Tree photo is blowing up on Reddit! It’s in their Top Ten most discussed stuff!” AND on the same day, still more friends said, “Your photo is on the Daily Dozen on National Geographic!” And later that month, I was one of two featured photographers on the National Geographic Your Shots Page. Mind. Blown.
Eventually, an editor for National Geographic Books contacted me and said, “We really love your photo, and would love to use it for an upcoming National Geographic Books publication entitled “Great Landscapes”. And so in September 2016, this was published. Absolutely wild. I’m grateful that I pushed through and decided to make that hike, not only for National Geographic, but because, well, I loved the whole process and fell in love with the tree. It’s such a beautiful tree with an enormous amount of character, strength, and dignity. And an amazing twist.
Here’s another photo of the same tree that I took the same evening. This is looking back the opposite way. Those mountains in the far distance on the left are the Sierra Nevadas, and if you see a hint of white at the top of the mountains, that’s a glacier. Yeah. Oh yeah.
And a couple of photos of the CARMA Radio Telescope array, which was dismantled not terribly long after I photographed these. I may have been tired, and it may have been past 3 am on a very long day with a lot of driving, but I would not have been able to take photos of these again before they were dismantled. You never know. You just really never know.
Here’s a description of The Forever Tree:
The gorgeous night sky, largely free from light pollution, as seen from the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. Up, up, up in the White Mountains of California exist a forest of trees that have flourished in the face of high, arid conditions at 11000 feet/3350 m in altitude. Many of these trees live for 5000 years, and even after dying, can remain for 5000 more years, remaining. In other words, it’s quite possible that some trees have been standing for as long as 10000 years, long long before Lucille Ball roamed the earth. 😀 It was cloudy when I took this set of photos, giving a slightly more eerie, surreal sort of feel in many of the images. I hope you enjoy them!
The Forever Tree, located in the oldest forest in the world. Many of these trees live for 5000 years, and even after dying, can remain for 5000 more years, remaining. In other words, it’s quite possible that some trees have been standing for as long as 10000 years, long long before Lucille Ball roamed the earth. 😀 I don’t actually know if this tree has a name. I just like the name.
Title: The Forever Tree (3600)
Photo: Ken Lee Photography
Info: Nikon D610, AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8G ED lens at 14mm, 128 seconds, f/7.12, ISO 640. 2014-07-15 00:54. I used an LED flashlight for light painting.
Location: Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, CA, USA
Long Exposure Night Photo with Light Painting
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