Every Autumn, for almost thirty years now, I have made a pilgrimage to this grove of Cottonwood trees just outside of Santa Fe to check up on them. I like knowing that they are doing well. I think they look particularly beautiful at this time of year when their leaves change from the green of summer to the beautiful vibrant yellow of autumn. It is an amazing thing to behold.
Every time I visit I make their portrait with my camera. A few of my pictures have come out particularly well and become part of a portfolio—a kind of extended portrait collection of sorts. Others are simply pictures I made to mark the occasion of my visit. The color photograph above came out exceptionally well. I call it Cottonwood No. 6, the number referring to the sixth image in this portfolio of photographs. In 1996 I began naming my various Cottonwood portraits after important people in my life. Cottonwood No. 5 was made just a few days before the birth of my daughter Rebekkah and so that photograph carries her name in the title. Cottonwood No. 6 is also known as Victor’s Cottonwood, in memory of my friend Victor Scherzinger who loved Cottonwood trees and founded a printing company he named after them.
I love the notion of extended portraits. Ira Current was a professor I knew while I was a graduate student at the Rochester Institute of Technology years ago. He made photographs of his daughter on the front porch of their home every Christmas over many years. It is delightful for me to watch Ira’s daughter grow and change in the photographs. As I look at this body of work I notice small changes to my Cottonwood friends as some limbs grow and change shape and others fall away in response, I suspect, to changes in the availability of water. I wrote extensively about making this photograph (along with twenty-three other images) in my book Four & Twenty Photographs: Stories from Behind the Lens.
A few years back, I did a limited edition book for Heifer International titled The Eloquence of Trees with author Jaima Chevalier. In her thoughtful essay she writes,
These images of light falling on trees are made so that each instance conjures up that aura of awakening experienced when something happens for the first time; the impression of newness that leaves an imprint; that sensation, sacred in its measure, that you are the first to ever feel these things, and that now that you have captured this sight, no one to follow you will ever come as close as you did to revel in the wondering: the awe of an undiscovered meadow, to encircle the tree, to carve your marking, marking time as if to say ‘we were young once and were the only ones to happen upon this wood.’
Once viewed, the tree holds two purposes in memory; both as a literal reminder of itself and as a symbol for something else. Consequently, the tree has extraordinary value to our understanding of the self and in Jungian analysis, its meaning as a symbol is the conscious mind seeking help for a task that cannot be accomplished without assistance. By drawing strength from the sources within the unconscious mind, the tree symbol is part of every moment of life: from individual moments in cradle or coffin; to gathering nut, fruit and fuel; to treasuring shade and succor, imbued with yuletide glow, romance of the tree swing or tire to the empires of collective man passing through the portals of trees, from misty wilderness to modern cities, trees factor into all our days and dynasties.
This extended portrait session is far from over. I visited “my” Cottonwood friends a few days ago to check up on them and make a quick picture with my iPhone. I am pleased to let you know that they are doing well and I expect them to be in full color in a few weeks when I will return one more time in hopes of making a unique expression. I anticipate making this pilgrimage to visit them every autumn—the Good Lord willing. Their beauty continues to beguile and bring sustenance to my life.